In a gray, compact trench in eastern Ukraine, a group of soldiers watches Russians advance through the vast green field ahead.
Minutes earlier, two men in their battalion were seriously wounded as they attempted to repel the enemy. Less than a kilometer away is the town of Pavlivka, which has changed hands several times in the nine months since the Russian invasion.
Ukrainian soldiers have been largely driven from the city and are now trying to hold onto everything in the north and west. This is a front infantry position on the southern front of the war in the eastern Donbas region, the scene of several brutal battles a day.
It has been the task of the 68th Brigade to wage war here for eight months, enabling the army to carry out its successful counter-offensives in the north-east and south of the country.
We gain access to front positions along this line for a whole day and the exchange of artillery and gunfire does not cease. Ukrainian and Russian drones fly criss-cross through the air, trying to spot each other’s movements.
When we are about a kilometer from Russian soldiers, two Grad missiles are fired in our general direction.
“It’s much worse than before. They’re trying to advance all the time,” says 31-year-old soldier Demyan Melnychok, who uses shoulder-fired Javelin missiles to take out Russian tanks and other armored vehicles. They use a lot of Grads and incendiaries, artillery, tanks – everything.
“I came here eight months ago and have been fighting here ever since.”
After leaving the army in 2014, Melnychok worked in metal construction. When Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his invasion of Ukraine, Melnychok decided to learn how to use a spear.
His section is a few hundred meters from the spot position. If the spotters see a Russian vehicle driving, they call it. Its job is to fire a missile at it.
“My job is that when an enemy vehicle comes out, I have to destroy it,” he says. “We cannot let the enemy break through here. They have a lot of vehicles and they are pushing hard here.
“The problem is that once you shoot and hit a vehicle, the Grads start coming in, so all you have to do is hide. They are very afraid of Javelins, so every time we use one, they start shooting at us and hitting us with Grad missiles.
A few hundred yards away is the battalion’s mortar section. Just before we arrive, the soldiers fire at least two mortars at the Russians. We see them firing a Finnish-made mortar across the field into the enemy position. Minutes later, artillery appears to be firing back in our general direction.
“When the soldiers call for us, we do the important work [of firing at the positions]says the 30-year-old commander of the section, who goes by the code name “Italian” because he lived in Italy before the invasion.
A few miles back from the frontline at a stabilization point, it is the job of medics and doctors to treat wounded soldiers from the frontline. Ruslan Lebed, the 31-year-old head doctor, says they have been “very busy” in recent weeks. “Injuries included gunshots and shrapnel,” he added.
In a nearby bunker, soldiers watch live footage of Russian positions from secret cameras, monitoring every movement in and around Pavlivka. A young tech-savvy soldier also intercepts radio communications between Russian soldiers to learn about an impending attack on the 68th’s positions. “If we catch the enemy saying something about us, we have to decide immediately what to do next,” he says.
It is then up to the battalion commander, Major Vyacheslav Kokhanov, and his senior officers to decide on the next step.
Kokhanov has a bloody bandage on his left hand from shrapnel a few days ago, but insists “it’s hardly an injury”.
The 68th Brigade consists largely of volunteer soldiers who decided to enlist after the invasion on 24 February. Kokhanov is no different.
The 47-year-old had served in the military between 1993 and 2001, but then had a successful career as a banking and telecommunications executive before running his own energy company. Before the war, he did not consider rejoining the army, even when Putin annexed Crimea and helped the separatists in the Donbas proclaim their own “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk.
“I knew the Donetsk and Luhansk regions very well,” he says. “The locals there basically gave up without a fight. I didn’t want to fight for the area that the locals didn’t want to fight for themselves.”
But that all changed. Two hours after the missiles began landing in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, Kokhanov took his family to a safer location in the west of the country and rejoined the army.
“I didn’t expect this to happen,” he says. “I had a successful business, other things to deal with. But I realized that unless we stop this, no one can live peacefully.”
He says part of his brigade’s job is to win over the predominantly Russian-speaking local population, but only about half of them are more loyal to Ukraine than to Russia. He says many are not actively sabotaging Ukrainian soldiers’ efforts, “they are just waiting” for Russia.
“These people have a Soviet mentality. This region is not very pro-Europe, they lag behind in development compared to the rest of Ukraine,” he says. “There were some attempts to provide information about our military positions to the Russians, but these attempts have stopped.
“As far as the rest of the population is concerned, we provide them with all possible assistance: restoration of electricity, water supply or firefighting, or assistance in moving people … providing medical assistance and supplying food. We don’t force anyone to do anything here. We help them, and it’s up to them to decide who is better.”
He says the Russian offensive against his brigade has been brutal and his soldiers need more armored vehicles to strike back.
“At the moment there are 60,000 Russian soldiers in the Donetsk region, while we are only about 20,000,” he says.
“An offensive is only possible if there is at least a one-to-one ratio, although ideally that would be three to one. They have so much artillery and ammunition. Unlike us, who have artillery but no ammunition.
Kokhanov says he believes Russia is redeploying about 15,000 soldiers previously stationed in the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia for the eastern Donetsk offensive.
A day after our departure, the Russian army claims to have ‘completely liberated’ Pavlivka.
Undermanned and without a chance, the soldiers of the 68th Brigade continue to fight.
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