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When dying ‘stops being scary’: Worn out Ukrainian soldiers in Donbas hold off Russian assaults

by Asami Terajima May 16, 2023 2:55 PM 9 min read
Ukrainian soldiers prepare to open fire on Russian positions to protect the defensive line on the frontline towards the city of Avdiivka in Donetsk Oblast on April 30, 2023. (Photo by Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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Editor’s Note: This story is based on interviews with Ukrainian soldiers, conducted in Donetsk Oblast, near the eastern front line, in late March. Some of the soldiers declined to give their last names for security reasons, and are identified by first names and callsigns instead.

DONETSK OBLAST – Under the dim light, three Ukrainian soldiers smoke cigarettes one after another a few dozen kilometers from the eastern front line.

A few cigarettes in, one of the soldiers, the youngest among them, breaks the silence.

“I don’t know if I will make it,” 28-year-old infantryman Roman, who hasn’t yet held his newborn waiting back home, told the rest. “You will,” another soldier told Roman as he put out his cigarette.

It’s late March, and the three soldiers on rotation are deployed full-time near Avdiivka, an embattled front-line town located next to occupied Donetsk.

Avdiivka, a front-line town since 2014, is surrounded on three sides by Russian forces and has been enduring particularly intense Russian assaults since this past March, remaining one of the hottest spots of the war.

Earlier on the same day, Artem, a 47-year-old soldier fighting alongside Roman who goes by his call sign “Dnipro,” in reference to his hometown, told the Kyiv Independent that their battalion no longer existed because more than half of its 500 troops were wounded or killed over the previous three months of fighting.

“Three hundred people are gone,” Artem said, still in shock.

Behind the news of Ukrainian long-lasting defense, the liberation of territories, and the optimism with which many anticipate the much-talked-about counteroffensive, lies the enormous toll of civilians-turned-soldiers that rose up to defend their country in the wake of Russia's all-out invasion.

Toughened with experience and traumatized by the horrors of the war, they are still trying to adjust to their new reality together.

Many cite the lack of artillery support, and what they say are enormously long rotations that test their limits. Russia’s nonstop assault tactics – with human waves coming one after the other – are also wearing down those who have sacrificed everything to protect their homeland.

“The scariest moment is when it stops being scary (to die) – when you become indifferent,” Artem said.

A Ukrainian soldier is seen on a tank while the Russia-Ukraine war continues near the Avdiivka frontline in Donetsk Oblast on April 17, 2023. (Photo by Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

‘Everyone wants to destroy infantry’

The majority of the Ukrainian army is made up of recent civilians like Artem, who in 2022 volunteered to serve – despite not having any prior military experience.

Another such volunteer, Ihor, a 49-year-old from Kherson, says he decided to join the army “to end (the war) quickly” once he had gathered enough money to flee his then-occupied hometown.

He is fighting for his family to be able to return home, he said.

After being liberated in November, Kherson is constantly shelled by Russia, with 24 people killed across the region during Russia’s May 3 mass shelling.

More than half a year in, Ihor, now a 110th Separate Mechanized Brigade infantryman deployed near Avdiivka, said he still struggles with leading a life of a soldier. “I don't want to kill people,” Ihor told the Kyiv Independent. “But I also don't want to give up.”

“I want them (invading Russian troops) to turn around and go home,” Ihor said. “But they don’t want that, they are invading, so that’s why I try to stop them, shooting at everything I can.”

It seems to Ihor that Russian forces are constantly changing their tactics and more or less learning from their mistakes.

“It’s harder now than it was before (in the New Year),” he said. “March has been the toughest.”

Ihor was in the trenches for 19 days in March – nearly three times longer than his usual rotation lengths in late 2022.

“Russian artillery is strong. Maybe somewhere else the situation is better – but for us… it’s bad,” he said, clearly struggling to find the right words to describe his experience. “Even if you hide in a dugout, it will not save you from a direct hit. So artillery, if it hits precisely, there is little chance (of survival).”

As a member of the infantry, he feels especially vulnerable. “The first step (to advance for both sides) is to always destroy the infantry,” Ihor said. “Everyone wants to destroy the infantry.”

Ihor said he holds onto the photos and memories with his small grandkids, remembering how they used to play together in Kherson. He added that these memories are what keeps him fighting.

“I hoped the war would end much sooner,” Ihor said.

