- Share to or
‘I wasn’t thinking about war’ The first day of Russia’s full-scale invasion through the eyes of a Ukrainian border guard
On February 24, 2022, at about 5:30 a.m. Moscow time, Vladimir Putin appeared on TVs throughout Russia to announce the start of a “special military operation.” Earlier in the night, however, Russian troops had already initiated the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian border guard Andriy Lernatovich was one of the first people to encounter the invading Russian forces. He told journalists from the Ukrainian outlet Babel what it was like to serve in the Luhansk region, which borders Russia, and how he experienced the first day of the full-scale war. In English, Meduza summarizes his account.
One year before the invasion
In 2021, 33-year-old Andriy Lernatovich became the head of the Ukrainian Border Guard Service’s outpost in Milove, a small village in the Luhansk region. According to Lernatovich, he knew the area was one of the most difficult assignments in the country, but he took the job nonetheless.
For most of 2021, Lernatovich effectively lived in his office. “I slept on the sofa. At 6:30 in the morning, I would brief my superiors on the situation. Sometimes I didn’t go to sleep for several days at a time,” he told Babel.
The area Lernatovich was responsible for included a 100-kilometer (62-mile) area along the border with Russia that locals referred to as the “greenery” for its steppes and forests. He was also in charge of the Milove crossing point, which was located on the street that divided the Ukrainian village of Milove from the Russian village of Chertkovo. Until 2014, the two villages had been, for all intents and purposes, a single settlement.
A week before the invasion
In February 2022, according to Lernatovich, local residents repeatedly told the border guards that Russia was conducting new military exercises. At the same time, the number of Russian border guards in Chertkovo suddenly doubled. According to Lernatovich, the Russian guards began wearing body armor and helmets and carrying more weapons than usual.
“On People’s Friendship Street [which divided the two villages], suddenly there weren’t just three Russian squads a day but seven,” said Lernatovich. “Before, we knew all of the Russian border guards by appearance. But now I didn’t recognize a single one.”
On February 22, Chertkovo’s police officers, prosecutor’s office employees, and other public officials left the village. From that day on, Lernatovich and his fellow border guards didn’t remove their body armor.
The day before the invasion
On February 23, the Russian border guards in Chertkovo slowed down incoming traffic from Ukraine dramatically. By the evening, a line of dozens of cars had built up at the crossing point, and at around 10:00 p.m., the guards stopped letting people cross altogether. People who were turned away said that it would be another week before anyone was allowed to cross the border again.
At midnight, Lernatovich noticed that the Ukrainian customs officers were packing their things.
“What are you doing? What’s going on?” I asked them. “Nothing, everything’s fine,” they said. But I could see that they were removing their computers and their documents.
The night of the invasion
At 1:30 a.m. local time, Milove residents heard columns of Russian tanks approaching their village.
“We could hear a low rumble, and I decided to call my commander in Lysychansk. I put him on speaker phone, and he could hear them approaching. I knew the situation wasn’t good, but I wasn’t thinking about war. I thought they would come up to the border and stop, in order to put pressure on [Volodymyr] Zelensky and provoke us,” Lernatovich said.
At 3:35 a.m., Lernatovich received a call from border guards in the nearby village of Zorynivka, which also borders Russia. Russian soldiers had entered the village.
Lernatovich immediately went to Zorynivka, where six officers were on duty. On the live footage from their infrared cameras, the guards saw eight armed men in full military gear enter the village from the Russian side. Staff Sergeant Denys Tkach, the senior officer on duty, ordered the men to turn away. The Russians opened fire, and Tkach was killed on the spot.
At 4:05 a.m., Lernatovich got a call from Milove. He learned that both the border post and the police station in the village had been shelled from Grad multiple rocket launchers.
“I reported it to my superiors, and they ordered us to abandon Milove immediately and relocate to Bilovodsk,” Lernatovich said. The border guards had plan in place in case of an attack, he said, and Bilovodsk was along the first line where they planned to mount a defense.
The guards soon left Milove. Within an hour, a column of Russian military vehicles had entered the village, according to Babel.
Sign up for The Beet
Underreported stories. Fresh perspectives. From Budapest to Bishkek.
At about 5:00 a.m., Lernatovich and his fellow border guards reached the courtyard of the Bilovodsk border service station. There were about 150 officers there from various outposts in the area. Lernatovich quickly realized that four men from his unit were missing. “I understood right away,” he said. Like many locals, all four of the missing men had often said in the past that “Russia and Ukraine are brother nations,” according to Lernatovich.
The only weapons the border guards had in Bilovodsk were handguns, machine guns and submachine guns, and about 20 anti-tank grenade launchers, Lernatovich said. Nonetheless, they prepared to defend the village.
At about 7:00 a.m., Ukrainian border guards from the village of Novopskov blew up the bridge between Milove and Belovodsk. Lernatovich spent the next few hours waiting for Russia’s offensive. But it never came: after seeing the bridge destroyed, the Russian troops turned around and went instead to the neighboring village of Markivka. At that point, the Ukrainian border guards received an order from their command to retreat to Starobilsk. Lernatovich later learned that a column of 50 tanks had entered Markivka.
At that point, several more Ukrainian border officers chose not to accompany their fellow servicemen. According to Lernatovich, some of them went into hiding, while others simply refused to go to Starobilsk and instead went home. “Some people’s mothers and fathers came to pick them up. Take that how you will, but that’s what happened,” he said.
In Starobilsk, the border guards assembled at the military enlistment office along with police officers, other security forces, and soldiers who’d been stationed in the area. On February 25, the border guards were transferred to Dnipro.
Lernatovich, however, spent the next few months serving as a soldier in the Donetsk region. He was variously stationed in Kramatorsk, in Sviatohirsk, and near Lyman. In June, he came under shellfire and suffered a concussion. After his release from the hospital, he was transferred to the Zakarpattia region, where he now serves in a unit responsible for a seven-kilometer (four-mile) stretch of Ukraine’s border with Slovakia.
Recounting the events of February 24, Lernatovich notes that retreating from Milove was the only realistic option for the border guards stationed there, since they didn’t have the weapons necessary to fend off Russia’s tanks. His only regret, he says, is that he and his fellow border guards didn’t use trucks to block the road between the border crossing point and the center of Milove to slow down the Russian troops and give local residents a few more hours to evacuate.
Translation by Sam Breazeale.
Cover photo: Antonio Bronic / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA
- Share to or