On the Road with Ukraine’s Recoilless Riflemen

Talking to a Ukrainian soldier about the SPG-9 recoilless rifle system at an undisclosed location in Zaporizhia oblast during Ukrainian anti-armor training.. He would do his best to communicate with me through his limited understanding of English and the use of Google Translate. Photo credit: Patrick Hilsman.

Talking to a Ukrainian soldier about the SPG-9 recoilless rifle system at an undisclosed location in Zaporizhia oblast during Ukrainian anti-armor training. He would do his best to communicate with me through his limited understanding of English and the use of Google Translate. Photo credit: Patrick Hilsman.

I stand on an unpaved dirt road in a location completely unrecognizable to me.

To my left is a grassy plain of rolling hills. The shrubs dance along its expanse as the wind brushes against them. The hills glide up and down the plain so smoothly that they almost look like waves cresting on the horizon, while the dirt road upon which I stand is the shoreline, where the ocean meets its end. To the right of me is a lake glistening in the hot sun – the same sun that makes my helmet stick to my head, and my body armor cling to my chest.

Usually, journalists are accustomed to covering conflict zones in an ubiquitous “Press” patch affixed to the top center of their plate carrier. But on this trip, that patch is missing: earlier in the day, I was advised by Ukrainian armed forces to take it off due to the fact that it was reflective, and made me easier to spot. 

This is, of course, the point of the patch: to highlight that you are different from those around you.  Society, professional conduct, and typical rules of engagement seem to constantly shout at us: “you are a member of the media, and should not be mistaken as a combatant!”

Unfortunately, the Russian army has rewritten those rules. With over 30 journalists already killed in the past seven months in Ukraine, it should be clear that this distinction does not matter to the Russian army. So instead, I wear as much green as possible, like I was instructed to by my traveling companions the day before. Absent an army-issued combat uniform, this is the best possible solution, and draping myself in green makes it so I blend in – at least somewhat – with the ocean of lush forestland covering most of Zaporizhia oblast in eastern Ukraine.

To my right, in front of that glistening lake, stands a Ukrainian soldier wielding a Kalashnikov-type rifle, taking pot shots at an unseen target. Or unseen to me, at least.

The first pop of his rifle, like a firecracker, turns my head on a swivel.

I’m feeling jumpy, and for good reason. Earlier, while en route to the frontline, the military convoy I was traveling on came to a halt just minutes away from its destination, when Russian artillery began to bombard our intended arrival point.

As artillery shells thudded in the distance, we sat in painstaking silence and waited for the all-clear. Nearly half an hour later, the signal still hadn’t arrived – but a Russian drone had, forcing our entire convoy to unceremoniously dash into the forest and hide until the little mechanical devil went away.

At this point, our army minders decided a trip to the frontline was too dangerous for the time being, and we were quickly herded off to an anti-armor training exercise held on the aforementioned dirt road. It is here where I stand now.

There are relatively few journalists covering this event, including Patrick (Hilsman) and myself. Everyone else is apparently a member of the Ukrainian armed forces, and is either teaching or being taught how to use these weapons systems – aside from the soldiers posted on the hills surrounding our location, who are observing from a distance because, I assume, they had nothing better to do on this hot summer day.

The main attraction today is an SPG-9, a tripod-mounted recoilless rifle designed by the Soviet Union in the early 1960s. This particular batch of rifles, as explained to me through broken English and Google Translate by a gracious Ukrainian soldier, was actually produced in February 2022, immediately before Russia’s invasion.

The gracious soldier, who has gone through great strides to communicate with me given my relatively poor understanding of Russian and Ukrainian, tells me the purpose of this rifle is to enable the elimination of armored vehicles and tanks on an infantry level, removing the military’s reliance on more conventional vehicle-mounted anti-armor systems. The rifle, he explains, can also be used as an effective anti-infantry weapon, clearing buildings and entrenched positions with ease.

As its name might suggest, the recoilless rifle has nearly unnoticeable recoil, which means by design it also has a deadly backblast of pressurized gas. Specialized training is highly recommended.

Despite these novel features, the rifle’s appearance – that of a long, green tube – is almost disarming. It screams “utilitarian, unimposing, and unassuming” in a way Soviet-era technology so often does. A detachable funnel ports to the rear, allowing gas to escape, while the front of the rifle has an opening containing a simple smooth bore. One wouldn’t be blamed if they thought it wasn’t a weapon at all.

