Author’s Note: I had the chance to interview Lt. Yevgen Zabrodsky in Ukraine at Rapid Trident 2014, a multinational training exercise in which 15 countries contributed more than 1,000 troops to the training in Ukraine for the first time since the conflict with Russia exploded on Ukraine’s eastern border.
He told me that by and large, the Ukraine military thought they were allies with the West and on good working terms with Russia, given their long history. They never expected to face an adversary during their lifetime. By the time they realized what the Russian military was up to, the invasion was underway, and the territory all but lost.
The main reason he wanted to share his story with me was to get the facts from the ground out to a wide military audience, to be able to share lessons learned and help prepare other militaries for similar actions from Russia or any other aggressor. In his view, the Ukraine military was unprepared and caught off guard. Zabrodsky believes if there is one takeaway from the outcome in Ukraine, it’s that you never know what can happen and a military should be prepared for anything.
Ideally, more than one source would have been better for this story. However, with access to only one person from the Russian invasion of Crimea, I thought telling the story through Zabrodsky’s eyes made for an important contribution to the history of events unfolding in Ukraine. I hope readers agree.
After waiting for what seemed like hours, Yevgen Zabrodsky snapped into action, scaling the fence of the Ukrainian Naval Headquarters complex. Zabrodsky, a lieutenant with the Ukrainian Marines, was watching from inside the small installation as, what he referred to as a “little green man,” (a poorly disguised Russian soldier) patrolled part of the perimeter surrounding the small installation.
When the masked guard was finally out of sight, Zabrodsky seized the split second to make his escape. As he descended the outside of the fence, the adrenaline hit him before he hit the ground. Worrying that his newly regained freedom might be retaken, Zabrodsky moved quickly to put as much distance between him and the installation fence as he could. His legs screamed as he pushed them to sprint for the first time in what felt like months. The claustrophobic tension he’d grown used to quickly evaporated as he turned the corner to safety. After weeks of information deprivation, psychological harassment and fear of death, Zabrodsky was finally free from the prison that had once been his place of duty.
At this point, if he left and never came back, no one would have questioned him. For the young lieutenant, escape was just the next phase of the mission though. He made a brief phone call to let his family know he was alive. Then he commandeered a car parked nearby and began surveying the area for an observation post to start gathering intelligence on the enemy.
“I made my decision to stay, to serve, a long time ago,” said Zabrodsky.
One man’s decision to serve
Yevgen (YEV-JEN), the equivalent of “Eugene” in English, grew up in Kharkiv, Ukraine, the son of Alexandr and Nina Zabrodsky, who still reside there today. Alexandr served as a soldier in the Soviet Army. He met Nina, a civil service staffer for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), in East Germany in the 1960s when the two were stationed there.
“After the Soviet Union collapsed he decided to stay at the last point of his service,” said Zabrodsky of his parents’ decision to settle in Kahrkiv.
“They are both Ukrainian now,” stressed Zabrodsky, on his parents’ nationality.
The younger Zabrodsky doesn’t remember a lot of detailed conversations with his father.
“Like most military men, he didn’t talk very much,” noted Zabrodsky. But one conversation still stands out, more than a decade later.
“From childhood, I was imagining myself as a military man, nothing else,” recalled Zabrodsky of his dreams of living up to the legacy of service left to him by his father and grandfather.
The senior Zabrodsky thought it was a bad idea.
“He told me, ‘take a civilian life,'” recalled the junior Zabrodsky of his father’s advice.
“‘Because in the military you will give almost all your life to your country, to the military,'” remembered Zabrodsky of his father’s advice.
“Think about that first,” he said, recalling the decade-old conversation as though he’d had it yesterday.
“Then make a decision,” his father told him.
Yevgen Zabrodsky graduated from the Military Institute of Taras Shevchenko National University of Kiev in 2006, and was commissioned as a Marine officer in the Ukrainian military. It was the start of a 13-year military career that the Marine is still currently fulfilling. Following graduation, Zabrodsky received orders to his first duty station. As a Marine serving a nation with less than 3,000 kilometers of coastline, the options available for a duty location were limited. Crimea, the peninsula in southern Ukraine with access to the Black Sea, would be the newly commissioned officer’s home for the next seven years. There, he met his fiancé, Kristina, who he’s lived with since 2010.
At work, Zabrodsky assessed risks and scenarios as part of his job, contributing to national defense plans. Part of the Ukrainian defense calculus included precautionary measures against possible incursion by Russia, and other neighbors. When Viktor Yanukovych became the fourth president of Ukraine in 2010, the Russia defense plans were scrapped as part of military reforms.
