Illia Samoilenko cuts a distinctive profile wherever he goes; even more so in the heart of Jerusalem. His hair neatly coiffed, the Ukrainian lieutenant towers over passersby with his 6’7″ (2-meter) frame.
Samoilenko, an intelligence officer in the Azov Regiment of Ukraine’s National Guard, stands out even more by making no effort to hide his war wounds. His left hand — which he lost along with his right eye in combat against the Russians in 2016 — is a metal prosthesis, which he uses with great dexterity.
And he insists that despite weeks of desperate combat in the siege of the famed Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, followed by four months of solitary confinement in a Russian prison, he no longer suffers from any mental health issues.
“I’m completely restored,” Samoilenko told The Times of Israel on Wednesday, hours after he landed at Ben Gurion Airport for a nine-day visit to Israel, where he is telling the story of Mariupol’s defense to a country that Kyiv says has failed to take a firm moral stance in the face of Russian crimes.
But the 28-year-old isn’t focused on tensions between the governments.
“I didn’t come here to beg for weaponry,” he said.
In 2016, Samoilenko, then a university student in Kyiv, decided to join the Azov Regiment to fight Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
He said he joined the unit because of the soldiers’ professional and intellectual prowess. “Because I am motivated, dedicated, self-proven, and I matched the people just like me, people who constantly training, who have big ideas in their heads. A lot of intellectual people. A lot of people who willingly came to military service.”
The Azov battalion rose to prominence in 2014 as a volunteer outfit fighting alongside Ukraine’s army against pro-Moscow militias and Russian troops in the Donbas before being integrated into Kyiv’s official forces.
Many saw the unit as a far-right organization that used Nazi imagery and attracted antisemitic nationalists. The unit has featured prominently in Russian accusations that the government in Kyiv has Nazi sympathies.
In 2017, antisemitic graffiti, as well as the symbol of Azov Regiment, was sprayed on Odessa’s Jewish institutions.
Vyacheslav Lykhachov, a Russia-born Israeli who monitors hate crimes in Ukraine, acknowledges that there were neo-Nazis among the group’s founders in 2014, but says that most far-right ideologues left by the end of the year.
“The rest of the right-wing radicals, who clearly articulated their views, were deliberately cleaned out by the new commandant of the regiment in 2017,” Lykhachov explained.
“There are no units created based on ideology among Ukrainian National Guard, nor are there any among the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” he continued.
Samoilenko also readily admitted that the far-right was present at the “beginning of the Ukrainian National Renaissance” — the Euromaidan protests in 2013 — and there was a presence in Azov as well.
“We had, in the first couple of years, people with questionable reputation. Yeah, of course we had them,” he said, but added they didn’t last as the regiment became more professional. “The marginals, the people, the adventurers, they just been leaving and they were not staying for too long.”
The unit has soldiers with a range of ideologies, said Samoilenko, including antifascists, socialists, and anarchists. “There are Jews in there and they were all this time,” he added, “but not in a great numbers because a lot of people were frightened by the Russian propaganda.”
One of the company commanders currently in the field is Jewish, said Samoilenko: “He’s performing very well.”
Yulia Fedosiuk, whose husband was taken captive by Russian forces when members of the regiment surrendered at Mariupol’s Azovstal plant in May, agrees with the sentiment.
“One of my best friends, he is a Jew and he is in Azov,” said Fedosiuk, who is in Israel as part of the same delegation as Samoilenko, funded by a pro-Kyiv organization.
Expecting to die
Samoilenko took part in the defense of Mariupol from the start of the invasion in late February.
“My expectation was to hold for one week,” he recalled, as over 10,000 Russian troops and irregulars laid siege to the city.
Beyond the staff work, Samoilenko’s command of English meant that he spent significant time performing interviews with media outlets around the world.
A consummate intelligence officer, Samoilenko can still rattle off the names of the Russian units he faced, which included raw conscripts, special forces and Chechen formations.
He still has a measure of respect for the Russian special forces fighters Azov faced.
“We kicked their asses,” he recounted. “These guys are top and they respected us. [They are] the only guys who, you know, have a little bit of honor, and have been fighting very vigorously.”
The three-month siege turned Mariupol into a worldwide symbol of both defiance and suffering. The Russian bombardment killed over 20,000 civilians, according to Ukraine, and left the remaining inhabitants — perhaps one-quarter of the southern port city’s prewar population of 430,000 — with little food, water, heat or medicine.
During the siege, Russian forces launched lethal airstrikes on a maternity hospital and a theater where civilians had taken shelter. Close to 600 people may have been killed at the theater.
The last-ditch stand was made at the Azovstal mill, with 2,500 defenders and hundreds of civilians.
A stronghold covering nearly 11 square kilometers (more than 4 miles), with a 24-kilometer (15-mile) labyrinth of underground tunnels and bunkers, the plant was practically impregnable.
But supplies, prepared throughout the war for the anticipated siege, ran low. “We started from two meals a day, but then it was reduced to one meal and with very small portions,” explained Samoilenko.
It was the hundreds of wounded soldiers who faced truly grim conditions.
“From the beginning of the May, the condition of the injured people were like worse and worse,” said Samoilenko. “We had no proper bandages. We were like grieving them. We had no antibiotics. We had extremely limited supply of painkillers.”
“But the people were still performing the medical operations under this condition,” he continued. “I didn’t know from which material these people are made, but they are like living Titans. They’re god-like.”
You’re free to fight like it’s the last day of your life.
Those who could still fight did not expect to survive the battle. “It’s basically when you accept the fact that you’re dead already, it’s a freedom,” said Samoilenko. “You’re free to fight like it’s the last day of your life.”