Numerous SPG-9s are stood up next to each other, dotting each side of the road in a straight line – the sort of line which can only be crafted with military precision. Their barrels point across the sweeping expanse of grass, towards a piece of wood looming in the distance which the soldiers have apparently set up to test their aim.

The same gracious soldier (who previously talked to me using the all-powerful Google Translate) calls me over to take a closer look. I crouch down in the dirt, listening attentively as he explains its different components. Patrick and I are the only reporters to get close to the weapons, and the only ones trying to understand its components. We also happen to be the only American reporters here, showing that American gun culture does have certain benefits. 

As the soldier muddles on into a more technical description of the system’s different parts, the language barrier feels stronger than ever. With great effort, he successfully names a few parts of the SPG-9 in English, all the while fighting a personal war with the English language, and slowly eking out a victory.

My attention turns to the other soldiers around us, all attending carefully to their own weapons. In the field, their mode of communication has become more informal and comfortable, and none are speaking any Ukrainian that I could hear. All of them, it seems, are speaking Russian.

Although I’m a novice at both languages, the difference is immediately clear: anyone who’s watched enough spy movies knows “da” and “nyet” are Russian, not Ukrainian.

This is all unsurprising, since those who speak Russian as a first language are plentiful in the country. I’ve chatted with many others before, including members of the Ukrainian military. Instead, what strikes me now is that nobody here seems to be speaking Ukrainian at all.

During my time in Lviv and Kyiv, I heard most people speak Ukrainian, with sparse amounts of Russian tossed in on occasion. The further east I traveled, the more this changed, until I arrived in Zaporizhia Oblast – where most spoke Russian.

Russian speakers are predominant in eastern Ukraine, a holdover from decades of Russian colonization and suppression of the Ukrainian language from Tsarist Russia onwards. Still, I can’t shake the thought that this was the first time I’ve been surrounded by entirely ethnic Russian speakers who are also all members of the Ukrainian military – a microcosm of the strange and entirely unique dynamics of conflict in the country’s long-occupied east.

Before I can think any more about this facet of conflict, I’m hurriedly told to move: the training is about to start. I’m perfectly eager to get out of the way, since I want to be nowhere near the SPG-9’s backblast when it goes off.

To get a better view of the live fire training exercise, some other journalists and I join soldiers who are sitting on a hill overlooking the firing range. The view is absolutely stunning, and the lake adjacent to us shines brightly in the reflection of the sun. The green fields are full of flowers in bloom, and one female soldier has taken a bud from the field and attached it to the top of her helmet – a sort of natural camouflage. If it wasn’t for the soldiers, the weapons, the body armor, and the ever-present threat of Russian missiles, it would be a lovely spot for a picnic. 

I’m instructed to plug my ears with my fingers and open my mouth when they start firing. I believe this is to protect my eardrums, but it mostly serves to make me look silly.

A large BOOM signals the start of the training exercise. As the shell launches, my eyes dart across the horizon in an attempt to visually track it, but all my vision can catch is a brief blur of a dot bolting across the grassy field before ramming into a hillside.

The soldiers firing the SPG-9 miss on their first attempt. This, I assume, is why they’re training.

The instructors move down the line in an orderly fashion, and each team of trainees shoots off a single shot from their SPG-9 before the instructors move on to the next team. 

The shells skip across the hillside as though they’re stones skipping across a lake, kicking up large mounds of earth as they make impact. The dirt road behind us is blown into dust from the tremendous force of each backblast, which wafts into the air before mixing slowly with the acrid smoke emanating from each spent shell casing. Before long, the countryside is filled with this noxious mixture, and the firing range looks as though it’s covered in a light fog. I can now hardly imagine the peaceful scene which took place here just a few moments before.

In this stark contrast, I once again find myself considering the circumstances which led to my arrival in the country.

When I was in the United States on February 24th, the day of the invasion, I listened to Putin’s justification for his barbaric invasion of Ukraine. He talked about NATO expansion, about de-Nazification, about how Lenin created modern Ukraine (fun fact: he didn’t). He talked about how Ukraine is committing a genocide against Russian speakers in the country’s east.

