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Watch: A Canadian veteran, working in Ukraine under the callsign Teflon, describes the brutal reality of his role as a sniper. Video contains descriptions of combat, fatalities and strong language. Learn more about Teflon's story from Globe correspondent Mark MacKinnon in the podcast at the end of this article.

The Globe and Mail

It was Christmas Eve, and the Alberta-born sniper was sitting alone in an abandoned apartment on the fifth floor of a building in the battle-ravaged eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. His .50-calibre rifle was leaning across an ironing board and a desk, pointed out a blown-out window toward the Russian front line.

The next 24 hours, according to the Albertan – whose code name is “Teflon” – were the bloodiest of his military career. He says he shot and killed 15 Russian soldiers on Dec. 24 as the enemy continued to move toward his sniper position in small groups, long after the deaths of their comrades should have persuaded them to change tactics and to approach from a different direction.

Although the specifics of Teflon’s account are impossible to verify, a Globe and Mail analysis of photos shared by Teflon – including one taken down the scope of his sniper rifle – geolocated him to an upper-storey window in an apartment building on the eastern edge of Bakhmut. The photos, which included the view over a thatch of small houses whose roofs were all damaged by the fighting, were taken during the Christmas period. One video the sniper shared showed a fire in part of the building Teflon was geolocated to, after an apparent Russian counterattack on his position.

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Bakhmut, as it looked through Teflon's rifle scope. The city is an important transit hub in the Donbas region, and Ukraine says up to 10,000 Russian troops have died trying to take it.

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In photos provided by Teflon, an apartment building burns and spent bullet casings are marked with a date, Dec. 24.Handouts

Asked to provide more proof of the encounter, Teflon, a member of a special-forces unit of International Legion for the Defence of Ukraine, shared a text message from a Ukrainian fighter he says was working as a translator for him on Christmas Eve, relaying messages over the radio from other soldiers about where and when the enemy was approaching from. The Ukrainian soldier wrote that he could confirm he had witnessed “at least 10 hits.”

A senior Ukrainian security source also said Teflon’s story was “very possible” within the context of the battle for Bakhmut, which has seen Russian commanders order waves of troops to launch borderline suicidal infantry attacks on dug-in Ukrainian positions.

The Globe and Mail is not using Teflon’s real name as special-forces fighters are prohibited from publicly disclosing their true identities. The senior security source is not being named as he was not cleared to discuss battlefield details with the media.

Ukraine claims that Russia has lost upward of 10,000 soldiers in the months-long battle, which has seen Russia slowly advance into the edge of the city – a key transportation hub in southeastern Donbas region – using “human wave” tactics also used in Ethiopia’s recent civil war, but before that last seen in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

Teflon served three years in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry before being released in 2011 for medical reasons. He later worked as a private security contractor in northern Africa, while honing his side career in mixed martial arts and taking part in sharpshooting competitions. As a member of the International Legion, he is supposed to receive the same salary as other members of the Ukrainian armed forces, about $900 a month, plus combat bonuses.

He views firing his sniper rifle as a job like any other. Teflon refers to days on the front line as “working” and to his targets as “human engagements.” But the 34-year-old – whose unit previously took part in the fall Ukrainian counteroffensive that liberated the Kharkiv region – says he began to feel sorry for the poorly trained Russian conscripts whose lives he was ending one at a time.

“The Russians were just sending five to seven guys at a time, day and night,” he recounted in an interview in Kyiv. “They’re just so poorly trained and have no concept of any of it. They come from like two kilometres away, I watch them walk all the way in. They come within 500 metres, you know, right into the kill zone.”

In Bakhmut, Teflon watches for targets and boils water with a makeshift stove.
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Teflon's photos of Bakhmut show homes with their roofs damaged by shelling.Handouts

To illustrate what happened on Dec. 24, Teflon showed The Globe photos he had taken on his iPhone of how the Russians would stay behind the cover of a partly destroyed building before they finally had to turn down a narrow alley that was overlooked by the apartment building where the Canadian army veteran and his sniper rifle were waiting.