The decision to surrender was made to save the over 600 wounded.
“Your responsibility is to save these guys who cannot save themselves,” Samoilenko declared. “If the guy without leg or without arm or with a fractured bone or with a hole in his stomach, you will just leave the pistol near him and wait for the Russian stormtroopers with rocket launchers and thermobaric flamethrowers to go there and just burn this bunker to the ground?”
“Of course not, because our captivity was the only way to save these guys.”
Into Russian hands
Finally, on May 17, hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers surrendered to the Russians, and were sent to the Olenivka prison camp in Russian-occupied Donetsk.
Samoilenko spent only four days at the penal colony, where the food was hardly edible. Recognized as a high-value prisoner because of his media appearances, he was shipped off to solitary confinement in a special forces prison in Moscow.
The move may have saved Samoilenko’s life. On the morning of July 29, a blast tore through the POW camp, killing at least 50 Ukrainian prisoners and wounding many more. Ukraine and Russia blame each other for the attack.
The conditions were actually better in Moscow. He was only interrogated once, by a soldier who did not mistreat him. “I’m not trying to excuse him because he’s a part of the deadly system, but he at least gave me a couple of cans of energy drinks and a pack of cigarettes.”
“Three times a day, the food was okay,” said Samoilenko. He actually gained the 10 kilos he had lost in Azovstal.
But even decent food couldn’t break the solitude.
“Psychological pressure and the informational deprivation and emotional deprivation, it was worse,” he remembered.
After months with no contact with his family or the outside world, and only one book, about Dwight Eisenhower, to read, at 6 a.m. on September 1 guards entered Samoilenko’s room and told him to change into his own clothes. He was handcuffed, driven to the airport, and put on a plane to Belarus. At the Ukrainian border, he was part of a group of soldiers exchanged for Russian POWs, and he was once again a free man.
He just didn’t feel like a free man. He didn’t feel anything at all.
“I was completely empty,” Samoilenko recalled. “No emotions, no feelings, no sensations, just not me.”
When Samoilenko crossed the border, Yulia Fedosiuk happened to be in the United States with Samoilenko’s mother. She was advocating for her husband Arseni, who was also taken from Azovstal to Olenivka.
She remembers that Alla Samoilenko, 48, didn’t rejoice too openly when she heard her son was back in Ukraine, because Fedosiuk’s husband was still in captivity.
A new Ukraine
Despite the emotional struggles, Samoilenko recognized that he had come back to a Ukraine transformed. “When I was in Mariupol, it was the old country,” he reflected. “When I returned from captivity, I came back to another country, to the different country where we understood our potential, how strong we are when we’re united, about the military aide, weaponry and all this stuff.”
Samoilenko believes that he got off easy compared to his friends in the Azov Regiment. “There are the guys who lost 30 kilos, 40 kilos. The guys who had bruises, scar marks, electrocution marks all over their body. The guys who had no teeth at all, the guys who been starving to almost deadly critical condition.”
And it is hard for him to rejoice when the vast majority of his unit remains in captivity.
At the same time, Samoilenko said that he has overcome the mental damage from solitary confinement. He remembers a moment when he was able to laugh at an internet meme, and felt like he had returned to himself.
“I have zero nightmares. Sleep is normal. I had serious emotional deprivation and anxious condition and depressive condition, but I managed to get up with this and to fight it back.”
Samoilenko is back in uniform, and the fact that he still has important tasks to complete has helped his recovery.
“I have my obligations, moral and actual,” he said. “And we must work to save the rest. We must work to improve our battle potential. We must work to restore everyone and regain strength and make us all great again.”
Countering the Russian narrative
Samoilenko and Fedosiuk are in Israel for nine days, speaking to soldiers, media, government officials, and attending screenings of a documentary called “Filtration Camps in Mariupol.” Their trip is funded and planned by Israeli Friends of Ukraine.
“We have here in Israel the narrative from Russia,” explained Anna Zharova, cofounder of the pro-Kyiv NGO. “They’re trying to spread it over Israel, that they [the Ukrainians] are Nazis. That’s why one of the reasons is really to bring this story to the mainstream.”
Though Israel has maintained ties with both Ukraine and Russia during the war, to the ire of Ukrainian officials, neither Samoilenko nor Fedosiuk seem to bear any animus toward the Jewish state for its equivocal stance.
“You still have a situation that requires your military attention all the time,” said Samoilenko.
One of the reasons Israel has taken care not to antagonize Putin is the fact that Russian troops in Syria could make life difficult for Israeli pilots as they operate to prevent Iran from entrenching itself too deeply on Israel’s border.
“Israelis have their own internal and external policy,” Samoilenko recognized. “I know that principles of this policy and this politics is very strong and strict. And that’s great because that’s the Israeli politics. They’re Israeli-centric.”
One of the major sticking poiints between Kyiv and Jerusalem is Israel’s refusal to provide defensive weaponry, especially the Iron Dome short-range missile defense system.
Like many Israeli experts, Samoilenko doesn’t see that as a reasonable request, although it is not the only defense technology requested by Kyiv: “I’ve read a lot about the Iron Dome. And the Iron Dome is not a system that fits for our purpose.”
He sees Israel and Ukraine on the same side, the civilized battling the uncivilized in a struggle for the future of humanity.
“We have prosperity, beautiful, prosperous, beautiful civilization, and they have medieval cavemen,” he said, mixing historical metaphors.
“One important thing I want to show to the world that after being in Russian captivity, I understood how they think they are better than everything, about everything,” Samoilenko said, leaning forward. “But they only can do two things good. They can lie good, and they can intimidate.”
AP and AFP contributed to this report.
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