Sitting here now, as the explosions ring out around me, this fourth justification dominates my thoughts. I’ve always found this accusation of genocide to be the most ridiculous justification of all.

Human rights monitors seem to agree. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, has dismissed the accusation as baseless. The Russian government has never provided any substantive evidence for these claims, and none of the information they have provided has come close to the definition of genocide outlined by Article II of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. In fact, there is credence to the opposite claim: that Russia is committing demographic genocide by deporting over a million and counting Ukrainian nationals to so-called “filtration camps” in Russia’s expansive west.

Despite this, the talking point of genocide at the hands of the Ukrainian government is still repeated by the Russian government, Russian state media, and internet contrarians who claim to be free thinkers bucking media narratives – but who, in reality, have simply accepted another country’s state media narrative instead. I’ve always dismissed these accusations out of hand, but only now, as I’m immersed in the reality of war, do they start to feel grossly reprehensible.

The cities and villages hit hardest by the Russian invasion, whether in terms of total infrastructure destroyed, total population displaced, or total civilians killed, has been in the country’s east. This is the part of the country closest to Russia, and the part of the country with the highest concentration of Russian speakers. The Ukrainian soldiers around me, training to fight the Russian army, are also Russian speakers. Russian propaganda is specifically targeted towards them, with the claim that Russia is saving them from an oppressive government in Kyiv – so why would they fight against their own liberation?

Maybe it has something to do with what so-called Russian “liberation” looks like: Civilians executed with their hands tied behind their back in places like Bucha, or the decimation of most buildings and infrastructure in places like Mariupol, another city with a large Russian speaking population. The Russian siege in Mariupol was so brutal that the residents of the city did not even have an opportunity to properly bury the dead, with the city covered in makeshift shallow graves.

Most of those buried in Mariupol’s shallow graves were killed by Russian war crimes, like the Russian bombing of Donetsk Regional Academic Drama Theatre, which was clearly marked with the word “children” on the outside of the building. The Russian invasion has damaged and destroyed many Orthodox churches in eastern Ukraine, where many Russian-speaking Ukrainians go to pray or seek shelter. These churches did not seem to be off limits for the Russian army, though, as their bombardment killed members of church staff at Svyatohirsk Lavra monastery in Eastern Ukraine, which traces its roots back to the 17th century.

These bombardments destroy both the religious structures of eastern Ukraine, and also its physical history. Even if you survive Russia’s military actions, you can still be forcefully deported from your home to Russia against your will (Ukraine’s official tourist portal, Visit Ukraine, even has a page on what to do when this happens), a process in which Ukrainian nationals are herded into brutal Russian “filtration camps” which ask questions about whether you support Zelensky, and punish you for your relationship with Ukrainian military members.

This version of concentrated violence in Eastern Ukraine has been going on, on a smaller scale,for the past 8 years. It’s not hard to understand how Russian-speaking Ukranians don’t like the Russian state sponsored version of “liberation”, and are welcoming their so-called “liberators” with the very SPG-9s being tested in front of me.

Those same SPG-9s snap me out of my thoughts, as the final round of the slow salvo finally flies across the field and smashes its target into bits, eliciting a cheer from those watching the exercise.

Progress. Slow progress, but progress. Shortly after this, we’re told that the Russian shelling on the frontline has cleared up enough for us to try and head towards the frontline again. I take one last look at the firing range from my scenic view upon the hill, shake the hands of those who guided me around, and head back towards the Ukrainian military vehicle – an unassuming green-painted van.

Shortly after, this same green van would bus us less than a mile away from Russian positions on the front line.

It is here, on the front, that I notice the same common theme: most of my military escorts are also Russian speakers.

Standing at the gateway to Donetsk oblast.

Standing at the gateway to Donetsk oblast.

One Reply to “On the Road with Ukraine’s Recoilless Riflemen”

  1. Hi Dylan, great article, thank you.
    My Ukrainian wife tells me that it’s easier for Ukrainians speakers to understand Russian speakers, then vice versa. Given the life and death circumstances in the Ukrainian army, it’s common practice to converse in Russian language in fighting units to avoid misunderstandings. So it is likely that many of the soldiers you heard speaking Russian, had in fact, Ukrainian as their first language.

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