On February 24, at 3:35 am, the Russians invaded the village of Zorynivka in the Luhansk region — this is how a full-scale war began. “Babel” spoke with a border guard who met the invaders with weapons

Ghanna Mamonova
Yuliana Skibitska, Kateryna Kobernyk
On February 24, at 3:35 am, the Russians invaded the village of Zorynivka in the Luhansk region — this is how a full-scale war began. “Babel” spoke with a border guard who met the invaders with weapons

Khristina Gubska / «Бабель»

At five oʼclock in the morning outside Kyiv on February 24, 2022, the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, made a statement about the start of a “special military operation.” Almost immediately, the Russians began bombing all Ukrainian cities with missiles. But in fact, the Russian invasion started an hour and a half earlier in the village of Zorynivka, Luhansk region, on the Russian-Ukrainian border. There, Russian saboteurs killed the first victim of a full-scale war — border guard Denys Tkach. In half an hour, they shelled the nearby village of Milove, and Russian tanks entered. Andriy Lernatovych was the head of the border department there. "Babel" correspondent Ghanna Mamonova met with him and recreated the events of the terrible night of February 24 step by step.

Eight years before the invasion

33-year-old Andriy Lernatovych headed the border department in Milove in 2021. Before that, he lived in Kyiv, and worked as a border guard at Igor Sikorsky Airport and Boryspil International Airport. When the position of head of the border department in Milove became vacant, he immediately agreed. Andriy says he understood that he was going to one of the most challenging regions of the country, but he didnʼt expect that it would be this hard.

“I lived in the office for the whole of 2021. I slept on the couch,” Lernatovych tells Babel. “At half past seven, I reported the situation to the commanders. It happened that I didnʼt go to bed for several days.”

Before the February 24 invasion, a third of the Luhansk region was occupied. The length of the border with the occupied territory was 140 kilometers, with Russia — 642. The area of responsibility of the Milove department was a hundred-kilometer section of the border with Russia, which is called Zelenka — steppes and forests with border posts. Also, the Milove checkpoint is the only one in the Ukraine-controlled part of the Luhansk region where it was possible to cross the Ukrainian-Russian border.

Smugglers passed through Milove two or three times a day. They bought gasoline and diesel in Russia and sold them in Ukraine. They bought places in the queues to not wait for a long time at the crossing. This scheme is typical for border regions, but Lernatovych didnʼt like it and declared war on smugglers. He forced them to stand in queues and undergo thorough checks. They quarreled with the border guard, offered money, and asked how much [bribe] to bring.

Khristina Gubska / «Бабель»

“I understood that if the [Russian] FSB allows smugglers to ride here and there every day, it means they are keeping them on the hook, and they are leaking information,” says Lernatovych. “I was treated negatively in the village. It happened that I was walking along the road, and people were following me or showing something with their hands.”

The Russian-Ukrainian border divides Milove in half along Druzhba Narodiv Street. Houses with odd numbers belong to Ukraine, and houses with even numbers belong to the Russian village of Chertkovo. Until 2014, residents of Milove and Chertkovo visited each other freely, many have relatives on different sides of the border. In 2014, pro-Russian militants tried to capture Milove but failed. It was forbidden to cross Druzhba Narodiv Street — residents could only go to each other through the official checkpoint.

In 2018, Russia erected a three-meter fence with barbed wire in the middle of the street. Ukraine limited the crossing of the border for Russians — they were allowed to pass only with foreign passports, and men were checked especially carefully. Druzhby Narodiv Street was patrolled around the clock. As Lernatovych recalls, Ukrainian and Russian border guards didnʼt communicate with each other.

“In Chertkov, the border department was headed by Andrey Didenko. We met several times at the border when we handed over to the Russians illegal immigrants who entered from them. Didenko spoke Russian and said: ʼI would like you to speak Russian too.ʼ And I answered: ʼAnd I would like us to speak Ukrainian.ʼ And so everyone stuck to their language,” the border guard recalls. “I think he checked what kind of person I am, whether I can become a collaborator.”

A month before the full-scale invasion, "Great construction" reached Milove. The three-kilometer road on the Ukrainian side was covered with new asphalt. The locals became even more convinced that the military exercises of the Russians on the border were just the rattling of weapons.

“Attention! Itʼs the state border of Ukraine. Trespassing is prohibited.” is written on the sign.

