On Ukraine battlefield, one act of mercy becomes an Internet meme

January 29, 2015

Alexey Chaban stands in front of the Russian tank he damaged and then commandeered. REUTERS/Courtesy of Alexey Chaban

The phone connection from my living room in Berlin to the battlefield in eastern Ukraine couldn’t have been better. First Lieutenant Alexei Chaban of the Ukrainian 17th Tank Brigade came in loud and clear, the sound of gunfire in the distance. “There’s some shelling going on,” he said. “If the line cuts out, it’s a mortar attack.” Chaban spoke in the same matter-of-fact voice of his Facebook posts from the front.

Chaban, 50, has become an Internet sensation since the weekend, when he posted an open letter to the mother of a Russian tank commander whose life he had spared during a skirmish last week. When I told him Tuesday afternoon that his letter had already been shared 17,000 times and liked by 8,000 Facebook users, Chaban was taken aback. His mobile Internet connection is excruciatingly slow, he said, so he had had no idea how popular he had become. “I guess it’s a big number, but I’m no expert in these things,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to do anything special. I’m just an average guy.”

It’s exactly Chaban’s ordinariness that has made him a hero. A reserve tank officer from his student days at Dnipropetrovsk’s mining school, the father of four voluntarily enlisted in July as the pro-Russian insurgency in the neighboring Donetsk and Luhansk regions became increasingly violent. Chaban left his 250-acre farm behind for a month of training before being sent to the shaky cease-fire line.

Like thousands of other combatants, Chaban took his smartphone with him. While Ukrainian government ministers and volunteer commanders often seem to spend more time writing Facebook posts than doing their jobs, social media have also allowed rank-and-file soldiers to stay in touch with friends and families. Geo-tagged social-media posts by Russian soldiers over the summer put a lie to Kremlin denials of military involvement in Ukraine. In wars past, soldiers spent downtime writing letters home. Today they hope they get a strong enough signal to post on Facebook.

Chaban is no different, and his Facebook page, written in Russian, is full of snapshots from the field and commentary on equipment. (It turns out a Belarusian night-vision scope is better than an American one.) On Tuesday, Chaban reflected on how soldiers get used to danger and described how his comrades blew up a rebel truck filled with ammunition. “This is war. After it’s over, it will affect people for a long time,” he wrote.

A day earlier, Chaban recounted a skirmish near the village of Sanzharivka, north of the surrounded Ukrainian outpost of Debaltseve, where he found a wounded Ukrainian soldier who had been run over by an enemy tank. “I don’t know how to communicate these feelings,” he wrote. “I’m even afraid to communicate these feelings and what I’ve seen to the civilian world. The scene I encountered screamed with horror.”


Alexey Chaban found this image on a phone that a Russian tank commander left in his vehicle after it was hit. It’s unknown where it was taken, but Chaban believes the man pictured is the tank’s former commander. REUTERS/Courtesy of Alexey Chaban

Chaban wrote his famous letter on Saturday night. In it, he addresses the mother of a Russian officer who survived a hit to his tank, together with his gunner and driver, on Jan. 22. “When they got out of their disabled vehicle, we just had to push a button in our tank and all that would have been left of them would have been a memory of our sinful world,” Chaban wrote. “We didn’t kill them. We let them go.”

Chaban goes on to explain to the mother that Ukrainians face a host of problems — corruption, crime, poverty, unemployment — and chased former President Viktor Yanukovych from office in February to have a better life. Chaban assures her that Ukrainians aren’t fascists who eat babies or rape disabled pensioners, but ordinary, peace-loving people who love their country and children. “Tell your son that making a living by depriving other people of their lives is NOT good. May he return home and find other work,” Chaban wrote. “May he live peacefully and not take sins on his soul.”

Chaban appealed to Facebook users to pass the letter on to the mother of the officer, who had left his mobile phone, with a Russian SIM card, in his tank. Chaban posted a picture from the phone, showing a worn, middle-aged man sitting atop a tank in fatigues and a black Russian tanker helmet. Chaban also included three phone numbers and a street address, presumably of the officer’s mother, that he’d found on the forgotten phone.

