During six consecutive days, from 9–15 February 2015, 40 Battalion lost at least four digital radio sets: one was lost when our Colonel Volodymyr Sarychev was captured along with a group of “Intel” soldiers; another was lost when Major Olexander Vakulenko was killed in combat. In this way the Russian-backed Separatists grabbed a chance to monitor our communications and even talk to us via the stolen radios.

Ukraine army 40 battalion communication room
At 40 Battalion’s communication room at Debaltseve. My photo.

I am still unsure if it was a good idea to talk with the enemy before re-encrypting our digital signal and disabling the stolen sets. Maybe it was tactically smart to obtain some information on our opponents’ capabilities? On the other hand, the enemy used our stolen radios to conduct “PSYOPs” against us, demanding that we lay down our arms and quit Debaltseve.

When the commander of the Russian group that ambushed our Major Vakulenko contacted us via the major’s radio, telling us to give up Debaltseve, we were not shocked or surprised. We had already heard the same warning from the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, only days before – during the “Minsk-2” peace talks. Indeed it was shameful that the Russians – despite Putin’s assurances of a ceasefire and peaceful resolution – resumed their deadly attacks the very day after the Minsk agreement was signed.

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City of Debaltseve after shelling in late February. Photo by Serhyj Bobryk, 40 Battalion.

The enemy troops, which almost surrounded us at Debaltseve in mid-February, simply executed the order of their Kremlin chief. Later it would be reported (by government officials, the media and volunteers) that Ukrainian forces defending Debaltseve were outnumbered five-to-one. Thus, as officials confirmed, 80 per cent of the 15,000–17,000 enemy troops deployed to capture Debaltseve were Russian regular forces; in contrast, we had about 3,000 in the area.

Russian regulars were carefully concealed, cloaked and camouflaged – both in the flesh and on the radio airwaves. On the battlefield they were dressed up in Ukrainian Army uniforms, complete with our insignias. During our radio talks with the enemy on 15 February, the commander of a Russian diversion group used the nickname “Bondar”, introducing himself as chief of the Separatist “Rus” Battalion. But his way of talking – and the deliberate Russian accent – exposed him as a well-prepared military professional, whose aim was to coax and cajole our 40 Battalion commander into a meeting and kill him.

“Bondar” demanded an immediate meeting with our commander “for peace talks” – all the time dodging questions about the fate of our captured and wounded comrade, Dmytro Kharatin. In addition, during an hour of conversation, “Bondar” did not order a ceasefire to make any “peace talks” possible. These signs proved that we were dealing with an unreliable person.

I recorded a fragment of the radio conversation and – despite C Sector’s accusation that we had illegally negotiated with the enemy – the audio proves that our commander refused to surrender or quit. Here is the transcript:

COMMANDER: I’m asking you, where did you get my radio?
BONDAR: From a captive. He’s alive …
COMMANDER: Brother, please tell me his nickname.
BONDAR: Not now. I have to find those who took him. My people are going for him now … Man, I don’t know what you think of our talks, but let’s resolve the issue!
COMMANDER: I’m repeating to you that yesterday a ceasefire was declared. We don’t want to kill anyone. We want peace. Do you understand me?
BONDAR: I understand you. But this ceasefire … Look, we don’t attack your Poltava or Kyiv! Not one of us went to your EuroMaidan protest when you stood there with guns.
COMMANDER: I came not from Maidan. I’m a professional army officer. I have my orders. I came here according to my instructions. What should I do – become a coward?
BONDAR: No, I don’t say that. But you should consider that you are fighting ordinary people – miners. And you have children at home. Why do you shell us? We want to stop this stupid war.

[At this point, other Ukrainian servicemen from a volunteer battalion nicknamed “Donbas” joined the radio conversation …]

DONETSK: Hey, “Bondar”, I hear you well. I’m personally from Donetsk and fight for my land. If you want peace, come to us in peace, and there will be no war. But if you want war, then it will continue.
BONDAR: I understand. Then let’s meet! Are you really from Donetsk?
DONETSK: Yep, brother, I’m from Donetsk. And I saw how all this separatism scenario started, and who paid for it and managed it! So please stop assuring us that you guys came in peace. I want to make my home in Donetsk. And 80 per cent in my detachment are Donetsk citizens. But you f***ers fight against our own people, our citizens, and my parents: so stop saying that you fight against the West!
[There was no reply from “Bondar”…]
DONETSK: Look, I’m talking to you in the proper Russian language! But we continue firing at each other. Your DPR or LPR – it doesn’t matter to me what state formation you’re trying to set up – you should finally chose: where are you going and what do you want? But people know what they want for a long time – people want peace! Why do you need to fire at anyone?
BONDAR: I agree with you! I am also against this war: so I am going to talk with you in person, but without being targeted by weapons. Let’s solve the issue!

[The commander of 40 Battalion rejoins the conversation …]

COMMANDER: And I’m telling you as well – let’s sort something out. Let’s make peace. But you and I alone will not make peace, right? I will not leave my positions. Do you hear and understand me?
BONDAR [sadly]: I hear you … Some of yours are firing at us from grenade launchers now.
COMMANDER: And I was just shelled by something heavier … Look, I am for peace. But if we agree to make peace, then this peace will not be according to your rules only, but by mutual consent.
BONDAR: Let’s have mutual consent! Let’s solve it! But tell your guys to stop firing at us. And let’s meet finally to talk in person, not by radio!

Ukraine army40 Battalion radio
Officers of 40 Battalion during radio talk with the enemy. My photo.

Of course, the personal meeting between the Russian diversion group commander and our battalion commander did not happen. And none of us followed the enemy ultimatum to lay down our arms. In addition, one of our officers sent this Russian on his way with a clear, unmistakable message in the Russian criminal jargon. Then we digitally disabled all the stolen radio stations.

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