‘Before the war, we saw Russians alive. Now we only see them dead’

Published by The Daily Mail (24th February, 2023)

THE Ukrainian soldiers were hiding among the trees and buried in hobbit-like holes beneath the snow. But the Russian drones were still buzzing overhead.

Over the past two days, the troops had managed to shoot down six of these aircraft — often packed with explosives. The team’s medic offered me a set of wings as a souvenir.

Shells were also landing in this wooded encampment by the frontline. Three men had been wounded by shrapnel and the back wheels off a lorry had been blown off.

Several trees bore the scars of war, with splintered trunks and branches ripped off. ‘Now we have lots of wood for the fire,’ joked one soldier, wearing a fleece over his camouflage gear.

But then, soon after breakfast on Monday, an enemy drone evaded all their efforts to bring it down and it dropped a bomb directly onto one of the Ukrainians’ precious U.S.-made howitzers.

The long barrel was ripped open near the base, the targeting mechanism ruined — so after one week in this frontline position, firing up to 150 rounds a day, the unit hastily moved two miles away to protect their remaining two field guns.

‘It’s difficult to relocate all the time and dig new dugouts in this solid winter ground,’ admitted Vitaly, their 23-year-old commander, as his men packed up their few possessions and the ammunition scattered around us in the snow and mud.

‘Now we need to move again. Go to the new place, dig new dugouts. We’ll try to move closer, to reach the enemy with our shells. We can target anything: tanks, infantry, drones. Sometimes we know the results, but not often.’

Earlier this week, I spent two days with the 76 soldiers in this Ukrainian artillery team. Over the past year of Vladimir Putin’s war, they have swept more than 100 miles east, from Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv to their current position attacking enemy forces in occupied Luhansk.

Distant explosions — the drumbeat of battle — echoed around the frozen landscape. At one point, while we were speaking, the men suddenly went silent. ‘You need constantly to listen to the surroundings. Where do the sounds come from?’ one told me later.

On the first day, thick snow fell. The next, it turned to slush and mud. My hands froze on both days as a biting wind whipped over fields of unharvested sunflowers, their blackened heads drooping as if in mourning for this terrible war.

On the stove in the makeshift kitchen, a pan had been filled with snow, which was being melted for water. One middle-aged soldier told me how he wished he was back home. ‘I’m from Odesa and it’s 4C there,’ he said.

Yet for this band of Ukrainian brothers, there was no rest from their relentless mission to move, dig fresh bunkers, fire at their Russian foes and then move on again. ‘It’s a war, so what can you do?’ said one. ‘It feels like eternal migration with digging.’

With two volunteers, I drove to their frontline position — about 20 miles from the recaptured town of Kupiansk, now coming under heavy Russian bombardment. They were delivering a generator, along with supplies of food, toilet paper and wet wipes.

Our journey was complicated: many bridges have been destroyed and a dam blown up. At the edge of one broken crossing I saw five men fishing through the thick ice below.

We stopped at a field hospital to deliver medicine and clean clothes to the unit’s men hurt in recent shelling. A young soldier collected them, his discoloured fingers sticking out of a bandaged arm as he showed us a wound on the back of his head.

Then, as we turned off the icy track and crossed snowy fields to our destination, we passed two self-propelled artillery that had been crunched into piles of burnt and twisted metal. ‘They’re ours,’ said Andriy, one of the volunteers.

It was a bleak place in winter: desolate-looking villages studding the open, flat fields — many filled with mines — and fringed with straggly lines of trees. Inside one such thicket, we found our battery.

After we parked the car, I came across a soldier digging out a new bunker. Even the commander, who joined a military academy in his teens and took charge of the unit five months ago, told me he dug out his own holes in the ground for survival.

The men explained how they use a small bit of explosive to blow off frozen topsoil. Then, after hollowing out their burrows in the earth, they cover the roof with chopped logs, cardboard wrapping from shells, sheets of plastic and finally soil.

‘If you want to live, you need to dig,’ said Ivan, 37, a father of two young children who first joined the army eight years ago. ‘I’m a good digger since I’m a builder. If I had to choose between a spade and a gun, I’d definitely chose the spade.’

Yet he admitted their nomadic lifestyle was tough. ‘You just settle down, build a little kitchen, dig the dugouts and suddenly need to leave. You can’t really get used to it.’

He has been unable to visit his family for five months. ‘My wife misses me so much, she wants me home. I call her every day,’ he said. ‘It’s good that it’s not 1943 when you had to write letters to your family —at least we can talk with video.’

Ivan admitted he was lucky to survive the latest attack, since he was close to the targeted howitzer. ‘When it hit us, I’d gone for a cigarette in the dugout,’ he said. ‘So you see, smoking can actually save your life.’

A former infantryman, this soldier admitted it was easier in the artillery since they did not actually see the Russians. ‘Mentally, it’s much tougher in the infantry. You need to kill people face-to-face, but here you just shoot and don’t see anybody.’

Or as one of his comrades later put it: ‘Before the war, we saw Russians alive. After the war, we only see them dead.’

