Spying for Ukraine in Donbas
When Russian-backed militants occupied Donbas, she chose to serve Ukraine. Risking her life she transferred crucial data to Ukrainian intelligence services under the nose of Russian-backed militants
Lilya is just starting to adapt to life outside the military. She returned to Ukraine-controlled territory last year. She still has a vehicle that she used for recon. Due to Donetsk license plates, and a common car model, she was able to cross militant checkpoint without invoking any suspicions.
After the city was captured by the militants, Lilya — a Donetsk resident with callsign “Sova” was sending Ukrainian soldiers valuable intel. She said she had to learn everything on the go.
“APC and IFV are just a bunch of letters. What is the difference? Moreover, I could not tell them from a tank. Because an IFV is on tracks and a tank is on tracks. Both have a cannon. I did understand that they have different calibers and lengths. This is how my war started,” she said.
But she did know about coordinates and georeferencing. Before the war, she had been doing land and real estate evaluation. She was a wealthy person and had a high social status. Once she even received an offer from the leadership of the so-called “Donetsk Peoples Republic” to become the “Minister of Economy.”
“Of course I called my curator and said ‘Listen, I just got called and offered the position of Minister of Economy. I am thinking that I should accept this position. Can you imagine all the data I would have access to?’ And he said ‘Wait! Do you understand the possible repercussions?’ I said ‘Yeah, I understand. But think about all of the information I could get!’ My judgment was gone, I had the thrill of the hunt,” she said.
Having the respect of the militants, Lilya would often transfer information literally under their noses.
“At some point, I had to figure out how many people were ready for an assault on the airport. So I said I gotta buy a new coat. I cannot walk around in the old one for the second season in a row. A coat costs $300, right?” she said.
Lilya was not going after adrenalin kicks. She said she was performing only the necessary tasks.
“It was very hard and very scary. Really scary. For nine months it was terror every second, every minute. You live your life being terrified. You don’t understand whether you will be detained, or you might slip through here. I knew well that if I get caught they’ll hack me into pieces. They will destroy me slowly and with maximum suffering,” she said.
The militants told Lilya themselves that they were looking for a female spy among their ranks. They never thought it was her though. In the end, they caught one of the members of her recon team. She got a call that she should not go back when she was in the “grey zone” — the no man’s land between the military positions of both sides.
“So what should I do? Where should I go? I don’t have clothes, anything with me. I left just with a passport. There was no way out. I called the commander and said ‘Here`s the situation. I am in the gray zone, not too far from the separatist checkpoint. They got me on the wanted list!’ And he said ‘Why the hell are you standing there? Turn around and come to us!’ They were in the positions near Volnovakha at the time,” she said.
Lilya spent three years on the frontlines after that. Now she is restarting her life from scratch, with no money, business, or social status. She has no regrets though.
“I had results, I had motivation. I saw, I knew, and I understood what the results were. And the fact that your job has results even when you risk everything — it makes up for everything,” she said.
Retrieving her things from Donetsk is out of the question. Her apartment is now under constant surveillance. Her photos are posted all over the city. She got an offer to write a book, but she says she still can’t find the right words to convey what she went through.