‘AS cliched as it sounds, it was the moment when my entire life flashed before my eyes,” Valentyn Ilchuk tells me, as we sit chatting over a coffee in the heart of the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv.

Outside yet another air raid siren had just gone off, something not unusual in this city that holds the unwelcome record of being one of the most bombarded by Russian shells and rockets since the war began back in February this year.

But Ilchuk is telling me in detail about another place, the historical village of Lukyanivka that sits on the northern ­outskirts of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

It was there on March 24 this year as his unit of Ukrainian soldiers moved into Lukyanivka to liberate it from ­Russian occupying forces that Ilchuk thought his time was up. Almost immediately after entering the village, the men found ­themselves at the epicentre of a fierce ­firefight involving infantry and tanks from both sides.

In pictures: How ordinary ­Ukrainians are coping six months into Russia's invasion

At the height of the battle, Ilchuk along with two comrades ran for cover towards the culvert of a bridge before tentatively raising his head to look around.

“I saw this Russian tank, maybe not even 60 metres away from me with its gun barrel facing straight towards us,” he says, explaining how the tank was out of sight of the main body of his own unit and the sole Ukrainian tank positioned nearby.

The run back to the Ukrainian position to warn of the Russian armour lying in wait ahead was, he says, “some of the most unpleasant moments of my life”.

He adds: “Either they didn’t see us, or they ­decided that we were not a significant enough target, because they could have taken us down with a machine gun. It was enough for them just to fire a tank round somewhere in the vicinity to kill us all.”

In the event, he managed to signal the impending danger to the commander of the Ukrainian tank who was watching from the vehicle’s turret before Ilchuk again took cover nearby.

“As the enemy tank was rolling out from behind the corner, our tank took the first shot and he missed. I knew then that if the Russian fired back and hit our tank detonating the ammo, we would be concussed at the very least, wounded or wiped out and killed.”

The National: Valentyn Ilchuk in Mykolaiv. Photo: David Pratt.Valentyn Ilchuk in Mykolaiv. Photo: David Pratt.

This was not the first time Valentyn ­Ilchuk has been in combat and as I write, he is currently on another battlefield somewhere in southern Ukraine where a counteroffensive along with another in the east is gaining momentum to push back the Russians on numerous fronts around the cities of Kharkiv and Kherson.

In fact, it was only days before the ­“official” announcement of that ­offensive beginning that I spoke with ­Ilchuk in Mykolaiv, the famous port and ­shipbuilding city that has become the jumping off point for the Ukrainian push towards Kherson.

What Ilchuk told me of his life was not untypical of the extraordinary ­transformation of the lives of countless Ukrainian men and women who now find themselves on the frontlines.

For him, though, the war against the Russian invaders was only an escalation of the conflict that he first joined up to fight back in 2014 in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

It was there after demonstrations by pro-Russian groups that the situation escalated into a war between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk republics, backed by Russian political and special-forces personnel and deniable military advisers.

“It’s a bit weird, because everyone who fought back in 2014-2016 thought that this was a big and scary war, but now it’s completely different,” Ilchuk explains.

“You’ve got to realise that now it’s a full-scale invasion, we didn’t have that back in 2014 – also Ukraine didn’t have the military that it has now. Back then the resistance, especially in the first days, was very much grassroots, so people were organising themselves.”

The National: Valentyn Ilchuk (third from right pointing weapon at sky) and his unit. Photo: Valua Chuk/Facebook.Valentyn Ilchuk (third from right pointing weapon at sky) and his unit. Photo: Valua Chuk/Facebook.

It was one of these volunteer groups, formed along with some friends, that led Ilchuk into battle in the Donbas. What emerged from that campaign was what he describes as a “tight network” of trained fighters.

“These ties were pretty strong and in Kyiv, my home city, we had a little ­Telegram chat group with a bunch of ­other veterans from the Donbas.

“Sure, we used this veteran group to hang out and drink together a bit, but ­every now and again, we would go on training,” says the 38-year-old who, when not fighting Russian invaders, owns and runs Zgraya Digital, a successful ­international company which specialises in websites, apps and branding.

Before that, Ilchuk worked for 12 years in corporate finance and used to run the Thomson-Reuters office in Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus.

“Every time tensions rise, somebody would always ask, so are you guys ready to engage again? And everybody says yes,” Ilchuk tells me, before adding that this was how it was back in February when it became obvious the Russian ­invasion was imminent and his group began to muster for the defence of Kyiv.

“Since we all fought back in 2014, most of us had our own guns, our own body armour, our own equipment to a ­certain extent, so we went into this ready.”

He tells of how on the night of ­February 23, before the Russian invasion, the small unit gathered at his house south of Kyiv. By the time they woke up the next ­morning, Russian tanks and troops were almost at the gates of Kyiv.

“We were geared up and we went to ­defend Kyiv, because if you remember, the first days were incredibly hectic. Nobody knew exactly what was going on. It was obvious that the Russians were all over the place,” he recalls of those first hours of the invasion.

Ilchuk describes the unit of which he is part as “military freelancers”, a small squad consisting of fellow veterans who have remained friends after taking up ­civilian roles following service in the Donbas.

“We do a lot of reconnaissance. We do assaults, guerrilla-style hit and run, we are flexible, experienced and have specialists in different areas like drone operators, snipers and are basically ­self-sufficient but obviously part of the brigade and ­military structure,” Ilchuk says, ­explaining the unit’s role.

It was after seeing action in the defence of Kyiv that he and his comrades were restationed on Ukraine’s southern front – a battlefield he describes as being very different from the one they experienced around the capital.

“We were used to fighting in the Kyiv area where there are woods, hills and ­villages, where you can take the fight to the enemy, to within an AK-shot distance because you could actually see them. We were the ones on the defensive as they tried to break through and were ­running ambush tactics,” says Ilchuk, ­before ­contrasting that with what he and his men encountered in the south.

There, he says, it is just one big ­“flatland” with his unit arriving in Mykolaiv just ­after Ukrainian forces had beaten back a determined Russian attempt to seize the city which would have provided a ­gateway to the grand prize of the ­neighbouring port city of Odesa.

“By the time we came in, the tables were turned – basically, where we had been the defenders in Kyiv, now it was the ­Russians defending Kherson entrenched and dug in according to the military textbook ­echelon style in lines,” he says.

IN combat it was hard to get close, Ilchuk says, resulting in what became more of an artillery war than one involving any large movements of infantry.

“They had superior, still have superior artillery power. They have more ammo, probably more guns too. And especially in the first days, they had air superiority.

“The way they worked is to have the ­Orlan UAV (drone) hanging out in the sky during the day. It would find you and they would start shelling, even small groups of people like four to six, making it really hard to move and pretty much impossible to get close,” Ilchuk goes on.

Everything he describes is delivered in perfect English even if his accent is ­bewildering and at different times sounds to the ear either American, Irish or South African.

I ask where it comes from and he tells me it’s a hybrid accent – one that is a ­result of time spent studying International ­Business and Marketing at the University of Richmond in the US, which included an exchange term at Warwick ­University in the UK in 2005. Then there was a ­period in Scandinavia and other places, making for a life of global nomadism resulting in the indeterminable lilt and phrasing in his voice.

With Ukraine’s bitter winter looming, I asked whether he expected a shift in the battlefield stalemate before the onset of freezing conditions in this part of the world.

The National: Valentyn Ilchuk (far left) after battle in Lukyanivka. Photo: Valua Chuk/Facebook.Valentyn Ilchuk (far left) after battle in Lukyanivka. Photo: Valua Chuk/Facebook.

“I honestly don’t know. There’s an ­example back in December of 2014, when everybody was forecasting that the fight would cease until the spring for the same reasons. But as many remember, it was ­early 2015 that some of the harshest fighting took place during the battles for Donetsk airport and for ­Debaltseve. So, I guess it all depends on the sides and what they decide but there’s tons of ­motivation on our side,” he assures me.

Little did I realise it then, but his ­remarks anticipated the Ukrainian ­counteroffensive that within days of our conversation was under way in various part of the country and continues to gain ground.

Only these past days, Ukraine’s ­President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that Ukrainian forces have retaken more that 385sq miles of territory in its south and east from Russia in the past week. Even Russia’s top occupation official in Kharkiv region, Vitaly Ganchev, conceded Ukrainian forces had won a “significant victory” there.

But such gains come at a heavy price everywhere – especially, it seems, in the counteroffensive to retake Kherson from Russian control. With reporting ­restrictions in place along the frontlines for security reasons, accounts from the battlefield can be difficult to corroborate.

HOWEVER, some eyewitness accounts from wounded soldiers brought back to positions away from the immediate front tell of fighting yard by yard, village by village, position by position. Some soldiers have spoken of Russian tanks dug into newly built concrete fortifications and counter battery systems locating Ukrainian positions.

They tell too, as Ilchuk recalled, of how Russia’s Orlan drones reveal Ukrainian positions from more than a kilometre above their heads, an altitude that means soldiers never hear the buzz of the aircraft tracking their movements.

But such reports have two sides and there is no doubt that Ukrainian forces, despite considerable challenges, are taking the fight to the Russians like never before.

Should Kherson be retaken before the onset of winter, it would be a ­significant development and bolster Ukraine’s ­standing among those allies on whose support it so depends.

As for Ilchuk and his whereabouts and those of his comrades now, even if I did know, then reporting restrictions on ­frontline operations would prevent me from mentioning.

But before we parted company in Mykolaiv I asked him how he ­managed psychologically to keep everything ­together – not least that this is now the ­second time in his life he has been forced to take up arms to defend Ukraine.

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“I think it has something to do with the fact that my first deployment was when I was already 31 years old and I was not conscripted or thrown into the hell of ­battle, it was absolutely my own ­conscious decision,” he replies.

Now married with a six-year-old ­daughter, he still recalls that earlier time back in 2014 when he helped man the ­barricades during the Maidan ­Revolution or Revolution of Dignity as it is ­sometimes better known, an event that was a ­harbinger of the toxicity to come in relations between Kyiv and Moscow that resulted in the war in the Donbas.

“It was the first time it became blatantly obvious to me that Russians do not wish us well,” he tells me, pausing momentarily before continuing.

“This is our land, our country, and who else is there to take care of it but we Ukrainians?” he asks. “Back in 2014, I did not have a child, I did not have a house, now I have my family, my wife and ­daughter, so I have everything to lose if we do not win this war.”