“When Yakukovic came to the president post he started to say, ‘no, no, no guys,'” Zabrodsky recounted of guidance from the Yanukovich administration.
“Russia’s our friends, don’t even think about that, stop doing this,'” he shared of the reasoning given for reversing much of the Zabrodsky’s work along with that of many other Ukrainian military planning officers. For Zabrodsky though, it was not out of the ordinary.
“We have 23 years of independence and about 20 years of military reforms,” Zabrodsky joked, revealing frustration with the political treatment of the military by the Ukrainian government.
“Every new president wants new reforms and we throw out our progress and start from scratch” he scoffed.
Eventually, Zabrodsky deployed to the Republic of the Congo as a military observer for the U.N. security mission there. Once he finished his year-long peacekeeping tour in Africa, the Marine was given the choice of Kiev, Crimea or a special assignment elsewhere for his next duty location. With roots in Crimea, the home of his fiancé and her family, the choice was an easy one. But when he arrived back on the peninsula to serve at the Naval headquarters in the coastal city of Sevastopol, things were different than he remembered.
Invasion of the ‘Little Green Men’
“When I came back,” said Zabrodsky of his initial impression, “there was a distinctive negative attitude in Crimea (toward West Ukraine).”
It was February, and the country was in the midst of political upheaval, particularly in Kiev. Protesters had been demonstrating in the capital city’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) since November. Zabrodsky’s return coincided with the peak of protests and a violent crackdown by the security forces attempting to reestablish order. The protest movement and subsequent overthrow of government in Kiev were polarizing flashpoints all over Ukraine. In Kiev and West Ukraine, the protesters were heroes, putting their lives on the line to rise up against a corrupt, malevolent government headed by the Yanukovich administration. In East Ukraine, including Crimea and Yanukovich’s place of origin, the Donbas region, the people had a different perspective.
“The media suggested that the rebels would move on from Kiev and move East, asking, ‘What’s next, do you want them here?'” Zabrodsky recalled of the Russian-sponsored media narrative prevalent in reports broadcast in Crimea. He was taken aback at how much the place he and his fiancé called home had changed. It wasn’t long before the rhetoric in the media turned to action on the ground.
“I got there on Friday,” Zabrodsky remembers of his redeployment from Africa, “and all the stuff started on Monday.” That morning, he drove to his new place of duty at the Naval Command Headquarters. The installation was small, consisting of a medium sized building with adjacent parking lot, and surrounded by a security fence. When Zabrodsky approached the checkpoint that morning, something seemed unusual.
“It was a big green truck with those green men,” said Zabrodsky, describing soldiers in disguise and the vehicle as Russian. He also noted that a soldier standing by the vehicle was carrying a weapon. He asked his colleague at the checkpoint what the soldiers in the truck were doing there.
“They said they want to talk with someone from the higher command,” replied the guard on duty. Russian military vehicles were commonplace in Sevastopol as Russian forces also maintained naval installations there, exercising with Ukrainian counterparts from time-to-time.
“I thought maybe they just have some problems they wanted help or whatever,” Zabrodsky remembered thinking of the situation. He moved on to get to work without much further thought. What seemed like a routine morning trip to work, he would later pinpoint as the beginning of an invasion.
When the seemingly innocuous Russian troops started a security perimeter around the installation that evening, Zabrodsky’s colleagues took notice. Suddenly, the headquarters was abuzz with confused Ukrainian military men and women. Everyone wanted to know, ‘what’s going on?’ Zabrodsky recalled.
“Officially, they said they were having an exercise and this objective was designated as a high priority one and they had to secure it” someone told Zabrodsky and the others after consulting with the soldiers outside the gate. The headquarters sent reports up the chain of command but according to Zabrodsky, there was no response. The staff at the Ukraine Naval Headquarters was allowed to go home at night and come back each morning, but the foreign security force presence was a growing source of concern. Finally, after a few days of mounting tension, word came from higher-up that the readiness status was heightened.
“We received weapons and ammunition and supplies and started to realize that something is going wrong,” said Zabrodsky of the beginning of the armed standoff between the Naval Headquarters staff and the Russian soldiers outside the gate. Tensions ran high, but the lieutenant remembered a light moment from the first week of the impasse that provided insight into the enemy they were facing.
Face to face with the enemy
“One morning in the first week,” Zabrodsky retells the story, “we went out and we were observing the guards from a level higher than the fence where we could look down and see outside. We were smoking and one of the guards outside looked up and asked us for a cigarette,” he remembers.
The Marine and his colleague obliged the young, obviously Russian soldier. Like the other soldiers on the perimeter outside that complex, Zabrodsky noted he was Caucasian with blue eyes and light hair.
