The Hero of Ukraine Yevhen Mezhevikin fought in Irpin, was the first to liberate the Kharkiv region, broke through to Mariupol, and now defends Bakhmut. Interview with the legendary tank driver

Oksana Kovalenko
Kateryna Kobernyk
The Hero of Ukraine Yevhen Mezhevikin fought in Irpin, was the first to liberate the Kharkiv region, broke through to Mariupol, and now defends Bakhmut. Interview with the legendary tank driver

Colonel Yevhen "Adam" Mezhevikin.

Ян Доброносов / «Бабель»

Forty-year-old tank driver Yevhen Mezhevikin is a military, colonel, Hero of Ukraine and simply a legend. He received the Heroʼs "Golden Star" during the tenure of Petro Poroshenko for the defense of the Donetsk airport. Then Mezhevikin traveled many times on the "road of death" — the only way to get to the airport defenders — and was wounded there. He was born in Russia and a year ago did not believe that the Kremlin would decide on a full-scale invasion. It found him in Kyiv, where at the National University of Defense he was studying to manage large combined military units. After February 24, 2022, Mezhevikin visited almost every hot spot of this war. He fought near Kyiv, in Zaporizhzhia, near Lysychansk, in the Kharkiv region, near Lyman, and liberated Balaklia. Now his units are holding the defense near Bakhmut. Mezhevikin leads a large combined tactical group — itʼs more than 10,000 people. The colonel justifies his nickname "Adam": comrades say he is always first everywhere. Mezhevikin was recently publicly praised by the commander of the Ground Forces Oleksandr Syrsky and quoted by The New York Times for his intelligence. Babel journalist Oksana Kovalenko has been friends with Adam for many years. To talk to him personally, she went to the front line. And in order not to uncover it and not to let him down, she encrypted literally everything — the meeting place, the location of the headquarters, the topics of phone conversations that she overheard. All we can say is that the conversation took place somewhere in the east of Ukraine. But this isnʼt accurate either.

We agreed to meet Adam in a typical town in the Donetsk region, not far from the front. One of the squares smells deliciously of barbecue in the morning — itʼs a meeting place. Adam is late. Several soldiers are standing next to me and the photographer, drinking coffee and talking. A woman in her fifties approaches them, holding out a card with her contacts. "If you need to sew or mend something, Iʼm a seamstress, contact me," she says and leaves. There is almost no work in such cities. The military helps the locals stay afloat. Humanitarian aid also helps. It is distributed not far from us — the tail of a long line is seen. We donʼt have time to understand what it is given out: Mezhevikin arrives, as always with a smile and jokes. He immediately warns us that time is short. "There is information that the president will be here, so [our unit] can be taken [from the place]." We decide that first we will take a photo, and we will talk when Adam is free again. Despite the fact that Mezhevikin has been a media and public person for eight years, it is difficult for him to pose, he seems too serious. In order to relax him a little, the photographer asks him to remember his family. But Adam has a rule: during the war, think only about work, and thoughts about home slow down and interfere. Questions about tanks work without fail. Adamʼs eyes light up and he instantly forgets about the photographer. When we finish making pictures, Mezhevikin leaves and comes back in just a few hours.

How did the full-scale war begin for you? Did you believe that it would start?

I believed to the last day before it that the Russians would be wise enough not to do this. Until the last, I explained to everyone why Russia would not be able to win this war.

I studied and still study at the National Defense University of Ukraine. When it all started, I was sleeping — I didnʼt even hear the explosions. At six oʼclock in the morning I turned on the news. Then took things out of the closet, a bulletproof vest, a helmet, woke up my relatives, said that the war had started and I was going to work. Then went to university. Many people from my group — there were many commanders of the combined arms — also came with their belongings. At first, no one understood what to do. In the first few days, we even continued our studies, there was a regular test. It was surprising.

And then you couldnʼt sit at your desk, you gathered a group of officers, invited former teachers, took training equipment and went to fight. How is this even possible?

In the university, the reserve officer training department has training equipment: tanks, BMPs, guns, armored personnel carriers, etc. We were interested in tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. On the third day after the invasion, I suggested that the boys go to see what condition they were in and whether it was possible to fight on them. I knew that there were problems there, because I helped to launch the equipment for demonstration performances, and in the summer of 2021 I even drove it a little.

