'The first Russian I killed was the Russian inside me': Ukrainian soldier shares his story 

Valery carrying out his military service. (Credit: Valery Lypynsky)

Valery Lypynsky is one of the thousands Ukrainian defenders who took up arms when Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24 2022. This 29 year-old veteran abandoned his civilian life to form  an international combat unit that liberated Kyiv and Chernihiv Oblasts and conduct reconnaissance missions around Kharkiv. Our correspondents in Kiev met Valeriy, nom de guerre “Hartman", during his short break from the frontline.

Valery Lypynsky meets us late evening. He is sporting a ruffled beard,  military khakis, and is holding his three-year-old daughter in his arms. He commands his unit and only came home to deal with admin. “I'm going back to the front tomorrow,” Lypynsky says.

The military man was born into a Russian-speaking family in the eastern oblast of Luhansk, which is now occupied. Lypynsky recalls with irony that up until the Maidan revolution in 2014, he was afraid of Banderists, a term used by the Russian propaganda to demonise patriotic Ukrainians that follow in the steps of second world war nationalist Stepan Bandera. Today, according to Moscow, he is one of them. The pro-EU Revolution of Dignity in 2014 was a turning point for him. “That's when I understood that I was Ukrainian”, he says. He started to learn Ukrainian, and in 2018, excluded Russian language from his daily life. “Eventually, the first Russian I killed was the Russian inside me,” he says laughing with pride.

When we met him, his unit had 80 soldiers, including 23 foreign fighters. Between two puffs of an electronic cigarette, Lypynsky, who has been defending Ukrainian Donbas in 2014, tells us what their fight looks like today.

“Here, for us, it's already World War III. I have guys from all sorts of nations: Danes, Australians, Americans, Israelis, British, Koreans, even Kazakhs,” Lypynsky explains. He is the  commander of a unit which functions similarly to a Cossack structure, a Ukrainian ethnicity, without a defined hierarchy. All operations are discussed and decided among the fighters. Unlike in 2014, Lypynsky says, the morale of soldiers “is much higher now,” but now, the intensity of war and his duties are greater. He admits, being a commander is not easy. “When everyone is asleep, I have to write reports and I can't even find the time to go out and kill Russians,” Lypynsky complains sarcastically.

(Credit: Valery Lypynsky)

When Russia annexed Crimea and started its war in Donbas in 2014, Lypynsky joined the Aidar battalion to defend Ukraine. A year after he demobilised, the commander founded Veterano Coffee, a chain of cafés, with his fellow veterans to adaptat and reintegrate civilian life. But like many, he expected Russia to attack again at any moment and so he was ready in February. “Most of my relatives bought equipment and weapons, I bought an AKM762, ammunition and I prepared for a new offensive.” Nobody, however, could have thought of Russian brutal war on the scale Ukraine is forced to defend itself today. But Lypynsky is optimistic, “We're trained, well-equipped and we all have years of military experience behind us. I think that's why the Russians are having so much trouble. They underestimated us,” he explains, pointing at their failure in the Kyiv region.

‘Thanks to the Americans in our unit’

The support of the international community made a big difference for Ukraine in this full-scale war, Lypynsky admits. “We received a lot of NLAWS (Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon) and AT4s (anti-tank missiles). And thanks to the Americans in our unit who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, we learned how to use them.” However, he adds, they “still lack FIM-92 Stingers and need all kinds of weapons. Especially, nuclear bombs,” Lypynsky laughs, referring to the fact that in 1994, Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum and gave up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for security. According to him, the Memorandum left the door wide open for a Russian military aggression.

Valery's military unit on an assignment. (Credit: Valery Lypynsky)

Behind his relaxed smile, “Hartman” knows how cruel this war is for soldiers. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky announced that his country lost between 60 and 100 soldiers in combat each day when we met him. Lypynsky’s unit is no exception. Since the beginning of the war, they lost five men. “After all, this is war”, he sighs, “what can you expect...”

As the battle for Ukraine’s freedom is raging on, Russia doesn’t look like it will give up soon. Ukrainian and Western officials warn against a “very difficult” and long war. But Lypynsky doesn't think of returning to civilian life anytime soon. He prefers to focus on the future of Ukraine. His voice is calm and optimistic, “I hope that at least by the end of the summer, we will liberate Crimea, and by early autumn,” he adds almost seriously, “will reach the gates of Moscow”.