Iryna recalls the winter of 2014-2015, the first winter of the war when she realized that a lot of her friends and acquaintances were suddenly in military uniform. “…And I suddenly understood that I also need to go to war. Because something very important is happening. And I’m missing out,” she says. It’s a fact, not a boast. She shrugs.
So Iryna joined a paramilitary volunteer unit back in February 2015. She was assigned to the quartermaster, and issued equipment and uniforms to soldiers, even doing haircuts. “And I also took a lot of photos,” Iryna mentions. “At some point, my pictures were posted on the unit’s page on social media. And later I started running that page — writing news, posting photos, interviews with our warriors . . . ”
She wasn’t always at the frontlines. When most of her friends transferred to the regular army, as a group, she didn’t sign the contract. For years she kept coming to the front whenever she could, as she continued her career in Kyiv. But in 2017, she quit her job as a communications manager at an international company. She had understood something; that “the only thing that interested me” was joining the army. So she did that.
“Ryba” joined the legendary 93rd brigade where a lot of her old friends also served. She was made media officer, but as she didn’t have a commission, she was initially listed as a cook. Later she was listed as a “tailor”, with the smallest possible Ukrainian military salary. But in reality, she did what she had planned to do for years. She is now a junior lieutenant.
“In 2014-2015 we had active war. The frontline wasn’t yet established, there were heavy battles for important infrastructure facilities. In 2016-2019 the front lines stabilized. There were regular rotations of brigades to the front, and often after six months or a year, or even after two years, the brigades returned to the same position where they had fought before. The authorities began to produce new Ukrainian weapons, they started paying attention to material support and training of the army. But I have to say that training often turned out to have a taste of Soviet traditions, and new and expensive initiatives were complicated by corruption,” she says.
Iryna Rybakova sums up the years of fighting. “It was mostly forbidden to use tanks, artillery including mortars [Ukrainian leaders sought to keep the exchanges at a relatively low level.] By 2020-2021, our army had stagnated. It was increasingly a ‘paper’ army, even a ‘Soviet’ army.” She details the bureaucratization of the armed forces, with endless paperwork, and endless queues for everything. There were even bonuses “for silence” at war, where commanders who allowed their soldiers to open fire were denied their performance payments. Even so, there were serious exchanges with Russian forces. “We had human loses on every rotation,” she said.
Most people discounted the possibility of full-scale war. Russians held positions in Eastern Ukraine, but no one took the treat too seriously, Ryba says. “We knew the escalation started in Donetsk oblast (district) but didn’t think that the same can happen in Kharkiv or Sumy oblasts. Could we even imagine that planes would begin to drop bombs on residential buildings?”
At the end of last year, the 93rd Brigade was near Kharkiv and Sumy, in the eye of the storm. Ukrainians destroyed Russian columns. She was happy to be with the 93rd Brigade when it all started because even if the unit hadn’t expected war, it was ready.
“Where we met them, we destroyed them. We got a lot of trophies that we are still using. Those include tanks and anti-tank systems. Russian lend-lease turned out to be incredibly comprehensive and very helpful,” Iryna smiles.
It was poor luck for the Russians to meet the 93rd Brigade. It was among the most motivated and most experienced military units in Ukraine, the core of the regular army. But wartime changed everything. Newly mobilized troops poured into the unit, the brigade’s structure had to adjust, and of course, there were losses. Iryna says that today she sees only 15-20% of the “core” left in the units. Sometimes 10%. People are wounded, people are captured. People are dead.
93rd Brigade has fought in all the major battles. They spent four months near Bakhmut, the so-called meat grinder battle in Eastern Ukraine. And later returned there again. “It’s so hard on the Bakhmut front because of the constant assaults,” Iryna says. “And it is hard to work with journalists. An example: our people were pushed back from their positions. There was only one person left, who waited half an hour for help to come. Artillery couldn’t cover the area, because there were no shells. Then even the last soldier left as Wagner mercenaries were jumping into the trench. With stories like that, units don’t want journalists around. That’s natural. What will they show them?”
What problems does Iryna see in the army today? She names various things — from “wedding” drones (the Ukrainian army is widely using civilian Mavic drones for work) to artillery barrel wear or the current military salary reduction.
But the thing that bothers her most is the shortage of everyday munitions for rifles, mortars, tank and artillery shells, and mines.
“Because of this we were pushed back from Soledar, we lost Soledar. Because of this, we are being pushed back from Bakhmut” Iryna says. “You cannot hold a position using infantry without cover. And without small arms ammunition, and hand grenades.
“Without these, the troops have to withdraw. At best they withdraw. Or they’re captured. Or they’re killed.”
She knows what the West has sent already, and she knows that has made a difference. But so much might be lost if the arms pipeline dries up.
“We are just running low on resources,” she adds. “But we will never stop fighting.”
Lera Burlakova is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) She is a journalist and former soldier from Ukraine. She served in combat from 2014-2017 after joining the Ukrainian army following the Russia invasion of Crimea. Her war diary “Life P.S.” received the UN Women in Arts award in 2021.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.