https://www.spiegel.de-Ukrainian soldiers pull a howitzer out of the bushes where they rested for a few hours. The Russian army, though, has far greater firepower.
Foto: Maxim Dondyuk / DER SPIEGEL
With Russia now concentrating its forces in eastern Ukraine, the war has completely changed character. In the open fields of the Donbas, Putin’s army is seeking to leverage its firepower advantage. But the Ukrainians believe they still have a chance – if they get enough support from the West.
The front runs not far from where the collective farm “Friendship” once stood. Two field artillery pieces are posted to the right and left of the road around 100 kilometers east of Zaporizhzhia. The guns are manned by a dozen soldiers, who load them with propelling charges and 152 mm shells by the minute. The roar of each launch is followed by a cloud of gray smoke floating over the fields.
Professional soldiers and volunteers are here defending the farms, villages and fields of eastern Ukraine, standing up to the Russian army, just a few kilometers behind the border of the Donetsk district. Among them are members of the Territorial Defense Forces, experienced fighters and officers, special forces units and recruits who are experiencing their very first battle. Facing them is Russia’s army, which is no longer focusing its attentions on the capital Kyiv, but is now seeking to gain control of the entirety of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
The Ukrainian fighters have howitzers, tanks, drones and shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons at their disposal. Even the antiaircraft weapons are still firing, says Andriy Bystryk. “That’s why the Russian bombers don’t dare fly any further than here.”
Bystryk is a 45-year-old with blue eyes and reddish-blonde stubble – and he exudes a striking degree of nonchalance despite the thunder of artillery. He continues sauntering along even when others take cover. Before the war, he was the service manager for a nearby Ford dealership, but now, he is the lieutenant of the Territorial Defense Forces brigade from Zaporizhzhia and has agreed to accompany a DER SPIEGEL team to Ukrainian positions. It will become a trip exposing all the brutality of land warfare, in which every meter of land is fought for.
He points to a crater in the asphalt, shattered concrete blocks, two burned-out automobiles and half of a boot in the bushes. Both drivers of two evacuation buses are dead, as are the four soldiers who were standing at the checkpoint. They were hit by a Russian warplane, Bystrik says. “Rather stupid to use such an expensive rocket for such an easy target.”
The new phase of Russia’s invasion began last Monday with a number of attacks, including the shelling of cities like Rubizhne, Popasna and Maryinka in eastern Ukraine. A barrage of rockets and mortars followed that night. The Russian Defense Ministry announced that Russian troops had attacked more than a thousand targets. After Russia’s troops failed to overthrow the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in what was supposed to be a lightning attack, a new, potentially bloodier phase of the conflict, is beginning: the fight for Ukraine’s east.
Russian military leaders are apparently ready to do whatever it takes to deliver a victory to President Vladimir Putin by May 9, the day on which a vast military parade is to be held on Red Square in Moscow to commemorate the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. The day has a high degree of symbolic value for Putin, one on which he can present himself as a victor and liberator – or not. The absolute minimum goal of his forces is the complete conquest of the Donbas – the takeover of those parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions that are still under the control of the Ukrainian government.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine will determine whether Moscow is successful in taking control of large swaths of the country. Then, Putin’s army could potentially renew its attempts to conquer areas further to the west, including Kyiv. Unless, of course, the Ukrainians are successful in stopping Putin’s troops or even beating them back, thus denying him his triumph.
It was an idea that seemed almost outrageous at the beginning of the invasion: that Ukrainian soldiers and an army of volunteers could hold off what was widely considered to be the second-most powerful military in the world. But that is exactly what happened in the first weeks of this war in and around Kyiv, despite the brutality of the Russian troops, despite the superior number of weapons, tanks and soldiers that Putin sent into the country. Why can’t that which took place in the capital be repeated in eastern Ukraine, in the Donbas?
