In some villages along the front, Ukrainian and Russian soldiers face off at close range, sometimes within easy reach of each other.
The impact of a tank hit broke the bunker’s plaster roof and sent uniformed men to scramble. Bulletproof vests and helmets were thrown and automatic weapons armed. In a crescendo of machine gun fire, a tall soldier threw an anti-tank missile launcher over his shoulder and slowly took a drag on his cigarette.
The Russians were close.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine occurred mostly at a distance, with Ukrainian and Russian forces firing artillery shells at each other, sometimes from dozens of miles apart. But at some points along the zigzagging Eastern Front, the combat becomes a fierce and intimate dance, granting enemy forces fleeting glimpses of each other as they vie for command of makeshift hills and reductions in towns and villages torn apart by the bullets.
On Wednesday, one of these dances took place when a Russian unit of about 10 men entered the village where soldiers from a Ukrainian contingent, the Carpathian Sich Battalion, had dug. In all likelihood, Russian troops were there to identify targets for incoming fire tanks, including the shot that prompted Ukrainian soldiers to action. Ukrainian forces located the Russian soldiers and opened fire, pushing them back.
“It was a sabotage, intelligence group,” said a 30-year-old fighter with the Warsaw call sign, panting after the brief firefight. “Our boys weren’t sleeping and reacted quickly, forcing the enemy to flee.”
So it happens every day, every hour, for fighters of the Carpathian Sich Battalion, a volunteer unit named after the army of a short-lived independent Ukrainian state created just before World War II. Attached to the 93rd Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian army, the Battalion is deployed along a line of entrenched villages and farmland in the Kharkiv region, tasked with holding back the Russian forces pushing down from their stronghold in the occupied Ukrainian city of Izium.
The battalion gave a reporter and a New York Times photographer permission to visit a frontline position as long as the precise location of their base was not disclosed. Most soldiers agreed to identify themselves only with their own call signs.
They didn’t face an easy battle.
The Russian military has deployed an enormous force along this front in eastern Ukraine, claiming its overwhelming superiority in tanks, warplanes, helicopters and heavy artillery.
War machines rarely remain silent for long. Tanks in particular have become a serious threat, the fighters said, often arriving within a mile of battalion positions and causing utter chaos. Already this month, 13 soldiers from the battalion were killed and more than 60 wounded.
“It’s a completely different war than I’ve seen in places like Afghanistan or Iraq,” said a colonel who called himself Mikhailo. “It’s a heavy fight. Nobody cares about the law of war. They bomb the towns, they use the forbidden artillery “.
Many of the battalion’s soldiers had experience in the eight-year war against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and had witnessed fighting in some of the most intense battles of the conflict. But most had been settled into civilian life for years.
A tall, bearded soldier with the call sign Rusin owns a business that sells bathtubs in the mountainous Transcarpathian region of western Ukraine. But when Russia invaded on February 24, he quickly married his girlfriend – he said he wanted someone to wait for him at home – and headed for war full of mission sense.
“We understand that this is not a war between Ukraine and Russia,” he said. “This is a war of the pure and of the light that exists on this earth, and of darkness. Either we stop this horde and the world gets better, or the world is full of anarchy that occurs wherever there is war. “
Battalion fighters took temporary residence in an underground labyrinth under a building now pierced by artillery shells. The guns and ammo boxes piled up in the corners are covered in the chalk dust that rains every time a bullet hits nearby.
In addition to the soldiers, the bunker is inhabited by a menagerie of animals who have also sought safety from bombs: several small dogs and a black goat who likes to mess around in the kitchen area. On Wednesday, Chevron, a very large German Shepherd, was sleeping in front of a pile of American-made Javelin rocket launchers, already out of their cases and ready to fire.
The whole region is in the throes of war. Low-flying Mi-8 attack helicopters share the skies with fighter jets whizzing across the countryside, occasionally igniting fires in farm fields as they fire rockets to deflect heat-seeking missiles.
The unit’s drone operator is Oleksandr Kovalenko, one of the few without a rifle. Although his job is to help his comrades aim the artillery at Russian positions, he approaches his work as an artist, occasionally taking and saving photos if the balance of light and shadow in the frame is his. liking him.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
On the ground. A Ukrainian counter-offensive near Kharkiv seems to have helped to drastically reduce Russian bombing in the eastern city. But Moscow’s forces are advancing along other parts of the front line.
Shows an overhead shot of the surrounding farmland. It is verdant with spring growth, but pockmarked like the moon by artillery shells. As he scans the landscape, a clump of trees where the Russian forces are stationed suddenly explodes in a fireball that dissipates in a mushroom cloud.
The battalion is a mixed bag, with fighters from all over Ukraine and the world. There’s Matej Prokes, a slim 18-year-old from the Czech Republic who has “Born to Kill Russians” scribbled on the side of his helmet, but admitted a little shyly that he hasn’t fired yet. Elman Imanov, 41, from Azerbaijan, was pressured into fighting Russia after seeing atrocities committed against non-combatants in Ukraine.
“I pulled a four-month-old baby out of a nine-story apartment with my own hands,” he said, a row of gold teeth glistening in the harsh fluorescent light. “I will never be able to forget it and I will never be able to forgive. He had never seen anything. What was he guilty of? “
And then there’s a 47-year-old soldier with the Prapor call sign, which is exotic even by battalion standards. Born in Siberia, Prapor had a full career in the Russian military before retiring in the early 2000s, although he did not want to say where he fought. He joined the Ukrainian forces when Russian troops started bombing Kiev.
“What can I say, they studied well,” he said. “But the fact that they have started killing peaceful civilians, looting, is indecent.”
Battalion commander Oleg Kutsin said this diversity is part of the ethics of his contingent. When the original Carpathian Sich was founded in the 1930s, he welcomed anyone willing to fight and die under the blue and gold flag of an independent Ukraine, he said.
Not only are virtually all troops welcome, but equipment is welcome too, he said. In addition to the Javelins, troops fighting in the area recently received another gift to help them on the playing field as well: the American-made M777 howitzers, a long-range piece of artillery that the Ukrainians have been desperately trying to put into action.
“We wanted to resurrect this military tradition of Ukrainian forces,” he said in the command center of his unit, where a desk was covered with maps of the region and a flat-screen TV showed live footage of the smoky battlefield.
“They come,” he said, “we give them weapons and point them in the direction of the enemy.”