Retired Colonel of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Ihor Shcherbyna, aged 48, was my first commander at the military base in Kryvyi Rih city, when I was called to the army as a reservist on 25 August 2014. Being a military pensioner, he received his conscription notice last summer, and went to defend Ukraine from the illegal armed Separatist forces, sponsored by Russia, which have been occupying the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Over several months, Colonel Shcherbyna led the 3rd Infantry Battalion of the 17th Tank Brigade, which had been formed of third-wave reservists.
In fact, initially, Colonel Shcherbyna became my commander by mistake. The soldier who guided me to the detachment unintentionally brought me to “3 Battalion” instead of “2 Battalion” as instructed. This mistake was revealed a week later, when the commander of 2 Battalion called to ask where the hell I was! By that time I had already got used to Colonel Shcherbyna and the servicemen of my unit – and yet I was requesting a transfer to 2 Battalion because that’s what was written on my military ID card.
Recalling those days, I remember that the chief of the “Dzerzhynsky-Dovgyntsevsky” military registry office in Kryvyi Rih was glad to grab and send me, as a lieutenant reservist, to his friend’s battalion. He saw me for just a couple of minutes but happily called his friend in the army, assuring him that “Viktor is a good and reliable guy. He will be the best commander of your intelligence unit…” I was in shock, listening to that conversation! I am a journalist by profession, and my military experience was limited to the command of an ordinary infantry unit: I had no idea about spying, “Recon”, “Intel” or “Special Ops” – the kind of stuff normally associated with an “intelligence unit”.
But the whole situation relating to bad or irrelevant placing of personnel within the army was unpleasant for me. In those days no one in the military registry offices – or indeed within the army – cared about the skills, professions or expertise of reservists. And so it was that school teachers with English language skills were sent to serve in supply units, and journalists to fire from mortars and artillery, etc. This was clear evidence of the organizational confusion apparent in the post-Soviet Ukrainian Army since the first waves of the draft in 2014.
Therefore, having been upset by staff chaos, I went to the fellow officers of Colonel Shcherbyna’s battalion and asked them for advice. I was immediately encouraged by Major Olexander Vakulenko (for more on him, please see Part 5 of my Debaltseve Diary). He designed my fate with a simple question: “But with whom do you want to serve personally?” And so, in this way, I took the decision to stay with Colonel Ihor Shcherbyna, despite the position still being that of an “intelligence unit commander”.
As it turned out, I made a lucky choice! This well-educated and hugely experienced colonel taught me how to be a real commander, how to train and manage my unit effectively, and how to achieve credible results in battle operations. Under his guidance I rapidly restored many military skills, forgotten for twenty years since I finished the three-year military course at Kyiv Shevchenko University. The Colonel often invited me for personal talks – not to punish for faults (as most commanders do) but to teach how to solve issues and encourage soldiers.
Colonel Shcherbyna had a phenomenal memory for names. It seemed to me that he knew all 600 reservist servicemen in the battalion. One day, during the first weeks of my service, I could not quickly remember the full name of one of my sergeants. The Colonel was unimpressed and said: “Viktor, you have to know all your guys by name and title!” Afterwards I made sure to remember all nineteen of them.
Recalling those days, a senior soldier named Edward Dehtiariov told me he had known Colonel Shcherbyna since 2013, when they worked together in the Yakymivka district of the Zaporizhzha region. As a retired army officer, Ihor Shcherbyna was appointed Head of the Civil Defence Department at the district administration. Edward spent lots of time with Colonel Shcherbyna, inspecting local institutions and bomb shelters around the territory of the rural district: “Like you, Viktor, I agreed to be voluntarily transferred to his battalion in Kryvyi Rih,” said Edward. “He sent me to the 8th Unit, which was his beloved one, and formed by the best officers and servicemen. He kept us trained at the base till the last moment, despite the fact that other units were gradually sent to the frontline from September to October 2014.”
Colonel Shcherbyna kept the 8th Unit at the base because it had not yet received any armoured vehicles (he was strongly against sending troops to the battle zone without armour). As a professional officer, he perfectly knew battle-zone risks, the present conditions of the Ukrainian Army, and the real ‘cost’ of High Command assurances. That is why, having many friends within the army, he personally visited many APC depots around the country, and organized delivery of working armoured vehicles to his battalion. He only released units to the frontline after they had received and tested their APCs.
Later, in November 2014, me and the rest of 3 Battalion were transferred to strengthen 40 Battalion, which had suffered huge loses in August, following the Battle of Ilovaisk in Donetsk region. Colonel Shcherbyna became our deputy commander there. Despite switching between two battalions, the Colonel enjoyed huge respect among the servicemen of both. Even those who had issues with their discipline respected him for his expertise.
In December we were sent to the ATO zone in eastern Ukraine to defend the city of Debaltseve. The Colonel organized and managed the defence of the battalion’s main camp. He also visited the frontline to help and encourage our soldiers in the trenches. His visits always restored confidence to the troops, who believed that everything would work out fine.
In January 2015 Colonel Shcherbyna foresaw that the Russian-backed Separatists would begin using ‘small diversion-groups tactics’ because all their attacks – even with massive bombardments – had been repelled. He was right. However, thanks to his advice, our troops were ready to combat these diversion groups. And when, in February, they started trying to infiltrate the city of Debaltseve, Colonel Shcherbyna led multiple counter-operations against enemy groups in the city suburbs.
Colonel Shcherbyna hoped very much that the Minsk-2 agreement could restore the long-awaited ceasefire to Debaltseve. He often asked me about recent news from Kyiv and Minsk, because I had a portable short-wave radio, and listened to Ukrainian and foreign radio stations. Recalling those February days, I remember how we were standing in the main camp, talking about political news, when suddenly the sound of a mortar shell was heard approaching. Having seconds to hide, we yelled an “Air!” warning to all, and jumped down to the shelters. The shell exploded almost exactly where we had been talking. But, thanks to the Colonel’s experience, during the whole Debaltseve campaign we had no fatalities at our main camp – just one soldier was badly wounded and yet he survived.
The sorrowful news that DNA analysis had confirmed Colonel Shcherbyna’s death reached our 40 Battalion in the middle of June 2015 – after four long months of hoping he had survived the lethal Debaltseve nightmare.
The last time a fellow ‘spetsnaz’ squad saw Colonel Shcherbyna was on 16 February. They guarded a convoy of trucks carrying the corpses of Ukrainian “KIAs” (killed-in-action servicemen) and tried to break through an enemy encirclement near Novohrygorivla village. They saw that the Colonel’s car had driven over a mine in the snowy fields and exploded, exposing the convoy to an enemy ambush. The Colonel was badly injured but somehow managed to quit the car. Due to heavy fighting at that moment, the Ukrainian ‘spetsnaz’ guys could not reach and evacuate him, and were forced to retreat. When they returned next day, there was no trace of the Colonel.
There is a saying in the army: it is more important who your commander is, than in what detachment you serve. In my draft, Colonel Ihor Shcherbyna was my first commander, and I will always remember him thankfully, and from the bottom of my heart.
(Edited by Christopher Summerville)