Cops in the Trenches: Ukrainian Police Key to Fight against Russia

Sasha Maslov for The Washington Post
Servicemen of the Lyut brigade train in the Donetsk region.

DONETSK REGION, Ukraine – Some of the riskiest battles in Ukraine are being fought not by soldiers but by cops.

In many recent operations on the eastern front – including the liberation of a key village near Bakhmut – police officers boldly advanced on occupying Russian forces, attacking with grenades and gunfire.

Ukrainian police have long been reviled as corrupt and ineffective, and citizens united against them during the Maidan revolution of 2013-14, which led to a sweeping overhaul and rebranding.

Now, Russia’s war has carved out new and unexpected roles for the Ukrainian police, moving some officers from squad cars into trenches.

Wearing camouflage and wielding assault rifles and grenade launchers, the police fighting in the east look like typical soldiers and perform many identical tasks. But they belong to a special national police assault brigade called Lyut, or “Fury,” which was created earlier this year.

The brigade takes advantage of officers’ training and skills – such as handling weapons – and helps fill gaps at a time when the military is running short of combat-ready personnel. It also operates in a different command structure, allowing veteran police officers to enlist and retain their rank rather than get drafted into the army. Other incentives include a raise for current police officers and guaranteed postwar employment for recruits.

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‘Let us join the battle’

On a recent morning, Police Col. Oleksandr Netrebko stepped into a secret basement bunker near the front, barking orders into his phone. “Release the tourniquet every 50 minutes so his leg doesn’t get cut off later,” he instructed. “Understand? To save his leg.”

Minutes earlier, one of his officers was wounded on a mission to retake Klishchiivka, a strategic village outside the destroyed city of Bakhmut.

Liberating Klishchiivka would mean gaining fire control over key areas south of Bakhmut and securing a route that could disrupt Russian supply paths, Netrebko said. But the months-long fight for Klishchiivka had been an arduous, meter-by-meter slog amid wrecked homes and gardens.

Since summer, Netrebko’s police officers had used drones to observe Russian positions, then deployed in small groups for sneak attacks, aiming to dislodge even just a handful of enemy troops each time.

The brigade proved its worth on its first mission, Netrebko said, by firing two grenades at an armored personnel carrier, killing 12 Russians.

Soldiers fighting alongside Lyut were shocked to learn they were not military. “‘The police are at war? How is that possible?'” Netrebko recalled one soldier asking. “I said: ‘Let us join the battle . . . then you will understand.'”

Netrebko, an ex-soldier turned police officer, was in Kyiv when Russia invaded and anyone with a gun was expected to fight.

In the besieged suburb of Irpin, he coached a makeshift group of police in military basics, hoping to stop Russian forces from reaching the capital. Most of the police with him had never come under shelling. Some were carrying out missions in armored vehicles borrowed from local banks. “In other words,” he said, “we became military within a day.”

Similar scenes unfolded across the country as local police performed tasks well beyond normal duties.

Viktor Levchenko, 35, head of the patrol police in the Luhansk region, was among a few volunteers who stayed to evacuate and protect civilians as Russian forces advanced on the city of Lysychansk. He was wounded twice before the city fell.

Before the war, he recalled helping grandmothers cross streets and rescuing a cat from a tree – duties he hopes to resume one day. “Right now, everyone is fighting,” he said.

In Mariupol, Volodymyr Nikulin, 52, a police officer since 1992, risked his life to help Associated Press journalists publish photos and videos of Russia’s assault. Nikulin later relocated to Pokrovsk, where he worked with local police to document war crimes. In August, he was wounded while rescuing people from a Russian strike on a hotel and restaurant.

After recovering, he plans to fully return to work. “My job changed so much,” he said. “When you see people dying on the street or starving, you understand what you should do – without any orders.”

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A temporary shift in duties

Officials admit that using police to do the jobs of soldiers is a patch – necessary but hardly ideal.

“I hope . . . that with time there will be no need for such a brigade,” Ivan Vyhivskyi, the head of the national police, said.

For now, though, it makes sense, he said. Many police had already volunteered to serve in Ukraine’s military before Russia’s invasion. Thousands of others at least had basic weapons training, even if their previous work was mainly writing traffic tickets, investigating drug crimes or breaking up drunken fights.

Those not fighting on the front perform other crucial tasks – evacuating civilians, demining, staffing checkpoints, hunting Russian saboteurs. and documenting war crimes.

Special police helicopter pilots, hired before the invasion for civilian medical evacuations, now fly wounded soldiers to hospitals. Police officers in KORD, Ukraine’s version of SWAT, take turns in front-line positions, including in mobile air defense units.

In some front-line villages, “police officers are the only representatives of the state,” Vyhivskyi said.

It is a new, respected role – a dramatic shift from when Ukrainian police were often viewed as petty bribe-takers. After Maidan, a new government fired thousands of officers, although some were later reinstated. The militsiya – the old Soviet name – was disbanded and replaced by the National Police of Ukraine.

A new subdivision, the Patrol Police, recruited nationwide. Those officers, intended to regain public trust, were trained by police from the United States, Canada and elsewhere.

Now, far fewer police are quitting, Vyhivskyi said, partly because salaries rose to about $820 per month, with an added raise for officers in Lyut. Police work is also one of the few secure jobs in the battered wartime economy.

A recent poll by the Razumkov Centre Sociological Service, a Ukrainian think tank, found that public faith in the police has risen since the invasion – with 57 percent saying they trust the police, up from 38 percent about two years earlier. According to the October poll, 93 percent of Ukrainians trust the military, up from 68.3 percent in 2021.

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Formalizing the new role

Early this year, as Ukraine prepped for a much-hyped counteroffensive, it went on a recruiting frenzy for Lyut and other new brigades. Thousands of police officers applied to join Lyut. So did many civilians.

Netrebko designed a training program, including 40 days of individual training and then coordination with larger groups.

Among those inspired by the call for police officers to join the fight was Alyona, 25, who goes by the call sign Panthera and served four years as a K-9 police officer in the city of Vinnytsia. For a year after the invasion, she carried out regular police duties. Now, she storms Russian positions in the east.

She knew how to fire a gun, but before Lyut, she said, the police “didn’t train to work in trenches or clear enemy positions.”

Training alongside her this fall was Timur, 21, an ex-bartender with the call sign Vermouth. An only child, he was desperate to fight the Russians – and got around his parents’ ban on joining the military by joining the police instead.

When they learned he would fight anyway, Timur said, “it was difficult for them to accept.”

Timur was practicing in a small field on a residential street in eastern Ukraine, where Lyut commanders arranged stacks of tires and empty ammunition boxes to represent battle scenarios. On a hill above, a farmer rode by in a tractor.

Timur had expected to deploy back to Klishchiivka to help clear the last Russians from the village, but the mission was canceled. Days later, Ukraine announced that they had taken control of the settlement – the first victory for the new police brigade. The battle, however, came at a steep cost.

Two hours after Netrebko gave tourniquet instructions over the phone, he got another call. An officer had died.