Cyborgs in Ukrainian war: meet defender of Donetsk airport

Georgi Beltadze
, reporter
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Photo: Eero Vabamägi

Donetsk airport, early morning of January 20th. The thick fog is hindering visibility. Guarding the terminal penetrated with many a bullet and blast, an Ukrainian serviceman Oleksandr Gudim is eyeing an increasingly watery blanket of snow and the dreary weather. Gut feeling says it's going to be bad: «Don't like it at all.» Within a few steps behind a wall, the separatists are preparing for fresh attack. 

In his fifties, Ensign Gudim is a Cyborg – thus they are called in Ukraine, all who defended the Donetsk airport. His hair turning slightly grey, the man entered service while it was still Soviet times, eyewitness to the crumbling of the empire and the birth of an independent Ukraine. To the latter, he pledged his allegiance, to defend its liberty and sovereignty.  

Meeting with me, Mr Gudim is far from the battles, in Seli Health Centre near Rapla, Estonia and healing from wounds from the war. Walking with a stick, the sturdy soldier is willing to tell the story of battles for an outwardly meaningless airport, the toughest of the year, of how he got wounded and what he sees ahead. Permitting me to write he is an intelligence commander, he adds with some stutter that the unit would better remain a secret.

How it all began

Mr Gudim first begun to doubt Ukraine’s independence when Viktor Yanukovych rose to presidency in 2010. «Can’t teach new tricks to an old dog,» he said, hinting that the former head of state currently hiding in Russia was never one to stand for Ukrainian interests.

That was evidenced by the still-rampant corruption and unlimited powers wielded by oligarchs. Also, many were angered by the Kharkiv treaties of 2011 extending the rental to Russia of Sevastopol naval base. To top it all, Ukrainians were indignant that the then president opted to postpone integration into the European Union.

That was the decision that called forth Maidan. Mr Gudim, though a serviceman, participated from day one to very end. In his words, Maidan was rather protesting against the rotten system as embodied by Mr  Yanukovych.

Alas, Maidan took a bloody turn. Initially, Mr Gudim was thinking of how to form a self-defence force to survive the attacks. «We had to do something, see. We had to do our best to protect the boys who were against automatic rifles with wooden sticks,» he recalls.

According to Mr Gudim, some kind of a turn just had to come sooner or later. «Back then, I was convinced the people would end up winning the revolution after all.» And surely, end of February brought the good news of Mr Yanukovych having fled.

Separatism spread like a plague

The euphoria was not for long. In the days that followed, major cities in Southern and Eastern Ukraine turned restless regarding the new central power, as led by the Russia-minded. Within a month and as assisted by «little green men», Crimea fell to Russia. Other oblasts were waiting for their turn, where the same job was to be accomplished by the so-called Colorado guys.

Back in the Ukrainian armed forces for the turbulent times, Mr Gudim was aware that what followed Maidan was a cold shower for the patriots.

«The so-called Russian spring spread like a plague around the country and it was just awful to watch. At some point, I even thought we would also lose the other regions,» he said.

He explained that army as such was then essentially nonexistent. «Our nation’s leadership was of the opinion than no-one would come against us. It was assumed that an army was not necessary, if only on a minimal level. And as the war came, none in the army was ready,» he observed.

«But praise God! As supported by locals and volunteers, we managed to prevent the worst,» said Mr Gudim, beaming. The latter also played a vast and critical role in the beginning days of the ATO or anti-terrorism operation launched in East-Ukraine in April.  

«Exactly! This has to be taken literally,» underlined Mr Gudim, adding that most of the locals in  Donetsk and Lugansk Oblast are loyal Ukrainians. «There are few separatists there. These are former bandits who cannot imagine a peaceful life and who were handed a rifle and who now feel like heroes.»

Armed with that conviction, Ukrainian army went against the self-proclaimed republics last spring. «We did not think that ATO would go on for months. We figured it is a matter of mere weeks,» said the soldier.

Indeed, during the second half of the summer they were convinced that Donbas would soon see peace. By then, Mr Gudim had participated in the liberation of many a town.

