In Ukraine’s war of resistance, fame has come courtesy of social media just as much as it has on the battlefield.
From the defenders of Snake Island on the first day of the war, with their now-iconic response to a now-sunken Russian warship to “go fuck yourself,” to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s intonation to U.S. officials urging him to leave that “I need ammo, not a ride,” the defense of Ukraine has produced one slogan after another.
But one that went slightly under the radar in Ukraine itself has become a battle cry for fighters from one of the largest sources of volunteers fighting there: a Georgian fighter and his response to a close call with Russian artillery on the outskirts of Kyiv in the war’s third week.
In a short video clip, a bearded man in a bandana calmly smokes a cigarette, sitting back in a foxhole somewhere in the forest. “We’re just sitting here, they’re attacking us sometimes. The artillery works like an orchestra,” he says.
Suddenly, a shell explodes just beside him. He barely reacts before shouting over his shoulder, “Missed me, dickhead!” and returns to finish his video update.
For the man behind the phrase, it was just an offhand remark.
“At one point I was just sitting there getting shelled, and I decided to make a video for my friends back home, just for updating on the situation,” he tells New Lines. “That’s when the shell hit near me and I yelled out, and it became a huge meme [in Georgia]. Someone recognized me on the street in [Georgia’s capital] Tbilisi last week because of it,” he laughs.
“Viking,” as he’s known in his unit — “I have a big ax, and Georgian names are too difficult to pronounce,” he explained — has produced a clip that has become a battle cry for his compatriots in Ukraine.
Viking is freshly back in Ukraine after returning home for several weeks owing to a death in his family. At 27 years old, he already has years of military experience under his belt.
“I graduated from the Georgian National Defense Academy, basically the Georgian version of West Point,” Viking says. “I served in the Georgian military for four years, but they wanted to turn me into a desk job guy. I can’t do that, just sit in a chair, so I enrolled in a [Private Military Company] that worked in Afghanistan.”
Two years there provided him with much of the crucial experience he would later bring to Ukraine.
“Afghanistan was fun. A little hot, but that’s all right,” Viking says. “I mostly did force protection, escorts, personal security detail. There were a lot of Georgians there, but only I spoke English well, so I became sort of the go-between with them and the others. I worked with pretty much every nation, NATO and otherwise, so I had a lot of opportunities.”
Viking’s personal politics are an eclectic mix. He obviously detests the Russian government, but his Twitter feed is awash with content that place him more comfortable at home on the American right. “I opened a Twitter account once I found out Elon [Musk] had bought it,” he jokes. A gun lover, he also considers the Second Amendment sacrosanct, sporting a Kyle Rittenhouse meme proudly on his page. He talks of a dream to live in Texas at some point down the road, feeling the allure of the classic American dream of “one man’s personal freedom.”
The pandemic brought an end to his time in Afghanistan, and he found himself back in Georgia. As late 2021 came around, his sense that war was coming grew.
“I knew [the war] was gonna happen months ago,” Viking says. “As soon as Russians do exercises on your border, it’s an invasion — you don’t have to tell a Georgian that,” he says, referencing Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia.
“I wanted to go to Ukraine, but I wanted to go the right way: in the official foreign legion,” Viking says. “This is conventional warfare, so I wanted to enroll in the conventional army. As soon as Zelenskyy announced it, I went down to the Ukrainian Embassy in Tbilisi [and got set up].”
The journey to Ukraine was not without hiccups: The initial flight chartered by Ukraine was denied permission to land by Georgia, part of an ongoing row that soon thereafter saw Kyiv recall its ambassador from Tbilisi. Nevertheless, Viking made it to Ukraine on March 3. By March 5, he was already in combat.
It didn’t take long for things to turn intense.
Having been placed in an assault unit as a result of his extensive military experience, Viking was assigned to one of the heaviest areas of urban combat, in northern Ukraine (the exact location of which remains classified).
“Shortly after we deployed, we took a position in a house,” he says. “It was 10 of us, in maybe a [500-square-foot] house, against at least a battalion on the other side. They threw everything [at us], but they could not push us out of that house for like 72 hours. It was pretty hairy, because we were getting slammed. There were no houses even left around it. We felt like Pavlov’s House in Stalingrad. It was pretty horrible,” he says with a casual chuckle.
In the fog of battle, they lost contact with the rest of their unit.
“We were supposed to get reinforced and go clear the settlement,” Viking explains. That never happened for some reason, and we lost our communications with the headquarters. That’s when the Russian decided to put some real pressure on us, with aviation. There was an Su-25 that dropped something on us, there was a helicopter, it was terrible.”
They decided to escape, and barely made it in time.
“Eventually panic sort of set in [among us], so I decided to take charge,” Viking says. “I said, ‘Let’s take our stuff and leave, because this position’s not sustainable if we aren’t getting backup.’ I could literally hear Russian voices about 50 meters away. Turns out [leaving] was the right call, because when we met our commander, he said he couldn’t relieve us because of the endless artillery fire. A few minutes after we left, that house got absolutely obliterated.”
Viking’s devotion and abilities did not go unnoticed. In early April, he was awarded the Order of Courage — one of Ukraine’s highest honors — to date the only time it has been bestowed upon a Georgian.
The Ukrainian troops impressed him with their tenacity — “a bit rough around the edges, but very brave,” Viking says. His opponents were a different matter.
“[They were] surprisingly pathetic,” he says of the Russian troops he encountered. “I have never seen a military force perform this badly. The Taliban had better logistics and planning than the Russian military. I don’t know if it’s basically the incompetence of their intelligence that they just expected flowers to greet them, but they are so poorly trained, so badly motivated, so underequipped that it’s outright ridiculous.”
Even an encounter with Russia’s much-vaunted “spetsnaz” (special forces) did not improve impressions.
“In that battle in the house, during the first night, we saw movement,” Viking says. “That always means special forces, because they’re the only guys that operate at night, so we knew it was spetsnaz. Everybody tensed up, because we thought these guys are the real deal. We decided to engage our sniper fire, and the rule of thumb [for them] in that situation is to spread out and take cover. You don’t stay grouped in one place.”
Russian special forces training apparently glosses over this maneuver.
“These guys all went into the same building,” Viking says with incredulity. “We could see them on thermals, and we were like, ‘What the hell are they doing?’ So we just took out Google Maps and marked their position and called it into the artillery, who blew them to smithereens. That was the end of spetsnaz in 15 minutes.”
As he prepares for another long trip into eastern Ukraine, the duty to defend this country overlaps with the need to proactively protect his own.
“With Georgia, we have this special relationship with them [Ukrainians]. We have no border [with Ukraine], but we still consider them our neighbor, one of our best friends. We’re in the same boat: against Russia,” he says.
For him, their struggle is the same.
“A lot of Americans or Westerners, you can’t really understand sometimes what they are doing here, because they could go home and this [war] would never touch them,” Viking says. “For Georgians, though, we don’t have a choice. I can’t fight Russians in Georgia, it’s smaller than Kyiv oblast. They can take Tbilisi in three hours. We don’t have the landmass, we don’t have the military capacity and we don’t have Poland next to us to supply us, to help us and all that.”
As Putin’s imperial dreams run up against what increasingly looks like their breaking point, Viking hopes Russian revanchism will be halted once and for all in Ukraine.
“For Georgians, this is our chance to beat this evil empire here, where we have a chance to do so,” he says. “It’s that, or dying next in Georgia.”