I finally managed to reach the soldier through an encrypted messaging application. He agrees to talk to me provided he does not reveal his identity or whereabouts.
It’s quiet for a while, but last night and this afternoon it was touchinghe said to explain our communication problems.
This veteran of the Canadian Forces made the trip to Ukraine at the beginning of the Russian invasion. He now leads a group of ex-servicemen from Canada, the United States and Europe who are fighting alongside the Ukrainian army. Hrulf named his brigade in honor of the French ancestors of certain Quebecers who are part of it.
He describes what he has been living like hell on earth for two months.
† If the Russians fall for it, they’ll bomb us with everything they have. It’s a wonder I haven’t lost any men yet. †
If some elements of the brigade are of Ukrainian descent, they are all there to defend the values they believe in, Hrulf says.
This is not a clean war. We are here to stop a genocide, but also to give the Ukrainians the chance to have the freedom they want. The Russians are not on the right side of history.
The veteran explains that all members of the brigade fight voluntarily and have been integrated into a battalion of the volunteer division of the Ukrainian army. They therefore report directly to the Ministry of Defence.
It’s the only way not to contract my boys, he says. We are not mercenaries. A fighter can only stay for a month if he wants to.
Hrulf does not hide the fact that there has been bickering among his troops since the beginning of his presence in Ukraine. Former members of the brigade also questioned his leadership this week in an article by The press† (New window) In particular, they blame him for failing to provide the necessary protective equipment for his men.
The commander admits to forwarding about 60 fighters to other units. But he insists he never skimped on safety.
They all had helmets and ballistic plateshe said.
Russian baptism of fire
At the beginning of the conflict, Hrulf’s men were asked to participate in a briefing by the Ukrainian army. Instead, they recaptured a village then in the hands of the Russians, under a hail of shells.
Despite the surprise for the expats, the attack ended in success. Radio Canada was unable to independently verify these feats of arms.
† I think the Ukrainians wanted to test us. But I think we succeeded because I didn’t die and I didn’t lose any boys. †
But they were not at the end of their troubles. The next day, the Russians returned, with double the force.
They took prisoners of war and all the civilian population that had helped us was deported, the commander says. We are witnessing a forced assimilation.
Hrulf believes that his brigade offers a certain experience that some Ukrainian volunteer fighters from other units lack.
They mainly receive training in the field at a tactical and strategic level. But there is still a lot of work to be done, he agrees. There are many losses among newcomers.
The veteran notes that the Soviet legacy is still very much alive among the Ukrainian troops. However, the training the Ukrainian army has received from NATO troops has paid off. Canada has helped train 33,346 military personnel as part of Operation Unifier since 2015, according to the Department of National Defense. The cost of this program is over $890 million.
In the past, you were not allowed to go to the toilet without the General’s permission. The Westerners have done a very good job of decentralizing command so that teams can take tactical initiatives on the ground. This is also one of the reasons the Russians have lost generals, who have to go to the front line when there is a problem. It is corrupt and everyone is afraid of making a mistake.
If the commander is grateful to the countries that are sending armaments to support the war effort, there is still a brutal lack of equipment on the ground for the volunteer fighters.
We need Picatinny rails for the AK-47s and optics, he complains. It’s very hard to find. The priority is with the Ukrainian army and we will take what is left. The Brigade is now trying to fund itself by selling mugs and clothing.
But that’s not what will allow us to buy vehiclesadds Hrulf.
ready for anything
In the middle of the interview, the commander begins to apostrophe one of his soldiers.
Is there a drone? Turn out your lights and come in, damn it!he shouts, as an Orlan-10 craft flies over them.
Hrulf then resumes the discussion as if nothing happened.
He now expects a larger Russian offensive in the Donbass region.
We have a plan and we have patience. We have instructions to follow. We can’t do what we want.
Whether the Ukrainians have a chance to emerge victorious from this battle, the Quebecer is confident.
Even if it is blind or naive faith, everyone is highly motivated. The worry is felt when you are being bombed. The injuries are terrible. But the Ukrainians are ready to do anything to defend their country. If I was a Russian I would think twice before coming.
As for the Normandy Brigade, it will be there for a long time, even if the conflict stalls, Hrulf said.
As far as I’m concerned, as long as we’ll be useful, I’ll stay. But at some point, after two or three years of war, I will pass the torch.