Crossing the final checkpoint into a battle zone feels like a consecration.
The Ukrainian soldiers manning the last friendly post have a singular focus and intensity that’s lacking behind the lines. They wave us through solemnly, without smiles or chatter. We coast through the invisible barrier separating the “front” from the “rear,” then floor the gas and accelerate forward.
I’m in eastern Ukraine in late May, in a region called Donbas, where the war has become a whirlwind of carnage that is claiming the lives of as many as 100 Ukrainian soldiers a day. The casualties on the Russian side are almost certainly even higher, according to Ukrainian defense officials. I’ve heard conflicting reports about what is happening here, about whether the Ukrainian military is collapsing or the Russians are succeeding in breaking through the defender’s lines, cutting off thousands of soldiers. But it’s clear that Russia is inching forward, each day bringing it closer to its goal of annexing the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk and cementing the region under Moscow’s rule.
Ukraine won’t stop fighting. But it is sacrificing thousands of its finest soldiers and still losing ground. It cannot win the war without game-changing foreign-military assistance: American heavy artillery, Danish anti-ship missiles, German air-defense systems — these are slowly making their way to the battlefield. But can the Ukrainian military hold out long enough for any of it to make a difference?
To truly understand what is going on — to get a sense of morale and see how the soldiers are holding up under Russian assault, I must descend into the inferno, and I need a guide. A Ukrainian paratrooper will lead the way.
I’ve called in favors with the commander of a reconnaissance company in an air-assault brigade, and he links me up with an officer whose elite scout unit is operating near intense fighting outside a town called Lyman, a senior lieutenant who goes by the nom de guerre “Mace.”
Mace is soft-spoken and cordial, lean and fit as an endurance athlete. His face is that of a young man, but the salt-and-pepper hair hidden beneath his field hat and his calm self-possession amid chaos reveal he is a seasoned veteran who saw his share of combat before the current invasion. He takes me to the front in a Škoda station wagon, roaring down country back roads at 100-plus miles an hour, blasting techno as the foliage whips past in a blur.
Mace knows that speed counts here, and he weaves in and out of the anti-tank barricades that are strewn along the roads, gunning the engine as soon as we clear the concrete blocks and berms of dirt. I’m glad he knows which roads are mined. As we careen down a hill toward a crossroads surrounded by a scattering of farmhouses, I see a Ukrainian Akatsiya self-propelled artillery gun dashing toward the T-intersection ahead of us. It looks like we will get there at the same time. I point out the vehicle to Mace wordlessly, and I’m gratified to hear the engine revving instantly.
We are of the same mind. The Akatsiya, alone and moving in the open, is a prime target for the Russians. Likely it’s been “shooting-and-scooting”: If they want to survive, the gun crew has to strike a balance between staying in position long enough to provide effective fire support to friendly ground forces, without lingering so long they get discovered by Russian drones.
The Russians are ceaselessly hunting Ukrainian heavy weapons, and their rockets, artillery, and missiles can strike anywhere here, at any time. The fields beside us are pockmarked with blast impacts, and the tails of dozens of dud rockets stick out of the earth as if planted by some mad farmer.
The intersection is a critical danger point: The Akatsiya must slow to nearly a stop to make the turn. If I was a Russian gunnery officer observing it via drone, that’s when I’d try to hit it. The equation “speed x time = distance” looms in my mind.
We fly through the intersection ahead of the Akatsiya, and its crew doesn’t spare us a glance. They’re intent on their own survival, and making the cover of the tree line.
My concern is not abstract.
In the same area only days later, a team of journalists from The Washington Post is nearly killed when visiting a Ukrainian unit, artillery shells falling just yards from where they are standing. That they survive is pure luck.
Days before that, a French journalist is killed in an artillery strike while filming the evacuation of civilians fleeing the fighting in Severodonetsk, the focal point of the Russian assault.
It isn’t necessarily that one can make all of the right choices and thereby stay safe on a battlefield. Sometimes luck works against you when artillery shells are falling. But it is worse to be caught in some places than others.
When we are back in the trees I relax slightly, but Mace doesn’t slow down. He has a destination in mind.
“This is hell on Earth,” Mace says quietly. We are watching as BM-21 Grad rockets rain down on Ukrainian positions near a village called Sviatohirsk. It’s impossible to see their individual effects amid the smoke and haze covering the densely forested hills. Standing in an observation post on high ground amid feathery grass and wild garlic, I give up on trying to count individual impacts and instead just count the salvos, timing each barrage. I witness as many as 480 rockets fired on a single position in less than a minute, followed by artillery.
Between my service in the U.S. Marines and over more than a decade as a foreign correspondent, I’ve been engaged in the professional study of organized human violence for 25 years. But I’ve never seen anything even close to this volume of artillery being unleashed.