“So he is smoking with us and his supervisor comes over and asks him, ‘What are you doing? What did they give you?’ He tells him, ‘Just a pack of cigarettes’ and the supervisor asks, ‘Can I have one too?’ We said ‘sure,'” remembered Zabrodsky. Sensing an opening, he seized the chance to get more information.
“Ok guys, what are you doing here?” he recalled asking the Russian troops. They replied, “Officially, we are just conducting an exercise and we’re here to protect you.” Zabrodsky was skeptical.
“I said, ‘you have a rifle and I have a rifle, can’t I protect myself?'” the Marine asked his would-be protectors, incredulously. “He said, ‘yes,’ so I asked, ‘so what are you doing here then, you gonna shoot us or what?’ pressed Zabrodsky.
“No, no, no, c’mon!’ replied the Russian soldier. He showed his ammunition magazine to the Ukrainian troops. There were no rounds inside.
The Russians explained to their Ukrainian counterparts that they had just come from handling security at the Olympic Games in Sochi. The only television they had seen there were news reports on the upheaval in Kiev and across Ukraine.
“There was war going on here and we were killing Russians in a massacre,” described Zabrodsky of the Russian troops’ account of the media coverage they saw back home. When the Russians arrived in Sevastopol though, they told Zabrodsky and his colleague, they saw none of the chaos they’d expected from the television reports.
“They said, ‘we saw the kids going to school, everything peaceful and calm, and now you’re speaking to us in Russian,'” recounted Zabrodsky of the conversation.
“So you see now the only problem here is you,’ Zabrodsky showed his frustration, pushing back at the Russian soldiers. After that, the Russian troops seemed to lighten up, allowing resupply of fuel and food to those inside and “didn’t stop any movement in or out of the headquarters, just observed,” remembered Zabrodsky. Unfortunately for the Ukrainian headquarters personnel inside, the new arrangement didn’t last very long.
Soon, the Russian soldiers Zabrodsky chatted with were gone, rotated out with the rest of the unit. A new one took its place, “and they handled things differently,” he recalled.
“We could tell because they were not Caucasian, they didn’t even speak Russian very well, and they started to blockade us inside the headquarters,” Zabrodsky recalled of the escalating situation.
“Nothing moved in or out anymore,” he said. “We were trapped.”
Russian military tactics in Crimea
Along with the unsympathetic new guards, the outside force began using new tactics to try and break the will of the headquarters staff.
First, all communication lines were disrupted.
“The Russians were jamming everything” remembered Zabrodsky, “cell phones, radios, so we didn’t have any communications with the outside.” Even when they could get communication back up sporadically, Zabrodsky said it was a lost cause “because we couldn’t know what was accurate and what was being intercepted.”
Next, the barricading force began “psychological operations,” according to Zabrodsky. The Russians used vehicle-mounted loudspeakers, blasting messages at those trapped inside, goading the Ukrainian staff inside to come out of the headquarters complex.
“First it was like ‘Come on, you are Nazis, you are killing people, why are you sitting there? Come outside,'” remembered Zabrodsky. Another day they would change tactics.
“They said, ‘you’re our brothers, why are you sitting inside, come out,’ recounted Zabrodsky. Ratcheting up the pressure of the barricaded military staff, the Russians later returned to threatening messages.
“Again the threats started,” recalled Zabrodsky. “So it was like a pressure all the time for days on end. They were trying to make us crack,” he said reflecting on the wearying experience.
Finally, Zabrodsky and his colleagues faced their toughest test: betrayal.
A few days into the standoff, the Ukrainian staff was called to the main entrance for a meeting. Their commanding officer, the Naval Headquarters commander, Admiral Denis Berezovsky, appeared before them with the Russian troops at his back. He offered a proposition.
“He came with the Russian soldiers and asked us to refuse Ukraine and join with the Russian military” Zabrodsky remembered, the sting of the betrayal still apparent on his face.
“We realized this guy was just doing things to compromise us,” said Zabrodsky, recalling the mounting anger at the senior officer. The Russian troops too tried to persuade their Ukrainian counterparts to leave the headquarters building and join them. The appeal failed to win any more support than the Admiral though.
“So we just kicked him out because we don’t need this guy anymore who works for the other side,” Zabrodsky said.
The bleak outlook of the situation started to set in after a few weeks.
“You don’t know what’s going on outside,” remembered Zabrodsky, “you can’t speak with your family.”
In spite of all this, Zabrodsky maintains that morale was high inside the compound.
“Everyone inside was ready, and we were eager even, to fight,” he remembers. But without orders from higher to engage, not knowing what kind of reinforcements might be waiting, there was no obvious solution to the standoff.
