Blackened forests and cities burned to the ground. Comrades with torn off limbs. Bombings so incessant, so relentless that there is nothing to do but lie in the trenches and pray. These are accounts of Ukrainian soldiers returning from the front lines in the Donbass region, the scene of a brutal Russian offensive. They describe life in this grueling and cruel war as downright apocalyptic.
In interviews with the AP news agency, some complained about the chaotic organization, deserters and psychological problems caused by the constant shelling. Others spoke of high morale, the heroism of their comrades, and an unwavering willingness to keep fighting even as the better-equipped Russians gain ground in the battle zone.
Lieutenant Volodymyr Nazarenko is deputy commander of the Svoboda Battalion of the Ukrainian National Guard and was with troops withdrawing from Sieverodonetsk on orders from military superiors. He says that in a month’s fighting, Russian tanks destroyed all potential defense positions and turned a pre-war city of 101,000 into a “scorched desert.” “They shot at us every day,” says the 30-year-old. “There were barrages against every building. The city was systematically razed to the ground.”
At the time, Sieverodonetsk was one of two major Ukrainian-controlled cities in Luhansk province, where pro-Russian separatists proclaimed an unrecognized republic eight years ago. When the order to retreat came on June 24, the Ukrainians were surrounded on three sides and their defensive position was a chemical plant where civilians had also taken shelter.
“If there was a hell on earth anywhere, it was in Sevierodonetsk,” says Artem Ruban, a soldier in Nazarenko’s battalion. “The inner strength of our boys made it possible to hold the city until the last moment.” They had to fight under inhumane conditions – and still fought to the end, says Ruban. “The task was to destroy the enemy, come what may.”
Against this background, Nazarenko considers Ukraine’s operation in Sieverodonetsk “a victory”, even if the city was eventually captured by the attackers. The defenders managed to limit casualties by delaying the Russian advance much longer than expected, says the lieutenant. As a result, Russian resources were thinned out.
Both Nazarenko and the soldier under his command expressed confidence that Ukraine would recapture all occupied territories and defeat Russia. They assured that morale was very good. Other soldiers, most of whom had no combat experience prior to the invasion and wished to remain anonymous or use only their first names, were more pessimistic.
This includes army soldier Oleksiy, who had been deployed in the fight against Moscow-backed separatists since 2016 and just returned from the front with a bad limp. He says he was wounded on the battlefield of Solote, a town now also occupied by the Russians. “On TV they all show nice pictures of the front lines, solidarity… but the reality is very different,” says Oleksiy.
He doesn’t think more western weapons would change the course of the war. His battalion ran out of ammunition within weeks, and at one point soldiers could not even stand in the trenches because of the constant shelling, he says. The exhaustion is still clearly visible on his face.
A senior official in the presidential office spoke of 100 to 200 Ukrainian soldiers killed a day in June, but no official total has been released. Oleksiy says that his unit lost 150 men in the first three days of fighting, many of whom bled to death because evacuations were only possible at night due to the constant shelling.
Two other soldiers interviewed by the AP were office workers before the invasion began on February 24 and were sent to the eastern frontlines immediately after completing their initial training. They say they witnessed “terrible organization” and “illogical decision-making,” and many in their battalion refused to fight. One of the soldiers says that he smokes marijuana every day: “Otherwise I would lose my mind, I would desert. It’s the only way I’m going to deal with it.”
A 28-year-old former teacher in Sloviansk describes life at the front as completely different from civilian life, with a different value system and emotional ups and downs. Friendship with his comrades provides bright spots, but he has also observed cases of extreme exhaustion, “both physical and mental”, soldiers showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. “To see all this horror with your own eyes – the dead, the limbs ripped off. It’s unlikely someone’s psyche can take it,” he says.
But this young man also speaks of continued high motivation to defend his homeland. “We are ready to see this through and fight through clenched teeth no matter how hard and difficult it is.”
Tatyana Chimion has set up a distribution center for military equipment in Sloviansk, which has also become a meeting place for soldiers in their limited free time. “It can be like this: the first time he comes, he smiles widely, can even be shy. The next time he comes, there’s emptiness in his eyes. He’s been through something and he’s different,” she says.
However, she and her staff hoped to give the visitors a little boost as well. “We hug, we smile at each other, and then they go back to the battlefield.”