Again and again, Teflon would squeeze his trigger. He says he fired 21 shots that day, missing more often at night when it was more difficult to judge distances even with a thermal scope on his Canadian-made Prairie Gun Works LRT-3. “I actually got to a point where I was like, ‘Can you stop? I’m tired of killing people this easily from this spot.’ ”

The number of bodies in the Christmas Eve “kill zone” eventually alerted the Russians to the fact they were in grave danger in that alley under the apartment block, meaning they would start to run just as they got into Teflon’s sights. The Russians identified which building the sniper had to be hiding in, and directed a tank to shell the apartment building.

Teflon says he took cover during the shelling, and then moved to another room and set up his sniper rifle again.

“There’s a couple of shots I made that day that will be with me,” he said. One was a Russian in a T-shirt who was carrying a box of ammunition more than 1,800 metres behind the front line – a distance Teflon says was the longest shot he’s ever made. “He saw no threat, he thought he was safe. But it’s my job to ensure that they know that they’re not safe anywhere,” Teflon said. “The role of a sniper is to ultimately push into the minds of the enemy and make them question everything.”

The other was a conscript that Teflon killed on the cold, grey day, as temperatures hovered around the freezing point. After making his shot, Teflon watched through his scope as the dead man’s comrade tried desperately to revive him using CPR. “I chose not to fire a second shot. I let them pick up that body and move it.”

He says he killed three more Russian soldiers on the morning of Dec. 25 before taking a break after a 36-hour shift on the front line.

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Teflon says his sniping work over Christmas was among the bloodiest of his career.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Teflon describes working as a sniper as “the most inhumane job in the world but a very important one and it’s a job, something that I guess I’m okay doing.”

But he acknowledges feeling bad for the Russian conscripts that kept being sent forward in Bakhmut. Unlike the professional soldiers that Russia used in the war’s earlier battles, many of those deployed to Bakhmut are conscripts drafted under the partial mobilization order that Russian President Vladimir Putin gave last fall.

“There’s allegations that all these Russians must be drugged. There’s no way. I think it’s just lack of training. Because they still act like human beings. I’ve watched guys cry and I’ve watched guys scream and I’ve watched guys try to pull their friends back when they get killed. They’re humans but they don’t have an ounce of training when it comes to fighting a war.”

And yet their commanders keep ordering them forward. The tactic has helped Russia’s infamous Wagner mercenary group – which includes thousands of fighters drafted straight from prison – to make incremental gains in and around Bakhmut. On Tuesday, Russia claimed to have captured the village of Blahodatne, just north of Bakhmut. If confirmed, the victory would further tighten the Russian siege of the city, which had a prewar population of 70,000.

Should Bakhmut fall to Russian forces, it would end months of humiliating defeats and mark the most significant Russian gain since last summer, when it seized the nearby industrial cities of Sieverodonetsk and Lyschansk.

“Sadly, it’s working. That’s why they’re doing it. We’re defending until we can’t defend that spot any more because they just destroy it with tanks. And they just keep sending another wave. It’s just relentless,” Teflon said. “So, they’ve gained 500 metres of dirt, but they just took over a completely destroyed position and lost hundreds of guys to do so.”

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Smoke rises after Russian attacks on the outskirts of Bakhmut on Dec. 27.Libkos/The Associated Press

Teflon, who was close to both Joseph Hildebrand and Grygorii Tsekhmistrenko – two Canadian members of the International Legion who recently died fighting in Ukraine – says he will stay in the country, come what may. After a break away from the front line in Kyiv, he says he’s training with a new elite unit, and hopes to be back at the front again soon.

The loss of his friends – both were killed near Bakhmut, Mr. Hildebrand in November, Mr. Tsekhmistrenko on Jan. 15 – played a role in his deciding to talk about what happened on Christmas Eve.

“The world deserves to hear the truth and after losing Joe and Greg, they need to understand we’re not stopping this work,” he said. “There’s no point me dying without telling my story.”

With reporting by Patrick Dell in Toronto

A sniper’s story: More on The Decibel

Listen to excerpts from Mark MacKinnon’s interviews with Teflon and background on how The Globe and Mail tried to verify his story. Subscribe for more episodes.

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