MAYORSK, UKRAINE — It’s May at the war front, and things aren’t going well for Russian-backed soldiers at this spot some 600 kilometers southeast of Kyiv.
“We usually let our enemies recover the bodies of their dead from the battlefield,” says a Ukrainian paratrooper known as “German.”
He says that shootouts happen almost every night, “so we often hear separatists talking about their high death toll after assaults.”
In his 20s, the paratrooper keeps his finger on the trigger of a Kalashnikov machine gun and stares at the horizon through the gun’s sights. His fellow soldiers also keep watch, peeking out from behind defenses made from concrete blocks and wooden ammunition boxes, with automatic rifles in their hands.
Their task is to watch for any hostile activity. They don’t have far to look. The enemy’s entrenchments lie several hundred meters away in flat wilderness across a minefield.
On the Ukrainian-controlled side, the concrete floor is covered with empty cartridges from the previous night’s shootout. In four hours, their watch will be over and the soldiers will return to their dugout for sleep.
After three years of bloodshed and 10,000 deaths, Russia’s war keeps raging on in Ukraine’s east.
The Donbas, the country’s one-time industrial heartland, is bisected by 400 kilometers of front lines.
The elite 25th Dnipropetrovsk Airborne Brigade, one of the most capable Ukrainian army units, has fought from the first days of the war instigated by Russia in the spring of 2014. It helped retake Sloviansk and Kramatorsk in the summer of 2014, but was forced to retreat in the bloody battles for Savur Mohyla, the destroyed Donetsk airport and the city of Debaltseve.
In the summer of 2014, the paratroopers defended Luhansk airport after it was surrounded by Russian-backed forces, and 40 of them were killed when an Il‑76 transport aircraft was downed by a missile fired by Russian-backed forces on June 14, 2014.
In defeats and victories, the 25th Airborne Brigade has lost 130 fighters, killed in action, and over 500 men have been wounded.
‘Give ’em hell’
The brigade’s 8th company is now defending the area of Mayorsk near the Russian-occupied city of Horlivka.
The company’s positions lie among neglected fields and sparse forestland close to the Siversky Donets-Donbas water pipeline. The paratroopers are defending the pipeline and a power station near Mayorsk’s railway station to prevent the enemy from taking control of water supplies to heavily populated areas of Donetsk Oblast.
Area road bridges were blown up in 2014 and still lie in ruins. The local railroad leading to occupied Horlivka was cratered by shellfire.
Checkpoints in Mayorsk and nearby Zaitseve allow civilians to cross the lines between the government-controlled and Russian-occupied parts.
The morning of May 14 saw the paratroopers enter battle again.
Sporadic exchanges of fire started soon after dawn, and continuous bursts of gunfire could be heard almost everywhere. Ukrainian troops are permitted to return fire even if they don’t have visual contact with the enemy.
At 11 a. m., two mortar shells whistle in from the left flank. A unit has come under enemy fire from 82-millimeter mortars.
“All right boys, give them some hell,” the company’s commander, Captain Andriy Shkorubskiy, code name “Shaman,” says into his walkie-talkie. “It’s time to shut them up at last.”
A Ukrainian grenade launcher opens up, and the exchange of fire gradually fades away. The fighting is over — for now.
“The militants have no shortage of weapons and ammo,” the company commander says. “Anti-tank guided missile systems, armored vehicles, machine guns, bazookas, large caliber mortars — anything you like. Recently, they apparently got the AGS‑30 automatic grenade guns, so they can easily hit us from distances of up to 1,800 meters. We don’t have such weaponry yet.”
Like most of the soldiers under his command, Captain Shkorubskiy has fought in all of the main battles of Russia’s war in the Donbas, serving in the war zone from the start. In three years of war, his unit has endured many tragedies, including treason. Some of the captain’s fellow paratroopers went over to the enemy in the chaotic start of the war in 2014.
