A military reenactment group is playing a strangely important role for the Ukrainian army fighting in the east of the country. Led by a man named Maksym, the group, which used to meticulously recreate scenes from World War II and other historic conflicts, has rare expert knowledge of the decrepit Soviet equipment used by Ukrainian troops on the frontlines.
Maksym — who asked to be identified only by his first name because of privacy concerns — and his friends were among the protestors in Kiev's Maidan Square who helped oust former president Viktor Yanukovych. They later found a valuable niche in the fight against pro-Russian separatists when one of their comrades joined the Ukrainian army. When visiting their friend in the war zone for his birthday, they discovered the soldiers were lacking proper uniforms, body armor, milk, medicine, and mobile phones — the most basic stuff. Since then, they have visited the frontlines almost every weekend with supplies, driving their unprotected vans straight through enemy lines.
Maksym agreed to let VICE News accompany his crew on an expedition and discussed his unusual role in the conflict. He explained that more than 2,000 people in Kiev participate in military reenactments, and said his group specializes in weaponry and machines, helping "to make it all look very real."
"All the guys that join our expeditions have met each other at the reenactments," Maksym said. "They turned out to be the only mechanics in the Ukraine that knew how to repair the old material. Some of the artillery was made in 1942 and our guys knew exactly how to work that."
He pointed out that "there's a sense of irony" to the fact that the Ukrainian army is fighting the well-equipped pro-Russian separatists with old Soviet material. Over time, however, the repair work morphed into much-needed supply runs.
"These poor guys were fighting their ass off with crappy weapons and didn't even have anything to smoke," Maksym said. "So we went back the next weekend with cigarettes, clothing, medicine, and, of course, presents from Kiev's women who had all heard of our plan to go there."
It quickly became apparent that pretending to fight a war in a reenactment and driving through an actual conflict zone are two very different experiences. He called the reenactments "a necessary phase" of his life that and said they likely won't continue after the real war ends.
Photo by Alexander Nieuwenhuis
"During the reenactments you try to imagine how it must have been, but when you're in the middle of the war there's nothing to imagine, it's just there," Maksym said. "I still don't know what a war is. I think it's always different. Sometimes you're much more afraid than you should be, sometimes you're playing cards and 200 meters on the left a tank explodes. It's crazy."
Later, in a warehouse near Kiev, Maksym was the first to arrive to begin preparations for another trip to the front. Within 30 minutes, the place was filled with cars of citizens donating supplies. The atmosphere was tense. Women embraced their boyfriends. The goods were stacked in the cars and the guys put on camouflage clothing. The uniforms gave the endeavor a sense of security, but the most important tool for soldiers — guns — were lacking.
There was a lot of talk about the recent ceasefire announced by President Petro Poroshenko. During the last ceasefire, the pro-Russians never stopped firing and used the lull to bring in new weaponry. Maksym doesn't trust the détente this time.
"The ceasefire is on a political level and the journalists don't hear all the shots that are fired on the ground," he said.
"It's men's stuff. Planning missions, keeping the enemy out, killing them. It gives them energy."
Maksym's expeditions have become slightly better funded in recent weeks, with people donating money and materials as word of mouth has spread. Night goggles worth about €10,000 were delivered to Maksym recently, and the fuel costs of the expeditions are mostly covered by donations. None of the volunteers are paid.
Maksym showed me one of the cars that will be used for future expeditions, a big Soviet rig with a phone number written on the exterior.
"We will paint it white, like Putin's 'humanitarian' trucks," Maksym said. "We might even buy these red magnetic crosses to put on them when we enter the zone."
Informed that pretending to be Red Cross workers might be illegal, Maksym responded: "I don't care. We are transporting medicine you know, it's not like we use it to smuggle guns."
Photo by Alexander Nieuwenhuis
A look at the cars Maksym planned to use on the upcoming expedition showed that he takes serious risks. The cars were not protected, the guys were not armed, and the maximum speed of the slowest Soviet car looked to be about 55 miles per hour.
His plan was to drive the whole night and arrive at sunrise, spend four to five hours in the warzone, and then return to Kiev under the cover of darkness. "But it's best not to plan in these situations," he said.
His point was proven soon enough. Two hours into the trip, the group realized the old Soviet bus consumed one liter of diesel every three kilometers and couldn't go faster than 30 miles per hour. They decided not to take it into a war zone.
A man named Rodney, a veteran of the Ukrainian army who served on NATO missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, shared his opinion of Russian automobile craftsmanship.
