DONETSK OBLAST — The Donbas battlefront meanders for over 1,000 kilometers through a land that has not known peace since 2014.
In some points like Bakhmut, it flares into a meat grinder of incalculable human loss. At others, it appears to be coiled and waiting, limited to probing attacks by Russians looking for a chink in the nation’s armor. Defenders think that nothing’s stopping these areas from also ramping up into meat grinders in the future, once the soil firms up.
“Their mobilization never ended, they keep gathering their forces,” says Yehor, standing in front of his T-64 tank some five kilometers from the front line on March 3. The bottom part of the visible tread is submerged in mud. “Most likely, these swamps will dry out and we will again see large assaults and breakthroughs thousands strong every day.”
Yehor commands a tank platoon in the 1st Tank Brigade, arguably Ukraine’s most famous armored force. They won glory in their defense of Chernihiv during Russia’s first offensive in February and March 2022.
Over the course of six weeks, almost completely surrounded, the 1st Tank Brigade took on an armored Russian force many times its size and threw it back from the city, while inflicting heavy damage on the invaders. As the battered Russians were ordered to pull out from the north, the brigade recaptured the M01 highway connecting Chernihiv to Kyiv.
Now, a year later, some from the brigade have sadly been killed near Bakhmut, Yehor says. Others are spread along the front line further south, slapping down Russian thrusts and waiting for escalation or counterattack, as they contend with the war’s thousand frustrations.
Front line soldiers asked only to be identified by their first name or callsign due to security concerns.
If you want to get started meeting troops and civilians in this area, it’s hard to go wrong with this one local cafe, whose owner asked for its name and location to remain unrevealed, for security reasons — “we know the front line may suddenly move towards us.”
It’s a unique eatery for the area: cozy and rustic but with a modern, professional vibe like something you might find in a larger city.
Arriving late in the morning, we see some of the tables are already occupied by Ukrainian soldiers, eating pork steak with fries, pelmeni dumplings or solyanka soup. One of them invariably wants a selfie with the foreign-sounding journalists. There will be even more of them later in the day, enlisted and officers alike.
“The soldiers like to come eat a tasty meal and sit around in a pleasant atmosphere,” says Olga, the proprietor. “When the soldiers come, I try to put on relaxing music, create a nice environment, and interact with them if they want, which they really like.”
As a result, she and her husband seem to have made friends with a lot of the soldiers that roll through the area at all hours of the day.
“Some come at 8 a.m. sharp (when the cafe opens) and eat a lot of food,” she says. “Sometimes we’re even surprised how much some people can eat for breakfast. They come from the zero line, all hungry.”
Having tasted both Olga’s cooking and local MREs, I am not surprised. Whether you’re an infantryman in a muddy trench fending off attacks, a tank commander fighting a stalemate against his geriatric machine’s maintenance needs or an artilleryman driven to wits’ end by his officers, her cafe offers sanctuary, peace of mind and a decent hot meal.
When front line access and accompaniment is granted, it’s a straight shot to the besieged ruin of Velyka Novosilka or any number of nearby front line territories.
The road to the 1st Tank Brigade’s infantry positions is poor. Its rough, potholed surface urges you to slow down. Knowing you’re in the Russians’ artillery range tells you to floor it.
“If I get hit, don’t try to rescue me,” says a press officer, as he floors it towards the approach.
The 20-minute walk from the road to the frontmost trenches perfectly illustrates every article talking up March weather in Ukraine as an obstacle to offensive operations. The black mud clings to your shoes like you’re its last chance to escape the war zone and it wants to bring its entire extended family. Twenty steps and you’re wearing pounds of the stuff caked over each sole, which makes the final 50-meter sprint to the trench look unintentionally comical.
In the trench, Ukrainian forces reveal that a hostile drone may have seen that approach. But the Russians are about 3 kilometers away, at least two tree lines over, and aren’t accurate at that range. Most of the serious combat occurs at closer quarters. But it’s rare for a few minutes to go by without some distant shot or explosion.
The trench is cold and damp but its defenders are warm and welcoming as they give a tour of their kingdom. We’re invited into a dugout that sleeps two men at a time, to see Volodymyr sitting on the raised sleeping surface, with a three-week-old kitten in each hand, trying to summon their mother. “This is our joy that brings us peace and calm,” he says.
Some of the grunts find peace in other ways, such as by praying. A small guardian angel figurine overhangs the sleeping area. Some just speak with the phlegmatic poise of men who have gotten used to constant battle but managed to avoid heavy casualties.
The question of morale comes up as I sit with Ruslan and a different Volodymyr while they clean their guns. Before the full-scale war, the two last served in the military 30 years ago.
