A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 12, 2024

From Kyiv To Cross Border Raids, Ukraine's HUR Special Forces Fight In Every Major Battle

Ukraine's elite, secretive HUR special forces have been fighting the Russians since 1992 and continue to do so. 

From Donbas to Kyiv to Azovstal, cross border raids, assasinations - and international missions against Russians in Syria, Afghanistan and Sudan - this small band have become Ukraine's 'first repsonders,' thwarting the Russians wherever and however they can. JL 

Marc MacKinnon reports in The Globe and Mail:

Ukraine’s HUR military intelligence service was born in 1992, shortly after Ukraine was reborn. The series of cross-border raids carried out by HUR have been a success. “We had very specific parameters for our tasks – to destroy certain objects, to deliver damage, to eliminate someone," in an apparent reference to a series of assassinations targeting Russian military commanders in Belgorod and the neighbouring Bryansk region. “One hundred per cent satisfaction comes when there are no casualties on our side.”

The Ukrainian military helicopter had been shot down about seven kilometres behind Russian lines, crashing in a field browned by winter, on the edge of a leafless forest. Those aboard were scattered dead and mortally wounded across the burning landscape of southern Ukraine weeks after the Russian invasion.

Trying to reach the casualties – the crew of the helicopter, plus fighters who had been rescued from the besieged port city of Mariupol before the craft was shot down on its return trip – would be something close to a suicide mission. The last person who should have taken the assignment was Nazar Borovytskyi.

The helicopter missions into Mariupol were seen as so risky that each team – usually a pilot, a mechanic and two special-forces fighters from Ukraine’s HUR military intelligence service – was only supposed to make the trip once. The soldiers joked among themselves that they were volunteering for seats on a one-way flight.

Nazar, 28, had already flown two such missions in the spring of 2022, escaping both times with a handful of injured fighters from a surrounded steel factory in a shattered city slowly falling under Russian control. Now one of the missions had gone awry, necessitating an even more dangerous rescue.

It was definitely not his turn, but when the commander asked for volunteers, Nazar asked to be sent back in.

In the framed photograph on the wall of the HUR headquarters, Nazar, muscular, with chiselled cheekbones and a dark blond beard, stands in the back row wearing a black T-shirt under his camouflage bulletproof vest.

The image, displayed outside the Kyiv office of Lieutenant-General Kyrylo Budanov, captures a group of Ukrainian soldiers in what was then one of the most dangerous places in the world – the Kabul airport in the summer of 2021. The soldiers were members of a specially assembled unit that flew multiple missions to rescue Ukrainian nationals, as well as one of The Globe and Mail’s translators and his family, from Kabul ahead of the anticipated Taliban takeover. An inscription in the corner reads “26.08.2021, Kabul, Afghanistan.”

In all, there were 32 operatives – 30 men and two women – on the ground in Kabul that day, plus the pilots and crew of the military cargo plane. All except the pilots were experienced HUR officers.

When the team landed in Kyiv after flying the third and final planeload of evacuees out of the country, they would be greeted by Gen. Budanov, as well as President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief of staff. Medals would follow.

The mission is remembered fondly by the team because it was short, the team accomplished what they needed to, and they came home to a hero’s welcome. In other words, it was everything the current war with Russia is not.

A few days after the rescue, I flew to Kyiv to assist the Afghans – and to thank the team of strangers who had carried out the mission.

An officer code-named Markus had been my point of contact throughout the rescue. I didn’t know him, but he had been co-ordinating from Kyiv as the Ukrainians ventured outside Kabul airport on Aug. 27, and escorted the families of Sharif Sharaf, The Globe’s long-time Afghan news assistant, and Jawed Haqmal, a translator who had worked with the Canadian military. Markus and I met for drinks along with Dima Logginov, a medic and communications specialist who had been on the ground in Kabul and had taken part in the mission.

Five months later, as Russia was amassing its forces ahead of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I ran into both Markus and Dima again separately as they helped prepare their country’s defences. I came to understand that the HUR special-forces team that had been deployed to Kabul in the summer of 2021 were indeed the country’s elite, and I became intent on covering their struggle to defend their country.

Markus eventually introduced me to Gen. Budanov, who agreed to give The Globe unprecedented access to his top fighters, a group brought together for the 2021 mission but usually serve in different, smaller units deployed on the hottest sections of the front line in Ukraine. I was taken to the secret base of the special-forces fighter code-named Shaman, and debated God and the rules of war with the leader of the most feared battalion fighting on the Ukrainian side of the war against Russia. I was given permission to meet one of the founders of a unit that had led the defence of Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv – and found him deeply worried about what comes next.

I spoke to Lieutenant-Colonel Iryna Andrukh, a military psychologist who played a very different role on the ground in Kabul – and who nearly became a casualty there.

Eventually, I met Maks, the commander of the team in Kabul, who today heads his own unit as it contends with a dwindling supply of ammunition on Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzhia front. I spent hours talking to Cesar, one of Gen. Budanov’s deputies, who played a lead role both in Kabul and in designing the overall strategy in the country’s war against Russia and who wonders whether the West has the stomach for what’s to come.

I also met with members of the Kabul Team who have been wounded, family members of one who has been killed, and heard whispers of discontent from inside the ranks about how they have been pushed to the limits – and beyond – over the 27-plus months since Russia invaded their country.

This is the story of their war.



11 min read

Ukraine’s HUR military intelligence service was born in 1992, shortly after independent Ukraine was itself reborn from the ashes of the Soviet Union. Ukraine’s early security and defence policies were often indistinguishable from Moscow’s, and soldiers and spies who had served the Soviet Union dominated Ukraine’s new security services.

All that changed in early 2014, when a popular revolution on the streets of Kyiv overthrew the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych. A furious Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered masked troops to seize the strategic Crimean Peninsula, in the south of Ukraine, which Mr. Putin annexed shortly afterward. Other Russian operatives appeared in Donbas, a largely Russian-speaking region in Ukraine’s southeast, stirring up a proxy war that would kill 14,000 people between its outbreak in 2014 and the start of the full-scale invasion.

At the beginning of the Donbas conflict, the country was unprepared to fight its giant neighbour, one many Ukrainians had a hard time even perceiving as an enemy. But attitudes quickly hardened. In 2016, then-president Petro Poroshenko unveiled an overhaul of HUR that included a new logo – an owl plunging a giant sword into a map of Russia. It surely wasn’t missed in Moscow that the mascot of Russia’s own military intelligence service was a bat, and owls are one of the few creatures that prey on bats.

The logo captured the spirit of a service that quickly became the backbone of the new fight for Ukraine’s full independence.

Nazar Borovytskyi always wanted to be a soldier. When he was in the fourth grade, he was bullied; he took up sports and started training “so that he could push back,” his mother, Lesya, recalled in September, 2023, when I visited the family home in Pashkivka, a tiny farming town in the Poltava region. Nazar grew up there after his parents and older sister Oksana were relocated from their former home on the edge of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster zone.

Sports and fitness became an obsession for Nazar. Oksana recalls her brother, while doing pull-ups on a bar their father had set up for him in the garden, asking her to throw a basketball at his stomach as hard as she could. He wanted it to hurt, to build up his tolerance for pain.

He had good grades, Lesya said, but when he graduated from high school he applied only to the academy of the country’s SBU security service. Before he had even graduated, Nazar responded to a call for volunteers, and found himself fighting in the proxy war.


It was on the battlefields of Donbas in 2016 that Nazar, then a member of a different special forces unit, first encountered the HUR team, when his unit was assigned to work with them. Nazar ended up fighting side-by-side with Ivan, a fighter from western Ukraine who was the same age and who had also bucked his parents’ wishes and joined the military.

The mission was a success, though the skirmish is likely to go unremembered in the long history of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Ivan and Nazar became fast friends and later that year Ivan helped recruit Nazar to a unit that would be sent to the United States for a three-month training course. Nazar’s friends dubbed him “Universal Soldier” after the 1992 Jean-Claude Van Damme movie about the half-man, half-cyborg perfect fighter. A hero who was supposed to be impossible to kill.

After the events of 2014 – as Russia faced sanctions for annexing Crimea – Mr. Putin’s Kremlin came to see itself in a struggle not just with Ukraine, but the entire West. Though Western governments wanted to avoid direct conflict with Russia, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency began looking for ways to covertly join the battle against its Cold War adversary.

In 2016, the CIA reached out to HUR with an offer to train top operatives in the United States; in exchange, the newly formed Unit 2245 would share what it learned on the battlefield – including any technology it captured – with the CIA so that it could better understand their shared adversary. The training covered everything from how to provide close protection to their country’s political leaders to more advanced types of spycraft.

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Lieutenant-General Kyrylo Budanov oversees Ukraine’s elite special forces.OLGA IVASHCHENKO/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Gen. Budanov was one of the initial Unit 2245 members – as was Maks, a 41-year-old with deep brown eyes and a square jaw, whom Gen. Budanov selected to lead the initial reconnaissance mission into Kabul in the summer of 2021. He was a natural choice, having served in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010 as a member of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. He had also fought as part of Unit 2245 in Donbas, preceding Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Maks had only a couple of days to prepare after Gen. Budanov asked him, on Aug. 13, 2021, to head a team tasked with evacuating hundreds of Ukrainian citizens living in Afghanistan.