"Russians don't know how to make shit," Rodney said. "Their cars are too small, they never work. Europeans at least know how to make a car for people."
The conversation shifted to the war in Iraq, and Rodney opined on the role culture plays in conflicts.
"Everybody thinks America lost the war in Iraq because of the Islamic State and all that," Rodney said. "But Iraq's youth wants to drink Coca-Cola and watch video clips. War is not about controlling the resources, but about having the people consume the products of the invader. That's the biggest asset, that's what the war is about. This is why the Russians will never win a war."
The Soviet bus was exchanged for a Range Rover and they drove straight through the night and arrived in the Donetsk region at dawn. Everybody "dresses up," as Maksym put it, donning body armor and helmets.
The ceasefire seemed be holding, but Maksym cautioned against picking up anything from the ground — it might explode, he said.
The music in the car switched to Prodigy's "Firestarter," Rage Against the Machine, and Ukrainian heavy metal. For these guys, entering the war zone has the feel of an American war movie. They seem to enjoy the excitement and tension that comes over them.
There were soldiers everywhere and we passed many checkpoints where the guys handed out packs of cigarettes and avoided difficult questions about the journalist that was traveling with them. After arriving at the meeting point, the harsh fighting was visible only in the debris. Destruction was everywhere but not even remote sounds of fighting were audible. The ceasefire seemed be holding, but Maksym cautioned against picking up anything from the ground — it might explode, he said.
They passed a gas station that had almost been entirely destroyed. Though hit by high-caliber mortars, the fuel tanks remained surprisingly undamaged. The volunteers were excited to describe where the mortars hit and the bullets were fired. The invisible remnants were the soldiers that likely died during the battle.
Igor and Vaslav, soldiers from the eleventh battalion, eventually arrived. They were both very energetic and seemingly happy to see Maksym and his boys. The volunteers stood around them and received the latest news.
Their positive energy felt awkward and unexpected coming from men involved in killing and at risk of getting killed.
"They like it, it makes them happy," Maksym said. "It's men's stuff. Planning missions, keeping the enemy out, killing them. It gives them energy."
Photo by Alexander Nieuwenhuis
It all made sense when we arrived at the camp. The crude ambiance of men with their guns hanging around was laid back but exciting at the same time. Women were nowhere to be seen. The soldiers all wore different uniforms because the government hadn't supplied them with anything. Some wore blue shirts with military prints, one guy just had on bright blue pants and sunglasses. Everybody had a gun, and the weapons were treated almost as extensions their bodies.
The lack of supplies was striking. Maksym's van was filled with coffee, milk, cigarettes, mobile phones, uniforms, body armor, and even water. If the Ukrainian government is unable to supply these basic necessities to their soldiers, the coming winter will be a difficult one.
After the goods were transferred, the soldiers expressed their gratitude in a rather touching way. They opened up their truck and shared shells, debris, looted Soviet lamps, and other war trophies with the volunteers. One guy even offered up a landmine to take home.
After the gifts were exchanged, Maksym's comrade Igor — the soldier on the frontlines whose birthday inspired the supply missions — spoke up.
"Everybody has only one question," he said "Where is Europe?"
At that exact moment, Europe was at the negotiating table with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Poroshenko, and President Obama in Wales. European tactics have relied on sanctions and soft power, but that hasn't prevented the deaths of thousands of soldiers and civilians.
"We started Maidan because we felt European," Igor said. "We fought, our young men died, and we got rid of a dictator who is funding the war we are currently fighting. When we won Kiev, we were very happy and put European flags all over the city. If Europe doesn't want us, no problem. But Europe has been worrying for a very long time and worrying alone is bullshit."
Asked why the government can't properly outfit his battalion, Igor said the situation is the result of Ukraine being "Russian-oriented" for 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union.
"We haven't fought any war since 1990 and now we discover the state our defense is in," Igor said. "Everything I'm wearing now, I've bought myself and this is the case for most of our boys. When I need ammunition or guns, I ask the army and they say it will be there in three months. But if I don't have ammunition I will be dead in three months, so I have to buy it."
Getting out of the camp went fast enough, but another car problem (the fourth of the expedition) left the group stranded in the warzone 12 miles before the last checkpoint. When the sun began to set and we were still waiting for the mechanic to come back with a spare part he thought he might have, some guys got nervous and the conversations became heated.
News arrived about violations of the ceasefire, and we realized that we were sitting ducks with no way to defend ourselves and nowhere to hide. Luckily, the mechanic arrived with the proper part. We drove away full speed with "Firestarter" on maximum volume in a race against the setting sun.