Khristina Gubska / «Бабель»

A week before the invasion

February 2022 was particularly stressful for Luhansk border guards. Lernatovych recalls that the locals constantly passed on information about the military maneuvers of the Russians. They showed a video about 50-60-kilometer convoys of Russian vehicles approaching Chertkov. In one of the village schools, the Russians set up a hospital. And two days before the invasion, the police, prosecutorʼs office, and other Russian state structures left the village.

The number of Russian border guards has doubled. They wore a different uniform, with body armor and helmets, and had more weapons than usual: machine guns appeared.

“Not three Russian patrols began to appear at the Druzhby Narodiv Street, but seven,” recalls Lernatovych. “Previously, we knew all the Russian border guards by face. Now I didnʼt recognize a single person.”

Andriy reported the situation to the command of the Luhansk border guard detachment, which was based in Lysychansk. In response, he heard: “Work as usual. Monitor the situation.” On February 22, Lernatovych met with the police chief of Milove, Oleksiy Shulika. He said that in case of war, they need to act together.

What happened in Ukraine a week before the invasion

  1. Unity Day was held in Ukraine for the first time, after President Volodymyr Zelensky signed the decree “On urgent measures to consolidate Ukrainian society.” Western media announced Russiaʼs attack on this day. In his speech, Zelensky said: “We are told that February 16 will be the day of the attack. We will make it a day of unity.”

  2. The “LPR” shelled Stanytsia Luhanska settlement and Vrubivka billage from Grads. Kindergarten and school were hit.

  3. The “LPR” shelled the Shchastya city from Grads. A humanitarian aid column, a school and the Luhansk TPP were destroyed. Evacuation to Russia began in the occupied territories.

  4. Forced mobilization of men began in the “LPR”.

  5. Putin recognized the independence of certain regions of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions occupied by the “LPR” and “DPR” militant groups, and declared that he would introduce regular Russian troops into these territories.

  6. The Verkhovna Rada voted to introduce a state of emergency in Ukraine from 00:00 on February 24th.

The day before the invasion

From February 22, Lernatovych slept in his office. He and other border guards didnʼt take off their bulletproof vests. All day on February 23, Russia allowed Ukrainians into its territory very slowly. After 6 pm, a queue of a dozen cars and people on foot formed at the border between Ukraine and Russia. At 10 pm, the Russians began to let only their own citizens through, and the Ukrainians were turned back. At 11:30 pm, Andriy Lernatovych arrived at the crossing point. The people who were turned away at the checkpoint said that the Russians would not let Ukrainians through for another week. Andriy reported the situation to the command. The reply was: “We are working as usual.”

At midnight, he noticed that Ukrainian customs officials were collecting their belongings.

“And so what? What is the situation? I ask them. And they replied: ʼWell, everything is fine.ʼ And I see that they are taking away documentation, computers”, the border guard recalls.

The night of the invasion

At 1:30 am on February 24, convoys of Russian vehicles were heard approaching the border in Milove. Andriy came from the checkpoint to the department building. The border guards were at work — in bulletproof vests, helmets, with service pistols and submachine guns. The hum of military equipment could be heard even indoors. Andriy gathered everyone and said: “We are preparing to carry out combat missions.”

“The department had machine guns, ten hand-held anti-tank grenade launchers and many boxes of ammunition,” he says. “I ordered them to be loaded into official cars — UAZs. I wanted to see how fast we could do it and how fast we could unload.”

He himself climbed the border observation tower to see how the convoys were moving.

“The noise was so strong that I called the commander in Lysychansk. Just put on the speakerphone so he could hear them driving,” Lernatovych says. “I understood that the situation was difficult, but I didnʼt think about war. I thought that the Russians would come to the border and stop in order to put pressure on [Volodymyr] Zelensky and provoke us. In 2014, negotiators from the Russians came to military units and border guards in Crimea and tried to talk them to their side. I thought it would be the same for us. I will be convinced. And I will convince. I will say that we are on our land and will not go anywhere.”

Border guards loaded weapons into a car at 3:20 am on February 24. They went to smoke and catch their breath. At 3:35 am Lernatovych got a call from the nearby village of Zorynivka. A Russian sabotage group entered there and shot a Ukrainian border guard.

Khristina Gubska / «Бабель»

Mykilske border point was based in Zorynivka, which was subordinate to Lernatovych. Zorynivka is a railway station. The building is Ukrainian, and the railway track is Russian. The Russians used it until 2019, and then built tracks to bypass it. On the other side of the tracks is the Russian village of Tarasivka.

