Scabic Soldiers on the March

Soldiers from the 53rd Brigade.
Soldiers from the 53rd Brigade.

It’s hard not to notice the plethora of articles once again warning about Russia invading the Baltics. The prospect has come up on a number of occasions over the last two years, and I have to say, I can’t help but have increasing sympathy for RT’s skepticism that the new volley just happens to coincide with the Pentagon budgetary requests. I really hate it when I nod in approval to RT articles. I really do. But that is what happened. So Russia declares the US as a threat, and the US names Russia as a threat. Wonderful. And on and on it goes as military contractors in both countries smile at the prospect of Cold War Part Deux.

But that’s not all.

Leave it to the Atlantic Council to recycle well-worn rhetoric about how talking to the Russians is “counterproductive” and how olive branches “don’t work.” So in terms of solutions we get the ever so wise, “only tightening the noose will” and hackneyed reiterations about the need to send weapons to Ukraine. Yes, because in addition to provoking further conflict is to bet on the fact that “by 2017, [Russia] will go bust, say experts.” Yes, experts like Alexander Motyl who said “Goodbye to Putin” in Foreign Affairs in February 2015 only to say pretty much the same thing again in January 2016? No thank you. David Marples deserves a lot of credit for actually engaging Motyl’s arguments. My instinct is to just roll my eyes so far back that I can see my medulla oblongata.

It’s obvious some experts aren’t heeding Michael Kofman’s “Seven Deadly Sins of Russia Analysis.” I mean, c’mon people, assuming Russia is doomed is deadly sin number frickin’ one! But we didn’t need Kofman to remind us (though it’s nice that he did) to be wary of such “analysis” since the Russia’s imminent collapse trope has been around since the mid-19th century.

But forget about all that. The main problem with all this blustering by all the politicians, analysts, pundits, military, and think tankers is not so much they are wrong, but that they are ultimately playing with other people’s lives. After all it won’t be them or their children who fight their wars. It will be somebody else and somebody else’s children.

It is this context that inspired me to translate the following short article from Hromadske about a group of Ukrainian soldiers at the front in the Donbas. It’s not a great article. Nor is it penetrating information. It’s just a small story about a small group of soldiers trying to make the most out of a bad situation. And like with most armies, while the military, the government, and politicians hold these people up as heroes for the home front, they all force these heroes to unnecessarily live like animals at the battlefront. Well, this group of guys got sick of it.

Scabies, Hunger and Poor Sanitation Force VSU Soldiers March on Nikolaev

In Nikolaev, soldiers sleep practically in the snow and feed themselves with their own money. Many are sick because they haven’t bathed and have begun to contract scabies.

On February 8, soldiers from the 53rd Mechanized Brigade set out marching from the Shirokii Lan firing range in Nikolaev. Forty-six soldiers fed up with the terrible living conditions decided to go to the military prosecutor to complain about their commanders.

The 53rd Brigade has already been at the Skirokii firing range located 30 kilometers from Nikolaev for four days. But the catastrophic situation with food, sleeping accommodations, and hygiene has been around for a long time—since the soldiers withdrew from the ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation) zone to the range in the Dnipropetrovsk region.

In Nikolaev, the soldiers practically sleep on the snow and feed themselves with their own money. Many are sick because they haven’t bathed and have begun to contract scabies. Having not gotten any answers from their command, the soldiers decided to walk to Nikolaev to complain to the military prosecutor’s office about the battalion’s commander, Aleksander Marushchak.

“We got MREs twice a day since February 1st. Today is February 8th. We fed ourselves with our own money and slept on the snow. Half of us sleep on the APC because there isn’t anywhere else to sleep . . . People come here with sciatica and kidney problems and sprawl all out in a tent. A guy is laying there with pneumonia. There are doctors here but you have to get in line, and they might take you to the hospital the next day, or maybe in a week. It is far from certain where they’ll put you if this happens,” says Vitaly Putilin, a gunner in the 8th squadron.

According to him, the last time he bathed was last year on December 25th. And then, only because he paid for a room with his own money for part of the way from Lvov to training. His comrade, the draftee Igor, says that he doesn’t remember the last time they were at the banya.

“Yesterday, we tried to go out and buy firewood on the APC, and the battalion commander told us to also refill it with our own money when we buy the wood. We still don’t have water and melt snow . . . I get that we’re at the frontline but I can’t understand why they’ve mistreated us here for over two months.  People simply can’t take it anymore. Today we found an older chief of staff, and told him—can you at least tell us how much longer do we have to live like this. And he told us to keep quiet . . . We’ve got scabies because we haven’t bathed. They aim for people with white bandages, the itchy type, and so it continues. The scabies already began at Cherkassy firing range, and we haven’t washed since. Look at us.”

A third soldier, also walking to Nikolaev, explains that this is not a one-off rebellion, and has been an urgent problem for a long time.

“Every time we take our demands to command, every time they promise to deal with them, but ultimately they don’t solve anything,” says drafted soldier from the 53rd brigade.

A representative from the military command met the soldiers along the way to the city. He offered to take a few representatives from the brigade to Nikolaev to meet with the prosecutor. The soldiers refused, saying all the participants in the march want to see the prosecutor.

“We are simply asking that they need to provide the conditions as they are written in the Status of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. It clearly spells out there must be a bath at least once a week, and it should be in a banya, not with one machine that heats the water in one and the cold water is in another and with two washtubs we all wash in. All of us! If you want to bathe, you have buy or bring diesel and the water from who knows where, and then you can bathe,” says the gunner Vitaly Putilin.

The result is that the regional administration sent the soldiers a bus half way from range in Nikolaev. It took the soldiers to the city for a meeting with the military prosecutor, in which all the draftees voiced their complaints.