Tough battle: near Avdiivka, Ukrainian forces fight Russia on difficult ground
“Bunkers! Bunkers! Bunkers!” cried the soldiers, sending humans and cats seeking refuge in the shaded earth shelter with a roof of pine logs. After a few minutes with no further attacks heard, the men of Ukraine’s 24th Separate Mechanized Brigade returned to the edge of the line of trenches, where younger soldiers taught an older soldier how to use a vape pen. He asked about the flavor he had trouble identifying.
“Fishing!” A soldier shouted laughing. “Or not, mango!
Their position, outside the town of Niu-York in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, is among a series of machine gun nests and observation posts that loosely form what commanders say is a rarity : a frontline that has more or less remained the same since 2014, when Russian forces and their separatist proxies first fomented war in Donbass and began to seize the territory. The Russian positions are about 400 to 500 meters away, well within range of machine guns and snipers.
The nine-year status quo near Niu-York could soon be challenged by battles at Bakhmut in the northeast and Avdiivka in the southwest, where Russian troops are making bloody gains. A breakout in these areas, leaders said, would strangle supply routes in the region and risk encircling units here.
In this fierce war, with advances in feet not miles, the joining of Russian troops, north and south, in a unified line of attack pushing west would be a major triumph and further the President’s objective. Vladimir Putin to seize all of the Donetsk region, along with three others: Luhansk; Zaporijzhia; and Kherson.
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The terrain near Niu-York itself is a formidable obstacle that Russian forces are using to their advantage, soldiers said. The rolling hills provide enough cover for enemy troops to maneuver unseen until they attack in small groups, probing lines for weaknesses or trying to provoke Ukrainian troops to fire and reveal their positions.
Ukrainian forces occupy the high ground in some areas, but find themselves in low-lying bowls in others, a tactically dangerous scenario, in which enemy troops can look down to rain down gunfire and get a view extended to call in artillery strikes. Russian forces have been operating here for years and know the terrain well.
“The landscape is not completely to our advantage. We don’t always have the best positions. We don’t always see them,” said a staff sergeant who gave only his call sign, Grek, to respect Ukrainian military rules. The soldiers used the same strategy as the Su-25 pilot, he said, who exploited topography to obscure their position between two hills until they dropped munitions a few miles away. The plane escaped radar and was not detected until it fired and returned home, Grek said.
The spring thaw will bring much-needed respite from the harsh freezing conditions that make trench warfare unbearable, but it will also complicate matters. Some hilly positions have maybe 65 to 100 feet of visibility through leafless trees, but foliage will soon limit the view, Grek said.
While fighting in this area has died down in recent weeks, the area remains an important buffer to prevent currently divided Russian forces from combining along the front.
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“The longer we hold this line, it also means it will be better and easier for Bakhmut,” Grek said, pausing intermittently to click on his radio and respond to soldiers checking in from their positions. “Well, not easier. I can’t say that about this place. But if we pull more enemy forces in that direction, it might calm things down for the guys there, and maybe stop a full encirclement.
The city of Niu-York, devoid of skyscrapers but dotted with occasional references to its American namesake, has endured bombardment and destruction as long as any other frontline city since 2014. Townspeople who have yet to evacuate pass blocks of sprayed houses and closed schools, and the occasional tractor plows the black soil in anticipation of spring.
A woman feeding dogs and cats in a block who only gave her first name, Yevhenia, said she didn’t want to talk about anything other than animals. Some pets have been abandoned by people who have fled, she said, and others have recently wandered into town. She was trying to nurse Cutie, an affectionate gray and brown cat showing signs of infection back to health.
Beaming with pride, Yevhenia, 69, said she had been involved in helping 35 spirit dogs at a shelter in Dnipro, as part of a long history of finding animals. “I’ve done this all my life,” she said.
Returning to the position, soldiers said the shelling and firefights were not as intense as in previous areas where they were stationed, describing this part of the front as a place of relative calm.
Several mentioned that they had been wounded in other fights. A 56-year-old soldier who worked as a customs officer (call sign: Customs), said an explosion north of Bakhmut broke five ribs, riddled his leg with shrapnel and left him with a concussion.
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Recovered now, it shouldered an American-made M240 machine gun and fired two bursts across no man’s land. The lines are close enough to see enemy soldiers, but he wasn’t sure he had hit any of them. Never mind. “It’s so euphoric,” he said as he fired the gun.
Other epiphanies spread through the post. A 19-year-old soldier, nicknamed Little One for his youthful face and slight build, said he put his career as an amateur mixed martial arts fighter on hold to enlist shortly after the Russian invasion last year. Now he is assigned a DShK heavy machine gun probably bigger than himself, with no plans to return to civilian life even if the war ends tomorrow. “It’s a brotherhood, a big family,” he says.
Line security relies on a symphony of specialties, from infantrymen braving the trenches to artillerymen firing at enemy positions, supported by drone pilots who help them adjust their targets.
Others hunt armored vehicles and tanks, including a four-man team that describes themselves as “ninjas in the bushes” who assemble and fire their Skif, a Ukrainian guided missile system, whenever dispatched for a mission. The team – Commander Dmytro and soldiers with call signs Viper, Joker and Artist – have videos on their phones showing the Skif blow up vehicles. Some were busy, they said, some weren’t. Some they didn’t know.
The job provided front-row seat to some of the weirder behavior on the Russian side, Viper said, recalling a time when he saw a group of three soldiers digging into a position. He fired an anti-tank gun, killing them instantly. Another group came out to dig. He fired again and again – all day, he said, adding: “I helped them dig that hole.”
The enemy is digging and building everywhere, it seems. Dig trench lines. Build anti-tank defenses. Drones capture all of this activity, Grek said.
His soldiers are mentally drained in this crushing phase, he said, but are preparing for more battles to come.
“We will have to push this front further and further back. It’s not up for discussion, that’s how it should be,” he said. “Our brigade commander told us the same thing: ‘Boys, while we are here we are resting, but there will come a time when the command will boldly come forward.'”
Grek said he had an aversion to guns and guns before the war. As soldiers walked past him carrying Kalashnikovs, he said he still did not want to use them. “We will have to ask them to leave,” he said of the enemy. “Or force them, I guess. It might be easier.
A year of Russian war in Ukraine
Portraits from Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion a year ago – in ways both big and small. They learned to survive and help each other in dire circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and crumbling markets. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.
Battle of Attrition: Over the past year, the war has evolved from a multi-pronged invasion that included kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely focused on a swath of territory to the east and south. Follow the 600 mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and see where the fighting has been concentrated.
One year of separate life: The invasion of Russia, coupled with Ukrainian martial law preventing men of military age from leaving the country, has forced millions of Ukrainian families to make agonizing decisions about how to balance safety, duty and love, once intertwined lives have become unrecognizable. This is what a train station full of farewells looked like last year.
Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but closer examination suggests the world is far from united on the issues raised by the war in Ukraine. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions have not stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.