“We feel excellent,” says Ruslan. But he quickly hedges that with “we feel normal."
"As much as that’s possible,” adds Volodymyr.
Most of them spent over four months at this position, four days at a time, constantly fending off Russian mechanized infantry with rocket launchers, heavy machine guns, assault rifles and Cossack indignation. Sometimes, the attacks are tank-supported, often requiring the brigade’s own tanks or artillery to come to the rescue.
The Russians like to begin their attacks by laying down smoke screens, which dissipate in five minutes and aren’t very effective, I’m told. If the Russians have a tank to work with, this is when it opens up on Ukrainian positions. Russian BMP infantry fighting vehicles and/or BTR personnel carriers approach as they’re able.
The Russian infantry dismount their vehicles and try to get close enough to throw grenades into the trench, under the cover of the tank’s gun, the BTR’s machine gun or the BMP’s autocannon. Even after attacks are repelled, artillery often continues for the rest of the day.
If the Russians succeed in grenading a trench, that position is usually lost. This one held, even through late December and January, when Russians made small strikes along the line every 2-3 days, poking in and retreating, leaving their destroyed vehicles on the battlefield.
"They tried to break through with three BTRs, one BMP and two tanks once," said Ruslan. "Only one tank escaped."
By March 2, the date of our visit, these attacks slowed down. Instead, the Russians are using tanks and artillery to try to soften up the Ukrainian positions. Sometimes tanks shoot from maximum range before retreating out of harm’s way.
While the position is still secure, the tree line above the trench looks mangled. The soldiers aren’t sure how many of these trees are still alive enough to mask them with foliage, after being torn up by shells or having their roots damaged by the Ukrainians’ own digging.
Though the turn of the month brought something like a lull, everyone expects hostilities to heat up with the weather.
"When it gets warmer, we expect it to intensify," says Ruslan. Volodymyr chimes in: "When there's mud, it's bad for us and bad for them. But soon, there will be more vegetation, making it harder to stop them."
Ruslan looks through the overcast gloom of the late afternoon. "You can't just sit there facing each other forever, sooner or later they'll try to push through."
“We see action constantly,” says Yehor, who commands a platoon of T-64 tanks with the 1st Tank Brigade. “There’s no such thing as total quiet.”
It’s a bright, sunny morning, some half-dozen kilometers from the front line. In fairness, things do seem very quiet but he says they could ramp up at any time.
The frequency of the attacks changes. There are moments where the enemy’s guns won’t shut up for two weeks, he explains. Then their supplies run out and they go quiet for a number of days before starting up again.
“Because of weather conditions, the mud makes it difficult,” says Yehor. It’s not a lull, he says, not really. Infantry movements are constant.
Yehor’s platoon rides into action whenever the Russians attempt an armored breakthrough that Ukrainian infantry and artillery can’t shut down on their own. “We go out and extinguish that breakthrough.”
“If a massed breakthrough attempt happens, only tanks can handle it,” he says. “It’s the only unit that has enough armor and firepower to handle any problem — infantry or other tanks.”
Or at least tanks could handle it for a while. Though Ukrainians have been able to squeeze an incredible amount of value from their Soviet-era T-64s, it’s getting harder and harder to just keep them running.
Case in point: One of Yehor’s tanks refuses to start. His men climb in and out of it, tinkering. The other tank, parked 30 meters away, eventually backs up, as the men attach tow cables. The forward tank’s engine roars as it plows ahead, snapping small tree trunks. The malfunctioning machine is yanked forward, churning up enormous furrows of mud.
“Why is Ukraine asking for tanks?” says Yehor, when he’s not supervising. “Because our machines are no longer pulling off what’s being asked of them, they’re no longer able to fulfill their assignments.”
“We have situations where 3-5 tanks go out to extinguish a push and 2-3 of them fail to fire. “Today, it could be working fine, it starts up, everything is good; tomorrow it goes out and can’t shoot.”
He thinks back on joining one of his crews in their tank during a recent operation. The vehicle commander, gunner and mechanic had told him that the tank had been in perfect working order three days earlier. “We get in, drive to the new borderline, the gunner tries to fire, the machine doesn’t shoot.”
When Yehor tried to engage the override and take control of the turret, it seized up and stopped working entirely.
Whenever they are not in combat, the tank crews are constantly fiddling with their rides. Once, Yehor’s unit was able to replace an entire engine at a position not unlike this one. At other times, the tanks had to be towed to the rear due to smaller issues. And sometimes, they had to fix them while uncomfortably close to the enemy.
One time after a night engagement, Yehor found himself limping back to an underground supply depot close to the front line, as friendly artillery covered him. “The mechanic comes out (from the underground supply dugout) and sees that the front rollers and half a tread have been destroyed by a mortar (shortly beforehand),” he says.
