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'Keep fighting': Ukrainian soldiers continue battle with Russia despite low morale

KYIV, Ukraine — The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine has left many Ukrainian soldiers feeling war weary but unwilling or unable to give up the fight.
Ukrainian Jr. Sgt. Artem Baulin is photographed in Kyiv, Ukraine on Monday, June 12, 2023. Baulin says he wants to return to his job as a graphic designer but will have to battle on despite the heavy losses the army has been suffering during the Russian-Ukraine war. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Graveland

KYIV, Ukraine — The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine has left many Ukrainian soldiers feeling war weary but unwilling or unable to give up the fight.

Artem Baulin, a junior sergeant from Kyiv, is undergoing rehab at a military hospital after he was injured in an explosion and suffered a concussion during the bloody conflict in the eastern city of Bakhmut. The battle there has claimed tens of thousands of lives on both sides.

"I've been fighting for over a year, from the 24th of February (2022). I lost lots of friends. And while they were burning to the ground, I wasn't sad. I was in position to keep fighting," Baulin told The Canadian Press in an interview.

"We just get to fight."

The 25-year-old says he can't think about having a normal life going forward. Right now, there is just the war against Russia.

"I want to be a graphic designer like I was before the war, but now we have this problem with our neighbours. This is just another civilization of other people who don't understand how to live in this world," Baulin says.

"I will return to my brigade and maybe I will fight again."

Baulin, not wearing a shirt, has three large Grim Reaper tattoos on his chest and arms and laughs about how they may be protecting him from death.

It's not a fear of getting killed that has him hesitant to return to the front lines, he says. It's a lack of leadership from some officers that has him worried.

"I want to transfer to another brigade, because we have (a) very, very big problem with our commanders," Baulin says. "Our commanders don't support us.

"In autumn, I was in the sniper's group and we (got) good missions, bad missions, but we don't lose anyone. I was transferred into another squad to do communications, but we already don't have the right soldiers from assault squads."

Baulin says a lack of soldiers experienced in assaults, armed with proper weapons, has made the war more dangerous. 

"I was fighting in Bakhmut, but we don't have machine-guns and they say that you don't have qualifications for machine-guns. Why do you need them?"

Igor, who declined to give his last name, is also away from fighting as he gets rehabilitation on his back.

He spent five years with the army before leaving in 2018. But when the war broke out, he quit his job as a delivery man and joined again.

He's done with fighting now, he says, but the army isn't going to let him quit.

"I have bad injuries, my back hurts. After four operations, I really need to quit … but I can't do that," he says through an interpreter.

"They still want me back on the front line."

Igor pulls out a cheque he received for his time in rehab. It's the equivalent of about $150 — half his usual soldier pay. It's difficult to make ends meet, he says.

"I was really inspired to be a guardian of the nation. I'm feeling hostile right now," Igor says.

"I will be back to my unit later this month. Now I fight still for our country … not for the money."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 14, 2023.

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

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