Dispatch

‘They Are No Longer Our Brothers’

On the front lines of Ukraine’s frozen conflict, soldiers fight cold and boredom—but worry little about a Russian invasion.

Viktor, a soldier on the front lines in the Donbass
Viktor, a soldier on the front lines in the Donbass
Viktor, a soldier on the front lines in the Donbass region of Ukraine, on Jan. 26. Emre Caylak photos for Foreign Policy
By , a journalist based in Ukraine covering the human cost of the war.

PISKY, Ukraine—Trenches take a lot of work, especially when snow is piling up and temperatures frequently drop well below freezing. Dig, dry, develop, maintain—but one wrong move and a sniper or a drone could take you out. 

When there are hundreds of miles of them scoring the no man’s land where Ukrainian control ends and two separatist republics run by Russian-backed insurgents begin, it takes considerable time and effort to keep the trenches up to snuff. A soldier’s toil on Ukraine’s front line is never done. But after eight years of low-level, grinding conflict, the daily burden at least staves off the boredom. The trenches on both sides have been frozen in place since a cease-fire in 2015, yet simmering hostilities continue. In the shell-shattered village of Pisky, about 6 miles from Donetsk, the de facto capital of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Ukrainian soldiers say everything right now is “normal.” 

Everything is normal—except for the more than 100,000 Russian troops and tanks and missiles that have been amassed near Ukraine’s border and in annexed Crimea, and that are now pouring into Belarus. U.S. officials have warned that the Russian buildup has nearly reached the level needed for a full-scale invasion, and it is continuing to grow. 

PISKY, Ukraine—Trenches take a lot of work, especially when snow is piling up and temperatures frequently drop well below freezing. Dig, dry, develop, maintain—but one wrong move and a sniper or a drone could take you out. 

When there are hundreds of miles of them scoring the no man’s land where Ukrainian control ends and two separatist republics run by Russian-backed insurgents begin, it takes considerable time and effort to keep the trenches up to snuff. A soldier’s toil on Ukraine’s front line is never done. But after eight years of low-level, grinding conflict, the daily burden at least staves off the boredom. The trenches on both sides have been frozen in place since a cease-fire in 2015, yet simmering hostilities continue. In the shell-shattered village of Pisky, about 6 miles from Donetsk, the de facto capital of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Ukrainian soldiers say everything right now is “normal.” 

Everything is normal—except for the more than 100,000 Russian troops and tanks and missiles that have been amassed near Ukraine’s border and in annexed Crimea, and that are now pouring into Belarus. U.S. officials have warned that the Russian buildup has nearly reached the level needed for a full-scale invasion, and it is continuing to grow. 

Viktor patrolling in the Donbas region, Ukraine
Viktor patrolling in the Donbas region, Ukraine

Viktor patrols in Ukraine’s Donbass region on Jan. 26. 

“A few days ago we heard tanks moving from the separatist area—they are either rotating their troops or preparing for military activities. They shell constantly; one hit here yesterday,” Viktor—a sergeant with the Stalin mustache of the Red Army soldier he used to be, who requested I use his nom de guerre for security reasons—told me late last month. “They try to hide from us in their trenches, but we see smoke from their fires.”

The United States and the United Kingdom have warned of a possible imminent Russian invasion; British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has flagged the “clear and present danger” of another Russian lunge across the border. While there is speculation that Russian mechanized forces, backed by heavy artillery and missiles, could make a move on Kyiv, few experts believe Russia would risk the likely casualties of any attempt to take the Ukrainian capital. Instead, they expect a limited strike on strategic towns or infrastructure, or an enhanced Russian military presence in separatist-controlled areas, perhaps as soon as late February.

“Action in Donbas is the most likely scenario because it has some political sense and leaves Russia some room for further political maneuver and diplomacy,” said Pavel Luzin, a Russia security analyst for the Jamestown Foundation. “An operation to take Kyiv could not be done in a couple of days, it would be suicidal move by the Russian leadership.” 

Kyiv has downplayed the threat post by Moscow, even as a stream of world leaders—most recently French President Emmanuel Macron—have visited the region in a bid to calm tensions. Meanwhile, the world watches, fearing Europe is on the edge of a devastating conflict.

But after eight years of weathering separatist attacks, Ukraine’s soldiers are well adjusted to the threat of violence and face even the prospect of all-out war with ease. Today’s Ukrainian army bears little comparison with the ragtag crew that fought the first Russian invasion in 2014, and it has been bolstered by a steady trickle of lethal and nonlethal aid from the United States and European countries, including advanced anti-tank weapons. Few Ukrainian troops care to guess where or how a Russian strike might come; they only say they’re ready for it if it does. 

“You can’t predict anything, because Vladimir Putin is absolutely unpredictable,” said an officer in his late 50s who also asked to be called by his nom de guerre, Oleksandr.