In addition to the Territorial Defense Forces and military units redeployed from Kyiv, the Russian invaders in the east are facing 30,000 to 40,000 of the best-trained soldiers Ukraine has to offer: the troops from the Joint Forces Operation. They are well armed and have received additional weapons from the West in recent weeks, including armored vehicles, anti-aircraft missiles, howitzers and small “kamikaze” drones. They know the terrain well and have had plenty of time to reinforce their positions.
On the other side, Russia possesses considerable reserves of long-range missiles and heavy artillery that can also fire across great distances. They have tanks, armored transport vehicles and warplanes that drop bombs in places where the Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses are weak or non-existent. The U.S. Defense Department estimates that Russia currently has 78 battalion tactical groups in Ukraine, each of which includes between 800 and 1,000 soldiers, and most of them are likely stationed in eastern Ukraine. Military experts like Phillips Payson O’Brien of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, though, believe that won’t be enough to produce a rapid victory. “That’s 78,000 troops at the most, and likely not even close to that number,” O’Brien says.
The question is how many more troops Putin can send to the Donbas. Thousands of Russian troops have spent several weeks trying to take control of Mariupol, and if the port city on the Sea of Azov does finally fall, some of those forces could be freed up. It is also possible that Putin, should a rapid victory fail to materialize, will initiate a general mobilization in Russia, allowing him to recruit more soldiers in the long term.
Analysts, for their part, agree that the war is now entering a decisive phase. “Both sides are gearing up for a series of battles that will determine whether Ukraine is to be left partitioned, and whether Russia can rescue some semblance of victory from an apparent defeat,” wrote the British military historian Lawrence Freedman in a recent piece for the Sunday Times. The outcome won’t just be decided by which side can throw more weapons and materiel into the battle, but by who fights more fiercely.
Andriy Bystryk is now standing a few meters behind a bomb crater in Lehm, where soldiers have dug out a 1.7-meter (5.5 feet) deep trench and a pit. Four soldiers are lying in their bunks, snoring. It is raining, making boots heavy with mud. Next to the pit, an infantryman is sitting on a log. His name is Sergey, a 43-year-old serving in the 110th brigade of the Territorial Defense Forces. He has draped himself in a large poncho and covered his mouth and nose with a black scarf. Only the area around his eyes, tanned by the sun, can be seen.
Sergey, who declines to provide his last name, is a farmer. He says he owns a 40-hectare (100-acre) wheat field near Zaporizhzhia. He joined the Territorial Defense Forces just two days after the Russians launched their attack to save his family. Some of his relatives live in that part of the Zaporizhzhia region that has been under Russian occupation since the beginning of the war. And his fear has only grown since reports emerged from the town of Bucha of Russian atrocities
, including torture, murder and rape. “The worst part is the waiting,” he says. “I want to finally liberate my family.”
To do so, he and the other soldiers need more weapons, especially heavy equipment, artillery, tanks and troop transporters – as much materiel as possible. “We need German Marders,” he says, referring to the armored infantry fighting vehicle “and Leopard tanks, if possible.” He climbs into his gray Renault van and heads south, past fields where red flags have been stuck into the ground. “Beware, mines!” they say. The Renault is Bystryk’s private vehicle, but in his view, the war is also his war.
The Russian forces are now operating along four axes. They are pushing from the south toward Zaporizhzhia, the region where Bystryk is stationed; they are marching from the east deeper into the Donetsk and Luhansk regions; they are attempting to finally bring Mariupol completely under their control; and finally, they are pushing southward from Izyum toward Slovyansk.
According to Nick Reynolds of the London think tank Royal United Services Institute, it isn’t yet clear which axis Russia will commit the greatest number of troops to. Like other military analysts, though, Reynolds believes that the Russian offensive is still in its preparatory stages. “I haven’t yet seen that large numbers of troops from Kyiv have actually arrived in the east,” he says. A number of units are also still demoralized from almost two months of war. “They will have a difficult time reintegrating these forces into the fighting,” he believes.
Nevertheless, it seems likely that the war will now return in force to a region that has, since 2014, been home to repeated battles between Ukrainian troops and pro-Moscow separatists. The fighting is currently taking place along a roughly 480-kilometer frontline running from Kharkiv in the north through Mariupol on the Sea of Azov to Kherson in the south.
