When you get a “Golden Star” for 9 destroyed tanks. Story of a tank operator and a hero Serhiy Ponomarenko
13 June, 2022
Serhiy Ponomarenko, company commander of the 3rd tank brigade, Hero of Ukraine Photo: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

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In the spring of this year, military experts around the world were speaking about the Izyum and Barvinkovo — two settlements in the Kharkiv Oblast. After the capture of Izyum, Russian troops planned to quickly encircle the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the Slovyansk — Kramatorsk — Bakhmut areas. To do this, the occupiers had to reach the border in the Barvinkovo area.

However, the Russians failed to implement the plan. They were stopped by Ukrainian soldiers in a long fighting. As a result of one of these battles, the company commander of the Third Tank Brigade Serhiy Ponomarenko was awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine. Now, he is a deputy battalion commander. And this is his story.

The ratio was six Ukrainian tanks to twenty Russian ones 

The fight that got me the award was not special for me. In every fight, in every single one, you do everything you can, you put every effort.

There was an attempt of assault through the city of Topolske (a village on the outskirts of Izyum – ed.) by our unit, in cooperation with the 25th brigade (25th Separate Airborne Brigade – ed.). According to intelligence data, not many enemy forces were concentrated there. But when we started the battle, we realized that the enemy forces were much superior there. Just to be clear: the ratio was six Ukrainian tanks to twenty russian ones. And these were just the ones we saw. Plus, there was artillery support. Before the battle, it was impossible to count everything, everything was disguised.

We were moving in two directions at the same time. The first direction was from Velyka Komyshuvakha, and the second was from Mala Komyshuvakha. The intention was to enter Topolske and gain a foothold there with the support of infantry. The infantry moved forward a bit through the forest belt and waited to enter the village after we suppress the enemy’s fires.

When we started the battle, we realized that the enemy forces were superior there. We inflicted a huge fire defeat, backed off in order to reload the ammunition. At this point, the enemy began to actively use various caliber artillery systems and did not allow us to come back to our firing positions again.

During the battle, the car of platoon commander Yaroshchuk was hit, so we decided to advance once again in one car, so as not to endanger others, but to inflict fire damage one more time in order to suppress the enemy’s firing points. We managed to pick up the damaged car and take it out of the battlefield.

Сергій Пономаренко на танку, 7 березня 2022 року

Serhiy Ponomarenko on a tank, March 7, 2022

Photo: Serhiy Ponomarenko / Facebook

My company destroyed nine tanks in this battle

I do not count personal merits, I only count the merits of the company. So in that battle, my company destroyed nine tanks. We saw burning down ourselves. But there were also other tanks under debris, that were firing from the premises, from hangars. And also those that were hit, but they did not burn and, perhaps, were eventually evacuated by the enemy. It’s quite difficult to tell the exact number (of enemy tanks destroyed in the battle — ed.), because our UAVs did not fly, and there was no visual or video recording. 

Unfortunately, despite all the destroyed equipment, it was not possible to suppress the enemy’s fire resistance. The fire continued and even increased. It seems that there were some reserves in the forest belts somewhere behind this locality of Topolske, which then pulled up and joined the battle. When we destroyed one tank two other ones appeared instead of it.

It was quite difficult to count the number of enemy troops. Everything was on fire, in smoke, and during the battle it was difficult to find new targets. We were looking for flashes, and flashes inside the buildings, in particular, to define a target. You can determine the number of guns used against you based on the estimated destroyed equipment and by counting the time between shell explosions. Therefore, we can roughly estimate that about 20 units of enemy equipment were deployed in that direction. We only count tanks. We don’t count infantry fighting vehicles, their “Tigers”, because when tanks are used, you simply do not notice a smaller caliber. You hear a crackling sound, but you don’t pay attention to it, because it doesn’t pose such a danger to the tank.

The first person who informed me that I had received a Hero of Ukraine award was my former battalion commander Petro Pavlovych. He keeps monitoring the entire life path of all the guys who were with him in the ATO zone. He was the first to congratulate me.

I didn’t believe it at first. But then he said the order number and date. I checked and it was a pleasant surprise.

