Three days before Svitlana stumbled from the basement and groped her way home, Misha sat in the cramped confines of his squad’s BTR-80. As most training units had already been committed to the invasion force, Misha had been summarily processed at an induction center, where he was given his uniforms, a weapon, a few MREs and sundry supplies and a train ticket to Belarus. He was told he would receive training in the field.

And he had, to a certain extent. He had been shown how to operate his AK-74, a solid infantry weapon that only contract soldiers got to carry. He had spent a few hours practicing shots at metal targets from the prone, kneeling and standing position. Prone, he could hit a target fifty meters away, a feat which drew a small gathering and a few comments of his being a natural. He had been told about basic fire and maneuver concepts: how to establish a base of fire, how to maneuver on the flanks of an enemy position. Most importantly, he was taught how to do both without either shooting one of his comrades or being shot by one of them.

Misha took to small unit tactics naturally, which surprised him. He was fascinated by the simple and deadly coordination of fire amongst men. He had always thought of war as a chaotic surge of horror and wanton courage in the face of futility. He was surprised to learn the sense of purpose in the simplest tasks and the incessant battle against chaos and the commensurate obsession with order.

He soon learned that a lot was due to the fact that his was one of the few squads that was actually led by an experienced NCO. Sgt. Alexeyev was a veteran of both Chechen wars and Georgia who should have long ago been promoted or retired. The rumor was that he refused promotion because of the very problem he solved: the crippling lack of experienced NCOs to train fresh recruits like Misha and lead them into battle.

Unlike some of the other squads in the regiment’s reserve BTG, Misha and his comrades shined their boots, cleaned their weapons, inventoried parts for their BTR, ran maneuver drills and practiced emergency maintenance tasks on the BTR while Sgt. Alexeyev yelled at them. “You train like you fight! If you can’t do it in your sleep, you can’t do it in a fight! Thinking is the first casualty of contact with the enemy! Instincts, from long hard training are the only thing that will save your life!” Then he would grab one of the men by the collar, stare at him with eyes bulging as if he were a madman and yell, “Do you understand me, private?”

The only acceptable answer was “Yes, sergeant.” The first time somebody had called him comrade Sergeant Alexeyev, he had bodily thrown the man to the ground and gone into a fifteen minute tirade about how the Soviet Union was a betrayal to Russia and its noble place in history. “Behind every Soviet claim, there is a good Russian,” was the last thing he said on the matter. And nobody ever called him comrade again.

Despite Sgt. Alexeyev’s battle-hardened leadership, they face two critical problems. First, they weren’t a complete squad. Besides Sgt. Alexeyev, there were only four other soldiers, including Misha. There was the gunner and driver, who kept mostly to themselves and seemed to always be snickering at something, and there was Misha and his new friend Lyaksandro, an ethnic Ukrainian from Buryatia. Most men from Buryatia were actual Buryats and were conscripts. Lyaksandro was a contract soldier who studied Buddhism. Misha hadn’t yet asked him why a Ukrainian would join the Russian army, knowing that he might have to fight against his family’s homeland. Misha liked him right away for his incongruity and because he had told Misha that he was, in fact, Ukrainian, but that nobody knew. He trusted Misha to keep his secret.

The other problem was that the BTG’s commanding officer, like so many others, had sold most of their fuel and much of their supplies to the local black market. Whether it was because of Sgt. Alexeyev’s reputation or because he knew how to navigate the labyrinth of corruption that strangled much of the Russian army’s ability to actually fight, his squad had plenty of ammunition, food and supplies. Their BTR had new, black tires with bulbous treads. They had spare parts for the engine and the machine guns mounted in the squat turret sitting on top. Still, they didn’t have fuel.

Misha knew nothing of the real-world logistics system of the Russian army. What he did know was that he couldn’t carry out his plan of escape from the tame interior of Belarus. There were no dead Russians there, so he couldn’t find one to take his place on the roster as KIA and thus secure his sister’s future while he found his way to Europe where he would wait until he could send for her to join him.

Misha wasn’t eager to fight, but his enthusiasm for the training and his adoption of Sgt. Alexeyev’s fetish for attention to every possible detail hid that fact. And so it was that it wasn’t entirely unexpected when he went to talk to the Lieutenant about why they were sitting in Belarus when Russian forces were already stalled on the outskirts of Kiev.

©2022 Michael J Lawrence

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