Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Cold Steel and Christians in Ukraine's Fight

Improvisation is the order of the day for rough-and-ready volunteers.
By Dmitry Durnev
  • Members of the Jesus Christ Company at prayer in Mariupol. (Photo: Sergei Vaganov)
    Members of the Jesus Christ Company at prayer in Mariupol. (Photo: Sergei Vaganov)
  • A front-line position of the Azov Battalion on the outskirts of Mariupol. (Photo: Sergei Vaganov)
    A front-line position of the Azov Battalion on the outskirts of Mariupol. (Photo: Sergei Vaganov)
  • A bunker made out of the high-grade steel for which Mariupol is famed. (Photo: Sergei Vaganov)
    A bunker made out of the high-grade steel for which Mariupol is famed. (Photo: Sergei Vaganov)

Volunteer units deployed alongside Ukraine’s regular army often bear the brunt of the fighting. In the southeastern port city of Mariupol, for example, they helped stem an offensive by pro-Russia forces with improvised bombs made out of fire extinguishers and impregnable shields using the high-grade steel for which this part of Ukraine is famous.

There are more than 40 volunteer battalions on the Ukrainian side, variously affiliated, armed and equipped. Some have swelled in number, like the well-known Azov Battalion which is now a full regiment. This unit was recently transferred from the interior ministry to the National Guard, a change of status that will bring it more armoured vehicles, artillery and other equipment.

Also in Mariupol, a new battalion called Holy Mary is currently being formed, with its principal component a company-sized force of Christian soldiers.

The Jesus Christ Company used to be part of another unit, the Shakhtyorsk Battalion, but that disintegrated because there were two factions that could not get on – former policemen and ex-convicts, all loyal Ukrainian citizens, but divided by mutual loathing.

The Jesus Christ Company recruits in Mariupol and is based at a yacht club by the seaside, where its members congregate for mass every Sunday.

Like many combatants on both sides of the conflict, the unit’s members have adopted colourful noms de guerre. At roll call, you will hear the names Professor, Mega, Zayats (“The Hare”), even Attila, who I assumed was “…the Hun”.

The Azov battalion has a special reconnaissance unit led by one Botsman (“Bosun”). A Russian originally from the city of Samara and now a Ukrainian passport-holder, he is a seasoned and respected soldier.

In early September, when Russian tanks moved out of their base at Novoazovsk and rolled down the highway towards Mariupol, the Azov Battalion played a crucial role in blocking their advance.

The Ukrainian army had just suffered defeat at Ilovaysk, and it seemed probable that the rebels, reinforced by regular troops and tanks arriving from Russia, would take the key port city of Mariupol and more besides.

Botsman’s unit deployed crude, home-made landmines, fashioned out of fire extinguishers packed with explosives.

“We loaded them into a car and parked it across the highway,” he recalled. “The lead tank tried to push it out of the way, and it exploded. The column didn’t go any further.”

“Do you want to see one?” he asked me. His men showed me a red fire extinguisher with the top sawn off and some sort of powder packed inside.

Under heavy enemy fire, a few hundred Azov members hunkered down in the settlement of in Shirokino. Their efforts in holding off a concerted armoured and artillery offensive bought a precious 48 hours during which heavy weaponry was brought in for the Ukrainian military in Mariupol.

They survived the onslaught thanks to another makeshift piece of military technology – lengths of steel straight from the factory which formed armoured walls for their defensive lines.

Because the conflict has made transport impossible, the steel, in basic unworked planks known as “slabs”, has been piling up unsold. At 30 centimetres or more in thickness, a slab makes perfect armour.

It is strong stuff, and costly too. Using it is like paving the streets with gold. The hulls of Soviet nuclear submarines were made at the Azovstal plant in Mariupol.

Sasha Omeluyanchuk, adviser to the Donetsk regional governor Sergei Taruta, says the idea of using steel was his boss’s brainchild.

“If I hadn’t seen and heard it myself, I’d never have believed it,” he told me. “We were sitting one night and news came in that over 100 Russian tanks and a lot of artillery had arrived in Novoazovsk. It wasn’t clear how we were going to be able to defend our people. Suddenly Taruta said ‘We’ve got slabs.”

Taruta was familiar with the steel industry as he worked at Azovstal for many years. Based in Mariupol – effectively the provincial capital since Donetsk itself is in rebel hands – Taruta was replaced this month.

Shifting the steel was no problem since the city has plenty of heavy cranes especially designed for the task. Nor was there any shortage of civilians willing to help build fortifications.

The steel slabs were laid one on top of the other like so many pieces of Lego, and made into everything from bunkers to firing positions and shelters that would protect tanks from incoming artillery shells.

The steel walls worked. Tank guns, heavy artillery and multiple-rocket launchers were unable to penetrate the improvised defences. And outsiders could not guess how such home made defences were standing up to a constant barrage.

A soldier nicknamed Bayda told me what the battle was like.

“It was terrifying. You’re sitting there clutching your rifle, and it’s so useless when you’re being hit by howitzer fire,” he said. “Four hours in a row. We counted the gaps between blasts, but that became futile. They started landing like clockwork, laid down metre by metre.”

Nevertheless, the attacking force did not get past Shirokino. Remarkably, the Azov Battalion did not lose a single man. Seven were injured and four of those were soon back on active duty. (See also Mariupol Holding its Breath.)

Back at the Jesus Christ Company, I qiuizzed some of the members about their eccentric and sometimes alarming names, given that they are part of a group united by Christian devotion.

Mega, it turned out, was from the Old Believers community of the Orthodox Church. His chosen name, though, is a tribute to Los Angeles band Megadeth.

I then approached a bearded officer with some trepidation given his fearsome name – Attila.

“It isn’t a nickname,” he told me. “It’s my real name. My father is Hungarian.”

Dmitry Durnev is editor-in-chief of the MK-Donbass newspaper in Donetsk.

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