BAKHMUT, Ukraine (AP) — Burnt-down forests and towns burned down. Colleagues with severed limbs. Bombing so relentless that the only option is to lie in a trench, wait and pray.
Ukrainian soldiers returning from the front lines in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine – where Russia is launching a fierce offensive – describe life during what has turned into a grueling war of attrition as apocalyptic.
In interviews with The Associated Press, some complained of chaotic organization, desertion and mental health problems caused by relentless shelling. Others spoke of high morale, the heroism of their colleagues and a determination to keep fighting, even though the better equipped Russians control more of the battlefield.
Lieutenant Volodymyr Nazarenko, 30, deputy commander of the Svoboda Battalion of the Ukrainian National Guard, was with troops withdrawing from Sievierodonetsk on the orders of military leaders. During a month-long battle, Russian tanks destroyed every possible defensive position, turning a city with a pre-war population of 101,000 into “a burnt-down desert,” he said.
“They shot at us every day. I don’t want to lie about it. But these were barrages of ammunition at every building,” Nazarenko said. “The city was methodically leveled out.”
At the time, Sievierodonetsk was one of two major cities under Ukrainian rule in Luhansk province, where pro-Russian separatists declared an unrecognized republic eight years ago. By the time the withdrawal order came on June 24, the Ukrainians were surrounded on three sides and given a defensive line from a chemical plant that also provided civilians.
“If there was a hell anywhere on Earth, it was in Sievierodonetsk,” said Artem Ruban, a soldier in Nazarenko’s battalion, from relatively safe Bakhmut, 64 kilometers (40 miles) southwest of the since-captured city. “The inner strength of our boys allowed them to hold onto the city until the last moment.”
“It wasn’t human conditions they had to fight in. It’s hard to explain to you this here, how they feel now or what it was like there,” Ruban said, blinking in the sunlight. “They fought there to the end. The job was to destroy the enemy no matter what.”
Nazarenko, who also fought in Kiev and elsewhere in the east after Russia invaded Ukraine, regards Ukraine’s operation in Sievierodonetsk as “a victory” despite the outcome. He said the defenders managed to limit casualties while blocking the Russian advance for much longer than expected, depleting Russian resources.
“Their army has suffered huge losses and their attack potential was wiped out,” he said.
Both the lieutenant and the soldier under his command expressed confidence that Ukraine would take back all occupied territories and defeat Russia. They insisted on keeping morale high. Other soldiers, most with no combat experience before the invasion, shared more pessimistic stories, insisting on anonymity or using only their first names to discuss their experiences.
Oleksiy, a member of the Ukrainian army that began fighting Moscow-backed separatists in 2016, had just returned from the front with a serious limp. He said he was wounded on the battlefield in Zolote, a city the Russians have occupied ever since.
“On TV they show beautiful images of the front lines, the solidarity, the military, but the reality is very different,” he said, adding that he does not think the supply of more Western weapons will change the course of the war.
His battalion ran out of ammunition within weeks, Oleksiy said. At one point, the relentless shelling prevented the soldiers from standing in the trenches, he said, exhaustion showing on his wrinkled face.
A senior presidential aide reported last month that 100 to 200 Ukrainian troops are killed every day, but the country has not provided the total number of casualties. Oleksiy claimed his unit lost 150 men in the first three days of fighting, many from blood loss.
The relentless bombing meant that wounded soldiers were only evacuated at night and sometimes had to wait up to two days, he said.
“The commanders don’t care if you’re mentally broken. If you have a working heart, if you have arms and legs, you have to go back in,” he added.
Mariia, a 41-year-old platoon commander who joined the Ukrainian military in 2018 after working as a lawyer and giving birth to a daughter, explained that the degree of danger and inconvenience can vary greatly depending on a unit’s location and access to the supply lines. †
Front lines that have existed since the conflict with pro-Russian separatists began in 2014 are more static and predictable, while places that have become battlegrounds since Russia sent its troops to invade are “another world,” she said.
Mariia, who refused to share her last name for security reasons, said her husband is currently fighting at one such “hotspot”. Everyone misses and worries about their loved ones, and while this causes distress, her underlings have kept their spirits high, she said.
“We are the descendants of Cossacks, we are free and brave. It’s in our blood,” she said. “We’re going to fight to the end.”
Two other soldiers interviewed by the AP – former office workers in Kiev with no previous combat experience – said they were sent to the front lines in the east once they completed their initial training. They said they saw “terrible organization” and “illogical decision-making”, and many people in their battalion refused to fight.
One of the soldiers said he smokes marijuana every day. “Otherwise I would go mad, I would desert. It’s the only way I can handle it,” he said.
A 28-year-old former teacher in Sloviansk who “never thought” he would fight for his country, described the battlefields of Ukraine as a very different life, with a different value system and emotional highs and lows.
“There is joy, there is sorrow. Everything is intertwined,” he said.
Friendship with his colleagues provides the bright spots. But he also saw fellow soldiers succumb to extreme fatigue, both physical and mental, and symptoms of PTSD.
“It is difficult to live under constant stress, sleep deprivation and malnutrition. To see all those horrors with your own eyes – the dead, the severed limbs. It’s unlikely that anyone’s psyche can withstand that,” he said.
But he too insisted that the motivation to defend their country remains.
“We are ready to persevere and fight with gritted teeth. No matter how hard and difficult it is,” the teacher said, speaking from a fishmonger’s shop that had been converted into a military distribution center. “Who will defend my home and my family if not me?”
The center in the city of Sloviansk supplies local military units with equipment and supplies, and gives soldiers a place to go during brief breaks from the physical grind and horrors of battle.
Tetiana Khimion, a 43-year-old dance choreographer, founded the center when the war broke out. Soldiers of all kinds pass by, she says, from skilled special forces and war-hardened veterans to civilians turned combatants and only recently enlisted.
“It could be: for the first time he comes, smiles broadly, he can even be shy. The next time he comes, there’s emptiness in his eyes,” Khimion said. “He’s been through something and he’s different.”
Behind her is a group of young Ukrainian soldiers who alternately joke and share a pizza from the front lines. The drone of artillery can be heard a few miles away.
“Mostly they hope for the better. Yes, sometimes they come in a little sad, but we also hope to cheer up here,” Khimion said. “We hug, we smile at each other and then they go back into the fields.”
On Sunday, Russian troops occupied the last Ukrainian stronghold in Luhansk province and stepped up rocket attacks on Donetsk, the Donbas province where the center is located.
Valerii Rezik contributed to this story.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war between Russia and Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine