Ukraine parliament member now trains recon and sabotage team to fight Russia Col. Roman Kostenko, a Ukrainian lawmaker, has built a reconnaissance and sabotage team to target Russian forces. His ultimate goal: free his family village from Russian control.

A member of Ukraine's parliament now trains a recon and sabotage unit to fight Russia

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Finland and Sweden today formally submitted their applications to join NATO. The decision was prompted by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. And before February 24, most Ukrainians never thought the invasion would happen. But when it did, millions leaped into action. One was a lawmaker and soldier nicknamed Thunder, who returned home to Ukraine's south and formed his own reconnaissance and sabotage team. NPR's Frank Langfitt has this profile from Mykolaiv. And just a note, this piece begins with the sound of gunfire.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: So I'm at a training base, and there's men lying down, hiding behind tires and firing at targets. And they're doing extremely well. They're hitting targets at 60 to 100 yards.

In peacetime, Col. Roman Kostenko might spend today in his parliamentary office in Kyiv. Instead, he's standing in the rolling hills of Ukraine's south, watching his team train for missions behind enemy lines. Kostenko grew up east of here, in the Kherson region. To appreciate what Ukrainians are fighting for, consider his situation.

ROMAN KOSTENKO: (Through interpreter) The village where I was born and raised is now under Russian occupation. When the soldiers arrived at my house, there was my colonel's uniform and a lot of other ammunition that I left there after I became a member of Parliament. They took it all away. They stole all the furniture and took all the things to their trenches. Some military unit of the Russian Federation is now living there.

LANGFITT: He's learned that Russian soldiers took his medals, even his old body armor.

Do you think a Russian soldier is now wearing your body armor?

KOSTENKO: I think yes.

LANGFITT: Russia installed its own government in Kherson, which plans to ask Moscow to declare the region Russian territory. It's a sign Russia could annex a vast area, including Kostenko's family village.

KOSTENKO: (Through interpreter) That's probably why I'm here. I understand that this is now a matter of honor, to bring back my home and to bring back all people's homes. I'm not the only one in this kind of situation. There are hundreds of thousands of people like me.

LANGFITT: Kostenko served in Ukraine's Security Service, its main intelligence agency, for many years. He was among a band of Ukrainian soldiers who held off much larger Russian-led forces while defending an airport in the Donbas in 2014. The battle became the subject of a feature film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CYBORGS: HEROES NEVER DIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

LANGFITT: Kostenko won a seat in Parliament in 2019, where he serves on the Defense Committee. Soon after the Russians invaded, he reached out to his old compatriots from the battle in the Donbas. They formed a team which now operates as part of the armed services. Among them are a truck driver, a car mechanic, a security guard and a farmer.

KOSTENKO: (Through interpreter) Here are some very cool experts in artillery spotting. That guy in the face mask over there - do you see him? He is the head of the group. He is very good at artillery spotting. Artillery spotting is an art form.

LANGFITT: Kostenko points to a man in full camouflage and body armor. A blue face mask, wraparound sunglasses and a green helmet obscure his entire head. His military nickname?

KOSTENKO: Elephant.

LANGFITT: Elephant.

Elephant spent 18 years in military intelligence, then went to work as a farmer, growing wheat and sunflowers. The Russian invasion has pulled him back into the field. He now travels with a small recon team, riding dirt and quad bikes through the fields and woodlands east of Mykolaiv.

ELEPHANT: (Through interpreter) We go many miles behind enemy lines. We are working there to neutralize the enemy's command posts and their artillery so that they can't fire at our positions. We are also working to neutralize the enemy's rear lines so they won't be able to provide ammunition and food to their front lines.

LANGFITT: That sounds very dangerous to me.

ELEPHANT: (Through interpreter) Yes, these operations are dangerous, but our country is now in danger.

LANGFITT: Elephant carries a tablet PC, where he watches drone footage.

ELEPHANT: (Through interpreter) We are spotting the artillery with the help of the drones. We find their coordinates, send it to our headquarters, and they fire on the enemy.

LANGFITT: If the target is beyond Ukrainian artillery range, Elephant's team eliminates it the old-fashioned way.

ELEPHANT: (Through interpreter) At night, we come as close as we can and destroy it. We destroy it with grenade launchers or explosives. We can even use the ammunition from the enemy's artillery systems.

LANGFITT: Risk comes with the job.

ELEPHANT: (Through interpreter) We are under fire constantly because when we head towards the enemy's back lines, there's very little chance they won't see us because they also use drones. If they aren't shooting at us, we think something went wrong.

LANGFITT: A brick farmhouse stands along the road to the training camp. One of the walls is a gaping hole. This is where Kostenko has taught soldiers how to set explosives.

KOSTENKO: (Through interpreter) For me, explosions are like music. To me, it sounds different.

LANGFITT: Kostenko is a youthful 38. He has a big grin and a boyish sense of enthusiasm. He began his career as an explosives expert, blowing his way into buildings, detonating landmines. That's how he got his nickname, Grim, or Thunder in Ukrainian. He's been blowing things up since he first set off fireworks as a kid.

KOSTENKO: (Through interpreter) It's my hobby to blow things up. This is what helps me get rid of the stress. In peacetime, I do it at the military training center. In wartime, I blow up Russian soldiers.

LANGFITT: I visited Kostenko in his office. Weapons lined the corridor. A long green cylinder stands in a corner.

KOSTENKO: It's a NLAW.

LANGFITT: It's an NLAW, from Britain.

KOSTENKO: Oh, yes, Britain.

LANGFITT: A highly effective anti-tank missile. There are rocket-propelled grenade launchers from Sweden, Spain and the U.S.

KOSTENKO: It's a Stinger and a Javelin.

LANGFITT: Oh, so you have the Stinger and then a Javelin on top. OK. So from all over, you have lots of...

KOSTENKO: I have a lot. I have a lot (laughter).

LANGFITT: Kostenko's delighted to have all these weapons. But like most Ukrainian soldiers, he wants bigger ones with greater range. Kostenko shows me a video on his phone.

KOSTENKO: It's my drone. It's howitzer, like Russian.

LANGFITT: Oh, those are Russian howitzers. Yeah. You can just see them firing out from, basically, a big row of trees.

Flame spits from their barrels. This really frustrates Kostenko.

KOSTENKO: (Through interpreter) They withdrew their forces and weapons in such a way that we can't reach them with our howitzers. Right now we desperately need long-range artillery and kamikaze drones to hit them in the far rear of their lines. Now only the most contemporary weapons can change the situation on the battlefield.

LANGFITT: He says the Ukrainian army needs American howitzers. The U.S. recently sent 90. Most are already in the fight.

KOSTENKO: (Through interpreter) I won't say how many shells we have, how many weapons, but we really need shells and long-range artillery. Without this, it'll be very difficult to hold on and then liberate territories.

LANGFITT: This war is expected to grind on for months, maybe longer. Kostenko's goal isn't to stop the Russians but to take back Ukrainian land from them, land he hopes will include his family home. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Mykolaiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASTRALIA'S "FAREWELL AND ENCOUNTER")

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