The crack 10-member unit landed in Kabul for the first time on Aug. 15 to a scene of utter chaos: tens of thousands of desperate people trying to get into the tightly guarded airport.

The team also had a pair of side missions: to rescue a group of Ukrainian security contractors, as well as Fatema Hosseini, a freelance journalist who had worked for USA Today. Like other Afghan translators, she feared for her safety under renewed Taliban rule. The risks were even higher for Fatema, as a woman who had worked for Westerners and taken to dressing like them during the 20-year U.S. military presence in her country.

Fatema was put in contact with Col. Iryna Andrukh, a military psychologist and hostage negotiator who was added to the Kabul Team to deal with unforeseen circumstances that might require her skill set. Throughout the night of Aug. 19, 2021, they messaged back and forth.

“Last night I woke up several times having nightmares,” Fatema wrote. “I will die.”

“You will not die,” Iryna responded.

She told Fatema to get as close as she could to the East Gate of the airport, and then the HUR team would come out and get her.

After some tense moments as she pushed through the desperate crowds – and just after she had talked her way through a pair of Taliban checkpoints – Fatema received another, starker, text message from Iryna. Fatema now had to make her way instead to the North Gate of the facility. And the plane was leaving in 30 minutes. “Either you make it or you don’t.”

People were shouting, shoving, trampling. Someone shot a woman beside her. Fatema decided to return home and accept her fate.

Just then her phone rang. This time it was a male voice on the line. “Fatema, I bribed this Taliban to come out and take you. Where are you?”

At the assigned meeting point, Fatema shouted the name she had been given. “Ivan!” She could see safety – and a better life – just on the other side of the airport fence.

Ivan spotted her and sent Nazar into the crowd. He pulled her from peril and into the airport.

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A Taliban fighter threatens a woman waiting to get access to Kabul airport on Aug. 18, 2021.JIM HUYLEBROEK/THE NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

By the time they were on the plane back to Kyiv, Maks had seen enough of the situation in Kabul to realize when they returned to Afghanistan to rescue the rest of their citizens, they would need a much larger team.

The Kabul Team ran two more missions into Afghanistan, this time bulked up with an additional 22 members. Maks and his comrades from Unit 2245 provided the muscle, while the additional operatives were there to handle the unexpected, and to make sure they were putting the right people on the plane back to Kyiv. The new members of the team were led by one of Gen. Budanov’s deputies, a blue-eyed, silver-haired spy codenamed Cesar.

The group, Cesar told me later, was the “best of the best” from Ukraine’s military intelligence service. Like characters in some cinematic ensemble cast, each new member was added because of a specific skill that their commander believed might come in handy on the ground in Afghanistan. Some were added because they were the best fighters Ukraine had. Others were snipers or medics or communications specialists – or had an all-round skill set best summed up with the word “spy.”

“We sent those we were sure of,” was the typically curt answer Gen. Budanov gave me when I asked him later about the composition of the team.

Standing second from the left in the photo outside Gen. Budanov’s office is the man they call Shaman. Thirty years old, he can barely remember life without war. He’s been fighting against Russia for almost a decade now, since the day after he graduated university with a psychology degree.

Though he keeps his identity and the details of his background a closely guarded secret – he only agrees to be photographed with a balaclava on – he acknowledges that he’s from the battle-scarred Donbas region.

He describes the mission to Afghanistan and the assignment to help rescue civilians as a break from his day job of fighting the Russians. “For me, as a soldier who grew up on the steppes of Donbas to fly to Afghanistan – it wasn’t exactly a vacation, but it was a very interesting and challenging mission. So, I’m thankful to your colleagues that they got into trouble,” he told me with a laugh.

Russia has its feared airborne troops and its notorious Wagner mercenaries. In Ukraine, there are few units more legendary than the Shaman Battalion, a subunit of HUR founded by the burly, bearded fighter with piercing blue eyes who speaks of killing Russians with the passion of an artist mixed with the dark humour of a survivor.

“Welcome to the last pirate ship,” he told me last September, when we finally met in person at the unit’s secret base in an abandoned hotel near Kyiv. We sat in what was once the laundry room, with assault rifles, ammunition, uniforms and a half-empty whiskey bottle piled atop ancient washing machines.

Asked why he had been selected for the mission in Kabul, Shaman shrugged and drew on the cigarillo smouldering in his left hand.

“I wasn’t assigned to this team, I was invited,” he said with a smile. “It was a team of people who had no fear and were willing to go wherever it was required.”

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Shaman leads one of the most famous units fighting in Ukraine and behind Russian lines.ANTON SKYBA/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Standing near the back of the photo, with his sunglasses resting atop his ballcap, is Den, another of Ukraine’s most accomplished fighters. Before the start of the proxy war in 2014, he was a 35-year-old engineer working in the city of Donetsk for the firm that had built the city’s state-of-the-art new airport.

By the end of the year, Den’s young family had fled to Kyiv, and Den was fighting on the Ukrainian side of an epic battle that left Donetsk’s airport a smouldering ruin.

Also in the photo is Ivan, who would later walk away from Unit 2245, refusing to serve any longer as part of a group he said had been treated as a “suicide squad” during the Russia-Ukraine war. He asked that I use the generic “Ivan” – rather than his actual code name – so that even his former colleagues wouldn’t be able to identify him.

When it became clear in August, 2021, that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would endanger anyone who had collaborated with Westerners, I began making phone calls to try to get Sharif Sharaf and Mukhtar Amiri, two translators who had worked for The Globe and Mail, out of the country.

Over the frantic next few days and nights we tried Canadian rescue plans, U.S. rescue plans, Qatari rescue plans – but with chaos spreading in the city, it proved to be impossible for the two large families to reach the airport gates. Sharif and Mukhtar, it seemed, were trapped.

Then a source in Kyiv gave me a tip that there was also a Ukrainian plane on the ground in Kabul. And they were willing to help.

On Aug. 26, I was given Markus’s number. I called him on WhatsApp, expecting to speak to someone jazzed up for a mission. Instead, the man who answered sounded like he’d been awakened from a sound sleep. But he was confident. “We are coming,” he said nonchalantly, though it would take another 24 hours for the rescue to unfold.

During the anxious wait, I had yet another request for this man I’d never met: one of the two Globe translators had decided at the last minute to remain in Afghanistan with his ailing grandmother. Could the team collect Jawed Haqmal, a friend of Sharif’s who had served as a translator for the Canadian military, and his family instead? Markus – to my shock – told me to just send the new names so he could add them to Ukraine’s evacuation list. “It is a humanitarian mission,” he explained.

It was a very different response from what I had received from the Canadian military. Though the Canadians had been willing to fly out Sharif and Mukhtar, the Afghans and their families first had to get through the crowd of tens of thousands of people thronging the gates of the Kabul airport.

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British and Canadian soldiers help an Afghan climb up on a wall near Kabul airport on Aug. 22, 2021.WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The U.S. Army set similar parameters. NATO troops weren’t going to take additional risks to rescue those who had worked with them, let alone the former employees of a Canadian newspaper.

The directive to rescue Sharif and Mukhtar had come to HUR via Mr. Zelensky’s office. Mr. Zelensky and his staff saw helping journalists from media organizations such as The Globe and Mail and USA Today as a way of thanking their Western allies – and perhaps as a means to draw the country a step closer to NATO membership.

For Markus, it was just a mission. When we finally met several days later to celebrate the rescue over beer and sausages at a bar in Kyiv, he told me that he was a senior HUR officer. He had been in Kyiv, not Kabul, that night, helping run the rescue operation from afar. He was so senior, he implied, that I could probably figure out who he was if I searched in the right places. So far, I haven’t. (My greatest success has been to learn his first name – and it isn’t Markus.)

Four months later, as the days ticked down to what already felt like an inevitable invasion, our paths crossed again in the eastern city of Kharkiv, just 40 kilometres from the Russian border. The mood was sombre. Markus by then was predicting a full-scale invasion in which Russia’s much larger military would seize swaths of Ukraine. He was there to help prepare the resistance.



18 min read
Chapter 2

At that first meeting in Kyiv, Markus and I were joined by Dima Logginov, one of the few members of the HUR unit to have anything like a public profile. In the Kabul Team photo he’s in the second row, a little bit to the left of the flag. While most of the others are almost expressionless, Dima is smiling broadly.

His father, Taras, was one of the founders of the Ukrainian Red Cross Society. Dima had volunteered there before going into advertising and becoming CEO of his own company. In between, he had served as an organizer in 2004 for future president Viktor Yushchenko during the first of Ukraine’s two revolutions this century against Kremlin domination.

Like many Ukrainians of his generation, Dima’s career path was forever altered by the 2014 start of the war in Donbas. He first went to the front line as a medical volunteer, drawing on the skills he had acquired with the Red Cross. Then he began giving combat medicine courses to some of the tens of thousands of Ukrainians who suddenly became soldiers. Eventually he was drawn into HUR, though it was often hard to tell exactly what Dima’s role was.

On Feb. 17, 2022, a week before the wider Russian invasion began, I flew aboard a Ukrainian military helicopter to Stanytsia Luhanska. The eastern town was on the front line of the proxy war between the Ukrainian army and Kremlin-backed separatists who had held large parts of the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk since 2014.

