Commander Oleksandr Staryna in Marinka on this way to the shelter at the local hospital

Commander Oleksandr Staryna in Marinka on this way to the shelter at the local hospital

Foto: Emre Caylak / DER SPIEGEL

Staryna's Mission The Elite Ukrainian Soldiers Defending the Donbas

In the battle for the Donbas, Russian troops are facing off against some of the most experienced soldiers in the Ukrainian armed forces. A visit with Captain Oleksandr Staryna, who says the Russians have recently lost momentum.
By Alexander Sarovic and Emre Caylak (Photos) in Marinka, eastern Ukraine

Captain Oleksandr Staryna takes his right hand off the gear stick and points ahead. A small town rises above the eastern Ukrainian steppe: two golden church towers, a few Soviet-era buildings, low houses. "There," says Staryna. "This is Marinka."

He steers the SUV, an old Lada Niva, to the entrance of the village, past a wrecked car lying in the ditch. Two pensioners had been trying to escape in the vehicle when a Russian shell struck.

DER SPIEGEL 19/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 19/2022 (May 7th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Sergeant Mykola Davydenko is sitting next to the captain. He is clutching the barrel of an assault rifle in one hand, a domestically produced Vulkan. The two Ukrainian elite soldiers are driving to their position in the embattled town. As we continue along the route, the level of destruction increases. Shelling has demolished roofs, mangled bedrooms and torched cars.

Staryna parks the Lada in a small courtyard. The soldiers regularly change cars. For close combat, they prefer light, maneuverable vehicles. Armored cars, the commander explains, aren't much help in Marinka.

It is now the second time that the town near Donetsk has been the scene of fighting that has the potential to decide the future of Ukraine. The war between pro-Russian separatists and government troops began here eight years ago here in the Donbas, the coal-mining region in the east of the country. After fierce fighting, the Ukrainian army was able to bring Marinka back under its control in June 2015. Since then, the front has run along the eastern outskirts.

Until Feb. 27 of this year, Russia provided more or less covert support for the separatists. Then, it launched its attack on all of Ukraine. Since then, Russian soldiers have been openly fighting alongside troops from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, the pseudo-state loyal to Moscow. After the failure of the assault on Kyiv, the Russian leadership has declared the second phase of its "special operation," with the aim of bringing the Donetsk and Luhansk regions entirely under its control.

In the battle for the Donbas, they are facing up against some of the most experienced fighters in the Ukrainian armed forces. Around 100 of them belong to the second company of the 74th Reconnaissance Battalion, under the command of Commander Staryna.

The 41-year-old, who goes by the combat nickname "Staryy," or "old man," wears an army cap over his black hair and an armored vest that is too small for him. He listens carefully, shifts gears quickly and appears highly concentrated and relaxed at the same time.

Staryna commands scouts in three front-line combat areas in southern Donbas: Pisky, Avdiivka and Marinka. They scout the positions of enemy infantry and artillery using drones and foot patrols. Since the beginning of the second phase of the war almost three weeks ago, artillery fire from the Russians has become more intense, Staryna says. And Marinka has become the target of almost nonstop shelling.

The district’s chief administrator says the town is being hit by up to 300 Russian Grad missiles each day. Enemy drones hover overhead, at times clearly visible. There’s hardly a road without a crater, and rocket fragments can be seen protruding from holes in the earth. Fires still smolder in some of the ruins. Very few volunteer helpers still dare to enter the town.

The fighting here is fierce, says Commander Staryna. The situation is serious for him and his men, he says. The Russian troops and their allies captured four blocks of houses in the town, and the week before last, he says seven soldiers in his own unit were wounded. On this day as well, he and Sergeant Davydenko have had to evacuate an injured fighter from Marinka.

And yet the commander seems confident. Artillery fire can also be heard in Marinka on this Sunday in early May, with smoke rising above the village. But compared to the recent past, things are reasonably quiet.

Staryna believes the Russian attackers have "lost momentum." He says many are wounded or dead. "We see this with our drones and hear it in the radio transmissions we intercept," he says. Most importantly, he says, the Ukrainian defenders destroyed a lot of Russian equipment. "I don’t want to brag," he says. "But lately, hardly a day has gone by in which we haven't destroyed an enemy artillery position."

Commander Staryna on his way out of Marinka: "They’re exhausted and we know it; we’re exhausted and they know it."

Commander Staryna on his way out of Marinka: "They’re exhausted and we know it; we’re exhausted and they know it."

Foto: Emre Caylak / DER SPIEGEL
Scouts Davy­denko and Staryna: The Russians have "lost momentum."

