Sniper Serhiy Varakin: I don't need peace, I need victory. I can't imagine myself walking around Donetsk, saying hi to those who were shooting at me yesterday
Sniper unit commander Serhiy Varakin, call sign "Smile", in an interview with UNIAN told about the "handwriting" of different snipers, why the Army needs to get rid of the tradition to assign top-class specialists for duty in a cafeteria or at the checkpoints, how to create ideal conditions for the military, and how he counters those who join the Army solely for good pay.
Serhiy Varakin has been at the front line since 2014. At the onset of war, a Berdychiv-based entrepreneur came there as a volunteer, shortly to become commander of the 58th Separate Mechanized Brigade's sniper unit. Once joining the Army, the manager Serhiy is, he stayed true to his nature, relying not so much on the book as on own experience, thinking outside the standard Army stereotypes about military service. He has been gathering around himself the best specialists, investing in their growth, while his "profit", as he puts it, is eliminated enemy forces.
Losses have been massive this year due to enemy snipers. Are they Russians or local "miners"?
Even "miners" have already learned alright to shoot and spot their fire. Earlier, you would get it more clearly that some specialists had arrived, that the Russians had definitely come in. Even now though, you can see "tourist snipers" by their "handwriting".
We analyze everything and compile a database ... You see those who are inclined to work toward precision, accuracy, or targeting. Some enjoy killing, some like to injure, while some hit dugouts. Everyone has their own handwriting. There are some cool specialists out there, able to hit very accurately at a long range, up to 2 kilometers, and more. But we can also work at such a range.
In this war, the most active players are snipers and gunners. A good mortarman and a good sniper is sure to keep all separatists on the other side at bay.
But in the front line sector where we are now, the enemy feels really at ease. If I take our previous rotations, we would keep them so intimidated that, even if they appeared somewhere, it would be for 2-3 seconds max. It was very difficult to find them, but here...
... Do they just walk around without even ducking?
They do, so far. But we are actively working to address this.
Are you being hunted?
Of course we are. Every specialist is a target of such hunt.
So what's the bounty for your life?
I have no idea, I never inquired. I don’t think someone needs me that much, but my guys – they are a different story.
I'm a manager organizing ideal work conditions for my unit. And I don't approach the Army concept in line with traditions dating back to time immemorial. I have a modern managerial approach. Before this war I ran my own business, and my approach to the team remained with me. I understand that it needs to be developed, I must constantly invest in order to gain a return.
Now my "profit" is liquidated enemies, separatists, Russians. We want to liquidate as many as possible each year. And we want to hit the enemy at a 2.5 km range. So far, our max was 2,221 meters.
You talk about ideal conditions, but at the front line we can hear stories about the ever-thriving Soviet approaches to service, the unnecessary obsolete rules that are so annoying. Is it possible at all to do without them?
We're trying to address this. Many say to me: "You have a small unit, so that's why it's so perfect here." Sure, no problem. Give me a company – and this company will be the same. The most important thing is the goal and the tools you apply to achieve your result. It's like raising a child. You could beat them and they would just walk away crying, oblivious of why you're acting this way. It's harder to find the right words.
It's easy to say to a fighter: "Get out of here" when they come to you with his questions or issues. It's harder to address on their issues. Our commanders help us, too. Both Mykhailo Drapaty and Dmytro Kashchenko are officers and simply great people [former and current brigade commanders]. The most important thing in being a military is to retain human touch. If a commander doesn't suffer from megalomania, if he's fair and decent – everything will be fine, and he will collect the best people into his team.
By own example, I want to show that everything can be achieved without just acting by the book and applying other army tricks. And it's been working for me for the past five years. And we set an example, but sometimes it hurts to see those who joined the Army for cash.
Say, we deploy to another site, and we can afford to invest over UAH 100,000 from our allowances in own housing. But many servicemen won't spend a hryvnia on themselves. They'll just sit there waiting until someone gives them something, until they're provided. You ask them: "Why didn't you do it?" "But I don't have money…" they say. And I don’t get it, what's the problem about spending some? Now the allowances are much different from what they were back in 2014, it's not some UAH 2,300. Now the military make over UAH 30,000 on the front line. I'm not saying this is a lot, but it's not bad either. You can invest a couple grand a month in own comfort, essentially in yourself.
Some guys had been living in an abandoned house before us. Instead of drilling a utility well, making a sewage system, they just built an outside toilet. It was a simple solution for them, but I'm not used to things like that. I believe that I can fight while living in more convenient conditions.
It's not unimportant for a soldier to have some convenience at the base after a day in the field, to have a normal shower, a normal bed, a normal kitchen, and be able to cook normally…
And when your unit has a normal aura in it, when people are not annoyed with all sorts of obsolete rules, Soviet-era stuff, these military have motivation, a desire to grow and fight. Also, they have no will to quit Army ranks, which, alas, is the case in some other units. My guys have been with me since 2016. And no one wants to leave, everyone wants to fight, they want to engage for the benefit Ukraine.
Why do some others have no such will to fight as you do? Does the problem stem from military academies?
Military academies including… Many of those at faculties had never gone to war, they only heard or read about it. What they do know is how to paint curbs white or tree leaves bright green. What they do have is tags strictly on their places everywhere.
At the onset of war, the Armed Forces of Ukraine had an influx of volunteers who could change the Army. Why haven't these changes become drastic?