Reporters in the central Russian city of Voronezh confirmed that the three phone numbers were local: two were out of service, and the woman who answered the third, a certain Marina, said she had seen Chaban’s Facebook post but didn’t recognize the man in the photo. When reporters went to the address in the post, they met a pensioner named Tatyana Golubyatnikova who denied knowing the man or having any relatives fighting in Ukraine. The Russian journalists speculated that the Chaban post could be a mistake — or even a fabrication.

I also tried calling the three numbers and duplicated my colleagues’ results. “I have no idea how my number appeared on the Internet,” Marina said. “All the people I know live here. I’ve never seen that man.” Since the weekend, Marina said she had received phone calls from Ukraine, Moldova, and even Germany and Spain. “Of course, Russians aren’t fighting in Ukraine,” she said. “I can’t even imagine how two brotherly nations could fight each other.” Marina declined to give her last name, saying she didn’t need the unwanted publicity.

When I reached Chaban, I mentioned the doubts cast on his story by the Voronezh journalists. Chaban said that it was possible the owners of the phone numbers had been warned by the Russian authorities. He said there were other numbers on the officer’s phone that he hadn’t posted on Facebook.

I was curious why Chaban hadn’t taken the Russian tank crew prisoner. He and his men were in the middle of a firefight, confined to their tank, Chaban explained. “We could have shot them or let them go. We couldn’t have taken them prisoner. It wasn’t realistic.” Life-and-death decisions had to be made in a matter of seconds. Chaban told me he’s religious, though his faith isn’t the reason why he spared his enemies’ lives.

“I can’t say that at that moment I was thinking about God,” he said. “But you can’t kill unarmed people.” Chaban allowed that he might have reacted differently if he had lost a comrade in his five months in the war zone. “I don’t regret it. Why should we have killed them? I don’t think those three will fight anymore.”

The enemy tank, a T64-BV, wasn’t badly damaged. Specialists who examined it determined from its serial number that it had been based in Crimea, which Russia annexed in March. After repairing it, Chaban and his crew made it their own.

Chaban said the pictures and text messages he found on the tank commander’s phone kept him up at night. Finally, he decided to work through his feelings in a letter to the unknown soldier’s mother.

Chaban agreed with me that modern technology, especially smartphones and social networks, have created unimaginable opportunities for soldiers to stay in touch with the outside world. He usually speaks to his wife Svetlana twice a day. “For families it’s easier,” he said, then paused. “Or maybe more difficult.”

I was sitting at my dining table in Berlin. Chaban was sitting out a bombardment somewhere north of Debaltseve. We spoke in our two separate realities, connected only in time and by a 6-hour-old Facebook friendship.

“I hope they’ll let me go home in March. I’m tired,” Chaban said. He needs to plant his crops if he expects to make any kind of living this year.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Balanced reporting would also provide examples of dignified behavior from the other side. There were very many cases of Kiev soldiers treated humanly.

Factual content of the story is misleading indicating clever propaganda. Crux of the matter is that Kiev has been and it is strongly against federalization and neutralization of Ukraine. Instead they promote concept of “unite Ukraine” based on the ‘ukrainization’ which means elimination of whatever russian impacts there. This is ethnic/cultural part of the conflict. What is then covered up in this story is that on the Kiev side primary role in fighting is by so called volunteer batallions made of ultrantionalists, one can label them as fascists since many among them admire ‘glorious’ traditions of SS Galizien.

Posted by wirk | Report as abusive

“He needs to plant his crops”

Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our tresspasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.

Peace be with you All.


Posted by Lovetwo | Report as abusive

Dear First Lieutenant Alexei Chaban of the Ukrainian

“He needs to plant his crops”

And NO adulterated, genetically modified (GM) crops.

Mr Obama do you read?

Peace be with you All.


Posted by Lovetwo | Report as abusive

Silly article I am sure the other side would say and feel the same, all soldiers are led by politicians who are donkeys. Any chance he can write to us artillery and ask them to stop shelling civilians.

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

As much as I remember 400 Ukrainian soldiers lives were saved by the Russian Army and were even given food and clothing when they were allowed to cross into Russia and no one even tried to find out whose decision it was. Unfortunately we’ll never hear about that hero-es.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

A year ago, I began to read the foreign media with curiosity and interest, then with surprise, then with resentment, and finally with anger and hatred. Now I have only one feeling – the death to American provocateurs, who are sowing pain, suffering and death all around the world!

Posted by VVS | Report as abusive

Great article, however I am surprised the Ukrainians aren’t doing more to prove Russians involvement in Ukraine.