We went to see a kindergarten that had been hit by artillery fire. As our small group of journalists strode through the largely deserted town, occasionally cringing at the sound of more shelling somewhere in the distance, I saw Dima.

His youthful face was framed as always by a black beard. He was at the side of Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, who was also touring the area.

Dima shook my hand and walked with me closer to the front line, but when I asked him what he was doing there, he replied only: “Working.”

Today, the town is deep in Russian-occupied territory, the fate of the civilians we met that day unknown.

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A woman surveys the damage to a kindergarten classroom in Stanytsia Luhanska on Feb. 17, 2022.ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

In the months to come, I would often see Dima in the background of key events in the war for his country, frequently standing close to Mr. Zelensky.

By February, 2022, HUR leadership was confident a wider invasion was about to begin, even if Mr. Zelensky was still telling the rest of the country that war was unlikely. “It was irreversible,” Cesar said later, referring to the scale of the Russian troop deployments around Ukraine.

Older members of the Kabul Team – those with spouses and children – moved their families to safer parts of Europe. That way they could focus on the fight without worrying about what was happening back home.

Nazar called his father, Bohdan, two weeks before the start of the invasion and said a war was “99.9 per cent” certain to happen. Bohdan stayed in his hometown of Pashkivka. Like many Ukrainians, he had by then heard many warnings of a looming war, but didn’t quite believe them.

Nazar called his father again just before 4 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 24, 2022, 20 minutes before the opening salvo of Russian missiles struck Ukraine. “He told me I should drive the women and children out to safety and then make my own decision about what I should do,” Bohdan said. “He didn’t want to worry about the family. He just wanted to fight.”

As Nazar was warning his family, HUR’s top operatives, including Markus, Dima and several other Kabul Team members, were being summoned to the organization’s base on the edge of Kyiv.

Gen. Budanov briefed them that the worst-case scenario was unfolding. The Russians had expanded their assault on Donbas, and were also pushing toward Kharkiv and had entered the southern city of Kherson. But the primary thrust was coming from the north, through Belarus. They were headed straight for the capital.

Dima and a team were assigned to take shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to the northern edges of the city and help assemble the defences there.


The other members of the Kabul Team were scattered. “We divided into small groups all along the front line so that we could exchange very fast information,” Cesar explained later.

“Budanov told us to prevent the capture of the capital, because if the capital of Ukraine is captured, the war would be done,” he said. As members of HUR, they knew their fate if the Russians took Kyiv. “We all understood that if we were captured or surrounded, we had zero chance to stay alive.”

A day before the Russian invasion began, Shaman assembled a group of 12 of the toughest fighters he knew, and handed out patches with a stylized white skull on a black background. Without any grander ceremony, the Shaman Battalion had been formed.

They took up their weapons and headed toward Hostomel, a military airport on the outskirts of Kyiv that intelligence gathered by HUR – which Gen. Budanov had shown to Mr. Zelensky hours before – suggested would be the prime Russian target in the hours ahead. The Russian plan, HUR had learned via a double agent, was to seize the airport and use it to land tanks and troops on the edge of Kyiv for a quick thrust to the capital.

In the darkness before dawn on Feb. 24, Shaman and his men saw the intelligence was correct. A row of Russian helicopters was making its way toward the airfield.

Maks and his own newly formed unit – the Kabul Nine, proudly named after the 2021 mission, though it was not entirely made up of original team members – had woken up that morning at their base outside Kyiv with the same orders: get to Hostomel as quickly as possible.

We all understood that if we were captured or surrounded, we had zero chance to stay alive.”

Though HUR had anticipated the invasion, what was happening nonetheless made little sense to Maks. The number of Russian troops stationed in Belarus wasn’t enough to seize the Ukrainian capital.

And yet there they were on the horizon: a line of 30 to 40 Russian helicopters, approaching with almost no support – as though they expected the Ukrainians to let them land. The incredulous HUR fighters opened fire.

“It really was a ‘special military operation’ – to frighten us, seize Kyiv and finish this,” Maks said, using the Kremlin’s terminology for a conflict Mr. Putin insisted, until this spring, was not a full-out war. “They made a lot of mistakes because they did not expect resistance at all.”

Ukraine’s military, Mr. Putin had assumed, would collapse in the face of his army’s vastly superior firepower. Its people might protest initially, but the majority would eventually accept the return of rule from Moscow as though their 30-plus years of independence had been just a blip.

Western governments broadly shared the Russian President’s assessment of how the war was likely to go. It would be over in a matter of days, if not weeks. Canada, the U.S. and most NATO countries saw the same intelligence that Gen. Budanov did, and withdrew their embassies and staff.

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Ukrainian servicemen at a military airbase in the Kyiv region, late February, 2022.MAKSIM LEVIN/REUTERS

The only people who didn’t panic were the Ukrainians doing the fighting. But even they didn’t expect the Russian assault on Kyiv to founder as spectacularly as it did.

“It was unbelievable,” Cesar later told me. The bumbling Russian tactics and ferocious Ukrainian resistance in Hostomel and elsewhere had given life to the belief that Ukraine could resist Russia, one that spread to Western governments, which began supplying Kyiv with more advanced weaponry.

“I thought that we could fight only from seven to 10 days,” Cesar said. “I think it’s a lack of normal command officers in the Russian army that made the conditions that allowed us to fight them very effectively.”

Ivan and the bulk of Unit 2245 woke up on the first day of the larger invasion in the city of Kramatorsk, which since 2014 had served as the administrative and military capital of the Ukrainian-controlled part of Donbas. Though the region was already well used to war, it was apparent – as a trio of missiles slammed into Kramatorsk just before dawn – that this was now a different type of conflict.

After withstanding the initial barrage, Unit 2245 were given orders to head 150 kilometres straight north, to the city of Kupyansk in the Kharkiv region. “We were like first responders,” Ivan said. “We were in the most dangerous direction in which the Russians were supposed to be deployed.”

The mission was to slow the Russians down any way they could, to blow up bridges, lay land mines and conduct hit-and-run strikes on the advancing columns.

Soon, Ivan and his team were creeping up on 15 Russian armoured vehicles heading toward Kharkiv. They struck the first two vehicles with rocket-propelled grenades, damaging them enough to force them to stop. Then they called in a larger Ukrainian unit, which obliterated the Russian column with artillery.

In Kharkiv, another new battalion was forming, this one a volunteer force brought together by two things – a fierce love of the city’s Metalist Kharkiv soccer team and a hatred for their Russian neighbours. The Kraken Battalion, as it would be named, was a HUR operation from the start, founded by a pair of agents including Kabul Team veteran Den, whose gently greying hair was offset by a dark beard.

The 600 lightly armed volunteers headed to the Saltivka neighbourhood on the northern outskirts of the city. The area was being held by the 92nd Brigade of the regular Ukrainian army but the defenders were on the verge of being overwhelmed until the Kraken arrived and helped stop the Russians from driving into the city centre.

As with the battle unfolding in Kyiv, the HUR operatives were mystified by the Russians’ tactics as they advanced. Their tanks drove toward the central square along main roads, rather than seeking to surround the city and choke off supply lines.

Russian special forces drove carelessly into central Kharkiv in a line of armoured personnel carriers, seemingly with the mission of raising the Russian flag over the city. They were stopped five kilometres from the main Freedom Square and instead took over the city’s yellow-walled School No. 134 to use as a temporary base. They were quickly surrounded by Ukrainian forces, including the Kraken Battalion.

The Russian fighters put up a fierce defence with heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades over the course of a seven-hour battle. Eventually, however, the school was set ablaze. Some of Russia’s best fighters died inside the burning building.

“We asked them to surrender, and they said no,” Den told me later.

Den agreed that the Russians genuinely hadn’t expected any resistance. They believed their government’s propaganda about how Russian-speaking Ukrainians were hoping for liberation from the supposedly “neo-Nazi” government in Kyiv. “When we took prisoners, they actually believed that everybody in Ukraine was waiting for Russia to arrive.”

”How go things?” I texted Markus on the evening of Feb. 24, 16 hours after the invasion had begun.

He replied to my text within minutes. “Quite bad in some regions, quite good in others,” he typed. “We are waiting for big bombing of Kyiv this night. Other cities are very possible as well.”

“Safer to be in a car or the hotel tonight?” I asked, wondering how long it would be possible to remain in Kyiv as Russian forces approached the capital.

“In bunker,” he replied. “Or move to the outskirts.”

I did the latter, moving with some colleagues into a country home in the Kyiv region. Those defending their capital city, of course, did not have such options.

“Hope you’re safe,” I messaged Markus the next day. “Alive,” he replied, adding a reassuring happy face at the end of his one-word note.

We would have similar exchanges throughout the next two-plus years of war.

As the Russians advanced on Kyiv, Cesar and Markus were sent to Brovary, a bedroom community on the eastern edge of the capital, to prepare defences against the 60-kilometre-long column of Russian military equipment that was snaking its way through the country.

On March 10, a video emerged online showing a long line of Russian tanks, armoured personnel carriers and at least one mobile thermobaric rocket launcher system driving down the main highway to Kyiv, through the town of Skybyn, the last settlement before the Russians would reach Brovary.

