Ukrainian Fighters With WWI Guns Channel 16th-Century Ancestors

Volunteer Ukrainian fighters are tooling around in Soviet-era military vehicles armed with WWI-vintage machine guns while done up as their fierce Cossack ancestors that have challenged Russian authority since the 16th century. 

Images and video surfaced online recently that show uniformed members of Ukraine’s volunteer Territorial Defense Forces in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region, an area currently seeing intense fighting, groomed to look like traditional Cossacks, toting DP-27 and Maxim machine guns around on a Soviet 4×4 LuAZ-969 vehicle.

The scene, depicted in the documentary-style video below from Ukrainian public broadcaster Suspilne Zaporizhzhya, is a dizzying layer cake of anachronisms.

The most modern piece of equipment, other than the TDF fighters’ military clothing, is the LuAZ-969 vehicle, a Cold War-era four-wheel-drive automobile based on the ZAZ-969 built by the Zaporizhzhia Automobile Building Plant — the Ukrainian acronym is ZAZ — from 1966 to 1971 in the same city the fighters are defending. In 1971, the Lutsk automobile plant (LuAZ) in northwestern Ukraine, now called the Bogdan Motors Assembly Plant, took over production.

The vehicles were produced until 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, so it is possible the LuAZ shown is a post-Cold War production example. A modernized derivative called the LuAZ-1302 that looks very similar to the 969 from the outside was built until 2002, though the angular wheel wells on the vehicle in the video point to an older Soviet-era model.

The tiny two-seater is an off-road pickup of sorts with high ground clearance for off-road driving. Because of its underbody clearance and elevated engine air intake located under the hood, the vehicle can ford streams. The original variant of the LuAZ, called the 967, has a boat-like hull that allowed it to float for 30 minutes and move through the water propelled by its spinning tires. The 969 vehicles are based on that design, originally produced for the Red Army based on its need for a small, rugged utility vehicle akin to the U.S. Jeep during the Korean War. It was designed for carrying wounded troops on litters that could be loaded via an optional rear ramp, as well as ammunition, and for towing artillery.

The LuAZ-969 mounted with an M1910/41 Maxim machine gun. Suspilne Zaporizhzhya

This particular truck is mounted with a rear-facing M1910/41 Maxim liquid-cooled machine gun. The weapon looks antiquated because it is — the basic design dates to before WWI. Versions of this machine gun, many with its iconic water cooling jacket around its barrel, were produced in Russia and then the Soviet Union until 1945. Both Ukrainian and pro-Russian separatist forces are using the Maxim in the current conflict, which you can read about here.

There has been no shortage of seemingly out-of-place, potentially functionally obsolete or just plain bizarre weaponry on both sides of the ongoing war. All manner of antiquated firearms, vehicles, and equipment have shown up in the current conflict, even as modern weapons like anti-tank guided missiles and unmanned aircraft are elemental to the war. Both Russian forces and now Ukraine are funneling their most modern weapons to the front while arming reservists and militia fighters with older types, including those leftovers from past wars.

Combining the Maxim with the LuAZ creates a sort of technical, or what Eastern Europeans call a “tachanka,” a term originally applied to horse-drawn machine guns mounted in open wagons or carriages. With most if not all modern armored vehicles going to frontline Ukrainian forces, TDF units are often left to scrounge for transport, especially in areas of heavy fighting like Zaporizhzhia. This region, situated just north of occupied Crimea, has in recent weeks been the target of a renewed Russian offensive.

It should be noted that other Ukrainian fighters are shown in the same video equipped with modern AK-74 and AK-12 rifles, anti-tank missiles, and several types of rocket-propelled grenades (RPG), though it is unclear if those troops are regular Ukrainian Army soldiers. The video follows some of the TDF fighters in the LuAZ on a trip to the front, which the narrator says is sort of like a “safari” for the volunteers. Elsewhere in the video, a modern camouflaged pickup truck is shown with a light anti-aircraft machine gun mounted in the bed.

In the video, a Ukrainian fighter explains the appeal of antiquated weapons in a modern war. The designs are old, but also basic, reliable, and relatively easy to operate and maintain for fighters with little or no formal training. 

A Ukraine Territorial Defense Force member decked out in Cossack style, shows off his M1910 Maxim machine gun. Public Zaporozhye
A Ukraine Territorial Defense Force member decked out in Cossack style, shows off his M1910 Maxim machine gun. Suspilne Zaporizhzhya

“Everything is very easy, simple,” he says while loading bullets from the fighter’s traditional Papakha pillbox-style hat into the round magazine of a DP-27 pan-fed machine gun. Subtitles from a video of the TDF fighters posted online were run through Google Translate for these quotes. 

“It was released in 1941 and is still in working order. It is said that the technique of old models beats the enemy well, if you know how.”

A Ukrainian fighter carries a modern AK-12 rifle with a 45-round RPK-74 magazine. Suspilne Zaporizhzhya

The man’s cap and coif represent another step back in time from the weapons and the truck. He and others in the video have shaved most of their heads and wear bushy facial hair to invoke Ukrainian Cossacks that settled in eastern Ukraine in the 16th century.

Cossacks originally were ethnic group native to the Caucasus region that live in Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere and were hired as mercenaries and border guards during the Tsarist period. They were known as fierce horsemen and all-around great fighters, which is likely the persona the modern Ukrainian fighters want to project. The term has since become a sort of catchall for various minority groups, as well as individuals who simply espouse what they conceive as a Cossack lifestyle.

The hairstyle called an Oseledets, or Chub, features a single lock of hair streaming from a mostly shaven or bald pate. A stylized image of a Cossack with the same hairstyle has made it onto a unit patch for some TDF fighters. It is both a symbol of national identity and a show of disdain for their Russian opponents. Russians commonly use their word for the hairstyle as an ethnic slur for Ukrainians.

A patch featuring a stylized Cossack sporting an Osedelets hairdo.

Russian soldiers advancing on Zaporizhzhia will encounter at least some of these mean-looking Cossack fighters with their shocks of hair, earrings, and walrus facial hair. This TDF unit reflects the plethora of groups that have joined the ranks of Ukraine’s volunteer forces to resist the Russian invasion, including both far-right and far-left domestic groups and foreign fighters.

Another of the fighters in the video, an older man identified only as a 62-year-old grandfather explains his motive for fiercely defending his homeland against a better-equipped foreign invader.

A 62-year-old Ukrainian Territorial Force fighter. Public Zaporozhye
A 62-year-old Ukrainian Territorial Force fighter. Suspilne Zaporizhzhya

“Every Cossack has a love for the land,” he says. The man is decked out in modern tactical gear, but has a shaved head and bushy mustache and beard in the Cossack style. “No one will run away from their land. We have nowhere to run, let them run home. We will get them there, wherever they may be. We will get them even underground.”

Ukrainians doing themselves up in Cossack style has a deeply personal and historical meaning for both sides in the conflict. It harkens back to Airborne Paratroopers on D-Day painting their faces and shaving their heads in the Mohawk style before jumping into occupied France in 1944. Warriors for millennia have worn stylized dress and adornments to strike fear into enemy hearts. 

Grandad Cossack summed up Ukraine’s fighting ethos and his reasoning for making a stand, even with equipment from last century.

“At least one Cossack will remain — and Ukraine will be reborn,” he said. “No one will live on this land except the Cossacks. And every Ukrainian is a Cossack.”

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