Ordinary Ukrainians Become Unlikely Warriors

By Peter Leonard

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- Denis Lavrienko is a 36-year-old TV director who devotes his free time to his wife and young daughter. Vladislav Matelsky is a 28-year-old part-time truck driver who lives with his girlfriend. Vyacheslav Konstantinovsky is the multimillionaire owner of a fast-food chain.

All have been rousted from peaceful lives in settings that wouldn't stand out in Western Europe - and are going to war.

Since a separatist insurgency broke out in eastern Ukraine in March, entire swaths of Ukrainian society - either through a government summons or their own patriotism - have suddenly been thrust into battle, many of them with little or no combat experience.

With the government desperate for more fighters and medics, a draft has brought in a wave of needed additions to what had been a neglected army. And amid a surge of patriotic indignation tipping over into martial fervor, volunteer battalions have proven an indispensable boost as well.

Many of the inexperienced conscripts swept up in the war effort confess to being scared.

"When I received my summons ... my feelings were mixed. First I accepted, but the fear stays with you," said Lavrienko, the director, who never saw combat as a radio operator during obligatory military service more than a decade ago.

"They're not sending us for training. This is a real military operation."

It is indeed. What initially emerged as a ragtag, pro-Russian rebellion has become more deadly over the past month as insurgent fighters have come into possession of heavy weaponry, such as tanks and multiple rocket launchers. Ukraine accuses Russia of supplying the rebels; Moscow denies it. But nobody denies that an increasing number of Russian citizens have joined the rebels, including many battle-hardened veterans of the Russian and Soviet military.

The fighting itself has become increasingly deadly. Of the 568 servicemen killed since March, a military spokesman said Monday, more than 200 have fallen in the past two weeks. There is no reliable count of how many rebels have been killed.

In the early days of fighting, the army suffered a string of humiliating losses as years of neglect in the armed forces were shown to have ill-prepared soldiers for battle against a light-footed opponent that outfoxed government troops at almost every turn.

The government has tried to rectify that with three waves of mandatory mobilization since May, after Parliament voted to reverse last year's abolition of the draft. The Defense Ministry will not say how many personnel have been called up into the army, which had an estimated 57,000 active ground troops before the conflict began.

The head of Kiev's military commissariat, Col. Volodmyr Kydon, said the draft is targeting skills that the military needs most: machine gunners, snipers, artillerymen, missile launcher operators and medical personnel.

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© 2014 The Associated Press

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