The Russian and Ukrainian troops in the region find themselves on terrain that is markedly different from the more densely populated region surrounding the Ukrainian capital. A battle of troops and materiel is approaching, stretching across an expansive region of fields and towns. They will be fighting for control of villages and mining towns from which many residents have already evacuated.
Prior to the invasion, Ukraine controlled almost two-thirds of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, including larger cities like Slovyansk, Kramatorsk and Sievierodonetsk. All of them have since transformed into ghost towns, with shops closed, streets empty and residential blocks abandoned. Most people heeded the government’s warnings and left.
The surrounding territory, flat and open, will dictate the type of fighting. The invaders, as recent days have shown, seek to soften up the Ukrainian positions with heavy artillery before then searching for soft spots in the lines so they can advance with infantry and tank units. The defenders have dug into the ground, in trenches reminiscent of World War I. From above, the Ukrainian positions look as though someone has chiseled small furrows in the sand with a huge stick. There are only very few trees and not much to hide behind.
The attackers have already been able to secure a preliminary victory: According to Ukrainian officials, Russian troops have managed to take control of Kreminna and two additional villages in the Luhansk region. Around 60 Russian tanks, they said, broke through the defensive lines after three days of fighting. A Russian ground offensive near Isyum, by contrast, apparently only resulted in a small advance and no breakthrough. The Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington, wrote that the latter push is apparently part of the effort to encircle Ukrainian forces.
Andriy Bystryk parks his Renault in Vremivka, a village at the edge of the Donbas. The roar of the artillery sounds closer here, and small arms fire can also be heard. The Territorial Defense Forces and the army have their quarters behind the town’s pale-yellow-tiled culture center. Soldiers are driving around in 40-year-old Soviet armored vehicles past the monument to those who fell in World War II. Medics are forced to rely on ancient ambulances. Palettes of canned fish and pork sausage are being unloaded from the bed of a Nissan pickup, on which someone has spraypainted the Ukrainian word for “nightmare.”
In the ninth week of war, Ukraine has between 500,000 and 700,000 men and women bearing arms. There is no way of knowing the precise number. Around 100,000 of them belong to the National Guard, the border patrol force and the police. An additional 100,000 serve in the Territorial Defense Forces. Many members of the Territorial Defense Forces are not in the best of health, are too old or are fathers to more than three children, making them unqualified for the regular military. Many of them are still undergoing training – even as they find themselves under fire. “We wanted to create military structures across the entire country, a network of conscripts like in Israel or Switzerland,” says Oleksiy Arystovych, an adviser to President Zelenskyy. “But in many places, the war beat us to it.”
Courage and readiness to make sacrifices are two qualities that the Territorial Defense Forces have more than enough of, but they lack equipment. Bystryk, the lieutenant from Zaporizhzhia, doesn’t even have a helmet. In the villages, sometimes the Russians advance, and sometimes the Ukrainians, but the pattern is generally the same: The side able to muster the most artillery tends to win. “When they are shooting, they are stronger. When we are shooting, we are stronger,” says Bystryk. “Today, they are shooting without pause.”
He speeds through a village of light-blue houses behind front yards full of blooming daffodils. It is an empty wasteland, and the roar of the shelling grows louder. When the Renault passes into the village of Storosheve, loud voices can suddenly be heard. “Quick! Quick! Shelling!” yells one of three men who duck behind a concrete wall. The picture of calmness, Bystryk parks his Renault and walks over to a huge weeping willow, under which Igor Dyktyarenko is hiding with his reconnaissance team.
Dyktyarenko is commander of the local Territorial Defense Forces unit, a 53-year-old former soldier with a moustache. He is the father of two daughters. He says that village residents left once the shelling grew too strong. One of Dyktyarenko’s soldiers was killed in an attack and four others were wounded. Still, though, six members of his unit are still waiting for Russian tanks to approach so they can attack them with time-honored RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades from Russian production.