Ян Доброносов / «Бабель»

I offered the university management to create officer crews. Though, I did not tell them we were planning to fight near Kyiv, I said that all this was to protect the university. Then its building was turned into a fortress — the windows were covered with sandbags, trenches were dug. I got some support. We had two tanks and one BMP. Thanks to the Central Administration for Armor, we received spare parts, prepared the equipment a little, because the training vehicles are not intended for combat work. It was not possible to bring it to a perfect state — our rangefinders did not work, tanks fired with delays. At first, I offered to work outside the university, for example, to support the airport "Zhulyany" if the Russians are going to land there. I secretly called [Valery] Zaluzhnyi, said that there are tanks, crews, the situation near Kyiv is difficult, and we are ready to work as soldiers, as a tank platoon. Zaluzhnyi put us in touch with [Oleksandr] Syrsky, and he was already giving us tasks. In the army unit, we received fuel and ammunition. Volunteers helped us with jeeps and fuel for them. And we set out — I drove through Kyiv on a tank for the first time.

And how does it feel?

In general, even from the first days of the full-scale war, the people of Kyiv, when they saw my uniform, they let my car pass, regardless to say of my tank (laughs).

How long did it take you to assemble the equipment?

And how long did it take the enemy to reach Kyiv?

I donʼt remember now, but it was the end of February — the beginning of March.

Well, we worked quickly as well. When we left the university, the enemy was already destroying Moshchun. Our task was to support the group that was fighting there. We were not directly in Moshchun. If it was not possible to hold the village, we would have to stop the enemy on the way to Kyiv. But Moshchun was defended. By the way, near Gostomel, we used unmanned aerial vehicles for the first time. Civilian guys offered us their help. Then we called them, and they are still fighting with me. They are really great! They have reached such a level that they stop the enemyʼs offensive near Bakhmut with only UFVs. One of them is definitely worthy of the title of Hero [of Ukraine]. I want to submit him for this award.

After Moshchun, Syrsky called me and said: "There is an interesting job for you." And sent me to clean Irpin [from the remains of Russian forces]. In general, it was supposed to be done by the GUR fighters, and we and several other units were supposed to join them. We had the officer crew: the mechanic-driver was a colonel, I was a colonel, the tank commander was a lieutenant colonel.

When we showed up there [in Irpin] on tanks — and at that time I was given two more tanks — the Russians turned on us. They hit us with artillery wherever we went — it flew everywhere. We were then thanked for taking all the fire on ourselves, and the infantry reached the designated lines without losses. While we maneuvered to escape the hits, we entered the occupied territory. I joke that if the infantry caught up with us, we would have captured Irpin right away (laughs).

These first fights, how different were they from what you faced in 2014?

They were very different. In 2014, this amount of equipment was not used against us. There was artillery. But there were no "Orlans" or other drones. Means of radio-electronic warfare didnʼt work so actively. And, of course, there was no aviation.

Ян Доброносов / «Бабель»

How well prepared were the Russians near Kyiv? Was it really the elite [of the Russian armed forces]?

Their tankers were professionals. In general, those who were near Kyiv were well prepared. These were elite troops. But they were too confident and underestimated us. For some reason, they thought we were like ancient tribes with bows and arrows, and they came in tanks, so they would beat us right away. But their tanks burned like candles.

For what reason was it possible to defeat them in the Kyiv region?

They did not take into account that the volunteers who fought in 2014-2015 would come. Some even went with their weapons, without any formalization or joining official units. We had two pensioners — uncle Vova and San Sanych, as well as Serhiy Horachey, a person with physical disabilities. San Sanych was a scout, we fought with him back in 2014, when I was in the 93rd brigade. After his service, he had heart problems and left the army. But when a full-scale invasion began, San Sanych offered me to fight together. He invited his friend, 67-year-old uncle Vova, who would not have been invited to the army due to his age. But despite this, uncle Vova managed to mine bridges, climb behind the Russians and set their convoys on fire. Horachey also fought in 2014, was injured and became disabled as a result. Since I didnʼt have a landing party, and they were asking a lot, I took them. They fought with me until the middle of April, and then I let them go home. When we received the military salary in 2023, we transferred part of it to uncle Vova and San Sanych to the cards, because they did not receive any money for their fighting. Serhiy refused [to take the money]. These volunteers, in combination with the regular troops, units of the GUR, Territorial defense, were the ones who won over the Russians.

