The focus in the war in Ukraine is shifting to the country’s east as Russian President Vladimir Putin says negotiations are at a “dead end” and the Russian military redeploys troops and equipment from areas closer to the capital, Kyiv. After struggling — and ultimately failing — to capture Kyiv, Moscow’s forces are regrouping in territory they already know well: in and around the Donbas region, the focus of the Russian incursion in 2014. Addressing his nation this past weekend, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned that “Russian troops will move to even larger operations in the east of our state.” On Monday, a senior U.S. defense official, speaking to the Associated Press, warned of a long Russian convoy heading in the direction of the eastern Ukrainian city, Izium; it is said to be armed with reinforcements — artillery, as well as air and infantry support. Satellite imagery matches the American account.
A critical part of the Ukrainian resistance, as it gears up for this new phase in the fighting, are the country’s Territorial Defense Forces. Comprised of civilians — some with pervious military training, some without — and called up to join the country’s armed forces, they have been a key factor in Ukraine’s effort to repel the Russian invasion. Their strength has swelled as the conflict drags on and currently stands at around 110,000, according to Ukrainian authorities. They, too, are now focusing on the threat in the east, according to Major Andriy Shulga, the spokesman for the Territorial Defense Forces deployed around the country’s eastern belt. Speaking to Grid from an undisclosed location, he said the biggest concern was for the safety of civilians.
“The Russian army does not respect any rules of war,” he said.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: As both Ukrainian and Western officials warn of a new Russian offensive in the eastern part of your country, which particular regions or cities do you feel are most under threat?
Andriy Shulga: All the places close to the contact line — Ukraine’s de facto border with the breakaway eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which since 2014, have been under the control of pro-Russian separatists — are under threat. Zaporizhzhia, the Dnipro region, the Kharkiv region — the list is long, and I cannot name them all. We are getting reports that there is a growing accumulation of Russian forces around the entire region, from the north and the south.
Our main concern right now is the safety of civilians. We are working in cities, in villages, and we are also protecting infrastructure. We have been fighting the Russians since the end of February now, and it is clear that the Russian army does not respect any rules of war. It is obvious from the start. They lack dignity and honor. We will fight them, and we are ready for any new attacks, but we are really worried for the safety of the Ukrainian people.
G: There is a general sense, certainly from the outside, that the Russian military has been poorly organized, and that it has made many strategic mistakes during the war. What is your view from what you have seen?
AS: They did not expect us to fight back in the way that we have. We do not communicate with them, but what we know from the Russian soldiers that we have captured is that they expected to walk into Ukraine and be greeted with a warm welcome. It is clear that they are now demoralized.
From a military point of view, it seems like they are following old Soviet playbooks from decades ago. They are moving long columns of armored vehicles. For us, that makes it easier to target them.
G: As you gear up for what could turn out to be a phase of intense fighting, could you tell us about your greatest needs in terms of equipment?
AS: We are actually quite well equipped in Territorial Defense units with small arms, anti-tank weapons and portable missile systems. Recently we were also given permission to use more heavy weapons, as well as armored vehicles and heavy artillery. That was a new thing for our units. But we have been preparing and are ready for the next fight.
G: And other supplies — food, medical equipment, communications gear?
AS: It was hard at the start of the war. That is when we have problems with supplies. For us, it was because of the number of people who were joining the Territorial Defense. The armed forces were fully prepared, but we had so many people coming that there were some delays in food supplies and in getting protective equipment like helmets. We needed a substantial amount of supplies in a very short period. But those problems have ended, which is really thanks to Ukrainian volunteers who have worked very hard to support everyone who is fighting to defend Ukraine. People are sharing food, and where we can as well, we are sharing with people whatever we have, food and other supplies that they need. We are one nation.
G: You are in the east — and among the most horrific images and reports, in the litany of horrors that we have witnessed in recent weeks, have been coming from Mariupol, the port city in southeastern Ukraine. What can you tell us about the situation there?
AS: The civilians and the forces there, both, are the true heroes. We did have Territorial Defense units deployed there, but I cannot say much to you about them because we lost contact with them because of the intensity of the attacks. Several units had to leave as well because of that.
Our government and leadership are focused on solving the most difficult problem there right now, which is evacuating civilians from the area and also bringing supplies. We are trying open safe corridors and doing everything we can.
G: Could you elaborate on the civilian evacuations from the east, which appear to have been chaotic and difficult amid continued Russian attacks?
AS: We have been working with everyone in the armed forces and the police to try and evacuate people and give priority to humanitarian convoys. If people need food, medical help, we provide whatever we can. We also provide shelter whenever we can across the region. Mariupol is a problematic area here because of the level of the fighting. In other areas, Dnipro has become a huge humanitarian hub for people from the region. They have food and shelter there, and many from there are moving farther away to the west of Ukraine.
G: Amid such devastation and against the backdrop of another round of intense fighting, especially where you are in the east, how would you describe the mood among your forces?
AS: We have Cossack spirit in our souls. We are not going to give up a millimeter of our Motherland. Ukraine is bound to win.