Ukraine war: Sky’s Stuart Ramsay recalls meeting condemned Britons on the front line | World News
We’d pushed by frozen forests on icy roads to a location outside Mariupol and a rendezvous with a Ukrainian military commander.
We were early and told to park near a shop and wait to be escorted towards the frontline.
Outside the rather scruffy and rundown shop, groups of soldiers drunk steaming hot cups of coffee and munched on sandwiches.
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A burly man peeled away from the group, slinging his AK-47 over his shoulder and approached the open door of our van.
I called for our local producer to come and translate.
The soldier poked his head inside and said in a general English accent: “Are you guys from Sky News?”
It was my first meeting with Aidan Aslin, back then he called himself Johnny Wood.
“It’s a nickname,” he said.
“My boss told me to be here, we’re going somewhere else, I’ll see you there.” And he walked off.
Sky producer Dominique Van Heerden had been talking to Aidan and his marine colleague Shaun Pinner on WhatsApp.
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Before our meeting, they had asked Dominique if we could bring them a few reminders of the UK.
Shaun wanted Marmite, and Aidan wanted PG Tips.
We had already left Britain so couldn’t do that.
“No problem,” Shaun replied. “If you could get some sausage maybe. I proportion it with the guys. These guys do this day in and day out… so I like to give them something,” he wrote.
Arranging this meeting had taken a lot of effort on all sides, not least for the two British men who were uncomfortable at appearing different or above their Ukrainian colleagues.
We drove on and arrived at a series of frozen trenches just a few hundred metres from the Russian-backed separatists’ lines.
A lightly bearded soldier, tough and slim looking came over and shook my hand.
“I’m Shaun,” he said. Originally from Watford and Bedfordshire, Shaun looked like a long-term specialized soldier, indeed he had served in the British Army for nine years, he told me.
We agreed that we would interview them in the trenches where they now lived.
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(L-R) Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner and Saaudun Brahim
Throughout our time, both men, continuously and separately insisted that they considered Ukraine their home, that they lived here permanently and had no plans to leave.
They conceded that being in the marines, an elite unit in the Ukrainian army, like the Royal Marines, was controversial.
But they had contracts and on a number of occasions reiterated that they were not foreign volunteers or mercenaries – they were adamant Sky News made that clear.
“I married a Ukrainian, I have got every much right to be here, and the guys, it’s taken me a long time to integrate here, so the guys know I’m not a war tourist or war junkie,” Shaun explained to me.
“I am with an organised unit, I’m with the government and I’m a contracted soldier so I’ve tried to steer away from that volunteer unit and militia…”
Shaun had been working in waste management in England when he decided he couldn’t do the 16-hour days and long commutes on the M25 any longer.
He said he had a son back home in England who would often visit him in Ukraine.
This was his fourth tour of duty, and his fourth year living here. He told us he had plans to go into aid volunteer work with his wife when his contract with the military came to an end in December this year.
Aidan Aslin, 28, who at the time wanted us to call him by his nickname Johnny Wood in broadcasts, was on his third tour.
He told us he knew people thought he was crazy for joining up, but that ultimately his life was in Ukraine.
He owns a house here, is engaged to a Ukrainian woman, and had plans to start a family.
“When I first came, guys were like a bit suspicious, saying like why are you here? Are you crazy?” he said.
“But after a while I assimilated, I learnt the language, I nevertheless speak like a baby when I speak Russian, but I speak enough to get the message across, so now guys just like see me like any other Ukrainian guy.”
Russia doesn’t have the death penalty and outside of Moscow, nowhere else on earth is this court in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, acknowledged to have any legitimacy.
Shaun Pinner and Aidan Aslin’s convictions today have been widely condemned and the hearings dismissed as a show trial.
However, it doesn’t average that the Russian-backed separatist state leaders would not carry out the sentence.
Neither they nor President Putin have shown any concern about consequences for anything in recent times.
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