“We are fighting for our land, to defend every centimeter of our country. We are not fighting for our government,” a Ukrainian soldier says.
MARINKA, Ukraine—As the war in Ukraine nears its fourth calendar year, Ukrainian troops remain entrenched along a static front line in eastern Ukraine where they exchange small arms and artillery fire with combined Russian-separatist forces every day.
More than 21 months after it was signed, the cease-fire is a charade. The war may be at a lower intensity due to the cease-fire’s loosely adhered-to rules—but there is still very much a war in eastern Ukraine.
Combat is ongoing and intense throughout the Donbas—Ukraine’s embattled southeastern territory on the border with Russia. And civilian and military casualties still occur daily.
For many Ukrainian soldiers, war has become a way of life.
“I am at home now, this is my family,” Andriy, a 30-year-old soldier in the Ukrainian army’s 92nd Mechanized Brigade, told The Daily Signal from a front-line position in the embattled town of Marinka.
Andriy has continuously served in combat since the war began in spring 2014. He asked that his last name not be used due to security concerns.
The Ukrainian troops believe in the justice of their cause, yet, there is a pervasive sense of disappointment, bordering on betrayal, expressed by many front-line soldiers toward their civilian leadership in Kyiv.
“We are fighting for our land, to defend every centimeter of our country,” Dimitry Karamushka, a 30-year-old soldier in the 92nd Brigade, told The Daily Signal in Marinka. “We are not fighting for our government.”
The 92nd Brigade recently rotated to Marinka from a previous combat deployment outside the separatist stronghold of Luhansk. The unit comprises a mix of both draftees and volunteers, with some soldiers having served continuously in combat, with only periodic breaks of a week or two to go home, since spring 2014.
Ukrainian forces are dug in, battle-hardened, and better equipped and armed than they were a year ago. Conditions have improved, but supply shortages are still common, and the Ukrainian troops are still largely left to fend for themselves to provide many basic necessities—such as electricity.
“More than ammunition, we need to know we’re not alone,” Andriy said. “We are fighting two wars. One against Russia, and the other against the government in Kyiv.”
Ukraine’s deployed troops remain committed to their cause, and treat the war as an existential fight for the country’s independence against what they call a Russian invasion of their homeland.
“We can’t leave the war and go to Kyiv,” Karamushka said. “It would mean surrender to Russia. And what would it mean to all the people who died?”
“We are standing for our territory,” said Alexandr Chernov, a chaplain in the 92nd Brigade. “Everyone wants peace. But peace will only come after victory.”
Chernov paused, smiled, and then added: “And when [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is gone.”
Ukraine’s military has been locked in a static, frontal war against a combined force of pro-Russian separatists and Russian regulars since the second, current cease-fire—called Minsk II—was signed in February 2015.
Today, at some places in and around Marinka, less than 300 meters (about 1,000 feet) of no man’s land divide the opposing camps.
“The situation here is stabilized,” said Vsevolod Chernetskyi, a 22-year-old soldier and Raven drone operator, in near perfect English. “We are in the same positions as a year ago, the Russians and us. It’s mostly artillery now.”
The war has killed about 10,000 Ukrainians and displaced about 1.7 million people, according to various reports from humanitarian organizations.
The conflict began in spring 2014 when Russian-backed separatists formed two breakaway republics in the Donbas.
Despite denials from Moscow, numerous news reports have shown that Russian troops are fighting among the separatists, that Russian military commanders command and control separatist forces, and that Russian weapons and ammunition continue to feed the war effort.
Through binoculars from the roof of the 92nd Brigade’s outpost in Marinka, this correspondent observed a Russian flag flying over a building across no man’s land on the combined Russian-separatist side of the contact lines.
According to Ukrainian military intelligence estimates, there are about 5,000 to 7,500 Russian troops currently deployed in the Donbas. About 55,000 Russian military personnel are also forward deployed to locations within Russia near the Ukraine border.
Combined Russian-separatist forces in eastern Ukraine currently control more tanks than Germany’s armed forces, and the Donbas is replete with Russian surface-to-air missile systems.
“I don’t feel we are winning,” Chernetskyi said. “The Russian forces are much stronger than ours. They can always provide more artillery than us, better tanks, more drones.”
During breakfast, this correspondent remarked to Chernetskyi how the shooting had stopped in time for both sides to take their morning meal.
Chernetskyi replied that the combined Russian-separatist forces operate on Moscow time, one hour ahead of Kyiv’s time zone.
“They eat an hour before us,” he said.
He paused a beat and then added: “They’re always one step ahead of us.”
The corner of an artillery-blasted apartment building in Marinka is marked by a spray-painted word in Russian. In English it translates to “For what?”
Approximately 5,000 civilians have fled Marinka since the war began, comprising about half of the town’s pre-war population of 10,000.
Daytime is usually relatively peaceful here. Civilians mill about outdoors, pedestrians are on the sidewalks. There’s an outdoor market where one can buy goods ranging from produce to clothing.
Across town, there is the sound of hammering as workers repair buildings damaged by shelling. They replace shattered windows and reconstruct crumbled walls.
There is a daily rhythm to the war, which conceals the brunt of the fighting from the intergovernmental organization responsible for overseeing the cease-fire.
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, do not travel through the war zone at night due to security restrictions.
At night, consequently, the war begins in earnest.
“There is almost no artillery during the day, because the OSCE is here,” Chernetskyi, the 22-year-old Raven operator, said.
Winter sunsets in eastern Ukraine come early, around 4:30 p.m. As darkness falls there is, at first, only the occasional sound of a mortar explosion or an artillery shot, and the every-so-often burst of a machine gun or Kalashnikov.
As the hours pass, the pace and intensity of the shooting slowly builds like the different sections of an orchestra chiming in.
At the nocturnal peak of the fighting, typically around midnight, tracers cut across the night sky, the flashes and booms of mortar and artillery explosions come several times a minute, and there is a nearly constant background din of small arms fire.
This correspondent witnessed such a scene in Marinka on the night of Nov. 21. The Ukrainian soldiers on scene, as well as several civilians from the area, said the intensity of the fighting on that night was “normal.”
While casually smoking a cigarette in the night, one soldier jokingly recommended that this correspondent return “when things really get hot.”
When U.S. troops go to war, they usually enjoy the support of specialized units—such as the Army Corps of Engineers, the Navy Seabees, or Air Force Civil Engineers—dedicated to building and maintaining base infrastructure, even in the most austere locations.
For deployed Ukrainian troops, however, this task is a collective effort, in which the diverse skills each soldier brings to the war are identified and utilized for the common good.
One example. A 92nd Brigade soldier with a university electrical engineering degree illegally tapped into the local power grid to provide electricity for the outpost in Marinka—effectively stealing electricity from the same government that had sent him to war.
The power still frequently goes out, however. Wood-burning furnaces provide heat to stave off the winter cold and cook food.
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