Three additional soldiers, gasping for breath, hurry under the tree and spread out additional ammunition on the ground. “With these, we have to hit a tank at least twice in the same place to pierce the steel,” says Dyktyarenko, referring to the olive-green grenades that look like oversized New Year’s rockets. He then adds: “If only we had the Panzerfaust 3 from Germany.”
Those touring the eastern front these days – particularly German journalists – cannot escape the calls for more weapons. Around 30 countries have pledged materiel, from gas masks and ABC protection suits from Japan to anti-ship missiles from Britain to tanks from the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Eight to 10 cargo planes full of equipment land each day at airports in Poland, Romania and other neighboring countries. The U.S. alone has pledged or delivered $3.4 billion in military aid since the beginning of the war, with Washington promising on Thursday the delivery of 72 field howitzers along with 144,000 rounds of ammunition and tactical drones. The U.S. government also plans to make 16 helicopters available from Russian production that were acquired for Afghanistan several years ago.
Hundreds of trucks then transport the deliveries from the airports toward the front along a variety of different overland routes. In addition to tanks and armored personnel carriers, the Ukrainians are also in need of 152 mm shells, the old Soviet standard. NATO-sized shells don’t work. In Europe and elsewhere, a large-scale search for Soviet-era military munitions has long since gotten underway. Because the Ukrainians are firing off shells and armor piercing munitions at a rapid rate in the Donbas, and the Russian troops are responding.
The shell impacts can now also be felt beneath the branches of the weeping willow. They are coming closer, and you can hear the whistling of incoming rounds. Yevgeniy Oleksenko, 32, a volunteer with the Territorial Defense Forces, has already been hit by shrapnel once today. “A grenade,” he says, showing dried blood behind his left ear and a wound on his left leg. He says he is feeling nauseous, likely the result of a concussion. “But he refuses to go,” says Dyktyarenko, patting him on the shoulder.
Before the war, Oleksenko worked in a traffic light factory in Zaporizhzhia. He has written his nickname on his bullet-proof vest with a felt-tipped pen: Tur. In Ukrainian, it essentially means “wild bull.” He is 180 centimeters (5’11”) tall and weighs 140 kilograms (310 pounds) – and he is used to war, as are so many young men in eastern Ukraine. The so-called Line of Contact – the unofficial border that separates the Ukrainian part of the Donbas from the areas under the control of pro-Moscow separatists – passes not far from Zaporizhzhia. In 2015, Oleksenko was hit by grenade shrapnel in the Donbas. “Initially, I couldn’t move my left leg anymore. But after physical therapy, it got a bit better. Lying down, though, is still difficult.”
He made the best of his injuries, participating in 2018 in the Invictus Games in Sydney, the paralympic sporting event for injured soldiers launched by Prince Harry. Oleksenko bench-pressed 205 kilograms, earning him the silver medal in the discipline. “I have a picture with Prince Harry,” he says proudly.
A shell suddenly detonates near the willow and the soldiers run for their cars. Even Andriy Bystryk seems a bit concerned. Back in Vremivka, he uses a stick to draw a map of Ukraine in the sand full of a number of crosses. “The plan was to station a brigade of ours in every smaller city,” he says. “But the Russians attacked us before we had completed the enlistment process.” Still, he adds, they are strong enough to stop the invaders. “If we had more weapons, we would be able to push them back,” says Bystryk. He then climbs back into his Renault and drives back to where the thundering of the artillery is loudest.
Russia’s military leadership will likely throw everything they have into this fight in the coming weeks. The question is: Will it be enough? As long as the battles take place out in the open, the Russian army will be able to rely on its advantages. “They are eager to fight where their rockets, artillery and tanks are most effective,” says John Spencer, a warfare specialist with the New York-based think tank Madison Policy Forum. They have thus far had difficulty when it comes to urban warfare, which contributed to their defeat in northern Ukraine. But it is much easier to fight on open terrain, with different units and branches of the military fighting together, including surveillance, artillery, infantry, tanks and air power.