The final days
Zabrodsky doesn’t remember what day he escaped the barricaded headquarters. For him, days blurred into weeks and without any information from outside, the timeline is hazy. What’s clear is that when he decided to scale the fence and slip past the Russian military guards to freedom it wasn’t as much a chance to flee to safety as much as the obligation he felt to his comrades to follow orders.
“Our intelligence guys needed eyes and ears more and more,” Zabrodsky said, recalling the attempt to gain initiative over the Russian captors. The intelligence officers gave Zabrodsky and a few others a checklist of things to watch, “their guard posts, patrols, movements” and gathering basic intelligence according to Zabrodsky, to report back. With orders and checklist in hand, Zabrodsky made his move, leaving the walls of the compound for the first time in nearly a month.
“I called them immediately after I escaped from the cordon of the headquarters,” Zabrodsky remembers of the first time he’d spoken to his family since the beginning of the ordeal.
“They were going crazy when I was inside there because they were watching TV and couldn’t call me to ask what’s going on,” said Zabrodsky. The conversation was short and emotional. Zabrodsky was relieved to be able to tell them, “don’t worry, everything is ok.”
Retelling the story reminded Zabrodsky of the conversation with his father, 10 years ago. When asked if he thought about himself or just leaving his unit behind, he said the thought never crossed his mind.
“When my father told me what it would be like to serve, he told me to think about that and make a decision, and I did,” remembered Zabrodsky.
“So in Crimea, the time for decisions was already passed,” Zabrodsky said about his handling of the life or death circumstances, matter of factly.
From there, the Marine went to work observing the Russian troops. Over the next few days he would watch the Russian troop movements recording what he saw, then met with other escapees from the headquarters to share information which was reported back. Soon though, the Russian troops were onto him.
“I would observe them from my car at night,” Zabrodsky recalled of his attempt to go undetected. “But the streets were empty so they saw my car the first time, second time, third time and it became suspicious” said Zabrodksy. When they started tailing him back, the lieutenant told his comrades and they advised him to lay low.
“They told me to just go somewhere else for a while,” Zabrodsky said, “so I drove to Yalta and stayed there for a week.”
When he returned, the headquarters building had been seized. Zabrodsky wasn’t around to watch it happen but he knows from the reports and videos it happened without violence. The Ukrainian military staff came out, carrying their belongings and the Russian backed Crimea rebels walked in and took over the installation. Talking about it with his comrades after the fact he understood it was the right decision to stand down.
“Someone asked ‘why didn’t they shoot,’ and they said, ‘come on, how can I shoot my neighbor? Or how can I shoot my relatives?'” Zabrodsky recalled of the conversation after the fact. If the armed guards weren’t pressure enough on the Ukraine military personnel inside the complex, civilians too pressured them to leave their posts.
“For some families, it was a real catastrophe,” remembered Zabrodsky.
“The son was inside, his mother was outside and said to him, ‘don’t do this, come on let’s go home,'” Zabrodsky explained of the tragic situation.
“He responded, ‘come on, I’m in the military. I have to do my job,’ Zabrodsky recalled. The conversation is one he could have imagined having with some members of his own family.
“They were on different sides of this conflict,” Zabrodsky said, finishing the heartbreaking story.
Soon after the fall of the headquarters, Zabrodsky and his colleagues received the order to leave Crimea.
“On the 1st of April, they said take all your stuff and report to Odessa,” said Zabrodsky of his last day in the place he’d spent seven years of his life.
A nation and families divided
Zabrodsky worried what his fiancé would say when he told her they had to move.
“Her father and sister lived in Crimea and she was from there,” Zabrodsky said of his fiancé’s roots in the area.
“I’m really grateful to my fiancé,” Zabrodsky confided, holding back tears. “She said, ‘come on man, I’m with you'” Zabrodsky remembers of asking her to leave her home.
“She was supporting me and it was very hard on her when I was trapped inside,” said Zabrodsky. In the months since they left Crimea, the conflict there has lingered in their daily lives.
“She’s ever been so far removed from her family and she doesn’t know how to deal with that situation,” confessed Zabrodsky.
“She wants to go visit them but she is scared, and the same with them,” shared Zabrodsky of a problem all too common for Ukrainian families now.
“When she calls they say, ‘we don’t want to go to Ukraine, there’s war over there,’ so now it’s kind of a wall,” laments the Marine officer.
Zabrodsky too has relatives in Russia that he no longer speaks with. One relative though told him something he thought he’d never hear
“My father, he never tells me pleasant things, stone faced,” Zabrodsky says with love in his eyes.
“He told me he was proud of my decision, and that we didn’t betray our country,” recalled Zabrodsky.
“To hear this from him it meant a lot,” Zabrodsky said, beaming with pride.