Mace has chosen our ground well, as you’d expect from an officer in an elite reconnaissance unit. We’re in a fold of earth on a hill that gives us a clear view of the battle raging around Sviatohirsk — a quiet little village nestled among chalk hills, overlooked by a nearly 400-year-old monastery on the opposite side of the river. It lies to our left. We can also see the fighting around Lyman — a key railway junction — to our right.
What these two places have in common is they are on the Russian-occupied side of the winding Seversky Donets River, the main natural barrier to the enemy’s advance. There are tens of thousands of Russian soldiers with hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles attacking here, assaulting in a vast crescent surrounding Severodonetsk, one of the largest cities in Donbas that remained in Ukrainian hands before the invasion began in February.
Lyman is obscured by smoke from a forest fire that began amid the fighting. The white smoke of the burning trees is interlaced with dark columns rising from destroyed buildings or vehicles. The rumble of booms is almost continuous. The whump-whump-whump of artillery is punctuated by the scream of tactical ballistic missiles, and the salvos of rocket artillery make a distinctive pattering of successive concussions. Almost all of it is being fired by the Russians. The Ukrainian soldiers here have endured this maelstrom for weeks.
“Things usually start to really kick off around 3 p.m.,” Mace says. He describes what has become routine for his brigade of paratroopers: Russian scouts move forward to probe Ukrainian positions, then call in large-scale artillery strikes when they make contact. The artillery is followed by masses of armor supported by infantry. It’s classic “combined arms” warfare, and would have been as familiar to a soldier in World War II as it is to Mace.
“The biggest problem is the artillery,” Mace says. “The Russians just have so much.”
What about the long-range artillery being provided by the United States and others?
“It’s just starting to show up on the battlefield,” Mace says. But for now, “there’s just too much artillery. Too many tanks. We are fighting too hard.”
Will Severodonetsk need to be abandoned?
“It’s possible,” he says. If it falls, it will be the biggest city taken by the enemy since Mariupol was lost in May, and will effectively mean that Russia controls the entire province of Luhansk, a primary goal of Putin’s invasion.
There’s a sudden pop as a cluster munition bursts over the battlefield, leaving behind a smattering of dark puffs as submunitions rain down on the village’s defenders. It’s followed by another seconds later.
The production and use of cluster munitions have been banned by an international treaty that went into effect in 2010, but that doesn’t mean very much: Neither the United States nor Russia — the world’s biggest arms dealers — have signed the accord. Neither has Ukraine. Cluster munitions spread submunitions — small explosives called bomblets — over a wide area, and are intended to kill or maim personnel and destroy vehicles and equipment. Many of the bomblets don’t explode as designed when they hit the ground. Those unexploded bomblets will be found for years afterward.
Sometimes children mistake them for toys.
“Their actions are not as haphazard as before,” Oleksandr Motuzianyk, the spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, tells me back in Kyiv when I ask about changing Russian tactics. “They’re using combined arms and air support more effectively.”
The simple fact is that despite its missteps, Russia has taken a lot of land since the invasion started. Ukraine, lacking Russia’s deep reserves of manpower — however unskilled or untrained — cannot recapture it without superlative military technology. Meanwhile, the Russians are pushing ahead: Motuzianyk says their strategy is to encircle troops defending Severodonetsk.
The population of Severodonetsk was more than 100,000 before the invasion in February. Local officials and aid workers estimate that only 12,000 civilians remain, the rest having fled. The entire region has emptied, and daily life has ground to a halt.
The nearby city of Kramatorsk, which held 150,000 inhabitants before the war, is a ghost town. Only a few old people remain; a handful of shops open for a few hours in the daytime to provide food and groceries to the soldiers passing through and the few locals who still remain. A ballistic missile hit a train station there, crowded with refugees, killing 59 people in early April, and wounded more than 100, according to Ukrainian defense officials.
Slovyansk and Kramatorsk are just a few miles apart, and they have become staging areas for the Ukrainian military. They are under constant attack from Russian missiles and rockets: I am awoken throughout the night by resounding booms and constant air raids. One strike takes down the power grid and cellular networks for hours. Multiple strikes in both cities kill civilians, who refuse to leave their homes.
“Do you hear that?” an old man calls to his neighbor, gardening in his yard, as a violent series of explosions echoes through the streets.
“Oh, it’s just thunder,” the gardening man replies. Nearby, a middle-aged woman is pleading with an elderly neighbor to leave. “Where will you go when the Russians get here?”
The Russians have a lot of ground to cover before they can make it as far as Kramatorsk, but the woman has a point.
“The enemy intends to get to the administrative border of Luhansk” with the current offensive, Motuzianyk says. “The enemy intends to take full control of the region.”
