Oleksandr Vintonyak is a Ukrainian electrician who had lived in Spain since 1999. However, at 59 years of age, he returned to Ukraine after the Russian invasion to join the fight. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Twenty-three years in Spain is a lifetime, but you decided to return to Ukraine to enlist. Why?
Yes, I arrived in Spain in 1999 and was working as an electrician when the war started. I came back to Ukraine because I want my country to be as it should be: a free state. I was born in a subjugated Ukraine and I don’t want that to happen again.
You mean the Soviet Union.
Yes, I lived in the Soviet Union and I was in the Red Army, which is very similar to the Russian Army today. I’m from Bukovina, from a village in the mountains, the Carpathians. And in school, they used to show us Pavel Morozov as a role model. He was a kid who denounced his father because he opposed Soviet power. However, my part of the country was very anti-communist and the last partisans were not eliminated until 1962. For that reason, the repression in my region was very strong. I don’t want that to happen again.
How did you return to Ukraine?
By bus, on a trip from Madrid to Lviv, Leopolis. There, I met the son of an old friend who directed me to a recruitment center where I enlisted.
Did you receive military training before being sent to the front?
Yes, but the training was brief because, as I mentioned before, I was in the Soviet Army and I knew well the weapons available. Then, I was sent as a reinforcement to a Marine brigade deployed in the Donbas that had suffered casualties, and a month later I joined a self-propelled gun battery. There we suffered through the Russian offensive in Popasna, in Lysychansk, and so on. Then, in the next rotation, we were sent south to Kherson, where we were supporting a bridgehead of our forces.
What was the relationship with civilians in the Donbas like? According to Kremlin propaganda, the population in this area had been persecuted for speaking Russian.
When I arrived in my unit, people spoke both Russian and Ukrainian. But with this invasion, those who used to speak Russian, and did so without any problems, are increasingly trying to speak Ukrainian. My wife, who was a humanitarian volunteer in 2014, is from Dnipro, a mostly Russian-speaking city. After the invasion, she started to speak Ukrainian. People have suffered a lot and don’t want to hear anything in Russian.
Was the arrival of Western artillery, such as the HIMARS at the front very noticeable?
Very much so. In the first three months, we were outnumbered ten to one by Russian artillery. They were firing all the time and we were sometimes short of shells. But at the end of May, artillery started coming in and we started hitting their guns, and I saw our helicopters flying for the first time. In June, the German Panzerhaubitze 2000 armored howitzers arrived, beautiful! Also, the M777s, which we called “three axes”, and the situation began to change. We were hitting them again and again, and we heard the pleasant sound of our rockets.
I imagine that the arrival of these weapons boosted the morale of the Ukrainian forces a lot, but what was it like during the first months?
There is no nation made solely of heroes, nor us, nor the Americans, nor the Germans. There are always some who go to war voluntarily, some who go to war because they are ordered to, and some who don’t want to fight. But during the first months of the war, when we suffered a lot, I never heard anyone say that we were going to lose the war. That is the truth.
Have you spoken to Russian prisoners?
No, the only direct contact I’ve had with the Russian army was in Kherson, when we took over a depot that the enemy had abandoned in their retreat. There were medical supplies of very poor quality, old bandages and food rations; real filth that you couldn’t eat.
In September, you turned 60 and had to leave the army. Would you still be there if you had been allowed to?
Yes, I didn’t want to go back. My birthday was on 12 September, but I stayed with my unit until the 29th when it was time for rotation. I wanted to stay with my colleagues and my boss, a 31-year-old captain, who was in the war in 2014. I respect him a lot and I am alive because of him.
What do you think will happen in the war?
I am sure we will drive them out of our country with the help of weapons sent by the US and the West. And I imagine that something will happen inside Russia, because more and more people are opening their eyes to the disaster that this war is bringing.
And this new bombing campaign to leave Ukrainians without electricity and water, do you think it can undermine the will to fight?
No, because we knew this could happen. We know our neighbors well and we know what they are capable of.
Álvaro Peñas is a political analyst specializing in Eastern European countries. He writes for El Correo de España and several European digital outlets. He is deputy director of two programs on Decisión Radio and a regular contributor to the television channel 7NN.