Scouts Davy­denko and Staryna: The Russians have "lost momentum."

Foto: Emre Caylak / DER SPIEGEL
Commander Staryna standing in front of bombed-out homes in Marinka.

Commander Staryna standing in front of bombed-out homes in Marinka.

Foto: Emre Caylak / DER SPIEGEL

Staryna and Davydenko move along a wall to their position, an administrative building that the Ukrainian defenders moved into at the beginning of the war just over two months ago. The Ukrainian soldiers say the attackers torched a home across the street using an incendiary bomb. Burnt corrugated metal is lying on the property, wooden beams protrude upward from the rubble.

The Ukrainian defenders have taken their positions in a room with a wooden floor and a stuffed couch. Little light penetrates inside. A soldier has put his helmet down on an armchair, an AK-47 leans against a folding chair. The fighters spend the night here, and members of the different troops also gather here. Besides scouts Staryna and Davydenko and several artillerymen with a mortar unit, there are also two infantrymen from the Right Sector in the room on this afternoon.

The two men fight side by side with the regular Ukrainian units. After a few minutes, they move out again, passing an EDM4S parked near the door. Ukrainian troops use the futuristic-looking electronic weapon, known as the "SkyWiper," to take enemy drones out of the sky.

The drones represent a significant threat because they provide coordinates to the Russian guns, says a young soldier from the mortar unit. Another danger, he says, are the Russian paratroopers, who move unnoticed, especially at night. The artilleryman says the enemy troops have tried to storm the Ukrainian position several times. "But we have fought off all their attacks."

Soldier Davydenko in the town center of Marinka

Soldier Davydenko in the town center of Marinka

Foto: Emre Caylak / DER SPIEGEL

The mortar unit uses its guns to provide cover for Staryna’s scouting parties, and his soldiers then provide the artillery with enemy coordinates. Because of their close cooperation, they have been able to inflict significant damage on the Russians. He says the interaction between his unit’s drones and the artillery’s guns had recently reached "a whole new level."

Staryna joined the army eight years ago and he has experienced the transformation of the Ukrainian fighting forces from a chaotic group riddled with corruption to a professional army defending Ukraine against one of the strongest armed forces on earth.

The commander had been working as a bankruptcy lawyer in Dnipro, a three-and-half-hour drive west, when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and war broke out in the Donbas. Immediately following a court hearing, he enlisted in the army and was initially assigned to an armored unit. "I was a member of that unit for a total of 30 minutes," he says, laughing. He went home to pick up his backpack, and by the time he got back, the armored unit had already headed off. "The reconnaissance people saw me and snatched me up."

Staryna has been fighting in the Donbas for nearly eight years now. He was in the thick of things as the Ukrainian army and separatists fought fierce battles around the Donetsk airport. He was the only person is his unit who survived the battles for the terminals unscathed.

The 41-year-old is divorced and has a 17-year-old son. He doesn’t see his son, who is also named Oleksandr, very often any more. But that’s alright, Staryna jokes. "He’s at an age now, anyway, where he can’t get rid of me quickly enough."

The commander is certain there will be no return to civilian life for him. He says all the people who fought alongside him over the years would never have lasted too far away from the front lines. "We experience real friendship here, we feel safe here," he says of the combat zone. "In civilian life, we’re alone." Staryna’s girlfriend is fighting with another unit in nearby Avdiivka.

The war against Russia is personal for the commander, not least because of his family. His mother is from Russia’s Belgorod region and moved to Ukraine when she was 10 years old.

Before 2014, Staryna recounts, she admired Russian leader Vladimir Putin, just as many older people in eastern Ukraine had. It was frequently a source of conflict between mother and son. When Staryna enlisted for military service, his 72-year-old mother’s change of heart surprised him: "She gave me her blessing and said: 'Somebody has to stop this madman,'" he recalls.

Residents of Marinka have lived in a shelter under the hospital for weeks.

Residents of Marinka have lived in a shelter under the hospital for weeks.

Foto: Emre Caylak / DER SPIEGEL

Perhaps his own background has helped train the commander for one of his present-day challenges: dealing with the civilians who, despite everything, have remained in Marinka. Last month, when it became apparent that Moscow would launch a major offensive in the Donbas, Ukraine’s leadership called on people to leave the region. And the majority of the approximately 9,400 inhabitants of the town heeded the call. Of those who remained, some found shelter in the basement of a hospital.

The way there leads through empty streets and past small front yards filled with huge craters. Sergeant Davydenko walks with a swaying gait, always a few steps ahead of his commander. Like Staryna, the 36-year-old is also from Dnipro. He has a full beard and his eyes are alert as he constantly scans the surroundings. Davydenko commands a seven-man, special forces squad. His missions often take him behind enemy lines. He’s Staryna’s go-to guy for tough missions.