But, he adds, “the main tactic remains that of scorched earth.”
“Clearly the Russian leadership demanded changes to Russian tactics to achieve victories, and they are doing what they must to achieve that,” Motuzianyk says. “They are destroying communities and wiping us off the Earth without regard for civilians.”
At a small compound taken over by the airborne scouts, soldiers relax in the yard, grabbing whatever rest they can between missions. I’m standing beside a portly old soldier with a grandfatherly manner, enjoying the sunshine as cottony poplar seeds float densely through the air around us, lending an atmosphere of surreal tranquility as shells and rockets land in the surrounding hills.
The munitions strike so often that you begin to ignore anything that goes “boom,” and only react to things that go “crack,” indicating the explosive has landed unreasonably close.
Fighting here isn’t a new experience for many of the paratroopers, and they are quick to remind me that for them the war began in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and sent its soldiers into Donbas to support pro-Russian separatists. Most Ukrainians remain bitter about the relatively weak Western response to those actions, and it’s why they fear the West will once again buckle to Putin’s aggression.
Ukrainians from all walks of life have told me how concerned they are about a repeat of 2014, with the international community acceding to the Russian seizure of their land — despite the blood they are spilling to defend it.
“These guys shouldn’t have had to fight for eight years,” the old soldier grimaces in dismay as he watches the young paratroopers. “They should be at home making babies. But here we are, stuck in this shit.”
The commandeered building that the recon teams are using as their base is a hive of activity. There’s civilian cars and captured Russian trucks the paratroopers are trying to get back into service. Many of the vehicles sport bullet holes or other obvious battle damage.
These paratroopers receive intensive instruction — many have trained with U.S. Special Forces and other elite NATO units — and their experience is unmatched: they have been regularly rotating through Donbas since 2014. Mace suggests I speak to one of his most seasoned veterans, a hardcore fighter who has been operating in Donbas for eight years. He’s a rugged looking guy with a scratchy voice. I ask him what has changed now.
“One of the biggest problems is the drones,” says “Ostap,” the nom de guerre of the scout. “I hear Orlans [a type of Russian reconnaissance drone] all the time. But I almost never see them. They’re too small and too high. It’s next to impossible to shoot them down.”
But the defense ministry says that soldiers have shot Russian drones down in the hundreds, I say.
He shrugs. “I don’t know. I only believe what I see with my own eyes.”
A big part of the problem in defending this part of Donbas, Ostap believes, is that the people who have stayed behind — the people who haven’t fled — don’t really believe they are part of Ukraine. In his view, the civilians who remain are all separatist sympathizers. He says they help the Russians navigate backcountry roads that aren’t on the maps.
“Yeah, they’re all waiting for Russkiy mir,” Mace says, laughing when I ask his opinion about the locals. Russkiy mir, or “Russian world,” is the revanchist concept that Russia needs to restore its central role in the affairs of its neighbors, and its borders, to what they were at the height of the Soviet empire.
He asserts there have been instances of local collaborators getting caught providing information about Ukrainian troop movements or locations. Indeed, Slovyansk fell to Russian separatists in 2014: The retaking of the city by the Ukrainian military later that summer was the first major battle in Donbas.
“Almost everyone here is pro-Russian. But you can’t arrest people just for that,” Mace says. In any case, the police and the SBU —Ukraine’s internal security service — were doing what they could. “The SBU even arrested a couple of people in our brigade,” he says.
“We’re looking for bears,” Mace says. He means Ukrainian tanks. I’ve seen several T-80s obscured among the trees, hoping to stay hidden from Russian aircraft and drones. We round a corner and there’s one right in front of us, a squat hulking shape with the long barrel of its 125-mm cannon pointing down the road.
There’s a tank platoon in the dark forest here, holding in reserve on favorable terrain, lest the Russians succeed in crossing the river.
There’s been other signs of Ukrainian forces moving east to get in the fight. On the highway to Kramatorsk, we would pass periodic tank carriers loaded with armored vehicles or tanks, fuel trucks, and a few rarer sightings, like bridging equipment and a Buk anti-aircraft missile system that had only three of its four mounting points armed with missiles.
It doesn’t seem like a lot of equipment given the scale of the fighting. I don’t see any of the new artillery systems provided by the United States in its most recent aid package: There are also busloads of sleeping soldiers. Russians have concentrated their greatest resources here, according to President Zelensky. Mace doesn’t see being outnumbered as the biggest problem, however.
“The problem is that we don’t have enough well-trained people,” he says. “The Territorial Defense Forces [volunteers called up for the current crisis, often with minimal training and equipment] will go to their trenches, and as soon as they see an enemy tank, they fill the radio net with panicked chatter and then run away, abandoning their positions.”