The video shows the first tank being struck, seemingly at close range, by an anti-tank weapon, and the rest of the column – at least three dozen vehicles – making a panicked decision to reverse course. Chaos erupts as Ukrainian fire strikes another tank, this time one of those at the back. The rest of the tanks retreat at top speed, leaving two burning vehicles and their crews behind.

“Skybyn!” I wrote to Markus when I saw the video. “That your guys?”

“Yes,” he replied, adding another of his smiley faces. “Nothing special. Just logic.”

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A destroyed tank near Brovary in March, 2022.FELIPE DANA/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Three decades on from the Russian army’s humiliating defeat in the First Chechen War – which turned on a Chechen ambush, striking the first and last in a Russian column of tanks that entered the capital city of Grozny on New Year’s Eve in 1994 – Moscow’s troops were using the same smug tactics in the Battle of Kyiv.

Two days after the hit-and-run battle at Kupyansk, Ivan and the main 2245 team were ordered to head west and join the battle for Kyiv.

Nazar was already in the Kyiv region, working to arm and train the Territorial Defence Forces, the units of volunteer fighters that would prove crucial to stalling the Russian advance on Kyiv and Kharkiv. The TDF became the stuff of legend, with local volunteers – who were lightly armed, but defending their hometowns and villages – firing at the Russians from every window and alley.

While raising the TDF was a successful military strategy, Shaman believes that it also led to some of the greatest tragedies of the war, as the Russians came to see every Ukrainian civilian as a potential enemy fighter.

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Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces members train in Kyiv in late February, 2022.GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS

After linking up with Nazar’s team, Unit 2245 pushed north, taking bites out of the advancing Russian columns in the commuter cities north of Kyiv – places like Bucha and Irpin – that would become synonymous with the horrors of this war.

By the end of March, the Russians had realized they were in a real fight and abandoned the parade-style tactics that had imperilled their initial invasion. And the Ukrainians began taking casualties.

In an early clash near a gas station on the eastern outskirts of Bucha, two snipers from Ivan’s squad were killed by Russian fire. The rest of the team was running dangerously low on ammunition, forcing them to pull back to Kyiv with their wounded. On their route back, they encountered a local resident who took them to a basement where 10 injured civilians were sheltering from the crossfire.

With their two military jeeps piled high with their own casualties, Ivan’s team only had enough space to take the three most severely injured civilians with them. Ivan realized as they drove away that they were likely leaving the rest behind to die.

As members of the Kabul Team entered the scorched streets of Bucha after the sudden Russian withdrawal on March 31, they encountered a scene that haunts many of them still.

The roads were filled with charred vehicles and bloated corpses. The basements where Russian security forces had carried out their interrogations and executions were somehow even worse. Many of the more than 450 Bucha residents who were killed during Russia’s month-long occupation of the city – once considered one of the most desirable places to live in Ukraine – were found dead with their hands tied behind their backs, killed by a single bullet to the head.

“The reaction of Russians in Hostomel and Bucha was dictated by their fear. It was the reaction of a cornered rat, who had no control or any power. It was just chaos and they were delivering maximum damage,” Shaman told me. “They were just killing everyone around.”

There was no explanation at all for some attacks. In nearby Borodyanka, the Russian air force dropped bombs on ordinary apartment blocks, entombing everyone inside as the buildings collapsed on top of residents who had huddled together in the basements for safety.

Maks said seeing what the Russians had done in Bucha and Borodyanka was “a mental turning point,” for those who were there. “Everybody was mad,” he told me. “It was something you couldn’t believe could happen in the 21st century in the centre of Europe, that civilians could be massacred for nothing.”

It was then that he and his men realized they were in a war that would not, could not, end any time soon. “You cannot negotiate with barbarians.”

Gen. Budanov said that while his men had “already seen a lot in their lives,” the scenes in Bucha and Borodyanka affected everyone who saw them. “It is clear that inhumane treatment of civilians cannot be accepted normally.”

Nazar’s family said something inside him snapped after Bucha.

“His commander told me that unfortunately Nazar lost his fear,” his sister Oksana told me. “After he saw what had been done in the Kyiv region, he started taking crazy missions that no one else was willing to do.”

Bucha after liberation in early April, 2022.FELIPE DANA/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Borodyanka after liberation in early April, 2022. HUR fighters remain haunted by what they saw after the Russian withdrawal.VADIM GHIRDA/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Days after the liberation of Bucha at the start of April, 2022, my request to interview Gen. Budanov about the defence of Kyiv was granted. I was told to wait on a street corner in Kyiv’s historic Podil neighbourhood one Tuesday morning and, at precisely the appointed time, a black SUV pulled up. Markus and Cesar were inside.

“Nice to see you again,” Markus said as we drove through the deserted streets of the Ukrainian capital, which most residents had fled during the first weeks of the war.

At the riverside HUR headquarters, a compound known locally as The Island, a small concrete sub-building inside the base had been struck by a Russian missile days before.

Outside Gen. Budanov’s office, I could see bare wires dangling from the ceiling, where several panels had been dislodged by the force of the blast.

Cesar, who was in the main building when the adjacent structure was hit, recalled how it seemed as if all the dust in the room was sucked into the air for an instant, just before a blast wave struck, knocking everyone down. “Then Budanov walked in and just said, ‘Calm down guys, everything is fine.’ "

As I waited to go in to meet Gen. Budanov – to thank him for what his team had done in Kabul, and interview him about the recently won Battle of Kyiv – I asked Markus whether everyone in the photo hanging outside his boss’s office was still alive. “Unfortunately not,” he replied.

Every time Ivan goes out on a mission that he’s worried he won’t come back from, he writes a letter to his family saying farewell. He buries it deep in his uniform, hoping it will be found and delivered to his wife and baby whenever his body is recovered.

He wrote one of those letters in early April, 2022, when he learned that he, Nazar, and other members of Unit 2245 would be heading by helicopter into besieged Mariupol. The port city was surrounded by Russian forces and the team’s objective was to drop off supplies and fly out some of the wounded fighters holed up inside the sprawling Azovstal steel mill, the last Ukrainian-held position.

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Smoke billows from the Azovstal steel plant, a structure that sheltered wounded Ukrainian fighters in April, 2022.ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO/REUTERS

The missions were so time-sensitive that each one – two helicopters at a time – was only supposed to be on the ground in Mariupol for 10 minutes.

Ivan, like the other members of Unit 2245, doesn’t scare easily. But there was something uniquely unsettling about skimming low over enemy lines at night in a helicopter. “You understand that nothing depends on you. Unlike when you’re on the ground, where you know yourself, you know your people and you know your skills, and that you can shoot people before they shoot you. In the sky, you’re just scared.”

Ivan and his team of four were on the first mission, which successfully reached the Azovstal factory after a 40-minute flight, the final 20 minutes of which was over occupied territory. The team dropped off ammunition, medicine and food, and loaded the eight most seriously wounded fighters onto their helicopter on stretchers. Then they made the terrifying flight back to Ukrainian-controlled territory.

Nazar was on the third mission several days later, a flight that dropped off volunteer fighters willing to join the defence of Azovstal, in addition to more supplies.

And then, when everyone in Unit 2245 had flown one mission, Maks – who was commanding the rescue effort – asked who was willing to fly an extra one. Despite the risks, and it not being his turn, Nazar volunteered to go again.

He made it there and back a second time. But after one of the Ukrainian Mi-8 helicopters was shot out of the air on the next mission, Nazar demanded to be part of the April 5 effort to rescue his downed comrades.

As Nazar and his team approached the crash site they were greeted by a horrifying scene. Mangled and charred bodies were scattered amid smashed pieces of helicopter.

The situation was desperate, and dangerous. Nazar’s team was flying into a trap. As they approached the wreckage of the downed helicopter, their helicopter was shot out of the sky, crashing a few hundred metres from the first one.

Video of the attack, presumably taken by Russian soldiers who arrived on the scene, was posted to the messaging app Telegram by a Russian military blogger. It was filmed so quickly after the second helicopter was shot down that the pant leg of one of the dead Ukrainian soldiers is still on fire.

A Ukrainian survivor, despite serious injuries, made his way to a nearby village where pro-Russian collaborators handed him over to the occupying forces.

“Under interrogation … he named names – officer Nazar Borovytskyi commanded the group,” states a news report from the Kremlin-run RIA Novosti. Nothing else was said about Nazar’s fate.

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At the Borovytskyi family home, photos of Nazar share wall space with his military medals.ANTON SKYBA/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Maks knew he had been asking a lot of his men with the helicopter missions in and out of Mariupol. He heard the jokes about the one-way tickets. But he, like Gen. Budanov, believed the mission was worthy and necessary. The defenders of Azovstal needed to know they were not alone.

“I talked later to the commander of Azovstal, and he told me the deliveries of food and medicine and ammunition really raised their morale,” Maks said as we walked along the bank of the Dnipro River in March of this year. He told me that he had grown up idolizing his grandfather, an officer in the Soviet army, and always wanted to be in the military. He had joined when he left high school in 1996.

But the responsibilities of command clearly weigh on him. Not only did Nazar – a friend and colleague since 2016, when they were both recruited to Unit 2245 – keep volunteering to fly rescue missions, Maks said Nazar had asked on his second trip to be left behind in Azovstal so he could join the fight.