Сергій Пономаренко біля дорожнього знаку міста Мар'їнка

Serhiy Ponomarenko near the road sign of the city of Maryinka

Photo: Serhiy Ponomarenko/Facebook

Tank operator from the Agrarian University, who fought off Maryinka in 2014

I became a tank operator when I was a student. The National Agrarian University had a military department. Back then, we were making jokes with the guys: the Military Department, tank operators... can there really be a war with tanks considering the modern development of technology? By the time we finish the institute, there will already be space troops or something like that. But in fact, time goes on, and the means of warfare remain the same.

Having received an officer’s rank and taken the oath of allegiance to the Ukrainian people, I could not stand aside when the war began in 2014, so I went to the military enlistment office. At first, the summons was not served. They also joked: “You should go as a volunteer.” But the next day I received a summons — and so I found myself in the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Then I got into the 3rd Separate Tank Battalion. We took quite a wide path: we started from Mariupol and finished near Lysychansk, in Popasna, and liberated Butivka mine near Donetsk airport.

On June 3, 2015, there was an attempt by the russians to seize Maryinka. At that time, I was a platoon commander, and my platoon, together with the 28th Brigade (now the 28th Separate Mechanized Brigade named after the Knights of the First Winter Campaign — ed.), recaptured Maryinka. The platoon was reinforced with two more tanks, and we worked with five vehicles.

The chief of staff of the battalion, if I understand it correctly, did not add our names to the log book of military operations and did not submit a combat report. And so, according to all the data, my platoon was not in Maryinka on June 3. Although there is video and photo evidence. When the battle was already over, we were photographed both on our own equipment and on the battlefield after repelling the Russian assault. But history doesn’t know that.

In November 2021, I resigned from the Armed Forces of Ukraine and returned to civilian life. I had been working in a civilian capacity for just a month and a half until a full-scale war broke out, and I couldn’t stay aside.

Танкісти 3 танкової бригади в районі Барвінкового

Tank operators of the Third Tank Brigade in the area of Barvinkovo

Photo: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

After the anti-terrorist operation we agreed to return to the front, if necessary 

Even before the start of a full-scale war, we agreed on plans with those fellow combatants with whom we fought alongside in 2014-2015. A friend of mine served in the 3rd Separate Tank Brigade. I asked him if they would recruit officers and military personnel, if there would be a place for a group of my fellow combatants who would come ready to fight. I received affirmative answers. Therefore, we agreed in advance where and how we would meet with my friends. We were sure that during the first two or three days, the russians would try to completely suppress communications, including mobile ones.

On February 24, I woke up to explosions. At first, I didn’t understand what was going on. The first explosion woke me up, and with the second, I already knew what it was. My family was still asleep, I had already gone outside. I made the first few calls to my friends, they called me from Kyiv and confirmed my guesses about the start of a full-scale war. We agreed on new routes and meeting points with the guys, with whom we agreed to go to war together in case of anything. On February 26, we were already in Yarmolyntsi (the brigade headquarters is stationed in the village of Yarmolyntsi, Khmelnytsky region — ed.). And on March 12, we arrived to a place near Barvinkovo.

The difference between the war in 2014 and 2022

This war is different from the ATO because now the enemy uses much more forces and means. Before, they tried to hide things and didn’t deploy such large and powerful units in the battle, now they don’t hide anything. In addition, their officers and soldiers are much better trained than those who were before. Before, most of them were men mobilized from “L/DPR”, the so-called “militia”, which did not pose a particular threat. But even back then it was obvious when you engage in battle directly with units of the russian federation and when you fight against units of some “militia”.

Professionals can be identified by how they fight, how they choose firing positions, how they inflict fire defeat. For example, you can look at the battle of Dovhenke (a village in the Izyum raion — ed.). On the first day, it was one Ukrainian tank against two enemy tanks, which were driving around the field. We destroyed one enemy tank with one of our own, and the other managed to escape. So, having attacked two enemy tanks, we did not meet any resistance at all, and we used one tank to deal with two enemy tanks: we suppressed, destroyed and drove them away. And the very next day, when we were against three russian tanks on this field, their behavior was significantly different. They chose their positions correctly, they hid the hull correctly, they attacked with concentrated fire, only from the tank’s turrets.