He shakes his head grimly: “We need quality, not quantity. The opposite of the Russians.”
As we dash through the forest, we happen upon a Ukrainian unit using an intersection as a staging area, they gather in a small clearing next to a large oak tree. They’re in a mix of uniforms, some are even wearing articles of civilian clothing. Most of them are standing in front of a prisoner.
The prisoner is on his knees, blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back. He’s wearing the distinctive uniform of Russian infantry. Because of Mace’s dedication to fast driving, I don’t process what I’ve seen until we pass. “A Russian prisoner!” Even as the words leave my mouth, a single gunshot cracks out.
I whip around to look back over my shoulder at the scene through the rear window as we turn left, praying I am not witness to a war crime.
There is no evidence of widespread abuse of prisoners of war by Ukrainian forces, but there are several ongoing criminal investigations into isolated incidents in which Russian prisoners appear to have been tortured or even executed.
The military here has more than doubled since Russia’s invasion in late February. More than 700,000 Ukrainians are now under arms, and perhaps only one-third of those have received anything resembling professional military training. But there is no shortage of hatred on the battlefield. Only days before, I attended a Defense Ministry briefing, unveiling a series of online videos designed to ensure Ukrainian soldiers understood the laws of war.
“Sometimes we face skepticism, people say, ‘Well, the Russians don’t obey the rules of war. Why should we?’” said Col. Viacheslav Rachevskiy, the officer conducting the briefing. “But it is about being a civilized army.”
Ukraine can’t afford to let untrained soldiers jeopardize Western support, and it wants to highlight that it takes the issue seriously. The moral high road is as much an asset in this fight as any weapon system. Ukraine has worked to codify the laws of war into the Ukrainian criminal code, to bring the country in line with the generally accepted norms of international humanitarian law, according to Rachevskiy. “It’s the sign of a European, modern democratic army,” he said.
When I look back, the prisoner is still on his knees: He’s talking. He appears alive and unharmed. I don’t see anyone pointing a weapon at him. What did I hear? An accidental discharge? A celebratory gunshot? A mock execution? There is no way to know.
“Can we stop? Can I talk to him?”
Mace doesn’t look back, he makes the turn and accelerates. It’s hardly the first time the paratrooper has seen a Russian prisoner. “If he hears you speaking English, then he’ll spread tales of American puppet masters in these woods,” he says.
Besides, Mace explains, he doesn’t know who those soldiers are. They aren’t in his unit.
The last I see of the Russian, he is alive and on his knees, being interrogated in the field.
When “Sasha” gets in the car, he says he just doesn’t want to talk about anything. Sasha has been waiting outside the one grocery store in Kramatorsk that is still functioning: Its parking lot has become a local hot spot for soldiers to meet up for rides to and from the front. He tosses his bags in the back and squeezes into the rear seat of the Chinese-made sedan that will ferry me back to my own vehicle.
The big brooding soldier is unshaven, his fatigues filthy from combat, except for a field hat that is clearly brand new. The local driver who has been shuttling me around has agreed to bring the soldier to Dnipro: He has leave papers and is trying to get home to Mykolaiv, so that’ll take him about halfway. The fuel shortage is critical in eastern Ukraine for non-military traffic, so filling a civilian car with strangers headed roughly the same direction has become a common practice: There are Telegram channels where people offer and seek rides to and from every city.
Less than 30 minutes into the drive, Sasha opens up suddenly and unexpectedly. What he reveals is chilling, and indicative of how bad things have gotten in Donbas.
“I nearly beat to death one of the men in my unit,” he confides. “We were in trenches on the front lines. He was using his cellphone.”
Sasha breathes heavily.
“The Russians tracked his signal and located our position. He called his mom for 15 minutes, then his wife for 15 minutes … and then his girlfriend for almost two hours. They bombarded us all night. That’s why I beat him.”
Later, he tells us more about the front.
“We lost six men on our first patrol,” he says. “Six out of 10. They were all my friends.”
He breaks down and begins to cry.
Sasha eventually admits that he has been given leave to go to a hospital to seek therapy, for what soldiers a century ago would have called shell shock and what we now call PTSD. He has been given 10 days to recover from his battlefield trauma and return to his unit.
When we have a chance to talk alone, he shows me videos of his wedding in October. He tells me he is scared to talk to his family about his experiences. Sasha doesn’t want to return to combat. All he can think about are the soldiers who were killed on his first patrol.
“Those six men were my friends, they were my brothers, and I love them very much,” he says. “I can’t just leave them behind. I will always carry them with me.”
He looks down, overcome with emotion.
“What is in my heart is that I never wish to see Donbas again in the future. Nothing you do there makes any difference.”