“I said no and he was angry. He took it personally, but I told him the order was to go to Mariupol and come back because I need you here.”

Maks has played that moment over in his head again and again, especially as some of the Azovstal defenders were later captured and traded back to Ukraine as part of a prisoner swap. “I sometimes think that maybe if I had let him stay, maybe his life would be different. He really wanted to go into the centre of hell and fight – with almost no chance that he would come back.”



8 min read
Chapter 3

By the time the larger, 32-member Ukrainian team was ready to fly back to Kabul on Aug. 21, 2021, the situation had deteriorated dramatically.

The Taliban had taken over most of the city outside the airport and was erecting checkpoints to control who could and couldn’t leave. There was panic even among those lucky enough to enter the facility – one video captured several Afghans clinging to, and then falling off, a U.S. cargo plane as it took off.

Colonel Yevhen Shkurat had flown some risky missions in his two decades at the helm of Ilyushin-76 military cargo planes. But nothing quite prepared him for having to navigate his giant aircraft with its 50-metre wingspan through the mountains that surround the Afghan capital, while instructing his crew to keep an eye out for Taliban or Islamic State fighters who might try to shoot the plane down.

The square-faced 45-year-old had been nervous after receiving his assignment, but quietly stoked. He assembled a cockpit team that he knew he could trust with his life and the lives of everyone on board. “Whenever I watched adventure movies about pilots doing crazy things, I thought: ‘This destiny will pass me by, I will never do such things.’ I was wrong.”

Flying through the mountains, Col. Shkurat could only make radio contact with the ground when he could physically see the airport. Though there was no sign of a threat as the plane banked toward Kabul, Col. Shkurat decided to fire off flares – designed to draw away any missiles that might be homing in on the aircraft – anyway. He would do the same every time he flew the Ilyushin in or out of the Afghan capital over the days to come.

“I will never forget Kabul airport,” Col. Shkurat said. “We couldn’t know if there was a plane above us, or whether someone was manoeuvring around us. We had no information.”

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Col. Yevhen Shkurat, seen here in his home city of Vinnytsia, piloted the Ilyushin military cargo plane that carried out the Kabul rescue mission.ANTON SKYBA/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Among the expanded Ukrainian team, Lera, a 29-year-old combat medic, was one of the few who had been to Afghanistan before, having served, like Maks, in the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan. As one of two women on the team, she would play a key role dealing with the hundreds of women and children the Ukrainians would evacuate.

“Each of us, we had our own specialization. But we fulfilled everything as a team. We’re very multifunctional, I think, all of us,” she said.

Dima had the dual roles of combat medic and communications specialist. Part of his mission was to record every moment and to make sure Ukrainians – and their NATO friends but not-quite-allies – knew about HUR’s rescue effort.

Iryna, the military psychologist and hostage negotiator, was the one who took the Kabul Team photo with the camera on her iPhone.

She said later that she had found it ironic to be on a mission with the types of battle-scarred fighters she might otherwise be diagnosing and counselling. Some of the men, Iryna said, had been skeptical of her last-minute addition.

“I don’t shoot well. I don’t lift anything heavy if I don’t have to. I’m a different type of officer,” she said with a laugh. “Maybe for a hangout or some drinks, Budanov would not have invited all of us together. But for the mission it was the perfect team.”


For Westerners, leaving the relative security of the airport was never without risk. In my communications with Canadian troops on the ground in Kabul in the summer of 2021, it was clear that for them, the idea of heading out into the Taliban-controlled city to rescue the Canada-bound Afghans who couldn’t reach the airport was considered semi-suicidal.

The Ukrainians admit now that they had been perhaps too nonchalant about the threats around them, seeing the whole mission as something of a break from the war in Donbas. That changed after one of their first excursions outside the perimeter when Iryna – who had defiantly refused to adapt to conservative local customs and went on the mission wearing sunglasses, jeans, pink sneakers and a T-shirt reading “Aloha!” – suddenly disappeared into the dense crowds while the rest of the team was looking for the minibuses full of Afghans that they were supposed to find and escort into the airport.

“We went to the city, we saw the buses, but some people were around them and the Taliban was around as well. And they started shooting. And some people just picked me up and pulled me into the crowd,” Iryna recalled, shuddering at the memory almost three years later. “Some strong Afghan men were trying to tear me apart.”

Iryna had gone into the city along with some of Ukraine’s fiercest fighters – including Cesar, Nazar and Shaman – which is why she briefly let her guard down. Her comrades quickly validated her trust by wading into the fray to retrieve her. “If not for our special forces. I would have stayed there and I would have died there.”

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Iryna Andrukh, military psychologist, in Washington D.C., 2024.KENT NISHIMURA/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

By Aug. 26, the team had made repeated forays into Kabul over four days – sometimes on foot, sometimes using a pair of Afghan police trucks they had commandeered – and most of the Ukrainian citizens they had come to collect were onboard and ready for departure.

But a few problems remained. First, the mission wasn’t complete; there were still some people on their list that they hadn’t been able to locate. Second, with about 200 evacuees, the Ilyushin was too heavy to take off with the HUR team and all their gear onboard. And thirdly, an Islamic State suicide bomber had attacked amid the panicked crowd outside the airport earlier that day, killing 183 people, including 13 American soldiers.

Maks made the call to keep the team – except Iryna, who would fly out with the first group – on the ground for the night so the evacuees could be airlifted out to Islamabad, the capital of neighbouring Pakistan. They gathered for a quick photo, to capture the moment, just before their plane lifted off, leaving the other 31 behind.

Spooked by the suicide attack – and making plans for their final departure – U.S. and NATO forces established a tight perimeter inside the airport. The last Canadian military plane had left several hours earlier.

The Kabul Team, meanwhile, set up in a small fire station inside the airport and made it their headquarters for the night, taking up shooting positions in case the outer wall of the airport was breached. The U.S. troops watched what was happening from their perimeter with incredulity. They asked the Ukrainians why they hadn’t left Kabul when their plane did.

“The Americans were like, ‘Are you crazy?’” Lera recalled, laughing at the memory. “We were joking that if the plane did not come back, we would have to go to the Turkmenistan border by ourselves.”

“I wasn’t worried,” Maks said. “I was surrounded by my best operatives. Whatever would happen would happen, but we were together and we were prepared.”

The first 200 evacuees were dropped off at Islamabad International Airport, with Iryna left to try to sort out logistics such as food, water and bathrooms. She would also need to find commercial planes to take them all to Kyiv. The Ilyushin was needed back in Kabul as soon as possible to collect the stranded HUR team and a planeload of Ukraine-bound Afghans.

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A flashing red light illuminates the open rear cargo area of a Ukrainian aircraft as it prepares to take off from Kabul with Afghan refugees aboard.UKRAINIAN ARMED FORCES

Iryna resorted to tactics akin to those she might use as a hostage negotiator. Still dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, she approached the ground staff.

“I said ‘Hi guys, my name is Iryna, and we are going to use the bushes as a restroom unless you let us into the terminal.’ " The Pakistani ground staff, mortified at the idea of conservative Afghan women and men relieving themselves in public, relented.

Col. Shkurat and his empty plane were soon on their way back to Kabul.

The next day, the Ukrainians again ventured outside of the walled airport. This time it was to collect the Afghan interpreters and their families whom The Globe and Mail had asked for help rescuing.

A video, captured by a camera attached to Cesar’s bulletproof vest, shows members of the Kabul Team firing in the air – sometimes just over the heads of the crowd of civilians outside the airport – as they jog toward two minibuses that had been allowed to approach the airport, one carrying Sharif and Jawed and their families, the other full of United Nations staff. “We need these two buses on the right side,” Cesar said in English.

‘Get back! Get back!’ Ukrainian soldiers direct the crowd in Kabul on Aug. 27 to get evacuees to safety.


Pointing to the crowds of desperate Afghans, he directs three of his men to clear a path. Taking the lead in his black T-shirt is Nazar.

Some in the crowd are desperate enough that they risk creeping forward every time Cesar stops shooting. Each time they do, he fires another burst. “Move! Move to the side!” he yells as the buses start to advance. Just then, someone shouts that there’s a suicide bomber in the crowd.

“Something’s fucked up!” Cesar yells to his team and the Ukrainians sprint for cover behind a nearby garbage container.

Amid the chaos, the Taliban begin firing in the air as the Ukrainians look on, trying to assess the situation. Eventually, the team resumes their escort of the two minibuses.

Despite the drama of the scene, the Ukrainians later described the mission as light work. Shaman told me that he didn’t even bring his assault rifle with him, only a pistol.

“We did it because we could,” he shrugged.

When the Ilyushin landed in Kyiv after its final flight, the team was met on the tarmac by Mr. Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, who awarded each of them a medal for their service. Col. Shkurat, who had already earned the Medal of Bravery, was given a pistol by Gen. Budanov as a gesture of thanks.

At a separate ceremony later, Mr. Zelensky presented Nazar Borovytskyi with the Order of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Ukraine’s highest military honour. In a photograph of the moment, the square-jawed fighter with the shaved head towers over the President.