In Pisky, soldiers huddle in bunkers amid the boom of almost nightly shelling, eating hot stew and salo—a local dish of sliced raw pork fat—to ward off the extreme cold. They browse TikTok and play with stray dogs and their puppies, indispensable members of a tight front-line brotherhood, which since 2016 has officially also included women. Oleksandr met his wife, known by the nom de guerre Daryna, the unit’s cook, five years ago in the Pisky trenches. They were both married to other people at the time. Now they live together in a marital bunker.

Oleksandr with his wife Daryna in the Donbas region, Ukraine 2022.
Oleksandr with his wife Daryna in the Donbas region, Ukraine 2022.

Oleksandr and his wife, Daryna, the unit’s cook, in the Donbass region on Jan. 26.

Daryna saying goodbye to a friend in the Donbas region, Ukraine
Daryna saying goodbye to a friend in the Donbas region, Ukraine

Daryna says goodbye to a friend in the Donbass region on Jan. 26. 

Oleksandr (left) with his wife Daryna, and Viktor during lunch in the Donbas region, Ukraine on Jan. 26.
Oleksandr (left) with his wife Daryna, and Viktor during lunch in the Donbas region, Ukraine on Jan. 26.

Oleksandr (left) with his wife, Daryna, and Viktor during lunch in the Donbass region, Ukraine on Jan. 26.

Despite the domestication that long-term stalemate has brought to the front, lifting a head too far above the lip of a trench can still be deeply dangerous, even fatal. A soldier was wounded in Pisky earlier this year when a sniper’s bullet went under his flak jacket, hitting his spine and lung. Peer over with a periscope, though, and apart from snow and scrub, the ruins of Donetsk Airport zoom into focus. It was destroyed during an eight-month siege in 2014-2015 that was among the fiercest fighting the conflict has yet seen. Its battered tower now sits on the line of contact as a lasting symbol for Ukrainians of their struggle to defend themselves from Russia. 

The village of Pisky also came under crushing artillery fire between 2014 and 2016, leaving 95 percent of its residential buildings seriously damaged. It now lies in a strictly controlled military area and has been all but abandoned. 

Here, time has stood still. It is a museum as to what is at stake if the fighting were to worsen. In the ruins of a long-empty house, an anonymous bride and groom stare up from the pages of a photo album, their hopes for the future buried in the debris. A child’s toy lies among broken glass, and books lay open, waiting in vain to be read again.

Dogs are included in the brotherhood of soldiers in front line in the Donbas region, Ukraine 2022.
Dogs are included in the brotherhood of soldiers in front line in the Donbas region, Ukraine 2022.

Dogs are included in the brotherhood of soldiers on the front line in the Donbass region, Ukraine, on Jan. 26.

For Pisky’s soldiers, this devastation—and the threat of more—is why separatists are a greater enemy than Russia: This trail of destruction was wrought by people who were once friends, neighbors, even family members. Viktor was born in Russia and joined the Soviet Red Army in the 1980s, spending a decade in combat alongside men he now knows are on the other side, including his cousin.

“They are no longer our brothers,” said Viktor, who lost a son to the conflict two years ago. 

Betrayal by their own is, for many Ukrainians, a harder cross to bear than nebulous fears of a Russian invasion. About 4 million people live in the two pro-Russia self-proclaimed statelets in the east, just shy of 10 percent of Ukraine’s entire population. 

Russian is predominantly the mother tongue in Donbass, and many people have ancestral ties to modern-day Russia. Ukraine has struggled to figure out its identity since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, but it has become increasingly pro-Western, while poverty and a lack of opportunity have left many in government-controlled parts of the east feeling abandoned by Kyiv. Once common pro-Russian sentiment has turned to indifference, and many now say they don’t care who is in charge as long as life gets better. 

The ruins of a church on the front line in Pisky, Ukraine 2022.
The ruins of a church on the front line in Pisky, Ukraine 2022.

A Ukrainian flag flies over the ruins of a church in Pisky on Jan. 26. 

Russian TV is widely available for free across the region, while the Ukrainian TV signal is often weak. In separatist territories, financed and administered by Moscow and with crossings largely cut off since the COVID-19 pandemic, people have spent eight years subjected to propaganda about Ukraine and its alleged oppression of Russian speakers. They use the ruble and are educated in the Russian curriculum, and some now have Russian passports. But with sparse information coming out of the territories, people in Kyiv know little about life there. And Ukraine’s war between two divided worlds will carry on regardless of what Russia does.

It is better to “die on your legs fighting the enemy than live on your knees,” Oleksandr said. 

Liz Cookman is a journalist based in Ukraine covering the human cost of the war. Twitter: @Liz_Cookman

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