Marinka’s main square has been almost completely destroyed. A gold-colored dome of the cathedral is partly melted, and a cultural center has burned down. Shrapnel has torn off the right side of the face of a bust honoring national poet Taras Shevchenko. "They gave him a shave," Staryna says.

After a few minutes, the two soldiers reach the hospital, a four-story cube of yellow bricks. There's a hole in the facade, slightly smaller than a window. "Tank," Davydenko says matter-of-factly.

Ukrainians who have stayed behind in Marinka, despite Russian attacks

Ukrainians who have stayed behind in Marinka, despite Russian attacks

Foto: Emre Caylak / DER SPIEGEL
Some of the residents remaining in the town use this improvised stove to cook.

Some of the residents remaining in the town use this improvised stove to cook.

Foto: Emre Caylak / DER SPIEGEL

Behind the building, a handful of elderly people sit on wooden slats and a conduit pipe. Most are smoking, and tea is boiling in a small kettle. The back of the hospital provides protection from shelling out of the separatist area.

No, he's not leaving, says 72-year-old Anatoly, a retired miner. "It’s my country, I was born here." He has been sleeping in the bunker under the hospital for more than two months, since the beginning of the Russian invasion. The widower and grandfather of two witnessed how the building was shelled, how other residents arrived after their homes were burned down, and how one of them jumped on his bicycle one morning and then perished in the hail of bombs.

Besides Anatoly, 37 other people are sheltering here. They live on aid packages that two policemen and a handful of volunteers bring daily from nearby Kurakhove. Most of those who have remained are older, with the 2014 war coming toward the end of their lives. For the past several years, they have been exposed to both battles and the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. This has made them suspicious, some to the point of being delusional.

An angry man interrupts Anatoly. He says he knows where the bombs originate. They’re "from Krasnohorivka." The town is located only a few kilometers away and is under the control of the government in Kyiv. Essentially, he’s accusing Ukrainian troops of bombing their own population, although there is no evidence of that.

Commander Staryna ignores him and descends into the basement of the hospital. It’s cramped and pitch black. The walls are thick and moldy in places. Two rooms are densely packed with cots. Only candlelight and the soldiers’ mobile phone flashlights illuminate the pale faces of civilians.

Marinka residents in the shelter under the hospital where they go for protection from attacks

Marinka residents in the shelter under the hospital where they go for protection from attacks

Foto: Emre Caylak / DER SPIEGEL
Civilians from Marinka in the hospital shelter: "It's my country, I was born here."

Civilians from Marinka in the hospital shelter: "It's my country, I was born here."

Foto: Emre Caylak / DER SPIEGEL
Food for the civilians who have remained in Marinka

Food for the civilians who have remained in Marinka

Foto: Emre Caylak / DER SPIEGEL

"People, I would get out of here if I were you," Staryna calls out to them. He tells them the enemy is still powerful, and if they continue to advance, no one would be able to help them.

"No," says a 75-year-old man named Grigory. He says he went to Kurakhove back in 2014. "At first, they welcomed us there," the former miner says. "But then they blamed us for the prices going up." Kurakhove? "No, there's no point," says Commander Staryna. "If you go, then at least as far as Dnipro." To the safety of the big city.

The soldiers’ appeals fall flat. The people in the basement ask them to bring fuel for the generator next time they drop by.

Will the Russian troops advance soon, to the hospital in Marinka and even further? It isn’t only Ukrainian soldiers on the ground who doubt that Putin's army will be able to make a decisive breakthrough in eastern Ukraine. There are signs that the attackers have again become bogged down, believe experts such as Phillips P. O'Brien, a military theorist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He points not least to artillery losses of the kind described by Staryna.

Staryna, though, remains cautious. Despite their losses, the Russian army could still overwhelm the defenders, he says, especially with their artillery and fighter pilots. He knows this from scouting missions elsewhere on the front lines and from conversations with commanders of other units.

The Russian steamroller my be rolling slowly, but it is still rolling.

Staryna says that he and his people had everything they need for reconnaissance, including drones and night-vision equipment. But the Ukrainian defenders, he says, lack two things in particular: ammunition for their artillery and stationary missile systems for air defense.

The war has long since turned into a battle of attrition, says Staryna. "They’re exhausted and we know it; we’re exhausted and they know it," the commander says. The decisive factor will be who gets reinforcements first: the Ukrainians or the Russians?

Whoever wins the race could then start the next offensive. And that could decide the war.