YouTube Videos Help Ukrainian Soldiers Learn New Skills To Fight Russia: NPR

Members of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces examine new weaponry, including NLAW anti-tank systems and other portable anti-tank grenade launchers, in Kyiv on March 9.

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Members of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces examine new weaponry, including NLAW anti-tank systems and other portable anti-tank grenade launchers, in Kyiv on March 9.

Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

MYKOLAIV, Ukraine – On the second day of the war with Russia, Anatoliy Nikitin and Stas Volovyk, two Ukrainian army reservists, were ordered to deliver NLAW anti-tank missiles to their fellow soldiers in the northern suburbs of Kyiv. Then, as they stood exposed on a highway, Nikitin, who goes by the battle nickname Concrete, says they received new orders.

“A guy on the radio said, ‘There are two Russian tanks coming your way. Try to hit one and broadcast it live!” Nikitin recalled, sitting on a park bench in the southern city of Mykolaiv as artillery rumbled in the distance.

There was a problem: neither soldier had ever fired an NLAW. So, as the tanks approached, they hid among trees and watched a YouTube video on how to do it. They took up position, prepared the missiles.

“Then the commander says, ‘Oh, it’s ours! It’s ours!'” recalls Volovyk, nicknamed Raptor. “So we didn’t shoot. It was a very close call.”

Fighting war requires new skills now

As the war changed over the months, Ukrainian fighters like Volovyk and Nikitin had to adapt and learn new skills.

During the first month, soldiers used shoulder-launched missiles and hit-and-run tactics to defend Kyiv. These days, they use drones and artillery in high-tech trench warfare in agricultural fields in the south of the country.

Nikitin and Volovyk fought in both environments and describe their on-the-job training as a mixture of terror, adventure and dark comedy. Both men offer a stark view of the fighting and say the early days of the war were filled with confusion.

Anatoliy Nikitin, left, a 40-year-old man who runs a construction company, and Stas Volovyk, a 33-year-old software engineer, in the southern city of Mykolaiv in late August.

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Anatoliy Nikitin, left, a 40-year-old man who runs a construction company, and Stas Volovyk, a 33-year-old software engineer, in the southern city of Mykolaiv in late August.

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“It was total chaos,” recalls Nikitin, 40, sporting a salt-and-pepper beard and running a construction company. “It’s lucky for us that the Russians were more chaotic than us.”

Volovyk is a 33-year-old software engineer who learned English by playing video games. He says Russian tactics and decision-making improved during the war, but he found some of their early actions disconcerting. For example, the Russians deployed riot police who headed towards Kyiv, only to be wiped out.

“We see how they advance, we see how they fight and we were like, ‘Okay, is this their best or are they just laughing at us?'” recalls Volovyk, who wears a camouflage cap with the message “Don’t worry, Be prepared.”

“Then we realized they were just stupid. There are a lot of them, but they are stupid.”

From trenching to drone operation

The Russians began to withdraw from the Kyiv suburbs at the end of March. After that, the two men followed orders and headed south to fight a very different kind of warfare. They left behind the protection of suburban buildings and forests outside the capital to sweep through agricultural fields with little cover. They started at the bottom: working the trenches.

Ukrainian soldiers dig a trench near Barvinkove in eastern Ukraine on April 25.

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Ukrainian soldiers dig a trench near Barvinkove in eastern Ukraine on April 25.

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“It sucks,” Volovyk says. “You dig. You dig. It’s the only thing you can do, because this is an artillery war and unless you dig you’re pretty much dead.”

In trench warfare, infantry rarely see the enemy or have a chance to fire on them. Volovyk says the shelling can have psychological consequences.

“You’re constantly bombarded and you just don’t know if you’re going to survive,” he says. “So you just trust it’s not your day, but not yet.”

After two weeks, the men are offered new reconnaissance jobs. It’s dangerous work that involves approaching enemy lines and trying to evade detection. But the men jumped at the chance, anything to get out of the trenches.

They now operate drones and serve as eyes for artillery, helping to guide fire on everything from Russian tanks to ammunition dumps in the Kherson region.

Drone operators are targets themselves. Once the Russians spot a drone, they try to calculate the general area where the operators might be hiding and hit it methodically with artillery fire.

Nikitin and Volovyk say they prefer military-grade surveillance drones to commercial drones. Military drones have secure data transfer and are much harder for the Russians to block.

Ukrainian serviceman Stas Volovyk (left) and Anatoliy Nikitin (center) of the reconnaissance team “Fireflies” use a drone on the front line in the Mykolaiv region on August 8.

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Ukrainian serviceman Stas Volovyk (left) and Anatoliy Nikitin (center) of the reconnaissance team “Fireflies” use a drone on the front line in the Mykolaiv region on August 8.

Evgeny Maloletka / AP

Their reconnaissance team, known as the “Fireflies”, has its own Instagram account and YouTube channel. Their videos show them launching a drone from a parched field and settling into an abandoned farmhouse. Then they help guide a shell that narrowly misses a Russian armored personnel carrier, enveloping it in a cloud of smoke. It’s a reminder that even with all the advanced technology, it’s still hard to hit a moving target.

The soldiers had some breathtaking moments. Nikitin remembers traveling with a team of engineers when they encountered a Russian soldier in a field.

He looks at me, I look at him and he just jumps into the bushes,” Nikitin recalls. He then told the engineers to go shoot the Russian and any of his comrades.

They didn’t like that idea.

“No! No! We are engineers,” recalls Nikitin.

Before the Russian could rally his fellow soldiers, Nikitin and the engineers took off.

Nikitin and Volovyk joined the army reserve six years ago after the Russians invaded Crimea. Nikitin says they weren’t prophets, but they knew Russia would try to take the rest of Ukraine. Here, to the south, their objective is to liberate Kherson, the regional capital.

After eight months of war, they hope for a short break and then a return to combat.

As Nikitin says, “We’re not going anywhere.”

NPR London producer Morgan Ayre and Ukrainian producer Kateryna Malofieieva contributed to this story.

Raymond T. Helms