A CV90 drives past us in a cloud of gravel, dust and sand. It is followed by another one. And yet another one. There is a smell of dirt, diesel and Swedish spring in the air.
“I haven’t set foot in my home village since the war started”, says Oleksandr and looks at me with tired eyes.
Oleksandr looks a lot older than his 40 years. He picks up a pack of cigarettes from the side pocket of the Swedish army coat he is wearing. Underneath he is wearing the Swedish Armed Forces’ green motor overall. Oleksandr has just arrived to a spring-like Sweden from the front in Cherzon in southern Ukraine.
“I worked as a road worker and I had hardly held a weapon before”, he says and lights a cigarette.
He gives the column of some ten vehicles an empty look. Inside the armoured vehicles are some of Oleksandr’s colleagues who, just like him, have to learn how to use the systems against Russian vehicles, machine guns and helicopters.
“In Cherzon, I was in the infantry. Infantry soldier.”
Oleksandr is not willing to share more than that regarding his experiences at the front. It is easier to talk about life than death.
“My wife and children are still there. I have two daughters, 6 and 8 years old. They are scared of everything that happens and what may happen, but they have enough food and are healthy. That is good.”
“Perekour”, says one of the Swedish interpreters. Cigarette break in Russian. It is time for Oleksandr’s colleagues to have a smoke. Oleksandr climbs one of the vehicles. The exercise continues. When the training is completed he will be a commander of one of the 50 vehicles that Sweden is sending to Ukraine.
Early dawn, 24 February 2022. Russian missiles hit military and civilian targets in a number of locations in Ukraine. At the same time, a ground offensive is launched from various flanks.
Yuryi is 48 years old and an engineer. In fluent English, he tells the story of how the war came to his hometown.
“The missiles hit everywhere, as from nowhere. I grabbed my wife and daughter and ran. I didn’t have time to think, we just got in the car and drove off, as the missiles were falling around us.”
Yuryi shakes his head while he is talking.
“No child should have to experience anything like this.”
Commentators think that the Kremlin expected the attack to be short, intense – and successful. However, old-fashioned strikes and the Ukrainian air defence stopped the Russian convoys and missiles from reaching their targets. In village backyards and cities, pensioners made Molotov cocktails, home-made fire-bombs. At the same time, there were reports of bombed out Ukrainian cities, the rape of civilians and summary executions performed by Russian soldiers. And not before long, the Kiev suburb of Bucha is marked on the world map as a blood red stain.
Europe and the world respond to President Zelensky’s appeal for help in the fight against the Russian aggression. The first Swedish delivery consists of 5 000 helmets, 5 000 body armours, 135 000 rations and 5 000 light anti-tank weapons. Ten days after the war started, the Swedish supplies reach Ukraine. Over time, the Swedish pledges for aid grow larger. Sweden promises to train soldiers, and as a result, Swedish instructors take part in the British-led training mission Interflex, where Ukrainian civilians receive basic military training in the UK.
During the autumn and winter of 2022, at the Swedish Government Offices and the Armed Forces Headquarters, top secret discussions are held regarding possible further deliveries. Classified documents reveal Leopard 2 tanks, the Archer artillery system and CV90 IFVs. The decision is made in January 2023. Sweden is to send 50 CV90 IFVs to Ukraine. The government also promises to deliver the much coveted Archer artillery system. Shortly after, the decision is made to donate the IFVs. Those who train the personnel, who are otherwise tasked with contributing to the growth of the Swedish Armed Forces by training Swedish conscripts and officers, suddenly receive new adepts. On the white name tags, names like Oleksandr, Oleg and Yuryi can be read.
The CV90 instructors Martin and Olof are two of the many armed forces pesonnel that have had to make changes in their calendars. They are now standing on a hill watching the Ukrainian soldiers manoeuvre Swedish vehicles in the field below. Martin gives instructions on the best ways to use the vehicles and what the drivers need to think about in the various steps of the process. Martin has been here since the beginning of the training mission. Like the other Swedish instructors, he refers to the Ukrainians as his students.
“They are quick learners and incredibly hard-working. They are particularly skilled in the mechanical details. They are not so used to advanced technology, but they learn quickly. Everyone wants to learn and do their best. It is obvious, also when they are tired and have worked for long periods of time.”
Olof, who has also been there since the start adds:
”Some of them have zero experience of IFVs or tanks, but many are familiar with the Russian BMP-1 IFV. It helps even if ours are much more advanced from a technical point of view.“
Sweden is donating the 9040C version of CV90, the model was previously used by Swedish troops in Liberia and Afghanistan. Compared to the standard model, the 9040C has a higher level of protection. They are equipped with a 40-mm automatic cannon, smoke dischargers and machine guns. Open source information claims that the automatic cannon could be used against hovering helicopters at a 4-km distance – indeed a very potent weapon on the battle field.
The interpreter Magnus and the instructor Johannes stand in a large tent. Seated in front of them are some twenty students, most of them around 50 years of age, all of them men. Magnus explains in Russian what Johannes is saying as Johannes demonstrates how to operate the automatic cannon. The training is held at a high pace. There are many steps in the process that must be practiced until the students manage them when they leave Sweden.
“The challenge for us as instructors is to teach the steps to be taken inside the vehicles. In order to learn, the student needs hands-on experience and a chance to test the equipment. With such little room inside the vehicle and a large number of students who need to learn, it takes time. The more large-scale handling of the vehicles, such as driving in the field, is easier of course”, says Johannes.
I monitor the Ukrainian students’ training and return several times to firing ranges and exercise fields. The strong morale of the students is subtly expressed as focused tunnel vision, to allow them to learn as much as possible about the systems, no more than that. Most of them probably do not want to think about the fact that every day brings them closer to death and the killing. In a certain way, this is their break from the war. They can call home and sleep well without fear of air raid alerts and shooting. They get hot food, cold drinks, potato chips, cigarettes and professional dental and medical care. The rest will be dealt with later, on location.
Yuryi says that he knows what he will face when he returns despite the fact that he has never fought in a war earlier.
“I have lived side by side with the war and I’ve seen what war does to you. Of course I am scared but I try to suppress those feelings.”
“Of course I would like the war to end today, but that’s not going to happen. I think, or know, that I will have to kill. Any other thought is self-deception. The combat vehicles will be used in the middle of the battlefield. We will be at the centre of it.”
When I meet the students a few weeks later, spring has turned into summer. Driving exercises have been followed by live firing exercises, tactics, mechanics and repair lessons. Small arms firing is heard on the firing range today. In the shade under the trees, in the midst of anemones in full bloom, a group of vehicle commanders eat their lunch, soup with vegetables, sausage and sour cream served with bread.
“This is the same food as in Ukraine. Borscht. The Russians claim that it’s a Russian dish, but that’s wrong. It’s a Ukrainian dish. They even try to steal our national dish”, says one of the commanders.
In the large tent, focus is on medical care, and a last check-up of the IFVs. They will soon be on the road through Europe towards the front. Vehicle commanders, drivers and gunners have now formed competent battle units. Thanks to the joint exercise they are now much more coordinated than when I met them the first time.
In the tent, I find Oleksandr and his group. Together with Swedish personnel, they are putting camouflage webbing on a vehicle. This is one of the last steps before transportation. Yuryi is there as well. We greet each other. Yuryi claps his hand hard on the armoured vehicle they working on.
“We are ready”, he says.
This is the last time I see them. A few days later they are on their way to the front.
In Sweden, the lilacs are in full bloom. Soon, it will be midsummer.
* For security reasons, all names are fictitious.