How One Millennial Ukrainian Is Defeating Russians: Viral Videos, Collaboration, and Lots of Drones
But the 34-year-old battalion commander said if he had his enemies’ arsenal, he would “burn them off of the earth.”
Angled down, the cannon of the Ukrainian tank shoots point-blank range at a Russian trench in a video filmed by drone and viewed millions of times since it was posted in April. In another video, a lone Russian soldier surrenders—to a drone.
Both videos come from a battalion fighting in Ukraine’s seasoned 54th Mechanized Brigade, which is currently defending Ukrainian positions in eastern Ukraine near Bakhmut, a city that has become a global byword for devastation during Russia’s nearly nine-month siege.
The battalion’s latest video racked up almost half a million views in under five hours, and its last four videos garnered over 1 million views each. Top Ukrainian news outlets Hromadske and Chanel 5 have covered the battalion in detail, as have international outlets like The Daily Mail.
The battalion’s 34-year-old commander, who goes by the callsign K-2, shows how Ukraine’s army has promoted at least some younger, innovative commanders, even if the service still displays some Soviet-style thinking. The commander spoke with Defense One by video call from the frontline on Orthodox Easter, when Russian guns might be expected to be silent. His battalion is also known as K-2, after his callsign.
A bearded millennial who came of age at the same time as YouTube gained popularity, K-2 said he also craved getting the silver YouTube button given to channels that top 100,000 subscribers. The channel is now far past that, but the button hasn’t arrived yet.
“But if I don’t get one, I’ll go buy one,” he said with a laugh.
K-2 launched the videos as a way to give his soldiers a taste of recognition short of handing out medals. But they have also had the unintended effect of promoting the battalion, which raises money from volunteers to support its operations. Ukraine’s army relies heavily on volunteers for non-lethal support. K-2 said his battalion gets around 90 percent of their vehicles and 60 percent of their drones via donations from volunteers.
His path to becoming a soldier followed Russia’s near-decade of aggression in Ukraine.
After Russia annexed Crimea and launched a proxy war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, K-2 delivered a car to a military unit as part of a wider volunteer-led effort to support Ukraine’s struggling military.
No one else in the unit had experience with the vehicle he delivered though, so he ended up staying on as a soldier, putting to work his previous training as an officer in a police special tactics unit.
“I’m not a career soldier,” K-2 said, although after almost ten years of service he’s now among some of the most experienced soldiers in Ukraine’s wartime army. Until 2017, he served with the 92nd Mechanized Brigade, which saw action in Donbas, before moving to the 54th.
K-2 was eventually assigned to an intelligence unit and rose through the ranks until he was tapped to become the deputy chief of staff for his brigade commander. He had planned to leave the army in 2021, but stayed on out of loyalty to soldiers who had joined the unit to serve with him. Once the war started in February 2022, he felt he had no choice but to keep fighting.
As he moved up the chain, K-2 learned more and more. “I’m not ashamed to ask my commanders for advice,” he said. “I had good teachers.”
Among these commanders was Viktor Nikoliuk, who rose to national prominence in Ukraine for his defense of Chernihiv, a northern city that held under 37 days of Russian encirclement. The 47-year-old Maj. Gen. Nikoliuk now leads training for all of Ukraine’s ground forces.
He also learned by reading military books and training with NATO militaries in the U.S.-built Yavoriv training center. While at Yavoriv, he trained for six months while attending a staff officer intelligence course.
Today, K-2 runs his unit more like a U.S. unit, with a collaborative approach to battle planning that differs from a top-down Soviet style. When planning an operation, K-2 said, he asks his staff to come up with their own solutions for him to review. “I make the decisions, but the whole command does the thinking,” he said.
He also works to cultivate younger soldiers. When he became commander of the battalion, he encouraged older, less innovative soldiers to transfer out. “Those who didn’t agree with my combat methods, I asked to move to other units,” he said. “I really like when people have fresh views.”
The strategy has paid off. The unit has been forced to withdraw just once since the war started, and quickly retook the position.. K-2 even requested and got a larger section of the front than is typical, so he could bring his troops within 200 meters of Russian forces and take advantage of their close-quarter skills.
Russian units, meanwhile, have suffered terribly against his battalion. K-2 said his unit counted 1,200 Russian dead for just 20 of their own in a battle against a unit under Wagner, the Russian mercenary group that recruits from prisons and sends them on human-wave attacks.
With Russia’s army many times the size of Ukraine’s, K-2 can ill-afford to lose any soldiers even if their lives are traded for many times more Russians. “For me it was a critical point,” he said. “They have a resource we don’t have: human life.”
After more than a year of combat, the 54th Mechanized Brigade still has around 60 percent of the troops who joined it before the invasion. His casualty rate is better than many other Ukrainian units. One battalion commander reported a 100-percent casualty rate.
Replacements for the unit get just a month of training, fairly standard for the Ukrainian Army these days but far less than the U.S. allocates for boot camp. If there’s time, they get an extra three days of training with the unit, where they focus on basic skills like tactical medicine.
K-2’s success also means that he retains most of his original equipment, with a few Western additions such as two Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles. He said moving soldiers safely from point to point is like “Uber” on the battlefield. The unit also has two T-80 tanks, taken from the Russians.
Among his most important tools are drones. Before the war began, his thousand-man brigade flew at most five drones. Now at any moment, the unit might have 10 drones in the sky, he said. Each drone is viewed as an expendable item, he said, contrasting older Soviet methods that would instead push individual soldiers into dangerous reconnaissance missions.
According to K-2, 60 percent of his intelligence comes from drones, with the rest coming from intercepted communications and captured prisoners. The unit has used suicide drones to attack Russian troops, and to coordinate battles in real time.
Despite their success, the war’s demands never end. The biggest need the unit has now is for night-vision equipment, to fight off the Russian units that attack in small groups under the cover of darkness. Russia forces also continue to have access to large quantities of ammunition, K-2 said.
For ten Russian shells, K-2’s battalion can only answer with one of their own, so they try to make their single shot as accurate as possible. “If I had as much weapons and ammunition as they have,” he said, “I would burn them off of the earth.”
The war has also taken a mental toll on K-2 himself. After speaking with his commander about the strain he was under, he was granted permission to take two days off every two weeks or so if he needed it.
And after almost a decade of war, K-2 looks forward to the day when the war ends and he can finally retire from the military. He has no specific career plans, he said. “I want to go home, and see my son,” he said.
When he leaves, he’ll presumably have to give up his budding YouTube career. Laid-back and with an easy smile, he’s a natural guest for the several YouTube interview shows he’s recently appeared on, in which he cheerfully talks about competing with other frontline units for success against the Russians.
He sees himself as already an old soldier, he said as he sat near a bank of computer monitors with updates from the battlefield. “You have to make way for the new generation.”