A special-forces unit, started from scratch, wins a key battle in Ukraine21 june 2014, 13:48
Two hundred yards from the quiet lapping of waves on the Azov Sea, Volodymyr Shmarra sat on a bench, took a long drag from a cigarette and sighed from fatigue.
The 30-year-old leader of the Azov Battalion had had little sleep since 150 of his special-forces troops helped rout separatists in the strategic port city of Mariupol three days before – one of the beleaguered Ukrainian army’s most important victories of the war.
Looking for any chance to reassure the public and Ukraine’s supporters in other countries, the Interior Ministry asked Shmarra to talk with journalists despite being exhausted.
The commander has faced one of the most daunting tasks of any Ukrainian military leader: creating a battle-ready special-forces unit in just a month.
“Many of the men have never had military experience,” said Shmarra, who left his job as a financial and tax consultant in the Kiev area to command the Azov Battalion. “What they’ve brought to us is fighting spirit and motivation.”
The rookies didn’t have the luxury of perfecting their skills in training before going into combat. The unit was formed May 5. Most of the men were in it only three weeks before seeing action in Mariupol on June 13, said Shmarra, who didn’t disclose his rank. A typical battalion leader is a lieutenant colonel or colonel.
Azov Battalion commander Volodymyr Shmarra. Photo by Hal Foster
Ukraine disbanded its only special-forces unit, the Eagle Battalion, in March after then-President Viktor Yanukovich used it to kill more than 100 demonstrators in the Maidan area of Kiev in February.
The dead were among tens of thousands protesting Yanukovich’s decision to renege on a trade agreement with the European Union.
Azov is one of three special-forces units that replaced the Eagle Battalion. It is based in the coastal resort of Berdyansk. The other units are the Dnieper Battalion, based near Dnepropetrovsk, and the Donbass Battalion, based near Kiev.
The name Donbass Battalion was chosen to grate the separatists. Donbass is the industrial heartland of the Donetsk Region, which along with the adjoining Lugansk Region, declared itself an independent republic in early May.
Shmarra said 400 men from the Azov Battalion, the Dnieper Battalion and the Ukrainian National Guard attacked the separatists’ headquarters in a Mariupol city administration building at dawn on June 13.
“About 100 separatists were in Mariupol at the time,” he said.
Ukrainian servicemen from the "Azov" battalion escort men detained at a site of battle with pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. ©Reuters/Osman Karimov
The Ukrainians learned later that the separatists had intelligence the attack was coming, Shmarra said.
But the early hour of the onslaught caught them by surprise.
After the battle the Ukrainian forces found half-eaten bowls of soup on tables in the building.
The firefight lasted seven hours. The military killed three separatists and wounded several others. The rest fled. Four Ukrainian troops were wounded, one seriously.
A destroyed armoured personnel carrier of the DNR (Donetsk People's Reublic) at the site of fighting in the eastern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol. ©Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov
The members of the Azov Battalion raised their guns above their heads afterward, shouting their battalion’s name and singing the Ukrainian national anthem.
“The whole city was freed that day,” Shmarra said, although he added that it remains a dangerous place, “full of spies.”
Unfortunately, the Ukrainians were unable to capture the separatist commander, whom Ukrainian intelligence identified as an ethnic Chechen from Russia named Borisov, Shmarra said.
Borisov and 16 other Chechen or Dagestani irregulars were among dozens of separatists who slipped out of Mariupol the day before the firefight, the Ukrainians learned later. Irregulars are Russian fighters who are not part of the regular Russian military.
Shmarra said the Azov Battalion is drawn from all over Ukraine, including such pro-Russian strongholds as Crimea, Lugansk, Donetsk and Kharkov.
They range in age from 18 to the mid-50s.
Shmarra said he’s lucky to have a number of soldiers with military experience who can teach the others.
“A lot of our troops had never held a weapon in their hands before three weeks ago,” said the commander, who acknowledged he is one of those with military experience.
Some of the rookies have good combat instincts, Shmarra said, knowing what to do and what not to do when they’re in a battle.
The commander said one of his biggest challenges is teaching those without instincts how to develop them.
“Some of the troops lack initiative in battle,” he said.
The ultimate goal of those who are training the troops, Shmarra said, is to meld them into a unit in which “all our soldiers act together as one force.”
Although Azov is an elite corps, it’s facing the much-publicized supply problem that other Ukrainian units are suffering , Shmarra said.
“We don’t have enough of everything, including weapons and food,” he said.
And when arms do arrive, “they often come too late.”
The bottom line, Shmarra said, is that the military brass in Kiev “don’t understand that we are not tourists here.”
He said a morale booster on a recent day was a gift of 130 pounds of strawberries from Berdyansk residents.
Journalist and civic activist Tatyana Goryachova cheered Shmarra when she said she’d ask city officials to arrange for more local fruits and vegetables to be delivered to the battalion.
At one point a tall, handsome man in his early to mid-20s greeted the commander. Shmarra gave him a look of deference, and introduced him.
“He’s a former political prisoner” of Yanukovich, the commander explained – just the sort of motivated fighter the battalion needed.
Those who took over the government in Kiev after Yanukovich left the country freed the young man, who identified himself as Sergei Pavlichenko, and a lot of other political prisoners, the most high-profile of whom was Yanukovich political rival Yulia Tymoshenko.
Pavlichenko was asked why he would want to go from the tough life of a political prisoner to the even tougher life of a special-forces soldier.
He thought for a moment, then shrugged: “All my friends are here.”