It is difficult to estimate how many Ukrainian fighters have thus far been killed or wounded. That, too, is an important factor in how effective their defense will be in the coming weeks. The British military expert Phillips Payson O’Brien still believes that the defenders have a chance of stopping the Russian invaders. “If the Ukrainian forces continue as they have, they will demoralize the Russians, inflict losses and force them into fighting in towns and villages. If that happens, the Russians will face serious problems with reinforcements.”
Just how intense the Russian offensive has thus far been becomes clear when talking to people who have experienced it firsthand. Many of the wounded Ukrainian troops end up in the military hospital in Zaporizhzhia, around 50 kilometers from the front. The soldier standing guard at the entrance has placed a bouquet of pussy willows among the sandbags. Over 1,000 patients, some of them badly injured, have been treated here since the beginning of the hostilities or transferred to other clinics. Workers are now fitting the windows with iron plates.
“We badly need more beds,” says Yuriy Heriy, a 24-year-old surgeon. Heriy came here from western Ukraine once the war started. He plops down on a well-used sofa in the dark hallway where staff members take naps during their breaks and talks about how he stops bleeding, treats gunshot wounds and rebuilds shattered bones. He ends most of his sentences with a self-conscious giggle, which stands in contrast to the grizzly details he is discussing, but fits with his young age. On his mobile phone, he shows a video of the moment when he pulled a particularly large piece of shrapnel out of a soldier’s ankle. Part of the shell’s serial number can be seen on the fragment: 3B35.
He disappears for a moment and returns with a jam jar. It is half full with projectiles and bits of shrapnel that he has removed from the bodies of his patients.
There are five beds in Room 5, and one of them is occupied by Oleksandr, a 57-year-old who used to work as a miner in Donetsk. He says that his Territorial Defense Forces unit, the 105th Brigade, was stationed near Novodarivka on the eastern edge of the Zaporizhzhia oblast when they were surprised by Russian tank fire. “Two shells detonated. One of them hit our cannon,” he says. It took four hours to get to the hospital. The doctors then removed a piece of shrapnel from his left shoulder and another from his right leg.
A brown field blanket is hanging in front of the window. The room is stuffy. Another patient speaks up: “We have never seen such firepower before,” says Misha, a 28-year-old from the 110th Brigade of the Territorial Defense Forces. “The Russians have more equipment, more vehicles, more guns. They mow down everything that’s in front of them.”
He, too, declines to provide his last name. He has two young children, but his family has luckily managed to make it to Germany, not far from Bayreuth. The Russian army, he says, is forcing its way further into the Donbas with increasing levels of violence. “Village for village. If we managed to push them back, they wait for a bit and then they come back. Like a waltz.” The day before, he says, they were facing four Russian armored personnel carriers and a T-64 battle tank. “We didn’t have any vehicles of our own.”
Still, he was able to equip himself with a helmet. He says it saved his life, blocking a piece of shrapnel. He says they were fired on unceasingly for about 15 minutes before they could escape.
In the neighboring bed is Anton, a 38-year-old carpenter. He pulls up his right pantleg, displaying two reddish scars below the knee. “That was a month ago,” he says. “It went right through.” Together with Misha, he was able to survive the Russian barrage from the day before, with the doctors removing a piece of shrapnel from his hip. He says he had been allotted a 30-day rest period from frontline service following the last injury. “But I was back after just a week.”
Anton and Misha are typical of the men now defending eastern Ukraine. An engineer and a carpenter, two of tens of thousands of volunteers and soldiers fighting in the Donbas. Misha talks about what their comrades from a drone unit have seen. “In the villages that the Russians have conquered, they pull residents out of their homes and shoot them. Just like in Bucha.” The front, says Anton, isn’t very far away from Zaporizhzhia, and his wife and two sons live here. “Who should stop these people if not us?”
Misha sits up in his bed, lays his right hand with his wedding ring on the blanket and says what so many people at the front, in the villages and in the clinics have said over and over again: He and the other soldiers need more help, from Germany as well. Not at some point in the future. But immediately.