“So we’re sitting there, 3-4 kilometers away from the enemy, in the middle of the night, repairing a tread by the glow of a red flashlight, because the tank has to be evacuated and you can’t exactly drag it behind you, it weighs 40 tons.”
The tank crews hope that Ukraine gets enough modern Western tanks for their units to get some too. If Ukraine gets too few Leopards, Challengers and Abrams, Yehor’s people can’t hope for much more than modified T-72s, which is hard to get excited about.
“We have our own 72s,” Yehor says. “We also have to drag them around, poke around them in swamps… and if something bursts or springs a leak, you have to spend two hours shoveling just to get in there. And then you’d be picking around in its insides for God knows how long. That consumes time and resources and it happens constantly.”
“If we actually get 700-800 normal tanks in adequate condition, ready to fulfill their assignments, we could end this war in a few months and forget all about it,” he says, insisting Ukraine needs that many to challenge Russia’s numbers.
Adequate conditions may be complex. Western and Ukrainian experts have noted that for all the modern tanks’ advantages, if a computerized system goes down, Ukrainians probably won’t repair it in the field, like they can with older tanks. A Ukrainian tank forces officer said he believes that older tanks with more parts could be more useful for the country.
That argument won’t persuade a tank commander like Yehor, however.
“I’m hoping for the Abrams, I really am,” he says.
Part of the brigade’s artillery unit is spread out and camouflaged throughout this patch of forest nearby. There’s a deep dugout roughly in the middle, where a couple of journalists are caught during an enemy drone alert, until someone’s radio reports “the bird has flown.”
‘Birds’ are a cause for concern. In the past two weeks, an enemy Grad launcher has been lurking in the area, shooting rockets here and there. One came 300 meters from a concealed Ukrainian weapon. The pieces here are Soviet-era artillery, which is not as precise or reliable as the toys that some other artillery units already have.
Where there are indirect fire weapons, there are ammunition shortage complaints, like clockwork. An artillery crew that comes by the dugout confirms “the rationing has already begun.” Soviet rounds have been shot, Ukrainian-made rounds are presumably being shot somewhere, while this crew has been trying Swedish and Polish-made ones on for size.
An artilleryman named Serhiy says he can always use more ammo as it takes at least a pair of shots to get on target. Apparently, the serious shots usually start with number three.
Like the tank operators, everyone is hoping for new equipment that’s up to NATO standards, with their better performance and theoretical abundance of ammo and spare parts.
And just like the tank operators, the artillery men’s days are spent elbows-deep in their weapons’ mechanical guts to make sure they work right or are properly concealed. They often sleep next to them, needing to be ready to strike within two minutes of a command.
“We’ve been sitting awake since 1 a.m., and nobody’s had any sleep,” Serhiy says of his crew on the same day’s afternoon, as the sky wheels towards evening.
I think it’s beautiful how the orange sunset shines through the trees. But not everyone may share in my appreciation for this forest. An artilleryman with the callsign Hitman has been stuck here for over a month now, unable to leave for even a few hours to take a shower.
Hitman says he’s supposed to spend every other month at his firing position. But his second month here is well underway and he has no idea when he'll be relieved. "I talk to my wife, I don't know what to tell her. My whole life is in the woods, in the trench."
Asked if there have been any casualties, he thanks God that there haven’t. No, it’s his leadership that’s wearing him down, he explains.
"I'm not as senior as our leadership, which served in the USSR and is doing the same things it did back then," he says. "Over the past two days, my hands were even shaking. I'm so fed up with them, that’s it."
When asked to clarify, he looks impatient.
"They're f*cking around. The vehicle was covered and concealed. Someone gave the command to put up a net (over it). I put up a net, then I had to conceal that net, because you could see it from the sky. They don't know where my vehicle is but they give me orders, sight unseen."
Hitman complains about how they spent two days covering up the artillery piece, only for the exhausted crew to be told to uncover it and entrench it into the soil, by someone who wasn’t there. In the process, he says they disturbed the soil, possibly making themselves more conspicuous.
“I told them, I am not suicidal… They don’t give a shit,” he says. “I want victory so I can go home. I am psychologically worn out.”
While Serhiy doesn't seem upset like Hitman, he, too, longs for home and victory. Serhiy says that next month it will be a year since he’s left home to fight.
Still, he doesn’t believe they’ll be here long. With warmer weather and foliage coming back, the artillery units expect to participate in major offensive actions sooner rather than later.
“In the winter, they try to keep you in one place,” Serhiy says. “In the spring, we will be moving constantly.”