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Tough decisions

According to soldiers’ accounts, neither Russian nor Ukrainian forces have made a significant push on the Avdiivka front in recent months.

In trench warfare like the one near Avdiivka, where an attrition war rages on, motivation plays a crucial role.

That is why Ukrainian officers are careful with what they share publicly, and with their soldiers, as it could make them nervous, multiple platoon and squad commanders told the Kyiv Independent.  

“I don’t tell them a lot – of course,” said Serhiy, a squad leader from the 35th Naval Infantry Brigade deployed near Avdiivka.

Ukrainian forces are constantly juggling with what could and should be said about Ukraine’s ongoing military operations in cities like Bakhmut, Avdiivka and Marinka, where the fiercest fighting is ongoing.

Two artillerymen from the 406th Artillery Brigade mostly agree with Serhiy that soldiers might be better off knowing less, especially in a war with no end in sight.

One of them, a 43-year-old from Odesa named Andriy, said that “they (the leadership) won’t tell us anything.” But he believes it helps soldiers control their emotions to complete their tasks. “The less you know, the better you sleep,” he said.

But on certain things, Andriy wishes he had more answers.

Andriy and his younger comrade, Vitaly, said that the length of their rotations, or time at the positions, now ranges from two weeks to a month, not knowing when they can finally get a small break. “Even if you ask, no one will ever tell you anything,” Andriy said.

“It’s not good that my brain is clogged with fatigue,” he added. “When you don’t sleep for more than a day, your head starts to make noises. And after three days, you start working like a robot.”

But despite everything, Andriy said that the only option was to fight the fatigue for now.

Meanwhile, Serhiy usually spends his off days drinking by himself to cope with a concussion that “gets worse and worse” since his first deployment near Kherson during the fall counteroffensive.

“We need to rest, but only after the war,” Andriy said.

‘We won’t ever give up’

Even as frustrations develop over certain issues, for many soldiers, fighting back is the only option because they have lost far too much due to Russia’s years-long onslaught.

A 46-year-old platoon commander from the National Guard's 1st Presidential Brigade, whose call sign is “Portos,” always tells his soldiers they will keep fighting until his hometown Mariupol is liberated.

His father was killed by Russian-controlled militants during the brief Russian occupation of Mariupol in 2014. Russia then nearly razed his hometown to the ground in 2022 during a months-long siege.

His comrade, who goes by the call sign “Boxer” due to his previous occupation, said he is fighting because he lost everything – from cars to apartments.

“I was in shock – when you had everything, and then suddenly you have nothing,” Boxer, who is also a Mariupol native, said.  “They (Russians) took everything – literally everything.”

“I don’t feel like a soldier, I just have to be here,” Boxer said.

Infantryman Mykola, a 32-year-old from Kyiv deployed near Marinka, said holding on to humor gets him through the most difficult days.

“I am always positive with a smile. Even when you are deployed, and you understand you might not return, you still go and laugh (with each other).”

Oleksandr, 37, a tank driver, said everything flies at him as soon as Russian forces spot his vehicle going forward.

But no matter how intensely the Russians are attacking the tank, his task is to keep storming in their direction to cover infantry – moving forward in unison with one or a few more tanks.

“If not us, then the guys (infantry) will be killed,” he said, immediately turning around to hide his tears. He says most of his comrades with whom he served since 2014 have been killed, and he is convinced that his chances of making it through the war are low.

While each soldier has their own way of dealing with the challenges and coping with the trauma, there is one thing that unites them all – they said they are keen to keep fighting until victory. Andriy, a Zaporizhzhia-born infantryman from the 53rd Separate Mechanized Brigade, summed it up in his conversation with the Kyiv Independent in late March.

“We are Ukrainians,” he said late evening after returning from the Avdiivka front line. “We are a nation with a strong spirit – and f*ck, we won't ever give up.”

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Note from the author:

Hi, this is Asami Terajima, the author of this article.

Thank you for reading my story till the end. I spent a lot of time interviewing Ukrainian soldiers on the Avdiivka front and seeing how they are holding on more than a year after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. They are all eager to go home and spend some time with their family, but they are bravely defending the Donbas at a heavy cost – even if it's getting tougher each week. To help the Kyiv Independent tell more stories of Ukrainian soldiers and continue reporting on the ground, please consider supporting us by becoming our patron.

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