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Ukrainian 'Grandpa' leads over-60s unit fighting Russian forces for free

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By Serhiy Chalyi

ZAPORIZHZHIA REGION, Ukraine, April 28 (Reuters) -Oleksandr Taran's mobile artillery unit isn't officially part of Ukraine's military, but that hasn't stopped his men from destroying Russian targets on their own dime.

"We ... get by thanks to the pension fund," the 68-year-old commander - whose call sign is "Grandpa" - said with a chuckle.

Taran's all-volunteer unit, the Steppe Wolves, is comprised of dozens of Ukrainian men mostly over 60 years old who are considered too old to be drafted but still want to fight.

Roving behind the front line with truck-mounted rocket launchers, they take orders from field commanders and work with other troops, contributing to the war effort despite lacking official support from the military.

The unit is funded by donations and stocked with faulty rounds they repair themselves as well as weapons captured from the enemy. Both are delivered to them by front-line troops.

When Reuters recently visited their base in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region, they were preparing 122mm Grad rocket rounds that were later fired by troops from another unit.

"The commanders that provide us with targets are happy," said a 63-year-old fighter with the call sign "Zorro".

"They give us more targets (and) help us with ammunition however they can."

Taran, the commander, said his unit has been attempting to officially join Ukraine's armed forces to directly receive ammunition - and salaries - but has been unsuccessful.

The unit also includes younger men who have been ruled unfit to fight.


More than two years into Russia's full-scale invasion, Ukraine's mobilisation effort is struggling amid flagging enthusiasm.

Russian troops have been advancing in the east, and analysts say Ukraine's shortage of manpower needs to be addressed.

Some prominent Ukrainian and foreign supporters of the war effort have urged Zelenskiy to significantly reduce the mobilisation age.

Earlier this month, Zelenskiy approved new measures allowing the military to call up more troops and tighten punishment for evasion. He also reduced the mobilisation age from 27 to 25.

Taran, who has been fighting since Moscow launched its war in 2014, said coercion would be unlikely to replace genuine enthusiasm from a potential recruit.

"Beat him with a stick if you want, but he won't fight," he said. "If a person wants to, he can go on for 100 years to fulfil his tasks and destroy the enemy."

Reporting by Serhiy Chalyi; Writing by Dan Peleschuk; Editing by Hugh Lawson


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