Walking between the trees, I saw men chopping wood for fires. Piles of logs had been cut with chainsaws. It looked almost like a forestry encampment — apart from the clusters of unfired shells and snouts of artillery sticking out from under netting.

Chimneys poked through the snow, puffing smoke. Descending some roughly hewn steps, I found a burrow for eight troops that was surprisingly warm. ‘We have food, internet, water — who could ask for anything more?’ said one soldier, laughing.

Before the war, this man — also the father of a young child — made heating briquettes. But he was mobilised after the full-scale invasion. ‘When the heavy hitting starts, we hide here in the dugout,’ he said. ‘But we always have the feeling of danger.’

Earlier, I met an infantryman who told me his comrades had been facing more confrontations with enemy sabotage and reconnaissance units in recent weeks. He presumed this was ahead of the anticipated Russian offensive. ‘They’re coming closer, sneaking for weak points to break through. We’re in woods, so the fights can be very tight over 30 or 40 metres,’ he told me.

In this war, artillery has become strategically vital, after an era of U.S.-led conflicts in which control of the skies rendered shelling on the ground less effective.

‘Artillery was the dominant weapon on the battlefields of both the First and Second World Wars, but then it played a lesser role in Vietnam and Iraq,’ said Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at St Andrews University in Scotland.

‘But in this war, neither side controls the air, tanks seem so vulnerable and moving forward so difficult. This means that artillery has become more significant and the artillery duel is hugely important.’

But Vitaly, the impressive young commander of one of Ukraine’s biggest batteries, said his troops lacked sufficient artillery after suffering ‘lots of losses’ to Russia’s Lancets, a sophisticated new ‘loitering’ drone with a range of 25 miles. ‘We would like Great Britain to send us more weapons,’ he told me.

Later, their quartermaster explained how they started the war using Soviet-made Giatsints, which were heavier, harder to calibrate but tougher than their U.S.-made Excaliburs. ‘You can beat them with a hammer and they’d still work,’ said Anton.

‘With the American ones, you must care more for them, which is difficult in these conditions. The Excaliburs can shoot four times a minute while the Giatsints go six or seven times a minute. But of course, the American ones are better.’

Other soldiers said many of their donated shells were very old, showing me pictures of an American missile dated 1958 — when Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House and Elvis Presley had released Jailhouse Rock.

‘These are antiques,’ said Mykhailo, 41, a businessman before mobilisation last June and another of the commanders. ‘But the problem is not the age of the weapons but the range of shooting. The older weapons are short-range. We have to move close and become like the infantry — and the closer we go, the more dangerous it is. It is like a suicide mission. When we go so close, even the mortar can reach us.’

The Ukrainian soldiers said while they had enough shorter-range shells, which can travel about five miles, they were down to just nine longer-range ones that can hit both targets 25 miles away and anti-aircraft defences.

Many of the men told me they had lost friends fighting in this war and all admitted to being scared at times. ‘We’re humans, after all,’ said one.

When we left, the volunteers gave a lift back to Kharkiv to a soldier who was bunking off for the night after being refused permission to see his pregnant wife. He bought her a big bunch of flowers and a teddy bear in the national colours of blue and yellow.

These volunteers — working out of a cafe that’s been turned into a field kitchen churning out 1,500 meals a day — have followed this unit on its advance in the region, visiting the men up to three times a week with supplies to keep up morale.

Among the chefs peeling mountains of beetroot, potatoes and onions, I found one man who had served in Russia’s army during its brutal war in Chechnya, which was infamous for atrocities.

‘I knew what would happen if they came here,’ said Adalyat Vezirov, 47, a builder originally from Azerbaijan. ‘I heard what the soldiers talked about when they went there, hearing about lots of murder and raping. I knew it would be the same here.’

Little wonder the troops enduring such challenging conditions on the frontline all said they were motivated by patriotism and a desperate desire to protect their people, fused with loathing of the Russian invasion and a fierce desire for freedom.

‘I don’t hate Russians — I just want them to disappear from the political map,’ said one. ‘My conscience is clear. I’m defending my country and my family. I am fighting for freedom.’

Yet Anton, the 29-year-old quartermaster from Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine, underscored the strange complexities of this epochal conflict. As we sat in an underground burrow on the frontline, he told me how his Russian-speaking grandmother so inspired him to love Ukraine with its traditional poetry that he joined the pro-democracy protests that sparked Russia’s attack on Crimea in 2014.

Yet, at the same time, his own mother misses the Soviet Union and admires the despotic Putin. ‘We have lots of conflicts since I’m a patriot and she is pro-Russian,’ he said. ‘Now she doesn’t know what to think. She tells me ‘it is most important that you stay alive, all the rest is nothing.’

He added with a shrug that he had become so used to the conditions that if the war dragged on for many years, ‘maybe I will even miss it’.

Then came the successful drone attack — and the dutiful men in this artillery battery packed up their missiles. They moved on with their guns to dig a fresh warren of survival holes in another freezing stretch of woodland on the frontline of this terrible war.

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