KIEV, Ukraine — Sergei, as we will call him, shakes and articulates his words as he tells his story. We’re sitting in a tattered park behind a McDonalds restaurant on the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital. Decaying Soviet towers frame a children’s playground.
I met Sergei several hours after the first Ukrainian ceasefire came into effect in September. Since then, according to the United Nations, around 300 people have been killed in the bloodshed. While the fighting has subsided, Ukrainian soldiers continue to die in the southeast of the country.
Sergei, a former hotel worker in his twenties, chain-smokes while talking about his experiences in the area last summer. Sergei says that shells fell near him three times. He was treated at five different hospitals, he said, but he did not tell them how seriously injured he was.
This is because Sergei wants to return to the front as soon as possible. He wants to join his comrades.
While we were talking at this first meeting, a friend calls to let him know that two more of their buddies are dead.
During the Winter Revolution in Ukraine, Sergei says, he “built barricades and threw Molotov cocktails”. The closest thing he had seen to a war was the street fighting in February, when then-President Viktor Yanukovych was forced to flee the country. Then he enlisted to join the 12th Kyiv City Battalion.
Sergei was wearing his uniform when I met him: a khaki t-shirt and army-surplus pants. “I bought them myself,” he said, “because the ones they gave me fell apart after a few days.”
When the soldiers of the 12th Barttalion signed up to fight, they each received a firearm from the Ministry of Defense. Nothing more. So their friends and families bought them everything the men needed for the battle. They collected money to buy helmets, body armor, medicine and even vehicles.
But much of this equipment disappeared from the warehouse before the Kiev unit went into action.
“We saw all the ammunition in the depot; we saw the parcels full of material that our friends sent us. But the equipment did not reach us after we left for the combat operation,” Sergei said. When the fighting started, the troops immediately felt the loss. Because the helmets were missing, two of Sergei’s comrades suffered head injuries.
Sergei blames his officers for the thefts. And according to him, they were hardly more qualified than he to lead a group of green soldiers into battle. “They were trained with us, by volunteers. And they got their jobs from people they knew,” he said.
Sergei is not the only soldier to have complained about the conduct of the commander and officers of the 12th Battalion. Military support groups have protested to current Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko about the unity, and several claims in the letter sent by these groups match Sergei’s story.
In private correspondence obtained by The Daily Beast and dated Sept. 6, two groups, “Return them Alive” and “Help the State Border Service,” allege the 12th Battalion was set up as a racketeer. The document quotes an unnamed Ukrainian army official.
“According to Colonel B., the 12th Battalion was created as a business project and has nothing in common with a combat unit,” the letter read. “This information was confirmed by various military units that operated alongside the battalion in combat: ‘He did not perform any of the tasks assigned to him.'”
It is unclear whether Ukrainian authorities have actually investigated the allegations against the battalion commander and his officers. In early September and again in October, The Daily Beast contacted Kyiv City Council, which recruited volunteers for the battalion, as well as the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office and President Poroshenko’s office.
Prosecutors said they received no correspondence regarding the case, while the president’s office and Kyiv City Council – which could not be reached in October – said they had no information to report. this subject.
But the author of the letter says she had it forwarded to the Ukrainian authorities. Maria Tomak says a colleague presented the document directly to Poroshenko when he met with volunteers on August 21. She said she wrote the letter because the president is not allowed to come into direct contact with soldiers.
Months after the letter was delivered, support groups have yet to receive a response according to the activist, who however defended the Ukrainian military when approached about the leaked letter.
“Yes, there are corruption issues in our military, it’s no secret,” Tomak wrote in a post. But, she added, “I can also say that in relation to the fact of Russian aggression or in relation to the attitude of the Kremlin towards Russian soldiers in Ukraine, it is not so serious.”
The story of the 12th Kyiv Brigade raises questions about the extent of corruption in the Ukrainian military and in the volunteer brigades that were set up by political parties, militant groups and local councils.
Defense analysts say the capabilities of the Ukrainian military have been strategically weakened under the Yanukovych administration. And the letter from military support groups suggests widespread corruption continued under his successors.
“We are people who, with the help of the majority of the population, provide the Ukrainian army with a wide range of things, from socks to sights,” Tomak wrote in the letter from the support groups. “And we have no illusions that this state of affairs is limited to one battalion.”
Corruption was one of the main reasons Ukrainians rose up against the Yanukovych government last winter. The country was ranked 144th out of 177 countries surveyed by Transparency International in its 2013 Transplant Perceptions Index. And anti-corruption campaigners say little has changed in parts of Ukraine’s administration since the revolution. Although defense ministers have come and gone, military command has remained largely unchanged so far, they say.
According to Yegor Soboliev, a former journalist whom the caretaker government tasked with purging bureaucracy after the revolution, for months as Ukraine waged war, little was done to repair a legacy of corruption and nepotism in the forces. armies inherited from Yanukovych.
“It’s a suicide. [Politicians] receive serious reports about problems in the army and the secret service and they do not react,” said Soboliev, who complains that the government never gave him the powers he needed to carry out his supposed function.
In recent weeks, legal changes have given some hope that the Ukrainian government could finally tackle corruption in the military. In September, amid intense street protests, parliament passed a law targeting officials who served under Yanukovych’s government and including measures against corrupt officials. The law requires those checked to explain their properties and assets – as well as those of their families.
But so far there has been little action on some cases of military corruption. Fighter Sergei was hoping that forensic investigations had begun on the 12th Battalion when I first met him in September. A month later, the soldier is less optimistic. He received no response from the government to the complaint he sent. And he is still hospitalized, along with 70% of the fighters in his brigade, he estimates, adding that to the remaining 30% who remain on the front line near Lugansk.
Sergei’s comrades are still waiting for the armored personnel carriers promised by the Ministry of Defense months ago, he says. Instead, the unit received dilapidated buses. The battalion is also low on ammunition, Sergei says, but he insists he would still like to return to combat. “If we had the right ammunition, we could go on the offensive and win in a week. They are mercenaries; we are fighting for our land. We are therefore unbeatable.