Record Behind Foreign Volunteer Warfighters on the Frontline of Southeastern Ukraine | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Record Behind Foreign Volunteer Warfighters on the Frontline of Southeastern Ukraine

A cameraman who has covered the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq flew to the fierce battleground where the Russian army was invading. ......

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An old soldier in the Georgia unit who had just returned from the front lines. His whole body was filled with the steam of death.

He crossed the border from Warsaw, Poland, by bus and arrived in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, after 17 hours. He headed directly to the home base of one of the foreign volunteer units in the city, the Georgia Unit.

In 2008, Georgia, like Ukraine, was invaded by Russia, and in 2002, the Georgia Corps was formed to fight the Russians. In 2016, it was regularly incorporated into the Ukrainian army. The total number of soldiers is about 1,000. The majority of the soldiers are made up of Georgians, with the addition of foreign volunteers from the U.S., U.K., and France, as well as three Japanese.


The man at the front of the base was Commander Mamuka Mamulashvili, who had a gruff physique and a calm face. He is said to have a $100 million bounty on his head for inflicting extensive damage on the Russian army. On this day, permission was granted to interview him as he was going to conduct military training for the Territorial Defense Force to be formed by the citizens of Kyiv.

A former U.S. Marine instructor taught the men and women, young and old, in military uniform the basic movements of an infantryman, and an instructor who used to be the president of the Georgian Karate Federation taught knife and bare-knuckle fighting techniques. Although the feared threat of an urban war in Kyiv has disappeared, citizens are still training for contingencies. Among them was a woman in her early twenties who had been invited by her boyfriend to participate in the training as if it were a date.


My main objective was to cover the front lines of the fighting in southeastern Ukraine. I asked Commander Mamuka if it would be possible for me to cover the front line, as Georgian troops are also fighting alongside Ukrainian troops.

But he smiled and said, “No media in the world has ever been allowed to cover the front line of the Georgian units, so it is not possible.”

I pleaded with him to do something about it, but he simply said, “I can’t allow you to do that.” Two days later, we arrived in Dnipro, an industrial city in the east of Kyiv, and called Ukrainian military officials to apply for permission to serve in the Ukrainian military. We were at a loss.

At that time, the coordinator received a call on his smartphone from Commander Mamuka. He told us to come to an elevated area near a shopping mall in the city. He rushed to the designated location and found Commander Mamuka waiting for him with three of his men.

He said, “You are authorized to follow the front line of the Georgia unit.”

I grasped Commander Mamuka’s hand tightly and expressed my gratitude.

About 100 kilometers east of Dnipro is the town of Pokrovske. It is a small town, but it is home to a Ukrainian military logistics base and a military hospital, as well as a frontline base for Georgian troops. In the center of town there is a café and a pizza shop, where most of the customers are soldiers. Drinking coffee and keeping in touch with their families and friends on their smartphones. It has become a valuable place of refreshment for soldiers exhausted from the battlefield. The Georgia contingent will use this town as a base to go out to the front lines further to the east.

Team leader Levan, who is also the deputy commander of the Georgia unit, leads a team specializing in special operations. The team is made up of soldiers who used to be “Spetsnaz” (special task force) in the Georgian Army. Armed with weapons and equipment equivalent to those of Western special forces, the team is equipped with anti-tank missiles “Javelin” and “NLAW” provided by NATO via the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and anti-aircraft missiles. This elite team is highly experienced in combat, having been deployed in the operation to retake the airport near Kyiv.

In Ukraine, snipers are also reported to be active, with the “Barrett M82,” a favorite of the world’s top snipers, and Accuracy International’s “L96A1”. Levan, a small man but a former wrestler, is a dependable leader for his subordinates, but his very existence is a source of fear. Anyone who fails to follow orders or makes a mistake is subject to Levan’s merciless fist-punishing.

I sit in the back of a British-made armored car and head for the front line, about 30 km southeast of the town of Pokrovske. Levan drives the car at over 80 km/h on a muddy, rough road. I didn’t think an armored car could go this fast. Opening the overhead hatch and leaning out, we see a vast, flat, cultivated field stretching all the way to the horizon. The idyllic scenery made it hard to believe that a war was taking place here. However, as we approach the front line, the appearance of destroyed houses and Ukrainian tanks heightens the sense of tension.


Shells fall at close range.

After stopping the armored car to plunge into the thicket of trees, we had to move on foot from here. From the moment we step out of the armored car, the sound of artillery fire rings out all around us. Soldiers carry portable missiles on their backs and deploy them around them.


The roles of the NLAW are divided between anti-tank and anti-aircraft. While both Ukrainian and Russian forces were intermittently shelling the area, we headed on foot in the direction of the Russian positions, and after about 10 minutes of walking, a soldier walking in front of me pointed up into the sky and said, 

It’s a Russian drone,” 

We ran into the bushes for cover.

The soldier told us, “The reconnaissance team is a threat to the Russian military, and they are looking for us desperately.”

We could hear the eerie “buzz” of the drone’s propeller above us. As we crouched down and moved forward, three shells fell at close range. Get down! I fell to the ground, my back being pulled by a soldier behind me. Wondering if the Russians discovered our presence. After regaining our composure, we waded through more bushes and came to a spot with a good view. The Russian position was two kilometers from here.


The unit took out a small drone and flew it toward the Russian positions. About 20 shells from the Russians landed on the soldiers, but they did not panic and were staring at the enemy positions on their tablets. The purpose of the mission was to photograph and map the Russian positions with a drone.

“The Russian military is terrified, starving and short of supplies,” said Levan. “If we fire a precise bombardment based on the drone photos, they will lose their will to fight.”

Levan explained. After retrieving the returning drone, the day’s mission was over. On the way back to the armored car in a hurry, rockets were fired from the Ukrainian positions. The white smoke exhaled by the rockets was rising almost vertically, which meant that the Russian positions were close.

Drones are used to search and attack, and both sides fire artillery shells and portable missiles at each other in the vast expanse of land. It was also a very different war than the wars against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq that I have experienced in the past, where social networking by the president, military, and civilians can change the course of a battle.

Recently, Georgian troops were deployed in the offensive in Severodonetsk in the eastern Luhansk Oblast, according to the report. The governor of the province, Haidai, announced that they had recaptured 50 percent of the territory controlled by Russian troops. One hundred days have passed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but there are no signs of an end to the chaotic war.

The Russian military is advancing toward the Russian positions, keeping a watchful eye on reconnaissance drones. Anti-tank missiles are a threat to Russian armored forces.
A reconnaissance team uses a small drone to photograph enemy positions. In modern warfare, drones are indispensable for operations.
A sniper in the Georgia unit. Wearing a “ghillie suit” (a type of camouflage clothing that can mimic the appearance of bushes), the snipers approach and shoot by crawling.
A Ukrainian tanker was taken to the hospital after his tank was destroyed by an anti-tank missile. Morale is high as he hopes to return to the front line soon.

From the June 24 and July 1, 2022 issues of FRIDAY

  • Photography and text by Toru Yokota (NSBT Japan) Toru Yokota (NSBT Japan)

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