Adamʼs phone rings. He learns that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have lost one of the positions and need to figure out how to get it back. Mezhevikin goes to the headquarters and returns only around ten in the evening. He quickly eats the salad and offers to continue: "Itʼs better to do it now, because no one knows what will happen tomorrow." Not far from the frontline it sounds reasonable — so we continue.

After that, you went to Zaporizhzhia. Was there really a plan to unblock Mariupol in the spring?

Society demanded to unblock the defenders of Mariupol. Everyone wanted this but did not understand how to do it because of the difficult situation in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. When it came down to business and everyone was asked "Are you ready [to take part in unblocking]?" — people refused, there were few willing ones. But an initiative group that was ready to try still was gathered.

One reinforced company was to move from Zaporizhzhia to Mariupol. Its core was supposed to be from Azov, and we and the fighters were supposed to reinforce them. Another group was to meet us from Mariupol. Later, it turned out that the authors of the operation had planned everything going just for luck. When did I realize that? When at the meeting before the departure we were told that the task was to take out the defenders of Mariupol, but to the question "How can we take them out?" the authorities replied that there would be no trucks. It seemed that they themselves did not believe that we would get anywhere. I think they counted on luck: if it would work out — they would receive medals; if it fails — they wouldnʼt have been criticized so much, because society demanded that the fighters be released from the encirclement.

Ян Доброносов / «Бабель»

Then they collected equipment and shells for us in military units. At this time, there should have been combat coordination, task planning, but the commanders did not have time for this. I helped to plan the fight. Part of the units had to create a corridor through which we would pass deep into the enemyʼs defenses, destroy the reserves, artillery and the command post. And after that continue driving to Mariupol. In turn, the defenders of the city were supposed to make their way from the center to the outskirts of Mariupol and leave with us. If an exit would be impossible, then we would stay in Mariupol and reinforce the defenders.

We set off. In order not to describe everything that happened there, I will say this: we were ahead, the infantry behind could not catch up with us. The units that were supposed to break through the corridor were unable to break through the Russian defenses, a battle ensued, and ours suffered losses. Therefore, we were given the task to help break through the corridor and destroy the enemy in the village where the battle was going on. In this unit which needed help, there was a military man who recognized me — we fought in Pisky in 2014. He asked to cover the unit while he took away the wounded and killed. While we were helping, our tank ran into a mine. Fortunately, everyone except the tank remained intact. I switched to another tank. All the wounded and killed were evacuated, but it turned out that the entire unit with which we were going to break through had left. We decided to wait, we thought someone would come back to us. Then the Russian artillery began to heavily cover us — we had to maneuver. We were still waiting for ours to come to perform the task, but they returned to the starting point. We waited some more and in the evening we received an order to return to the place from where we left.

At this moment, Adam receives a message, looks carefully, smiles and shows it to me. In the video, a drone drops explosives into a Russian trench. In the background, the recitative reads: "Russia is a terrorist state." Mezhevikin says he would prefers there to be some music. Such videos are published by his subordinates on Adamʼs group Telegram channel. I ask him to explain what is the strategic purpose of such drops. Yevhen explains: in such trenches, the Russians gather in groups and then storm our positions. No one survived in this video, so their assault failed. Adam comments on the clip and returns to the interview.

After that, you were in the north of the Kharkiv region. The authorities say that initially our units were supposed to liberate a smaller area, but since the troops began to advance quickly, the command told them to move all the way. At what point did the offensive stop and why?

That was actually the case. We had to break through the defenses, enter Verbivka village, and take over the bridges. If it didnʼt work out with the bridges, we had to drop the pontoon and provide passage for other units so that they could move on. At the same time, we had to clear Verbivka, block Balakliia from the north, so that the enemy would not come out from that side. In addition, the 3rd Special Ops regiment and the Kraken unit were supposed to seize the territory of Balakliia warehouses with ammunition and prevent the enemy from destroying them.

We worked with tanks along the road, intersections, positions of the Russians, along their checkpoints. They did not expect this and began to run away. The Kraken unit took advantage of this. They drove into Balakliia and hung the Ukrainian flag — this greatly demoralized the Russians, they began to flee even faster.

