‘Commander, I’m not going out there.’

A Russian officer gives a harrowing account of the carnage he witnessed in the battle for the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka

‘Commander, I’m not going out there.’

A fighter preparing to open fire on a position near Avdiivka, in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region, on 22 November 2022. Photo: Alessandro Guerra / EPA-EFE

The town of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region had a population of over 35,000 before the war. Since March, Russian troops have reduced much of the town to rubble with relentless shelling in a battle that some military analysts have compared to the assault on Bakhmut. Even pro-war Russian commentators have admitted how dire the situation in the town is.

The following account of an assault on the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka in October has been written by a Russian officer. The story has been translated but is otherwise unedited, though some names and details have been changed. The text contains obscenities and descriptions of atrocities.

Novaya Gazeta Europe has independently confirmed the officer’s name and identity and is in possession of his photographs and war diaries, although it’s unknown if he is still alive.

Three litres of vodka and not shooting the deputy commander

We received orders to take the armoured personnel carrier (APC) to a certain point, then get out and deliver food, water and ammunition to the front line on foot. On the way there, I was told by radio that the plan had changed. Go to the village, collect all the provisions and move them... forward, but in the APC. I was really pissed off: I’ve got 20 people here and they’re sending me god knows where. Of course, they conveniently forgot to mention that the place was being shelled.

We started getting shelled 200 metres shy of our destination. People were afraid of the incoming shelling and laid low but I screamed at them to keep running. One fighter was sitting there, scared, so I asked him, “Andrey, is everything okay?” He said, “Yes.” I left him there and a shell hit a minute later. Three dead. Roma’s face was blown off, Saint’s stomach was all out, and Wind’s groin was blown away. He was screaming so fucking loud. We got him to the road and he bled out there. Then Ilya took the shrapnel from the next shell and died on the spot. There were another three dead. I don’t know how. Total chaos. I tell everyone to get the fuck back and retrieve anyone injured.

We ended up with seven dead and at least 10 wounded, including the second platoon commander and the company commander. I was the only officer left. I was unscathed. Not even stunned. I was dashing around gathering people up because over the radio they were shouting at me to advance. But who the fuck can advance? Everyone was running around trying to help the wounded.

I tell everyone to follow me. There is primal fear in their eyes. “Commander, I’m not going out there.” OK, then collect the wounded and make sure they all fucking get back alive.

I take the three bravest guys with me and run ahead. On our way, we find out the place with all the provisions is somewhere else altogether. And they want me to go looking for it in an APC while we’re under fire? What a great fucking plan.

We get there and the guy whose plan this was — the fucking battalion deputy commander — is there. He starts screaming what the fuck am I doing coming there with people in an APC. You fucking told us to. I’d wanted to get within a few kilometres and then go in small groups on foot. The deputy commander didn’t give a shit about my explanations and said he had given no such order. Fucking faggot, the guys all said after. If he’d started having a go at me in front of them, they’d have shot him on the spot and thrown him in the bushes. So we get the food and load as much of it as we can into bags. They give me some blue bags too and tell me I need to give them directly to the battalion commander on the front line. I look inside and there are three litres of vodka and some snacks. For fuck’s sake.

A fighter lays branches over a field gun at a position near Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine. Photo: Alessandro Guerra / EPA-EFE

A fighter lays branches over a field gun at a position near Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine. Photo: Alessandro Guerra / EPA-EFE

In a trench with a corpse

Closer to the front, it’s sheer hell. The enemy is firing artillery and using drones 24/7. They never stop. A paved road leads to the front and every 15 to 20 metres, there are burned out tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, piles of corpses, bits of bodies, armour, weapons. There is pretty much no shelter. Sometimes there are trenches and what’s left of trees to hide from drones. And I had to walk a mile down that road of death with a backpack and bags full of vodka and snacks. I’d lost my gun during the shelling but found another one the next day. We should have been able to find shelter in the forest, but we couldn’t. The area has taken a battering by artillery. There are some branches here and there and every 30 to 40 metres you might miraculously stumble across a bush to hide from helicopters in. And at night, in the middle of all this, you’re meant to find a trench, with a dugout, and hand stuff over to the battalion commander. We found it, handed the stuff over, and retreated.

It was dark and you couldn’t see a bloody thing so we decided to spend the night under a tree.

We laid down and a mouse wouldn’t leave me the fuck alone. Then they started firing mortars nearby. I don’t know what was more annoying, the mouse or the shelling.

We decided to move on to a trench where it was safer. On the way, we found a well with a corpse floating in it. We found a trench. We go in and there’s a guy leaning against the wall. I say, “Hi, mate”. He says nothing. I touch him. He’s dead. One of the guys with me says let’s not sleep with a corpse. Let’s go and look for another trench. Fuck it, I say. I’ll literally snuggle up to him as long as we’ve got shelter. We lie down next to the corpse, cover ourselves with camouflage netting and try to get some sleep. It’s mayhem. There are mortars going off, drones overhead, then our guys start firing. The Ukrainians respond with artillery fire and then the infantry takes over. It went on like that all night. Plus the mouse. It must have fucking followed us. Add to that the cold, the wind, the bare ground and a corpse and you have the recipe for a good night’s sleep.

Troops firing a field gun near Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine. Photo: Alessandro Guerra / EPA-EFE

Troops firing a field gun near Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine. Photo: Alessandro Guerra / EPA-EFE

‘Nobody left to fight’

We didn’t sleep, of course. At dawn, we went back to our guys and were told to take what food was left to the front. Some other fighters who’d been separated from their unit helped out. Shelling started. The two people in front of me got hit with something heavy, and I thought, fuck, that’s one of my guys done for. We ran to the dugout and sat there. If you so much as stuck your nose out, you might be hit by shelling or grenades dropped from drones. We sat it out and then moved on when things had quietened down.

We received orders to collect a seriously wounded soldier from the front. We got there, took him away, and they tell us there’s another wounded soldier there. I find him in a trench about a metre wide, protected by some logs. Four of us hid there from the drone. But the drone started dropping grenades anyway. Two missed but one went off just above my right ear. I was injured, but not badly. I’m writing this three days after the explosion and my ears are still ringing. I collected a wounded soldier under cover of darkness. The battalion commander saw me and shouted what the fuck are you doing here? There’s nobody left as it is. They’ve annihilated the whole company. Why the fuck did you come here in an APC? Because the deputy commander told us to. “Has he gone completely fucking mad?”

I went back to the muster point. On the way, I found two of my own soldiers walking back, collecting stuff off the dead bodies. They grabbed anything valuable, especially wet wipes.

Someone gave me a coat, almost new. We get back and one guy is missing. Nobody knows how. We just lost him. As it turned out, he was taking a wounded soldier all the way to the next battalion. Then he got roped into helping out even more. Later that evening, he managed to get away from the hospitable battalion and back to us.

At around the same time, we got orders to gradually retreat. There was nobody left to fight. The commanders didn’t know where their guys were, and nobody knew the extent of our losses either. I don’t know what happened to my company, whether the wounded were rescued and how many died. That night we left, spent the night at the command and observation post, and in the morning travelled back to our main position in the infantry fighting vehicle. I found the guys from my company and grabbed some clothes and then we returned to our positions. We drank, remembered those who’d died and thought about what to do next.

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