The photo, shot inside the presidential palace in Kyiv, now looks like it was taken in a different era. One in which the windows were adorned with graceful purple curtains rather than white sandbags. A time when Mr. Zelensky shaved every day and wore black business suits, rather than the stubble and military green khakis he has sported since Feb. 24, 2022.

Three years later – with Sharif and his family safely living in Canada and Jawed and his family in Germany – members of the Kabul Team can recall the mission with startling clarity.

“To be honest, from the start until the end it felt as though I was acting in some movie,” Col. Shkurat, the pilot, tells me over lunch near his base in the western Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia.

Cesar uses similar language. “It was the greatest adventure of our lives,” he said with a grin.



10 min read
Chapter 4

Ukraine’s victory in the Battle of Kyiv – forcing the Russians to withdraw from the outskirts of the capital on March 31, 2022 – likely saved the country as an independent state.

In the aftermath of the Russian retreat from the capital, Mr. Putin seemed to downsize his aim from destroying Ukraine to grabbing as much of its territory as possible.

Kharkiv became the new focal point. While Russian troops had failed in their plan to quickly seize the eastern city, they were still on its outskirts, pummelling it with artillery.

A key Russian firing position was Ruska Lozova, a village 10 kilometres northwest of Kharkiv that had been under occupation since the start of the war. Gen. Budanov decided to storm it, removing the threat it posed to the 1.5 million Kharkiv residents whose homes were within firing range.

In a remarkable move, Kraken members say HUR commander Gen. Budanov travelled from Kyiv to personally join the late April assault.

“He’s not the kind of commander that stands only in our command centre. He puts on the vest and helmet and goes with the guys to fight into the battles,” said Cesar, who also took part in the fight to retake Ruska Lozova. “First of all, I think he likes it. Also, I sometimes think he doesn’t know any fear.”

The first attempt to storm the village had to be called off after the Ukrainians discovered the road they had been planning to use for the attack was carpeted with land mines. On the second attempt, Gen. Budanov and his men approached at night, on foot, through the surrounding forests.

The special forces fighters seized control and set up base in the main church, where they held out for three days against Russian tanks and aircraft until the main Ukrainian army cleared the highway and entered the village with heavy equipment. The battle was over, and though nearby Kharkiv was far from safe, some residents began to return now that it was no longer under constant artillery fire.

There are other tales of Gen. Budanov personally taking part in combat missions. Given the propaganda victory he would be handing the Kremlin if he were captured or killed, I asked him why he risked joining his men on the front line.

“These are my people. If I give tasks to people, I have to be responsible for this,” Gen. Budanov said, declining to discuss any specific mission he had taken part in. “If I myself am afraid to take part, then the question of morality comes.”

Soon after, much of the Kabul Team would reassemble for the first time since the summer of 2021, for an audacious attempt at retaking Snake Island, a rocky outcrop less than one square kilometre in size that juts above the dark waves of the Black Sea.

It was there, on the first day of the war, that an outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian garrison – just 13 men – rejected a call to surrender and instead told an approaching Russian missile cruiser, the Moskva, to “go fuck yourself,” an act of defiance that encapsulated the country’s intention to resist.

The Ukrainian troops were nonetheless taken as prisoners of war, and the island’s capture by Russian forces put the nearby port of Odesa in danger of being the next to fall. Recapturing the strategic outpost became a major military – and political – objective.


On April 14, Ukraine scored a win as the Moskva was sunk by two Neptune anti-ship missiles fired from the shore. Suddenly, the invader’s famed Black Sea Fleet seemed beatable.

The prospect of retaking Snake Island was so tantalizing that much of the Kabul Team was reunited three weeks after the sinking of the Moskva for a hastily planned assault. Ivan and most of Unit 2245 were there. So were Shaman and his eponymous battalion. As was Cesar from HUR headquarters.

After intense but brief training at an airfield near Odesa, a squad of Ukrainian helicopters carrying the assault force lifted off on May 8, for the 37-kilometre trip to Snake Island. Though it was a surprise attack, the Ukrainians knew the Russians would eventually be able to see and hear the helicopters coming.

“Our aviation and artillery and Bayraktars [drones] is supposed to destroy anti-aircraft defences of the island, but they were not so effective,” Ivan recounted. “When the helicopters approached, we were challenged by portable missiles. We survived by a miracle.”

The helicopters eventually managed to land, but the team continued to take heavy Russian fire. A bullet whizzed past Shaman’s head, clipping his right ear and damaging his helmet.

“God saved my life,” he said. Two members of the Shaman Battalion were killed in what turned out to be a short-lived victory. The Ukrainian flag was raised, briefly, before they were forced to retreat.

“It was a classically chaotic operation,” Shaman recounted, one that exposed how little experience the Ukrainian military, at the time, had in conducting offensive operations.

After months of responding to Russian attacks – and taking advantage of their mistakes – it was one of the first times the Ukrainian forces had tried to seize the initiative. And it had been, from the perspective of those who fought in the battle, a failure.

“It left a negative aftertaste with me. I lost two excellent members of my team. I won’t disclose what other teams lost, but we paid too high a price,” Shaman said.

Even the elite Unit 2245 was shaken by the fallout from the Snake Island operation. Ivan asked to be assigned away from a team he felt had been treated like “a suicide squad.” He was replaced, and 2245 was shuffled and given a new name.

After the failed assault, Ukraine returned to striking the island with artillery and missiles from afar, and on June 30, the Russian garrison was forced to withdraw. A week later, the Ukrainian flag once again was raised on Snake Island.

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Ukrainian soldiers install the state flag on Snake Island on July 7, 2022. Photo provided by the Ukrainian Defence Ministry Press Office.THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

“Every millimetre of liberated territory is already an achievement. This is first,” Gen. Budanov told me when I challenged him about whether political and symbolic objectives had taken precedence over military preparations in the Snake Island operation. “Secondly, it had a very serious economic significance. As soon as we regained control of the island, we were able to resume maritime trade.”

It was perhaps the first time the HUR commander, who emerged alongside Mr. Zelensky as one of the chief heroes of the early months of the war, would see his reputation dimmed by battlefield events.

Cesar declined to give his account of what happened on Snake Island, but agreed it was one of the more difficult engagements of the early part of the war. “I don’t like to discuss the battles, when you are losing friends and other soldiers and officers. It’s very hard to remember and to live these moments once again.”

Russia’s military leadership refocused on the east of the country after the retreat from Kyiv, trying to capture the remaining parts of the Donbas region that were still under Ukrainian control.

The euphoria over the successful defence of the capital was swiftly replaced by a harsh new reality. Russian troops were now grinding forward in Donetsk and Luhansk, the largely Russophone provinces that Mr. Putin said he had launched the war to “protect.” Along much of the front line, the Russian artillery advantage was often seven to one.

In July, the Russians conquered the industrial city of Sieverodonetsk, the Red Army’s first victory since the defeat around Kyiv. Next it trained its guns on Lysychansk, Sieverodonetsk’s sister city that lay just across a river from the new Russian positions.


Dima Logginov, the ad executive-turned-combat medic, was dispatched to Lysychansk with a HUR team to try to stiffen the resistance. “It was a really difficult situation, because the Russians had a big advantage in artillery and air strikes. They had a lot of offensive potential – hundreds of tanks. It was quite difficult to stop them.”

After a close-quarters battle, the order came to withdraw. Lysychansk was lost. But first, Dima and his team had to get their dead and wounded off the battlefield just outside the city.

They came under intense artillery fire. The smoke was so thick that the drivers of two HUR cars slammed into each other as they tried to speed away. Dima fell out of the second car, unconscious, and had to be loaded back into the vehicle and driven to safety. He suffered a concussion and a neck injury that would have him wearing a brace for the next several months.

It could have been worse. The back seat of the car he was in was stuffed with 25 rocket-propelled grenade launchers that somehow didn’t explode in the collision.

Late in the summer of 2022, the Kraken Battalion discovered a crucial weakness among the Russian forces holding the front line opposite them in the Kharkiv region. They didn’t have generators, meaning their communications relied on the local power grid. So, on Sept. 6, the Kraken struck, taking over the local power plant and setting it ablaze.

The Russians, who were already thin on the ground as their commanders anticipated a major Ukrainian push toward the southern city of Kherson, were now in the dark as the Ukrainians launched a surprise attack on the city of Balakliya.

The plan had been devised by Den and Lieutenant-Colonel Vitaliy Prashchuk, another HUR officer who, like Den, had helped found and guide the Kraken.

They had made a papier mâché mock-up of the region’s topography to help them envision the battlefield. Ahead of the attack, 64 different officers – everyone from brigade-level commanders to the heads of small reconnaissance teams – came to the Kraken base to get instructions for the days ahead.

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The Kraken Regiment meet at a command centre in the frontline town of Kupiansk in September, 2022.PAULA BRONSTEIN/GETTY IMAGES

Astonishingly, the battle unfolded largely as the Kraken commanders had designed it. As Ukrainian forces punched through at Balakliya, the Russians began a panicked retreat that led to the rapid recapture of more than 12,000 square kilometres – nearly the entire Kharkiv region. Ukrainian units that had been deployed on the southern Kherson front suddenly swung north to join the attack.

Den and the Kraken Battalion led the way, liberating entire towns and villages on their own. “We were the only local unit. We knew every road, we knew everything,” Den said. As the Russians retreated, the Ukrainians raced ahead of them to cut them off.

