November 3, 2022
MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — On the second day of the war with Russia, Anatoliy Nikitin and Stas Volovyk, two Ukrainian army reservists, were ordered to deliver NLAW anti-tank missiles to fellow soldiers in the suburbs north of Kyiv. Then, as they stood exposed on a highway, Nikitin, who goes by the battle nickname Concrete, says they received new orders.
“A guy on the radio said, ‘There are two Russian tanks coming at you. Try to hit one and livestream it!,” recalls Nikitin, sitting on a park bench in the southern city of Mykolaiv, as artillery rumbles in the distance.
There was one problem: neither soldier had ever fired an NLAW. So, as the tanks approached, they hid amongst some trees and looked up a YouTube video on how to do so. They took their positions, prepared the missiles.
“Then the commander says, ‘Oh, it’s ours! It’s ours!'” recalls Volovyk, who goes by the nickname Raptor. “So, we did not fire. It was a really close call.”
Fighting the war requires new skills now
As the war has changed over the months, Ukrainian fighters like Volovyk and Nikitin have had to adapt and learn new skills.
In the first month, soldiers used shoulder-launched missiles and hit-and-run tactics to defend Kyiv. These days, they are using drones and artillery as part of a high-tech trench war in the farm fields of the country’s’ south.
Nikitin and Volovyk have fought in both environments and describe their on-the-job training as a mix of terror, adventure and black comedy. The two men offer an unvarnished view of the fighting and say the first days of the war were filled with confusion.
“It was total chaos,” recalls Nikitin, who is 40, wears a salt-and-pepper beard and heads a construction company. “It’s lucky for us that the Russians were more chaotic than us.”
Volovyk is a 33-year-old software engineer who learned English by playing video games. He says Russian tactics and decision-making have improved during the war, but he found some of their early actions perplexing. For instance, the Russians deployed riot police who headed toward Kyiv, only to be wiped out.
“We see how they advance, we see how they fight and we were like, ‘Okay, is this their best or are they just mocking us?'” recalls Volovyk, who wears a camouflage cap with the message “Don’t Worry, Be Ready.”
“Then we realized that they’re just dumb. There are a lot of them, but they’re dumb.”
From digging trenches to operating drones
The Russians began to retreat from the Kyiv suburbs in late March. After this, the two men followed orders and headed south to fight a very different kind of war. They left behind the protection of suburban buildings and forests outside the capital for sweeping farm fields with little cover. They started at the bottom: working the trenches.
“It sucks,” says Volovyk. “You dig. You dig. That’s the only thing you can do, because this is an artillery war and unless you dig, you’re pretty much dead.”
In trench warfare, infantry rarely see the enemy or have a chance to shoot at them. Volovyk says the bombardment can take a psychological toll.
“You’re constantly shelled and you just don’t know if you’re going to survive,” he says. “So you just trust that this isn’t your day, just not yet.”
After two weeks, the men were offered new jobs doing reconnaissance. It’s dangerous work that involves getting close to enemy lines and trying to evade detection. But the men leapt at the opportunity — anything to get out of the trenches.
They now operate drones and serve as the eyes of the artillery, helping to guide fire on everything from Russian tanks to ammunition depots in the Kherson region.
Drone operators are targets themselves. Once the Russians spot a drone, they try to calculate the general area where the operators might be hiding and methodically hit it with artillery fire.
Nikitin and Volovyk say they prefer military-grade surveillance drones to commercial ones. The military drones have secure data transfer and are much harder for the Russians to jam.
Their recon team, known as the “Fireflies,” has its own Instagram account and YouTube channel. Their videos show them launching a drone from a parched field and setting up in an abandoned farmhouse. Then they help guide a shell that just misses a Russian armored personnel carrier, enveloping it in a cloud of smoke. It’s a reminder that, even with all the advanced technology, it’s still hard to hit a moving target.
The soldiers have had some heart-stopping moments. Nikitin recalls traveling with a team of engineers when they came across a Russian soldier in a field.
“He looks at me, I look at him and he just jumps into the bushes,” recalls Nikitin. He then told the engineers to go shoot the Russian and any of his fellow soldiers.
They didn’t like that idea.
“No! No! We are engineers,” Nikitin recalls them saying.
Before the Russian could rally his fellow soldiers, Nikitin and the engineers took off.
Nikitin and Volovyk joined the army reserve six years ago, after the Russians invaded Crimea. Nikitin says they weren’t prophets, but they knew Russia would try to take the rest of Ukraine. Here down south, their goal is to liberate Kherson, the regional capital.
After eight months of war, they are hoping for a little break and then a return to the fight.
As Nikitin says: “We are not going anywhere.”
NPR London producer Morgan Ayre and Ukraine producer Kateryna Malofieieva contributed to this story.