It means that the hull is completely hidden, and you can only see the top of the turret of the tank with the gun. Then the tank is much more difficult to hit. It’s one thing when you shoot at a silhouette that is 2.7 meters high, and another — when there are literally some 50-70 centimeters of this tank above the surface. In addition, the turret has the strongest armor, it is quite difficult to hit.

Сергій Пономаренко, командир роти 3-ї танкової бригади, Герой України

Serhiy Ponomarenko, company commander of the Third Tank Brigade, Hero of Ukraine

Photo: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

Tank hits a matchbox from a distance of 1900 meters

If you compare the tanks — the russian “eighty” (tanks of the T-80 series — ed.) or T-90 — with the “seventy-second” (tanks of the T-72 series — ed.), that we now use in battles, then yes, the russians prevail. Both the fire control system and driving qualities are better there. But, in principle, they have T-72 — the same as ours. And the Armed Forces of Ukraine also have T-80, T-64, T-64 “Bulat”, which are not inferior to the russian ones at all. The only question is about the T-90, which have fairly good night vision devices: for firing at night their T-90 are the best in many aspects. But otherwise, there russian equipment has no advantages.

T-84 in absolutely fine in all respects, you don’t need anything better.

I haven’t tried driving and working on “Leopards” or “Abrams”, so I can’t say how much better or worse they are. But I’d say that even the T-64, if it is well adjusted, is quite a good machine. I would say it’s like a sniper rifle, but of a large caliber. I’ll explain the degree of accuracy of this tank: in 2014, the number of my vehicle was 334 (that’s why I got a the call sign 34), so it could hit a matchbox from the distance of 1,900 meters.

In combat, everything mainly depends on the motivation and skills of the crew. The guys are ready to fight, they have a right mindset, and therefore even if the equipment is not quite perfect, they compensate it with strong will and motivation. 

The motivation of military personnel during the anti-terrorist operation and the motivation of all the guys from our unit now are very different things. In 2014-2015, they mostly mobilized and sent there men who did not want to fight. Quite often someone from our company could have a thought: “What are we doing here and why all this, maybe it’s not necessary?” Now everyone understands very clearly why they are here, what they stand for, and what depends on their actions.

Трофейний танк Т-90 в районі Барвінкового

Captured T-90 tank near Barvinkovo

Photo: Bohdan Kutiepov / hromadske

“You are my thirty children, for whom I am responsible”

I’ve always said about my guys: before, I had three children, and now I have 30 of them. I was always joking: you are my thirty children, for whom I am completely responsible. And when I entered the war zone, I said to them face to face that I was going in with them and I would go out with them, leaving no one behind and I was absolutely honest. I’m trying to keep my promise. As of today, we have one missing person, unfortunately. His body was not found, so I really hope that he is somewhere in captivity, that we will find him and exchange him.

Attitude to russians? I have only one attitude towards them since 2014: it is an aggressor. And no mercy, no cooperation, no talks with him are possible. We just have to hit them, just chase them out, restore our territorial integrity, and then, when we reach our borders, we can talk about something with them. Now, as long as there is at least one soldier of the armed forces of the russian federation in the territory of Ukraine, there is nothing to talk about.

War is a chance to break away from the anchor that Russia embodied for us

I personally think that the victory will decide the future of our country, the future of our children. We have to stop going somewhere and looking for better life elsewhere. It’s time to roll up your sleeves and make a beautiful blooming country in our home.

When the Ukrainians stop going somewhere, stop lying to people, stop deceiving people; when you can go out into the yard and understand that the Ukrainian flag is flying, that people speak Ukrainian language, you can go find a job, you can take the child to a normal kindergarten, you can drive along a normal road.

This war is a very big chance for the country. A chance to free ourselves from this anchor — the Russian Federation, which has been hindering our development for all 30 years of independence. The main thing in war is to get the victory in our minds. We need to realize that we are not brothers at all, we are not fraternal peoples at all. 

And, perhaps, in 10-15-20 years, we will even thank the russians that, despite the great sacrifices, we get to finally free ourselves from the anchor that holds us back and hinders our development. And we will become a normal, flourishing country.

/By Oleksiy Bratushchak