Lernatovych went to Zorynivka with three border guards. On the outskirts of the village, they told him what had happened. Six border guards were on duty that night. In the thermal imagers, they saw that eight people in full equipment were coming from the Russian side — it was a sabotage and reconnaissance group. Denys Tkach, the senior in the order, ordered to retreat, because the enemyʼs forces prevailed. The border guards left one by one, but at some point there was a crash of iron on the asphalt — maybe someoneʼs helmet fell. The Russians opened fire, the border guards ran in different directions, and Tkach didnʼt make it — he died on the spot.

Andriy remembers that he looked at the phone — 4:05 am. At that moment he received a call from Milove and was informed that the border department was covered by Grads.

Khristina Gubska / «Бабель»

Attack on Milove

The Russians shelled Grads from the territory of Chertkov. They aimed at the border guards and the police in Milove — at those who could resist, because there was no military unit in the village. The border guards and the police had nothing to fight back.

“And where to shoot? They ransacked the streets, where there are civilian houses,” says Andriy. “I reported to the command, we were ordered to urgently leave Milove and redeploy to Bilovodsk.”

The cars of the border guard were already loaded with weapons, so in a few minutes they left the yard of the border department. Lernatovych left for Bilovodsk from Zorynivka. On the way, he received a call from the head of Milove Oleg Savchenko. He said that they were being fired upon. The border guard discreetly answered: “I know.” He kept silent about the redeployment — he didnʼt know whether Savchenko could be trusted.

“We had an action plan in case of an attack. It was developed a long time ago, and two weeks before the invasion, we were gathered in Lysychansk, and we repeated it. Bilovodsk was the first line where we had to retreat and take up defense if the enemyʼs forces prevailed,” Lernatovych recalls.

Columns of Russian vehicles entered Milove between four and five in the morning.

Khristina Gubska / «Бабель»

Defense of Bilovodsk

At approximately five in the morning, the border guards arrived at the yard of the border service department in Bilovodsk. It was managed by Yevhen Tsekot, a fellow student of Lernatovych.

“I ran around the department and shouted: ʼWhere the hell is Tsekot?ʼ Lernatovych recalls.” Then I saw that he is holding some kind of meeting on the street. Burn some papers. Everyone is calm. I said to him: ʼFuck, Zhenya, itʼs war. I have the 200th.ʼ I pulled him away and shook him. ʼWhere are your wife and child?ʼ I asked. He said he sent them away. Then somehow I calmed down. I went to check whether all my [border guards] had left Milove.”

It turned out that four border guards from his unit didnʼt leave Milove. All of those were local. They said that they needed to take belongings from the offices and disappeared.

“I immediately understood everything,” recalls Lernatovych.

According to him, most of the border guards, who are from Milove, often said that “Russia and Ukraine are brotherly nations.” However, he doesnʼt remember that these four somehow stood out from among the others.

In total, about 150 border guards gathered in Bilovodsk — the Milove and Bilovodsk departments, and Mykilske department from Zorynivka. The border guards had only pistols, submachine guns, machine guns, about 20 hand-held anti-tank grenade launchers with charges for them. The border guards were preparing for the battle: an order came from Lysychansk to stop a Russian column that could go to Bilovodsk. In the houses on the central street, Lernatovych ordered to knock out the doors and windows on the first floors and take up positions to cover the Russians with cross fire. “We are not marauders to break into apartments,” came the objection. “Are you sick? A column of Russian war machinery is coming on us! We will all die here [otherwise]!” Lernatovych shouted at the border guards.

Khristina Gubska / «Бабель»

None of the locals slept. People ran up to the border guards. They shouted to them: “Hide, now there will be a battle.” On the road, cars from Milove sped by, fleeing from shelling. Two Ukrainian tanks went to meet Russians in the direction of Milove.

“There were two cooks from the Mykilsky detachment,” says Lernatovych. “I tell them: ʼStop, you will provide medical assistance.ʼ They broke in tears: "We are already in civilian clothes." Then I called the commander in Lysychansk, asked if it was possible to let all the women go. He said: "Yes." And then all the women left, only the men remained.”

At approximately seven in the morning on February 24, border guards from Novopskov blew up the bridge leading from Milove to Bilovodsk. Andrewʼs best man served there, they exchanged information.

