Three days before Christmas, Iryna Hazhev is sitting in a restaurant on the outskirts of Lviv, in Western Ukraine. The 24-year-old, a captain in a mortar battery of the 24th Mechanized Brigade, is on a break from deployment. She wears her military uniform but is giving herself the liberty of some civilian flourishes, including gold loop earrings and blue nail polish. She seems relaxed – or as relaxed as can be for a soldier about to be sent to Bakhmut, in the Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine, the site of some of the war’s fiercest fighting.
“My plan is to celebrate the New Year with my boys in Bakhmut,” she said through an interpreter, referring to her unit of about 60 soldiers. “I am making a gift box for everyone in the unit, cigarettes, clementines and chocolates.”
Already a veteran of war, Ms. Hazhev credits the Canadian military for honing her combat and survival skills. In the spring of 2021, she went through Canada’s Operation Unifier program at the International Peacekeeping and Security Centre in Ukraine – training that would prove invaluable when she found herself in a horrific battle a year later.
Ms. Hazhev was born in Lviv and is an only child. Her parents live in Poland; her father is a construction worker and her mother a supermarket manager. She was a star player on the high-school volleyball team.
She knew since graduating from high school that military service would form a key part of her future. She entered the National Ground Forces Academy in Lviv in 2015, the year after Russia annexed Crimea and began supporting pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas – two events that became part of the broader Russo-Ukrainian war.
“The war was going on and I wanted to help my country,” she said. “I wanted to make a small contribution that can lead to victory for all Ukrainians.”
In 2019, when she was 21, she was deployed to Marinka, just west of Donetsk, in Eastern Ukraine. The small city had seen savage fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian fighters in 2015 and remained a hot spot in the following years (in December, Russian forces shelled Marinka). Her role was not to fight, but to lift the morale of the men in her unit. “My task was to be with them all the time, talk to them, give them cigarettes,” she said. “Step by step, I built up their confidence in me.”
After a couple of other deployments in Eastern Ukraine, Ms. Hazhev realized she needed a proper dose of practical battlefield training and joined the Unifier program in May, 2021.
Operation Unifier was launched in 2015 at the request of the Ukrainian government. The training took place in the village of Starychi, just northwest of Lviv, not far from the Polish border. Over the next seven years, the mission trained almost 34,000 Ukrainian soldiers, including members of the National Guard, many of whom had never fired a gun. They were taught weapons handling, battlefield first aid, patrol tactics, map reading and fieldcraft, a term that includes learning to use camouflage and moving stealthily.
In February, just before the invasion started, Canada put Operation Unifier on pause, then reopened it in August at a training site in southern England. About 230 Canadian Armed Forces personnel are part of the mission, most of them working in England, in conjunction with the British Army. About 40 Canadians are in Poland training Ukrainian sappers – combat engineers whose specialty is demolitions, breaching fortifications, clearing minefields and the like.
Ms. Hazhev said she found Unifier rewarding – all the more so since her old military academy fell short on combat training. “When I was finished the course, I knew I could replace a solider if needed to,” she said. “One Canadian instructor told us that we need to survive so we can fight again. I remember that lesson every day.”
She was thankful for the skills taught to her by the Canadians when, in May, 2022, her mortar unit came under sustained attack by the Russians in Zolote, a town in the Luhansk region of Eastern Ukraine. “The Russians were advancing on us in a full-on attack and we were getting encircled,” she said.
The mortar-battery commander was killed and Ms. Hazhev, as a captain, was thrust into the role as acting commander. After two days, the unit made their way to safety with minimal losses. “We were running through the fields and towns to reach our forces,” she said, remembering that she was carrying a pistol and a Kalashnikov automatic rifle. “I was grateful that the Unifier training had taught me to read maps. We escaped and everything ended up good for us.” (Ultimately, the Ukrainians could not hold Zolote.)
Ms. Hazhev is one of the 60,000 women serving in the armed forces of Ukraine – including 5,000 on the front line. She is aware of the grim statistics. The government recently said that 101 women soldiers have died, with another 50 missing, some of whom may be prisoners of war. More than 350 women have been awarded the title Hero of Ukraine, some posthumously.
She acknowledges she is afraid of combat; her sense of obligation pushes her on. “Fear is natural for everyone,” she said. “But there are no safe places in Ukraine. When my people are fighting, I cannot leave them behind. Everyone who can help, should help.”