“There was a time when we used to overhear the militant’s radio traffic, hearing someone’s commands in pure Ukrainian. Try to imagine how freaked out we were then,” he says.
The militant forces standing against the Shaman’s company are now led by a warlord calling himself “Rambo” in radio communications. He senselessly throws his troops against Ukrainian machine guns and minefields, the soldiers say.
“We stand here in defense,” says Nazar Petruk, a scout platoon commander. “So we’re always ready for uninvited guests from the other side — the militant commandos are trying to knock us out from here. The local topography here makes it difficult for us to detect and destroy them easily all the time. There are lots of places to hide from fire.”
Almost every night, or even during days when there is mist, the paratroopers come up against infiltration groups trying to get across the minefield to take over Ukrainian positions, Petruk says.
“Sometimes we detect their movement via thermal scopes — and then me and my scouts secretly go out to ambush them, avoiding our own traps in the night.”
Very often the militant infiltrators fail — and are blown up by Ukrainian mines and trip wires in no man’s land. In this case the paratrooper scouts have even more dangerous mission — to protect their mine layers as they reset traps.
“The mine layer actually walks through the minefield with just a thin stick in his hand, trying to find any traps left by the militants. It’s a deadly cat-and-mouse game, and also immensely psychologically stressful for everyone,” Petruk says.
‘Mostly going well’
As the situation stabilizes and the guns go silent, the soldiers relax a bit.
“Things are mostly going well here at the frontline,” soldier Oleksandr Kuznetsov says. “We have enough weapons, food, equipment. However, there are problems with leave — a lot of us haven’t been home for many months.”
Almost all of the soldiers are around 20 years old and proud to belong to an elite Ukrainian paratroop brigade. “Our army has taken a terrific step forward during these three years of war,” Shkorubskiy says. “For instance, all the soldiers in my company have collimating sights on their rifles. Back in 2014 we couldn’t even dream about that.”
Since the spring of 2015, the situation with weapons, medicine, and food supplies for the army has improved greatly, Shkorubskiy says, and it sounds odd when some army units complain about shortages.
When silence falls, it’s a good time for commanders to check on the men under their command. Shkorubskiy goes along his company positions, peering into bunkers and trenches. He sees a soldier without a helmet.
“Hey, get your pot on your head!” he shouts angrily. “Where do you think you are, on the beach?”
The soldier forces a smile and puts on his helmet.
The company’s network of trenches, dugouts and firing positions lead for a hundred meters along the frontline. As the stalemated war drags into its fourth year, the paratroopers, trained to enter battle from the sky, have had to get used to digging into the ground.
When off duty, soldiers sleep and rest on wooden bunk beds they have constructed for themselves inside dugouts, which are lit dimly with lanterns. The air inside one dugout is warm and moist — someone is drying his washing on a cast-iron stove.
Sometimes they sleep right in the heavy machine gun nest so when an attack starts, soldiers can be back in combat within seconds.
Soldiers have started to make their underground shelters more homey. On the wooden walls of their dugouts, where they hang their grenade launchers and Kalashnikov rifles, they also put photos of their loved ones and children’s drawings. Those lucky enough to have a better-equipped, larger dugout with an electricity supply have TV sets (although these only receive Russian channels) and sometimes even an automatic washing machine.
But they eat well.
“Our cook is actually a former restaurant chef,” the captain explains. “So we’re fed fabulously. And mind you, being an army cook is even harder than being a soldier.” The cook has to prepare three meals for the whole company and then goes to bed at midnight, waking up at 4 a.m. to make breakfast.
Apart from battling the Russian-backed forces, the paratroopers in Mayorsk are fighting the trench soldier’s perennial foes — rain and mud.
Soldiers often have to sweep muddy water off the wooden floors of their emplacements — at times conditions are reminiscent of those in the World War I trenches.
The soldiers meet the adverse elements with some military philosophy.
“A paratrooper doesn’t get wet in the rain,” one soldier says while walking through a pouring spring shower at the frontline on May 14. “It just braces him up.”