Ян Доброносов / «Бабель»

Seeing this, the commander ordered us to collect our men and move on. So we passed several villages — advanced forty to sixty kilometers. When the Russians saw the movement of our equipment, they left theirs: self-propelled artillery, Grad MLRS, tanks, ammunition, mortars, Urals, fuel trucks. Many of our units wanted such trophies, but we went further forward. We stopped when we almost started friendly fire with another brigade that had advanced as far as us. Then the commander ordered us to stop.

We hoped to rest a little, but we were sent to the Donetsk region, near Bakhmut, to storm Klynove, and then to liberate Yampil. We took it and thus interrupted the logistics of the Russians in Lyman — this allowed the Ukrainian army to liberate it. Meanwhile, we were again sent to Bakhmut.

If we compare the technique of the Russians at the beginning of the full-scale invasion and now, has it become better? Did they have new technologies?

The technique is the same. New technologies? Just new bags [for dead bodies] — big and black.

Now you are holding positions near Bakhmut, and earlier you were in Klishchiivka village and held it for a long time. They say you used century-old technology there — is this a joke?

For a long time, the Russians could not understand how we managed to hold those positions. They put so much of their troops there. In fact, we put them in a stupor with the usual defenses that were used since the time of the First World War: we filled the tree lines with trap netting, barbed wire, plus mines and anti-tank “hedgehogs”. In order to pass all these obstacles, it was necessary to cut it all with pincers, that is, to stand at full height in front of our positions. The Russians couldnʼt throw grenades — they bounced off the net and flew back, the same with RPGs. In order to pass, it was necessary to go to a clear field, where we shot them. We also actively used drones, artillery, armored groups, support of special operations forces, snipers — this also prevented the Russians from breaking through our defenses.

And how did they manage to take Klishchiivka then?

We were sent to recover, our positions were taken by another unit and in a few days they were lost. We were sent back, but we could no longer retake our positions. It was only possible to stop the advance of the enemy — then we lost very good fighters. In general, often because of those who abandon positions, we lose people while winning them back.

What is the situation in Bakhmut now?

We have been standing on our positions for several months. The line fluctuates: sometimes we lose ground, then recover it. We need to conduct an active defense. That is, when you stand on the defensive, you need to maneuver: move back a little, a little to the left, to the right and hit advancing enemy units and reserves, "bite" them from the flanks.

Ян Доброносов / «Бабель»

Western media write that Bakhmut must be surrendered, our commanders say that it must be held. What is your personal motivation to stand in Bakhmut? It is clear that there is an order, but is there an inner conviction?

If you think logically, the exit from Bakhmut will allow you to level the front line and free up many units, so reserves will appear. On the other hand, the enemy is advancing and has no plans to stop. Thatʼs why itʼs crazy to leave positions just like that. If there is even an understanding that Bakhmut is difficult to hold, it is necessary to leave with battles, to give it in tiny pieces in order to grind them [the enemy troops]. They lose from 40 to 90 people killed and wounded per day only in the positions controlled by my units. And if you count all of them, it is about 200 people killed per day of active combat.

Who among the Russians is standing under Bakhmut now?

"Wagnerians", prisoners are in the first echelon. And in the second — paratroopers and motorized infantry.

Is it true that the "Wagnerians" are still the vanguard of the Russian army? Did they change with the arrival of the convicts?

What is avant-garde? Vanguard can be anything. The question is the quality of preparation and performance of tasks by those who are put forward. I have been dealing with the "Wagnerians" since the summer and I see how they are changing. "Wagnerians", which were in the summer, were cool and worked very well. Those fighting now no longer have such training. If we talk about convicts, they are prepared in the same way. They are not afraid to die. So they were given the task of going to a certain point, we kill them out, and new ones go without fear, because they have little choice. Though, the convicts who come in now, run away more.

And what about their technique?

They have no technique. But they are supported by Russian troops: planes, helicopters, tanks. The "Wagnerians" walk four to five kilometers, walk for half a day to the advanced trenches, only to die in a minute.

Before the start of the interview, you said that you saw how the Russians shot Ukrainian prisoners. Can you tell me about it?