“Our military brigades just penetrated the front line and went as deep as possible,” he said. Then the smaller units like the Kraken swept up the isolated pockets of resistance. “We cut them into pieces. Slicing the pie and eating it step by step.”

When I reached Izyum, the largest city liberated after three weeks of lightning warfare, on Sept. 16, there were tanks marked with the Kraken symbol parked at major intersections.

That day, Ukrainian prosecutors discovered a makeshift cemetery in a forest on the edge of the city, where 445 people who had died during the six-month Russian occupation had been buried. Most of their graves were marked only by a simple wooden cross with a number.


The second year of the war started on a bleak note for Ukraine. The spectacular success of the Kharkiv operation was in the past, as was the subsequent liberation of Kherson, from which Russian troops withdrew in November, 2022.

The focal point had become the eastern city of Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region, which was gradually being reduced to rubble by “scorched earth” tactics that were once used by the Red Army to force the Nazis back, block by city block.

As the Russians – many of them from the Wagner mercenary company – continued to move forward, and the Ukrainian hold on Bakhmut became more perilous, both the Shaman Battalion and the Kabul Nine were deployed to bolster defences.

The Kabul veterans developed a grudging respect for their opponents and their grisly tactics. “I think the system that Wagner built and implemented is genius,” Shaman told me. “I’m sure that on the front line between Soledar and Avdiivka, there were days when Wagner was losing thousands of men per day. However, that never stopped them from achieving their goals.”

“Our snipers would shoot and shoot and they kept coming,” Maks said.

The Ukrainian commanders came to appreciate Wagner as a formidable opponent. So much so that the Kabul Nine team was assigned to target the group’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who had made a series of videos showing he and his men had reached the centre of Bakhmut.

Maks and his team studied each video, looking for clues to how they could assassinate the most famous Russian fighting in Ukraine. But they were always one step behind.

Four months later, Mr. Prigozhin was killed – not by Ukrainian fire, but by an explosion aboard his private aircraft shortly after he had staged a brief rebellion against Mr. Putin’s military commanders. There was no mourning in Kyiv. “In the end,” Maks said with a laugh, “Putin did our job for us.”



15 min read

After more than 10 years of war – and more than 830 days from the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion – the Kabul Team, like the country they’re defending, has been pushed to the point of exhaustion.

When about 50,000 Russian troops opened a new front in early May, attacking northeastern Ukraine – and once more threatening Kharkiv – Gen. Budanov made headlines by saying he was running out of forces to deploy. “I’ve used everything we have,” he told The New York Times, referring specifically to units such as the Kraken, the Shaman Battalion and the Kabul Nine that are under his direct command. “Unfortunately, we don’t have anyone else in the reserves.”

The official HUR channel on Telegram still tells stories of victory after victory. In a video, members of the Shaman Battalion are shown in a series of battles, edited together with cinematic music added, ambushing Russian trucks and armoured personnel carriers. The enemy dead are numerous, the heroes – at least in the video – unscathed.

Another video shows an FPV (first-person view) drone operated by the Kabul Nine team crashing into a Russian military truck and exploding. Viewers are told that the Kabul Nine has, over the course of the war, destroyed 12 tanks and two Sukhoi-25 fighter jets, along with dozens of other pieces of Russian military equipment.

As Ukraine has struck back at targets inside Russia, Gen. Budanov has moved to the top of the Kremlin’s list of enemies, perhaps second only to Mr. Zelensky. Russian courts have accused him of masterminding a series of “terrorist” attacks, including hundreds of drone strikes, as well as the October, 2022, bombing of the bridge linking Russia to occupied Crimea.

Gen. Budanov regards the charges against him as a badge of honour, a sign that he is doing his job.

When I first met the HUR boss in April, 2022, I asked him about an explosion that morning that had destroyed a key railway bridge in the Belgorod region of Russia.

“I can’t either confirm or deny that,” Gen. Budanov said of the Belgorod blast, which I later confirmed had been carried out by his men. “I would like to underline that it is Russia that is carrying out acts of aggression toward Ukraine. I don’t understand why some people are surprised that some things are happening on the territory of the country that delivers that aggression.”

But among Ukrainians, criticism of Gen. Budanov is slowly rising.

Along with Mr. Zelensky, he stands accused of painting too rosy a picture of how the war is going. After the liberation of the Kharkiv region and the subsequent Russian withdrawal from Kherson, both men raised expectations of a looming Russian collapse and an inevitable Ukrainian victory.

Many in Ukraine feel misled by a forecast Gen. Budanov made in early 2023, predicting Ukrainian troops would enter Crimea by that summer. Coming from the man who had correctly predicted how the start of the invasion would unfold, many took Gen. Budanov’s optimistic prognosis as a promise that the war would be over soon. (Gen. Budanov has since said that his prognosis was correct because HUR fighters did briefly land several times in Crimea last year, including an operation that saw them mark the country’s Aug. 24 Independence Day by temporarily raising the Ukrainian flag on the Crimean Peninsula’s western tip.)

Instead, the Ukrainian counteroffensive that began last summer, which was supposed to cut Crimea off from the Russian-occupied parts of Donbas, failed. Western tanks, given specifically to aid the counterattack, foundered against heavily fortified Russian defence lines.

When we meet again this spring, Gen. Budanov won’t talk about Ruska Losova, or the other missions, including a brief landing in Crimea, that he is reputed to have personally taken part in. He leaves the job of spreading his legend – the fact that he was wounded fighting in Donbas, the rumour that he has survived at least 10 assassination attempts – to others.

He shrugs when asked whether he was the target of a November, 2023, poisoning that briefly hospitalized his wife. When I ask how often the Kremlin has tried to kill him during the first two years of the invasion, he replies with practised insouciance. “As you can see, I’m still here.”


The veterans of the Kabul Team are fiercely proud people. They know they’re good at what they do. But killing – even when it’s an enemy that invaded your country – takes a toll on anyone, especially after more than a decade of war with Russia, and more than two years into the full-scale invasion.

“When you are shooting at them from a distance, you don’t have any feeling,” Ivan tells me over beers in Kyiv. But what if it’s close range, I press him – what if you can see the face of the person you’re pulling the trigger on?

“There’s definitely no satisfaction when you are killing someone,” he says after a pause. “But when the other person has a gun, your task is to kill him before he kills you. That’s all.” After replying, Ivan downs his beer and orders another round.

“It’s a permanent mode for your body,” Cesar says of being at war. “Lots of people are tired and they want this war to stop, but I just say, ‘Look guys, it’s a permanent situation. It’s happening today, and it will happen tomorrow. Get used to it.’”

But even the veteran spy sometimes worries about the disassociation he feels, the lack of connection between the sometimes deadly acts of violence that he takes part in, and his flat emotions. “I find myself from time to time thinking that this is not my life. This is some kind of TV show.”

There are four memories Shaman says he’ll always treasure: “My first sporting achievement. The first time I had sex. The liberation of the Kyiv region.” And the time he and his unit staged their first cross-border attack into Russia itself. “It definitely belongs on that list.”

It was May, 2023, when the Free Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps – two units composed of Russian citizens fighting on Ukraine’s side in the war – first crossed the border into Russia’s Belgorod region, where they briefly took control of three villages before retreating back into Ukraine.

The appearance of anti-Putin fighters seizing ground inside Russia was meant to rattle the Kremlin, to create the perception that at least some Russians were rising up and to perhaps inspire others to join them. But the rebels weren’t there alone. They had Shaman and some of his best men at their side on the raids, which were carried out using a pair of U.S.-made Black Hawk helicopters.

It was the first in a series of cross-border raids carried out by HUR. Shaman says that while he wasn’t a fan of “shaky helicopter rides” – one of the few things about war he doesn’t seem to relish – the cross-border missions he had taken part in were a success. “We had very specific parameters for our tasks – to destroy certain objects, to deliver damage, to eliminate someone,” he said in an apparent reference to a series of assassinations targeting Russian military commanders in Belgorod and the neighbouring Bryansk region. “One hundred per cent satisfaction comes when there are no casualties on our side.”

Ivan, the former Unit 2245 member, says striking back at Russia via the cross-border missions is a proud moment for him, too. “It’s very hard to watch innocent people suffering. After you see this, you want to deliver some kind of punishment.” He says he couldn’t discuss the specific operations he had taken part in inside Russia.

Shaman, for one, can’t even estimate how many Russians he’s killed. While both the Ukrainian and Russian militaries put out regular – and difficult to believe – claims of how many enemy soldiers have been killed in the fighting, it’s always an “abstract figure,” he says. When you’re firing a rocket launcher, or calling in an artillery strike, you rarely see the result.

Shaman doesn’t express any remorse for killing his enemies. His life has been dominated by war, and he believes war has no rules.

“All these rules and laws of war are just an attempt by frightened people to explain the unknown – just a hopeless attempt to structure the war and to give an explanation for war to other frightened people,” he says, swapping his cigarillos for a hookah pipe as we continue our conversation in the laundry room of the abandoned hotel. “In a real war, you can’t explain, you can’t predict, you can’t structure and you can’t control anything.”

