While the world sees images of house-to-house combat like those from Bakhmut, most of the front lines in the Ukrainian war are a very different reality. Dug into trenches or under the cover of trees, Ukrainian soldiers experience long waits for orders or word of an enemy attack.
This reporter went into the trenches in the small town of Velyka Novosilka in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region to get a firsthand glimpse at everyday life for the soldiers, who are not only battling occasional Russian strikes but also boredom.
The heavy snow brings a sense of tranquility to the trenches, Sergey tells me, looking intently at the open field that separates us from the Russians. He is a lieutenant and commander of this system of trenches in the southern Donbas area near the town of Velyka Novosilka.
We are less than 2 kilometers from Moscow’s troops. A mine-laden open field separates us from them.
“On a day like this, everything is calmer. Everything is less intense. They can’t see what’s happening here, and we can’t see what’s happening there,” Sergey says, his eyes focused on the field. We are inside one of the many observation points in this complex of more than 2 kilometers of trenches.
‘Things are different around here’
Outside, under the thick snow, a Ukrainian soldier walks through the narrow corridors of the trenches like a tiger trapped in a cage. He has a routine. First, he goes to an observation point where a .50-caliber machine gun is camouflaged and raises the binoculars toward the open field. Then, he looks at the gray sky, searching for a drone. He uses the binoculars again and heads to another observation post. He repeats these movements in the same order, at the same time and at the same pace over and over again.
“People think of war as a constant battle, with shots and explosions all the time, but that’s not always the case,” Sergey says in the bunker he shares with the soldiers in their spare time.
It’s dark and cold. Only a candle lights the place. A soldier sleeps. Near him, a cat feeds three kittens born not long ago in this trench.
“We’ve been here at this point for three months. Before that, we were 800 meters in another line of trenches. But in December, we had to retreat. Their artillery was very accurate,” Sergey says.
Since then, he and his men have been here watching and waiting.
“Sometimes they shoot. Sometimes they threaten to advance. But this isn’t Bakhmut. Things are different around here,” he says.
Bakhmut is an exception. The small town that has become a symbol of this second year of the war is an open battlefield, with Russians and Ukrainians fighting neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street, house by house. In recent months, tens of thousands of men and women on both sides of the conflict have given their lives for Bakhmut. Despite Russian advances, fierce fighting continues there.
But beyond Bakhmut, hundreds of cities and towns form part of a front line stretching from the north of Donbas to the south of Ukraine in Kherson. About 1,000 kilometers of trenches, rivers and other obstacles separate Ukrainian troops from Russian soldiers. Although skirmishes are daily, most of the front lines have been static for months, with no advances and no retreats.
Boredom under the trees
A few kilometers away, the thick snow brings boredom to the team lead by Ivan, a young book editor from Kharkiv who was swallowed up by the war last year. He and a group of six other soldiers are in charge of one of three artillery pieces in a forest region near Vuhledar, also in southern Donbas.
“On days like this, we rarely receive the command to shoot. Our drones can’t see what’s happening on the other side, and they can’t see us,” Ivan says. “We only get orders to shoot when there is some action. But most of the time, that’s it — wait, wait, wait.”
On days like this, they spend most of their time in a bunker about a kilometer from a 2S3 Akatsiya, the self-propelled artillery gun built during the Soviet era that is used by both sides in this conflict.
“We stayed here waiting for the command. When we received the order, we were ready to fire in less than two minutes,” Ivan says.
He and his soldiers rarely have an idea what they are shooting at or whether they hit the target.
“We are 6 kilometers away from Russian troops and have an 18-kilometer range, so only our command center can know what we are shooting at and how we are shooting it,” he tells me inside a bunker where soldiers play games offline on their cellphones and warm their socks by ovens. The phones don’t have connections, to prevent the Russians from intercepting their calls or geolocating them.
The weather changes, and Ivan’s radio is abuzz with orders from the Ukrainian command center to the other artillery teams. He says his well-equipped “neighbors” are receiving orders to fire.
“They have Western guns. They have more range than us,” he says.
He decides to take his soldiers closer to the Akatsiya, believing that a fire order is imminent. Around us, the booms of cannon fire are heard. Soon, the radio command comes. The soldiers run inside the gun turret, making the last coordinate adjustments.
Ivan advises me to open my mouth to help equalize the pressure caused by the explosion. He warns it will be loud. Suddenly, a ball of fire comes out of the mouth of the Akatsiya’s long cannon. After the boom, the smoke fills the forest like a morning mist.
“You need to get out of here now,” Ivan tells me. “They may have our location.”
We leave, avoiding the muddy road and seeking cover from trees.
The sound of artillery has become routine for Sasha, a 36-year-old farmer who looks like an imposing lumberjack from a cartoon animation. He has been stationed for nine months in Velyka Novosilka.
“It never stops. It’s all the time,” Sasha says inside one of the few houses still intact at the entrance to this ghost town, home to only 150 civilians still living under a deactivated fire department unit.
He spends his days and nights here with a colleague. The two are responsible for reporting to Novosilka’s command post who enters and who leaves through the western access of the small town. It’s a tedious routine, punctuated by the spikes in tension when bombs fall nearby.
“We’re constantly digging a deeper and deeper hole in here. We never know when they’re going to hit us,” he says.
Sasha comes from a small village near Dnipro, not far from Velyka Novosilka. He joined the war when his stepfather died in combat at the start of the Russian invasion.
“But he was already fighting in the Donbas since 2015. He spent years in the war, but he never really told me what the war was,” Sasha says.
He says he only now realizes that his stepfather hid a lot from him about war.
“We only understand what war is when we experience it. In general, everything is very different from what we hear. They don’t tell us everything,” he says.
Today, he does the same with the young people in his village when he has time off.
“It’s best to let them know what it’s like here for themselves,” he says.
The snow afforded a lull in the trenches that are under Sergey’s command. The thickest flakes fell from the trees, exposing the pieces of wood torn apart by the bullets. Soon, the tranquility is gone. The soldiers are silent. One of them thinks he heard a small drone flying overhead. Suddenly, a gunfight erupts. The sound of bullets cutting through the air shatters the silence of a quiet snowy afternoon. And as soon as it begins, it ends.
“The mortars will come soon. Let’s go to a shelter,” Sergey tells me. “Don’t worry, it’s just a provocation. Soon, everything will return to normal.”
Sergey is confident he will return home after this war. He deposits part of his faith in an amulet he carries between his uniform and the bulletproof vest he wears — a small candle, lightly burned, no more than an inch long. It was a gift from his father’s best friend, a former Red Army fighter in Afghanistan.
“That candle protected him for several years there, and he gave it to me as a gift. I have faith that I will be protected by it, too,” Sergey says.
The friend returned alive but without both legs. I ask Sergey if it this a sign of luck, to live in a bed for the rest of one’s life. Sergey is honest.
“The most important thing is to come back home alive, no matter how,” he says.