It is 2016 and — far from the eyes of the West — there is fighting not far from Bakhmut in Eastern Ukraine. Close to the frontline, Ukrainian troops are gathering their kit for a counterattack against the Russian invader. They are preoccupied with the equipment, and perhaps also by the imminence of death, but they all notice Myroslav sobbing silently.
It’s not fear that has upset the boy. It’s his age. Despite joining up, he is not yet 18 and cannot join the attack. He despairs. Myroslav ran away at 16 to join Ukrainian forces but they won’t let him fight. Not yet, anyway.
I was one of those who remember that scene. I watched Myroslav as I prepared an automatic grenade mortar for the counterattack. Now I’ve become a journalist, and Myroslav Olijnyk, callsign Skald, is a junior sergeant in Ukraine’s special forces. He is 26, and he has already dedicated nine years of his short life to the war. As a boy, this was his choice; as a man, it is the only way to survive – both for him and for the Ukrainian nation as a whole.
Myroslav grew up in Pavlograd, a town on the border of Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk regions in Eastern Ukraine. He studied at a Russian school there, he says, and the school principal was a parliamentary deputy for a pro-Russian political party.
“The principal denigrated my patriotic beliefs. But when she understood that the Revolution of Dignity [the 2014 pro-European uprising] had been successful, she started to love me,” Myroslav says, and giggles.
The response from the Kremlin was very different. It launched the illegal annexation of Crimea and the attack on the eastern regions of Ukraine. This triggered a popular response, and Myroslav found himself building a checkpoint to stop Russians on a highway near his native Pavlograd. It was an incredible moment. “There were football fans, there were local hunters who had their own weapons,” he says. “We remained active from that day onwards, we always kept an eye on what was happening in our town. But I always wanted to be at war. Right from the first days.”
In 2014, he was 16 years old. However, “almost by accident,” he found a way into one of the irregular paramilitary units that fought for Donbas. Myroslav didn’t admit that he was underage. He didn’t graduate from school and didn’t tell his mother when he left.
“Are you where I think you are? – mom asked me one day.
– Yes, I’m near Donetsk.
‘Please take care. And beat them!’ mom said. And that felt as if a stone fell from my heart.”
She had known of his plan to join up, and she was deeply unhappy with his decision. Mother and son had argued, fiercely, when he said he must go to war. She threatened to tell the police; he said that she would never see him again. Accept what I want to do, the boy said, “I’ll come home to you whenever I can.” His mother relented. “She wished me luck, and she still supports me in everything,” Skald says. “All these years.”
He gained some military experience in that first unit. They went on a mission to catch saboteurs working behind the front lines. They captured an enemy scout, while Skald was providing cover. But someone informed the unit that their youngster was underage. He was sent “home.”
Instead, he joined another unit. “I kept fighting the war illegally wherever I could, with various units,” he says. “In 2016, I turned 18 and started serving in the army legally. And that’s where I’ve been ever since.”
Somewhere, in between all this, he passed his final school exams in between missions. If that seems strange to the foreigner, it is. But it’s far from unusual in a country fighting for its life.
When the full-scale Russian assault started a year ago, he was serving in the 24th Mechanized Brigade as a platoon leader. “Skald” was recently moved to Special Forces. He can’t openly state where he is serving now, but says, “it’s a bit easier, to be honest.”
Yet the war has taken a toll on this man, young in years but old in combat experience. And now he’s finding it almost impossibly hard to handle. “I am as tired as possible. This war is constant horror. You have nothing. You can’t think about tomorrow. You survived today – and you are glad that you did. But tomorrow . . . Will you be killed tomorrow? Or will that happen the day after tomorrow?”
“My hair started turning gray. The skin on my hands is peeling off. I can hardly sleep. I never believed in post-traumatic stress disorder, I was laughing at people who said they had PTSD, it seemed to me that they are pretending to suffer. But now . . . I want this war to be over as soon as possible”.
His girlfriend, his mother, and his young sister are still in Ukraine. “I told mom that she could go to Europe with the little one. Mom replied that as long as I’m still here — and her husband, my stepfather, who is also at war — she won’t go anywhere”.
“As long as we are protecting her,” he adds. “As long as we are alive.”
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 Russian 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.