And why has the comments section fallen apart into conspiracy theories and gibberish?

Posted by marty_CA | Report as abusive

I checked the link in this article to “Reporters in the central Russian city of Voronezh confirmed that …”

It’s all bullshit. The article in Russian clearly says that the Russian reporters confirmed that one of the numbers mentioned exists, but it belongs to a woman who knows nothing about the case.
It seems the number was taken out of thin air, and the whole story is a propaganda piece. It’s shameful that Lucian Kim didn’t check the source, but doing journalism was not his task, obviously. He’s propagandist, not journalist.

Posted by Igor2015 | Report as abusive

provocatuers??? That wold be Putin..

Posted by michaelryan | Report as abusive

There seem to be several dozen dedicated (if not paid) Russian trolls popping up everywhere in U.S. web commentary pages. Makes for good comic relief in such serious times.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Dear WS

The definition of “agent provocateur” is: John McCain.

“An agent provocateur (French for “inciting agent”) is an undercover agent who acts to entice another person to commit an illegal or rash act or falsely implicate them in partaking in an illegal act. An agent provocateur may be acting out of their own sense of nationalism/duty or may be employed by the police or other entity to discredit or harm another group (e.g., peaceful protest or demonstration) by provoking them to commit a crime – thus, undermining the protest or demonstration as whole.”

Truth is the path to Peace.

Love; to fill your heart and soul with gladness.

Peace be with you All.


Posted by Lovetwo | Report as abusive

Dear OneOfTheSheep

The article is about a tired soldier who wants to grow his crops to feed people; instead of killing them.

Do you follow?

“In Internet slang, a troll (/ˈtroʊl/, /ˈtrɒl/) is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people,[1] by posting inflammatory,[2] extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response[3] or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”

Attacking the posters without commenting on the actual story qualifies YOU as the troll.

Truth be known.

Peace be with YOU All.


Posted by Lovetwo | Report as abusive

Another Reuters, Ukraine war article bought and sold to the highest bidder, NATO.

Posted by johnlocke445 | Report as abusive

Raw propaganda as others have noted.

Ukraine are angels of mercy while Russians are savages.

This gets old

Posted by RoyTyrell | Report as abusive

There would be many such stories in the battlefield, and we don’t hear about the majority of them. I wish Mr. Chaban, and many other soldiers like him would return to their homes and businesses, as ordinary people are not to be blamed for that madness of the politicians, and they are those who actually suffer. Meanwhile, I don’t trust the content of this opinion piece, at it looks more like an unprofessionally fabricated story than reality. The results of the investigation in Voronezh seem to be more reliable. I don’t have any doubt Russia is supporting the rebellion in Donbass, but I can’t believe, that if thousands of regular Russian troops are actually combating in Donbass, it would get unnoticed and impossible to demonstrate. I don’t think Russian services are capable of hiding many such stories. To date, Ukrainian government and their Western supporters weren’t able to clearly prove and demonstrate that Russian army is fighting in Ukraine. How can Russia hide tens, or maybe hundreds of dead and wounded soldiers from the outside world? I would have more trust to Western media, if they were reporting the events in Ukraine independently and objectively, but from the very beginning we are subjected to a cheap propaganda, portraying Ukraine’s government and military as a helpless victim in the Russian hands.

Posted by Levko | Report as abusive

to a commenter: And why has the comments section fallen apart into conspiracy theories and gibberish? Because some authors still live in KGB/Stalin realm. Ukrainians simply want to live in separate rich and free country without Russia ‘help’. They are fighting for the Ukrainian homeland. They are on their own land. And what Russian soldiers doing there??

Another commenter: ‘… fascists, since many among them admire ‘glorious’ traditions of SS Galizien’. Sorry, this is Moscow Kremlin propaganda. Russians, go home!

Posted by tobto | Report as abusive

I don’t recall any villainous depictions of Russian soldiers, as some other commenters have apparently found. But there’s clearly a difference in the justness of the two sides’ military action. Ukraine has been invaded, and unless you actually think Putin’s justification that Russia has a moral obligation to protect Russian speakers anywhere in the world (a principle which could justify a Russian invasion of pretty much every country on Earth), then Ukrainian soldiers, while they may not be any more individually virtuous than their Russian counterparts, are fighting on the just side. There were no doubt many virtuous Germans who took part in the invasion of Poland, but I don’t think western media were obligated to provide human interest stories about the invaders, or pursue balance in this way.