I try to protest – to suggest the laws of war were key to the democratic society that people like him were fighting for and dying to defend – but he ignores me. “War crimes are a creation of the liberal world, of those who believe in some greater power or greater justice. We are the people who understand that rose-coloured glasses always fracture into your eye.”

When he spoke earlier in our discussion about being shot in the ear on Snake Island, he said he felt he’d been saved by God. I ask Shaman if that means he is religious.

“I believe I will have a very interesting conversation with God when I will get there,” he says.

“And how will that conversation go?” I reply.

Shaman stares at me for nearly a minute.

“I believe when there is the final fight between good and evil, God will need me to command his army.”

Maks, the leader of the Kabul Nine, is starting to fear that Ukraine might be left to face Russia alone.

“A lot of books have been written about war through the centuries, and when you read them you realize that to do something you have to have enough weapons, supplies, logistics – you have to have them or you don’t achieve your aim,” Maks tells me in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia this spring, where he and the Kabul Nine had switched to defensive operations after the failure of the counteroffensive.

As we speak, the Russians are again grinding slowly forward, and military aid from the West has slowed almost to a stop. When I visited a rocket-launcher unit in the Donbas region this spring – shortly after the fall of the industrial city of Avdiivka – the Ukrainians had been reduced to firing one shell for every 10 or more the Russians launched at them.

“It’s a hard moment for us,” he said as we walked along the western bank of the Dnipro River, across from the hulking Zaporizhstal steel factory. “I think, in history, every nation goes through this. As a nation, we must prove that we can exist as a country – and not as a region of the Russian Federation.”

Den also worries about the direction the war is heading in.

Instead of mobilizing more troops after the successes of 2022, those who had already been fighting for 10 months were asked to stay in the field and to press forward. That included sending those who had signed up for the Territorial Defence Forces to the front line.

I think, in history, every nation goes through this. As a nation, we must prove that we can exist as a country – and not as a region of the Russian Federation.”

While the TDF had proven valuable when defending streets and cities they knew well, Den says they suffered heavy casualties when asked to conduct offensive operations against the Russian Army. He says the reservists had been treated as “cannon meat.”

That has had severe effects on recruitment. Signing up to be a hero liberating cities from occupation is one thing. Enlisting to sit in a trench under superior enemy fire is a very different decision.

“After our successful offensive operations, everybody started to relax and think, ‘Oh, the Russians can’t do anything.’ Every country has its propaganda, but even our government started to think that everything is fine,” Den says over a breakfast in Kyiv just before the second anniversary of the invasion.

“In 2023, we saw the consequences of our wrong decisions at the end of 2022, when everybody thought that everything is fine. But it’s stupid when you’re fighting against a country with a three-times-larger population, a real big country with everything, including nuclear weapons.”

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A former prisoner of war after his release in January.DANYLO PAVLOV/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Dima, now recovered from the head and neck injuries he sustained at Lysychansk, has switched to fighting on the information front, wading into the Russian-language internet to undermine the Kremlin’s message. “I fight now with a computer and mouse,” the former advertising boss says with a chuckle. “My work is secret, I’m sorry, but I’m sure you’ve seen it.”

Early in the war, he says the Russians had been the ones on the offensive – information-wise – generating panic inside Ukraine with fake news that spread online. In one incident that Dima witnessed, a Kremlin misinformation campaign had even led to Ukrainian units firing on each other during the Battle of Kyiv. Now, he says, it’s Ukraine that’s pushing back online, generating dissent and confusion in the Russian ranks.

But for some of the Kabul Team, the defeats are starting to pile up.

After Bakhmut, the Shaman Battalion was assigned to defend another shattered city in the Donetsk region, Avdiivka, that slowly but surely fell under Russian control at the start of this year.

This wasn’t the easy Russian conquest that Mr. Putin had envisioned years earlier. But nor was it the liberation of all Ukraine that Mr. Zelensky, Gen. Budanov and others had started to talk about after the Kharkiv operation and the liberation of Kherson later in 2022.

Instead, it has become a bloody war of attrition, in which the Russian side is better armed, and has many more men than the Ukrainians could sacrifice.

Markus and other members of the HUR team say they were worried that the city of Kupyansk – one of the places in the Kharkiv region that had been liberated in the fall of 2022 – would eventually go the same way as Bakhmut and Avdiivka. The Ukrainians were fighting bravely, but the Russians simply had more men, tanks, artillery, warplanes, missiles.

“We’re short on everything. Small arms, we’re okay, but if we’re speaking about 80 millimetres and higher, like mortars, artillery, shells, rockets, we’re missing those,” Den says. “All brigades have some reserves for a sudden attack or something like that, but after that we can shoot maybe 500 rounds in two weeks. We just split it over 15 days, and you understand how much you can shoot every day. You don’t shoot like you don’t have limits.”

Taking Kupyansk would allow the Russians to again press toward Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv.

Den and his Kraken fighters held off the Russian assault on Kharkiv at the start of 2022. But speaking just before Russian troops staged a fresh incursion into the region – seizing several border villages and opening a new front – he tells me he wasn’t sure the Ukrainians would now win a second battle for the city.

The Russians had made two mistakes in the first attack, he says. In addition to their lack of respect for the Ukrainians defending the city, the Russians had launched their attack in the spring, when the ground was too soft for tanks and other heavy equipment to move along – forcing them to use main roads.

“Now they understand how they can do it. We’re going to see,” he predicted almost two years later, as summer and firmer ground approached. “If they surround the city, sooner or later it’s going to surrender.”

Gen. Budanov is proud the Kabul Team has only lost one of its members over more than two years of high-risk missions. He says it’s a testament to the skill set of the fighters – and, he says, to the fact that Ukrainians are on the right side of history.

“There are also good specialists there [in Russia], but they are not lucky – let’s put it that way. Because they are not doing a good thing, and they know it for themselves,” he says. “When you do bad things from the very beginning and you know that you are doing something bad, then God will definitely not help you.”

Cesar, however, says it could all have gone very differently, even back in Kabul. “We were at the place where the suicide bombers did their attack on the crowd, just 15 or 30 minutes before it happened,” he says, referring to the Islamic State attack.

“We just got back to our plane when we heard the explosion. So it’s luck. Or God. People can choose what they want to hear.”

Staring at the same photo that Gen. Budanov has outside his office, Maks – who keeps a copy on his phone – gives a similar answer.

“Some of our guys have been wounded pretty heavily. And one of them spent four months in Russian prisons in Donetsk and Moscow. It’s thanks to God that the rest besides Nazar are still alive,” he says pensively.

“It’s just fate. Nothing else.”

In May, 2023, as part of a deal with Russia, the remains recovered at the crash site of the two Mi-8 helicopters in Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia were returned as part of a larger exchange of the dead.

Among the items returned to the Ukrainian side were a skull and, separately, a jawbone that forensics experts identified as belonging to Nazar Borovytskyi. A funeral was held last summer, and Nazar was honoured yet again, posthumously named a Hero of Ukraine.

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Nazar Borovitskyi’s gravestone in Kyiv.ANTON SKYBA/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

But the return of the remains and the bestowing of awards has not convinced Nazar’s family that he’s dead. The family accepts that the returned jawbone belongs to him – the local dentist said it matched his records – but still it’s not enough proof for them to give up hope that their son and brother is out there somewhere.

Nazar had been trained, his sister Oksana reminds me, to withstand maximum amounts of pain. He had a scuba diving certificate, and knew how to skydive. His favourite movies were about heroes who survived impossible situations and made it home. In other words, if anyone could survive the gruesome scene of the helicopter crash – which his father keeps a video of on his phone – it would be Nazar.

“Son did you get some rest?” his mother Lesya wrote to him in a text message sent soon after he had gone missing on the Mariupol mission. “God bless you! Love you!”

There was no reply. “Son, don’t you have someone who could replace you for a couple of hours?” she tried again some time later. “This must be completely exhausting. Are you eating anything?”

Again, Lesya received only silence in reply. But she continued to send her son messages on a regular basis, long after she had been told he was dead, on the faint hope he was somehow able to read them. “My son, just give a +,” reads one attempt, referring to a habit in Eastern Europe of replying with only a plus sign to indicate that a message has been received.

“War is a difficult thing,” Lesya wrote to Nazar later (there are no dates on the messages that Oksana shared with me). “It won’t be as fast and beautiful as they describe.”

Even now, about two years after her son’s helicopter was shot down over southern Ukraine – and a year after the family received his partial remains – Lesya refuses to believe he’s not coming home.

“We will definitely sing the Ukrainian anthem with you, my son, on our Victory Day,” reads the most recent message. “I’m waiting for the +.”

“I love you.”

In Nazar’s childhood bedroom, one wall is covered with four oversized photos of the brave young man who will never grow old. Two of the four pictures are from Kabul. In one of them, he’s standing near the perimeter fence of the airport, with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder. In the other, he’s holding a small Afghan child who was about to board a flight to a new life in the West.

The same photograph of the Kabul Team that hangs outside Gen. Budanov’s office has pride of place on the wall of the sitting room of Nazar’s family home. Staring at that image, with her brother alive and grinning and surrounded by his comrades-in-arms, Oksana smiles even though her eyes well up with tears.

“Long before the invasion began, Nazar told me that independence is not given,” she says softly. “He said it must be fought for.”


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