“Everyone was nervous. A tank was driving down the street. Itʼs unknown whether its crew noticed us, or it knew that we were in an ambush, but it began to move cautiously. And we didnʼt know if it was ours or Russian. There were no identifying marks,” says Andriy. “Then I looked closely: a pixel [military painting], ours.”

At ten oʼclock in the morning, Lernatovych answered his wifeʼs call for the first time — before that he didnʼt pick up the phone.

“Alina, itʼs war,” I told her. She answered: “The whole country is at war. Kyiv is being bombed.” Thatʼs when I realized that this was a full-scale invasion. I thought that there was a breakthrough only in the east,” says Andriy. “Tanks are coming at us. Thank you for everything, Alina, but thatʼs it.” I heard her sobbing. Well, what else could I do? It was clear that there would be a fight. And either they will kill all of us, or they will turn around and move past us, which is what actually happened.”

When a bridge near Milove was blown up, the column of Russian military equipment stopped. The tanks returned to Milove, the Russians entered the nearby village of Markivka and occupied it. There is a direct road from Markivka to Bilovodsk, it takes no more than an hour to reach the village. At this moment, the border guards were ordered to retreat to Starobilsk.

Redeployment to Starobilsk

Andriy watched as cars loaded with weapons set off for Starobilsk. He looked for his driver, but didnʼt see him anywhere. Then he realized that he just wasnʼt there — he disappeared in an unknown direction with the car. Serhiy Seredyuk, the head of the Mykilske border department, also dissolved into thin air. A few more border guards refused to relocate and went home.

“There were guards for whom their mom and dad came to pick them up. Understand this however you like, but thatʼs how it was,” he says.

Khristina Gubska / «Бабель»

Andriy hopped into a UAZ car that had a free seat and drove to Starobilsk. On the road, they were overtaken by civilians and military men — all of them were going in the same direction. Halfway through, one of the cars in the convoy broke. Andriy ran out onto the road and started to stop passing cars. The car was filled with boxes of ammunition, which had to be delivered to Starobilsk.

“I was pushing boxes to everyone I stopped,” he says.

In Starobilsk, border guards gathered near the military commissariat. Not only they received the order to arrive there, but also the police, security forces, and the military. In Starobilsk, Andriy met the military, who came to him a few weeks before the attack. Lernatovych was told that a column of 50 tanks entered Markivka. In Shchastya, Stanytsia Luhanska, fighting has been going on since four in the morning. The Ukrainian Armed Forces and border guards are on the defensive.

At approximately seven in the morning, convoys of Russian vehicles crossed the border in Horodyshche and Krasna Talivka, which are border villages. Through them lies the road to Bilovodsk, on the outskirts of which the fighting began.

In the commotion, one of the soldiers, someone from the command, called Andriy and asked him to take watching post in the forest lane for several hours. The border guard took his partner and went to the post. Their task was as follows: if Russian equipment appeared, fire an RPG and run away. The border guards sat in ambush until late at night, but no one drove past them.

On the twenty-fifth of February, the border guards received an order to retreat to Dnipro city: the Russians were on the approaches to Starobilsk.

Lernatovych fought in the Donetsk region during spring and summer. He fought in Kramatorsk, Svyatohirsk, near Lyman. In June, he came under fire. Got a concussion, ended up in the hospital. When he was discharged, he was transferred to serve in Transcarpathia. He is a border guard of the Chop detachment, serving on the Ukrainian-Slovak border.

The offenders whom Andriy is currently detaining are men who are trying to enter Slovakia illegally. Some are running away from mobilization, others want to return to work. The section of the border controlled by Lernatovychʼs unit is seven kilometers in the mountains. Itʼs nothing comparing to the 100-kilometer Zelenka in the Luhansk region.

Andriy often thinks about February 24, 2022, the first day of the full-scale invasion. He wonders if he could have done something differently. Residents of the Luhansk region complain that the border guards, the police, the SBU and the prosecutorʼs office abandoned them — instead of fighting, they retreated. Andriy answers this to himself as follows: the border guards did not have weapons to fight a column of Russian tanks.

“We would all be destroyed, and those who survived would be taken prisoner,” he says.

In Bilovodsk, they took more advantageous positions to hold the defense and destroy equipment. Therefore, it is the right decision. And he regrets only that he did not block the road from the checkpoint to the center of Milove with trucks. This would slow down the column of Russian tanks for several hours and allow people to evacuate.

Khristina Gubska / «Бабель»

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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