Yes, there were two cases. The first time, when we were replaced by Azov in Klishchiivka, we left our artillery and quadcopters. We saw the Russians advancing along the railway. At one of the positions, two of our soldiers fought with them, they were surrounded, they raised their hands and surrendered. They were stripped, their weapons were taken away and they were shot. Later, we destroyed all the Russians who did this with artillery fire.

We also saw the second case with the help of quadcopters. The enemy approached our positions, surrounded them, our fighters surrendered — I donʼt know why. All of them were also shot. We sent these videos further, because we know that this is a violation of international law. But there were prisoners, what is the law a decree for them?

Ян Доброносов / «Бабель»

I was told that itʼs difficult to get into your unit. What are the selection criteria, will you hire a person without experience?

I take people with experience in the UFV group. The main criteria are the desire to work, initiativeness and not to be a coward. A person without experience can also get to us. Experience comes with time.

And these crews, which you gathered back in February in Kyiv, are they with you now?

We worked with them in Kyiv, three officers received shrapnel wounds in Irpin, they quickly recovered and joined the ranks. Then we went with them to Zaporizhzhia. And then we parted ways, because they were assigned to positions in other military units.

In Russia, they explain in different ways why they cannot defeat us. One of the narratives (this, in particular, is said by Yevgeniy Prigozhin) is that they are fighting with their own kind, because we are all from the Soviet Union, we are all stubborn. Do you have a feeling that we are alike on the battlefield? Tactics, strategy, readiness to go to the end — are they similar?

(Laughs). But they said that they were fighting with NATO troops! Seriously, we have the same school. But school is the basics. Everything else depends on the ability to think, analyze, make decisions. In Russia, the most important thing is still the sycophancy of the boss and no initiative. We also have it somewhere, but not this much.

Well, the main difference is that we protect people. For me, the loss of even two or three people is difficult. After that, we draw conclusions, change something so that there are fewer losses. And they are the opposite. It is normal for them to lose 20 people dead.

Are you waiting for new tanks? To what extent are they able to turn the tide of the war?

I will see these tanks when the unit that receives them comes under my command. Then I will definitely climb inside and see what kind of car it is (laughs).

Ян Доброносов / «Бабель»

But you need to understand that a tank by itself cannot change the situation in a war, because there is an anti-tank weapon for every tank. And if the unit loses one or two tanks in battle, it will no longer go on the offensive. But the tank can shoot at long and medium distances. Tanks can give us chances to turn the tide of battle. And also new tanks will add confidence to our infantry. But they will be given the same confidence by NATO-style artillery, ammunition, and artillery intelligence to suppress Russian artillery, aviation, and missile strikes. All this in the complex can turn the tide of the war.

Many in the war complain about Territorial defense. These are ordinary, non-military people, volunteers, who say that they were not taught to fight, but were recruited to protect their hometowns. What is your experience with them?

Let TD be a base for replenishing losses or vacant positions in military units. That is, the personnel of the TD should be divided into brigades and trained. Now they say that they donʼt have equipment — but they will be in mechanized brigades, and they will have equipment. Although I do not want to say that territorial defense has problems everywhere. There are [units] of the TD that fight well. And for the sake of justice, I will add that even in combat brigades there are units that do not always follow orders, putting their brothers and their homeland under attack.

And what does it depend on?

It depends primarily on the commanders. If soldiers were recruited and prepared for war, that is one thing. If they were recruited in order to receive a salary while sitting in the cities is another thing.

What do we need to win the war?

Diligence and hard work will get you everything. We need to hold the lines and prepare new motivated combat units during this time. To prepare even from scratch. They should gain experience and build a framework for further actions. We need to develop bases on which we can train personnel. And people with combat experience should train.

Do you feel the support of civilians here on the front lines? How important is this to you?

Of course, this is very important and it supports us. Whoever can help, helps. But mostly, repair of equipment, radios, day and night optics is needed. Thanks to Mavic drones, our units destroy dozens of Russians. But in February, we lost 61 Mavics.

Ян Доброносов / «Бабель»

The day after the interview, Yevhen allowed me to look into the control room. We come in together using password. Inside, everyone is working. In one of the halls, the wall is completely covered with monitors. On them, combat operations, the work of drones and other units are monitored in real time. From here one can adjust the artillery, find out who needs help and what kind of help specifically. The "eyes" of this headquarters are the drones, the videos of which we watched yesterday, and for which Adamʼs group is constantly raising funds.

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