But even this time the Ukrainian luck proved short. A turning point in the war, it will enter history books as the tragedy of Ilovaisk: at the end of August, Russian regular troops attacked the Ukrainians from behind, across the border, bagging them and causing them great losses in human toll and equipment.

«None could have imagined Russia shooting in the back. Brother against brother, as they say. Regrettably, our army had to forsake areas regained at great losses.»

The task had to be fulfilled

For lots of Ukrainians, the collapse was demoralising. But not for Mr Gudim and his unit – seeing they had to break out of enemy rear to their own. It worked.

Though the frontline stabilised, it spelled no peace. To the contrary, new heavy battles were waiting. One such was to be the second battle for Donetsk airport. Mr Gudim, now healing in Estonia, was taken there at end of autumn according to rotation.  

The minutes while headed towards the object to be defended were rich in adrenaline: on the open airfield, they were an excellent target. «Once there, we had to move fast – quickly out of the machine, grab your stuff and get into the terminal –, as the foe was all around.»

Despite the ceasefire, the usual day at the terminal was filled with attacks by the enemy. «The main issue was not whether and when, it was how many times and how would they attack,» says Mr Gudim.

As the battles there were fierce, the Ukrainian soldiers suffered heavy losses. Though the men were tired and short of equipment, the motivation to defend the airport no-matter-what was high.

«It’s another matter it defending the airport was right militarily, but we figured we had to fulfil the task entrusted to us. Doing it right and to the max, so as to not feel ashamed afterwards,» said Mr Gudim.

Thus, the heroic minority, the cyborgs fought till the beginning of January when separatists launched a new large offensive against the terminal. As the situation turned critical for the defenders, Ukrainian defence forces went on a counter-offensive in the region, which in turn was met with a large-scale attack by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.   

In the heat of the battle, the terminals and their floors kept changing hands wherefore, on January 20th, Ukraine opted to decisively clear the airport territory from separatists. Some of the combatants, including Mr Gudim, were tasked to do battle in the new terminal.

No thoughts of death in battle

Yet the men were strongly outnumbered. The day before, the enemy blew up part of the first floor roof, causing much loss to the Ukrainians. On that hellish day, the defenders ran short of both ammunition and manpower.

Meanwhile, new enemy units had intruded into the terminal, putting up fierce resistance. The bullets were whizzing, grenades flying. On top of that, the booby-traps. Mr Gudim hid behind a concrete wall and …

In his own words, despite the forebodings he did not think of death at that moment. «You do think of that, mostly before going to battle, but once the battle begins it all goes to the back burner. After the battle, you think about death again.»

… suddenly this loud blast.

At about 3:30 pm, the separatists detonated the second floor of the new terminal which fell on the cyborgs on floor one, thus turning the tide of battle against the Ukrainians.

«It was only afterwards that I learned what happened. All I sensed was the blast wave,» recalls Mr Gudim whose spine was pinched in the explosion. Who saved him and how, the man remembers not. Even now, many months later and away from the war, the day feels bad to remember.

Not limited to that, Mr Gudim is burdened by the memories of comrades fallen in battle. «Constantly I think of them. Constantly. Especially so that I knew them all [who fell]. I knew their loved ones, mothers and fathers, wives and children. That’s why it is heavy and painful. I will never forget them,» he confided.

While battle-weary, the Ukrainian is positive he will return to the army once whole again. «They are waiting for me there already,» he said briskly. «And a job half finished must be finished.»

The background

Oleksandr Gudim was brought to Estonia for rehabilitation treatment on November 30th. Along with him came Colonel Oleg Ostapetsh, Private Oleksei Sokolovski and a soldier asking for anonymity. The Colonel was wounded on February 1st in the city of Debaltseve, Mr Sokolovski on February 17th near Donetsk airport.

The treatment at Seli Health Centre featured various baths, massage, exercises, stretching, heat treatment, physiotherapy with apparatuses etc.  

The group were in Estonia till December 18th. As at today, nine wounded Ukrainians have received rehabilitation treatment at Seli.

Defence ministry intends to keep helping Ukrainian army next year. Talks are underway regarding what will be done and on which scale.