Indeed, in 2014, many volunteers, quite wealthy people, serious businessmen joined the Army. We got help from all over the world, our volunteers worked well. Volunteers also joined the Ministry of Defense to beat this Soviet-era moronism. Under Petro Poroshenko, the Armed Forces changed for the better, funding was poured in, and we understood that the Army was in demand. But now I see new leaders coming in who, despite the purge of all obsolete stuff, are gradually restoring some old school practices.
I was really surprised when I learned that the Ministry of Defense failed to utilize billions of hryvnias from last year's defense budget.
I know, right? How is this even possible in a country at war?
Right! So in a country at war, the Ministry of Defense failed to utilize billions. It doesn't make sense. Let's take the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Give [Minister] Arsen Avakov 15 billion, 150 billion, he will utilize it all. And you see how his units get helicopters, SUVs, the best uniform, the best weapons... And against this background it seems that the warring Army is for some reason not so much interested in purchasing all this.
It seems to me that there are some who want our Army to be weak.
On Facebook, you honestly talk about issues and people surely like this. Who are you to other officers: a role model or a bone in their throat?
For lazy people in the Army, I'm a bone in their throat. I constantly show how pathetic they are, how lazy they are. I regularly troll those who join the ranks with no motivation, not benefiting the Army. For many adequate guys, I may set an example. If it's so, this makes me proud.
Are we not denigrating the Army when we talk about problems? Don't we worsen its public image?
Chief of the General Staff, Ruslan Khomchak, believes that the Army is not about the numbers, it's about quality. It may be not 250,000-strong, but 100,000-strong, but these people will be professionals. Meanwhile many join just to get a combatant status. We have over 405,000 such "combatants". 405,000! Where the hell did they all come from? There haven't been so many people at the front line ever!
Sometime in 2015, in Zaitseve [near Horlivka] some young guys were stationed, and commanders would deploy various "garbage" to their unit – someone they didn't need. People would come in just to get the status there, on the front line. I remember their conversations: "Why would we need them? Our base is tiny! We got six people, in combat alert situations we know who gets the machine gun, who gets the AGS, and everyone knows where to go. But these new people – they would just be a nuisance. We will have to think about how to kill our enemies and save those guys' lives..."
And now these "two-month tourists" come to get the status, too. I'm very glad that commanders decided to tackle the issue, and maybe they will succeed in weeding out the garbage or strip them of that status. After all, this all costs our country's budget some big money – all those benefits, this and that.
In another parallel with business, will you open any "subsidiaries"? Are any of your guys ready to lead the same unit in some other brigade?
I've already offered this to my guys, I also offered help to others. I want the same units to appear in other brigades. But communication is very important. I'm able to strike a deal with anyone, even with the dead man. I can persuade them to get up and walk. Many don't achieve this level of communication with their chiefs. Very nice units are falling apart, sniper platoons with some really cool guys in them broke down in several brigades. So I took some of those people along.
If a sniper platoon commander can't find a common language with his brigade commander, if that brigade commander can't find a common language with snipers, there will be no joint work. There will be no comfortable service when snipers are forced to serve at the gate as guards. It's stupid, ridiculous, and disgusting to hear about things like that. A top class specialist shouldn't be mopping floors in the cafeteria.
I'm very proud of my unit, I'm pleased when some at the top say that this is one of the best platoons in the Ground Forces. But I'm sad to realize there's only one such platoon. I would like every brigade to have such units. I'm not talking only about snipers, they can be tankers, artillerymen…
What do you need besides good communication with your superiors? What is the main secret of your "firm"?
It's motivation. If people are motivated by things beyond money, they will be fine.
All money I make, most of it, I invest in here. Everything that makes me happy in life is my unit. I invest my whole self into it. And so do my fighters. They invest plenty of money in themselves.
My guys are all perfect. I tried everything to persuade them, used carrot and stick… Volunteer lady Yulia Tolmacheva once brought me a wonderful girl, and I'm happy that she is part of our squad.
It's a lot of work to put together a good team. Wherever you are, you know that you have a great platoon, a great team, and a great family. You don't worry they will do something wrong or get into a bad situation. At this war, they became smart, self-sufficient, very highly-developed, and awesome specialists.
Where do you get so much optimism?
You know, throughout my life, I haven't worked a day in a place I didn't like. Never did what I didn't like. It has been like that all my life. If I hadn't liked it, if I'd seen no point in this, I would have abandoned the Army long ago and went back into civilian life, I would have started doing something else. But I really enjoy it when I wake up every morning, see my unit and understand that we can benefit Ukraine. I really enjoy it.
Now many ask me: "What will you do after the war?" I don't think about it at all yet. I am busy with my unit only, which I need to protect, develop, supply, find all the best for them – gadgets, quadcopters, optics... A modern sniper needs a lot.
I don't need peace, I need victory. For seven years I've seen enough of this "Russian world", I don't need it. I can't imagine myself walking around Donetsk saying hi to those who were shooting at me yesterday. My task is to eliminate enemies – as many as possible.
What can you say about young officers who are just starting their service?
These are the coolest pros. In brigades, company commanders are real tough guys, ground is burning under their feet. This is the kind of people who should be put at the helm. There's young ambitious blood in our Army. They know why they come to the front line.