Posted by analyticity | Report as abusive

I see this site is infested with ruSSian trolls

Posted by Mykola | Report as abusive

dear author I like idea of this article but it should be based on fact not speculation we read all around, “Russian Tank T-64BV” is not Russian and if you think it could be brought from Crimea to fight you are wrong as it is extremely difficult geographically …Ukrainian official are talking about thousand solders from Russia and dozens of most edvanced Russian weapons supplied through borders ….and instead of T-80 Russia would bring old Ukrainian made tank T-64 all around Black Sea to fight Ukrainian brothers. Most probably this tank was given back with other military equipment to Ukraine back and was won as prize by Insurgency in previous battles…easy but not so pathetic.

Posted by andy777 | Report as abusive

Dear Mr. Kim

So for the historical record there was no Russian officer, gunner or driver fighting in Ukraine, on Jan. 22…

Truth be known.

Peace be with you All.


Posted by Lovetwo | Report as abusive


Interesting story in the St. Petersburg Times (Russia)

Posted by smokeymtnblues | Report as abusive

Well marty_CA, it seems the paid Russian trolls have become a cottage industry on most news sites now. A lot of even went as far to disable the comments sections such as this one, to eliminate the misinformation and flat out lies being propagated by the Kremlin and the Russian news sources.

Regardless of what the West or Ukraine presents, the Russians will counter with false information, including their photoshopped pictures in a feeble attempt to offset the truth. It’s up to the intelligence of the readers to discern fact from fiction.

Posted by smokeymtnblues | Report as abusive

Very bad propaganda.

Posted by Blurt | Report as abusive

This article is simply an attempt to make people believe that Russians are indeed fighting in the Ukraine.
If Russia was fighting in the Ukraine the Ukrainian army would have been over long ago and the Ukrainian gorillas would be fighting them.
It is in NO WAY in the interest of Russia to have a destabilised Ukraine.

This youtube video is the Ukrainian military chief saying that there are NO Russian forces in Ukraine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCqO2I-I 6BM

Posted by AhmedAdly74 | Report as abusive

Dear smokeymtnblues

Thank you.

For the history record; Russia does not censor their media as reported by the west and their al lies.

Truth be known.

Peace be with you All.


Posted by Lovetwo | Report as abusive

Another brave Ukrainian standing in defence of his homeland against naked Russian aggression. The Russians are fated to defeat.

Posted by LL7 | Report as abusive

There can be no balanced reporting with examples from the Russian side as they are not free to talk with international journalists without supervision. We wonder why…

Posted by KVM342 | Report as abusive

“For the history record; Russia does not censor their media as reported by the west and their lies.”

No, Russian media censors itself. With all the killing and intimidation of journalists since 2000, they have to, to save their lives:


Posted by KVM342 | Report as abusive

Dear KVM342

Consider the Truth.

Journalist, like scientist and every person on Our Planet is being censored and monitored (five-eyes surveillance), even your five year old daughter if she has a electronic device.

Journalist have to start reporting The Truth; Or “The Establishment” will shortly destroy God’s Creation due to lies, wars,.. and the resulting rapid accelerated climate change caused by “corrupt” economic activity for greed.

It is written.

Truth be known.

Peace be with you All.


Posted by Lovetwo | Report as abusive

So many negative comments.If wars would be fought with words Russian are huge winners. I never met such stubborn support of political suicide which is committed willingly by Putin’s Russia.

Posted by bagart | Report as abusive

So many negative comments.If wars would be fought with words Russian are huge winners. I never met such stubborn support of political suicide which is committed willingly by Putin’s Russia.

Posted by bagart | Report as abusive

Dear Mr. Kim

Here, Eye propose another title for your article.

On Ukraine battlefield, one act of deception becomes an Internet scam

Truth be known.

Love one another.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DlFQvbHV k5o

Peace be with you All.


Posted by Lovetwo | Report as abusive

How very merciful of Chaban to let go imaginary Russian officer! All that situation and the fallow-on sickening search for ‘presumably’ his mother looks like a naked propaganda especially on the background of Ukrainian army heavy shelling and mass killing of civilians in Donetsk and Lugansk. Hypocricy is boundless.

Posted by Mu_Kha | Report as abusive