Where the Shelling Never Stops - Near the 'Zero Line' in Ukraine - Rolling Stone
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Where the Shelling Never Stops: Near the ‘Zero Line’ With Ukrainian Soldiers Trying to Maintain in Donbas

Inside life in a bunker with Ukrainian Ph.D. students-turned-fighters as they attempt to hold on against overwhelming firepower and devastating Russian bombardment

Where the Shelling Never Stops: Near the ‘Zero Line' With Ukrainian Soldiers Trying to Maintain in DonbasWhere the Shelling Never Stops: Near the ‘Zero Line' With Ukrainian Soldiers Trying to Maintain in Donbas

Before the war, Oksen was a teacher of gifted students.

Danny Gold

“It’s been like a million times,” says Oksana as loud booms echo outside the ad hoc shelter we’re in. “I’m bored of the shelling.” At this second line position in Ukraine’s Donbas region just south of the Russian occupied city of Izyum, the artillery fire is nothing if not consistent. Upon our arrival, the whistling and subsequent explosions make it clear that it’s also decently close to where we’ll be spending the night in an abandoned farmhouse-turned-Ukrainian military bunker.

“It’s the first city that’s after the zero line, it’s constantly being shelled,” she adds. For many soldiers, this is supposed to be an area of respite, home for a short 3-day rest away from the intensity of the zero line, what they call the front. For the 26-year-old Oksana, it’s been nearly two months of non-stop barrages as her and her fellow soldiers attempt to hold back a better armed and increasingly successful Russian assault in Ukraine’s southeast. President Zelensky has admitted to Ukrainian forces taking massive casualties, with upwards of 100 soldiers killed a day and 500 injured, as Russia makes incremental gains. As debate rages in Western halls of power about supplying Ukrainians with more weapons, it’s left to Oksana and the others stationed here to hold the line.

It has now been over 110 days of war since Russia’s full scale invasion has started, and despite Ukraine’s success in pushing Russia back from cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv, war is settling into the east for a very bloody and protracted battle. It’s turned into what Ukrainian soldiers describe as a ‘war of vehicles’’ of dueling artillery and planes and drones, a 21st century war of attrition, which finds the Ukrainians heavily outgunned and outnumbered. Towns and villages ping-pong back and forth between Russian and Ukrainian control every other day, but Russian forces are also successfully clawing away territory as they try cut off sections of Ukrainian soldiers from reinforcements. The question now is, which force can outlast the other, both in terms of manpower and equipment?

The initial Russian strategy plan saw a massive attack spread out across nearly the entirety of Ukraine, stretching out supply lines and spreading their forces thin, a strategic blunder that led to massive retreats and pullbacks. Now, as the Russian military has regrouped in the Donbas, the tactics have changed. Gone are the rapid, lengthy advancements. Instead, they are making use of their advantage in heavy weaponry, both with artillery and the skies, heavily bombarding cities and towns before slowly moving forward.

We meet Oksana and the other soldiers in the small town of Cherkas’ke, south of Izyum, which Russians forces have held since early April. It’s mostly emptied out, like many towns and villages in the region, and the only signs of life are civilian cars filled with soldiers passing through. Oksana is accompanied by her husband, Stanislav, who fights alongside her, and two other soldiers in pickup trucks who will be driving us to the position. When another reporter asks Oksana if she goes to the frontline with her husband, she laughs and replies, “He goes to the frontline with me.”

One of the men introduces himself as Ricochet. He’s wiry and intense, with an Ethan Hawke goatee. He fought near the airport in Donetsk in 2015, one of the fiercest battles in the war before the invasion of February 24th, and also in street battles in Kyiv that first week when the Russians sent in teams to overthrow the government. He is the most experienced man in the Unit, and he looks it.

Oksen has a PhD in philosophy and is a mid-range sniper.

The other introduces himself as Oksen. He’s a bit older and resembles a men’s health cover model with a perfectly sculpted beard. He’s a marksman, a mid-range sniper. Despite that, he’s more keen to talk about his travels in the US (he really loves Milwaukee), or his painting hobby and marathon running. “I don’t want to talk about guns, I want to talk about mountain bikes!” he tells a colleague asking about his rifle.

Oksen is the first of four soldiers I’ll meet in this unit of two dozen or so that holds or is in the process of getting a PHD, his in philosophy. Asked by a French reporter if the philosophy education helps at all during the war, he answers concisely: No. During peacetime, he runs science programs for gifted children and once received an award from the Ministry of Education and Science in Ukraine as an “Excellent Worker of Education.”

The men drive us north along a dirt road to an abandoned farmhouse, next to a small outcropping of trees and a few farmstead buildings. There’s a separate crew of soldiers nearby looking for what they call a Russian parachute drone that was overheard earlier, and when we arrive, there’s volleys of incoming and outgoing shells, so close you can hear the whistle. Plumes of smoke rise from the fields nearby. By now, they are pockmarked with craters and the grass is scorched in circular patterns all over. The shelling here is constant. While the focus is on the back and forth in the city of Severodonetsk, 70 miles or so east, if the Russians can manage to push south from Izyum, just north of here, and through this area, they can cut off the main cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk and encircle Ukrainian forces in the Donbas.

In preparation for the potential push, the soldiers here have dug a long network of deep trenches throughout the fields, in case they need to fall back to a defensive position. It’s one of the key daily tasks here, but for the most part, the days are uneventful. Soldiers are supposed to rotate in and out every 3 days, getting a break from the full on assaults. Here they get rest and cooked food, dig trenches, clean and fix their weapons. Occasionally some do nighttime reconnaissance missions. There’s also 24/7 guard duty, and they have had situations where small bands of Russian soldiers have made incursions.

Mostly though, it’s shelling. It’s actually possible to see the impact of the explosives in the fields in front of us as they land, the smoke plumes forming right after. Soon the farmland in front of the bunkhouse we’re staying in is enveloped in smoke so spread out it looks like fog. Most of the time, the soldiers carry on like normal, pretty much ignoring the constant thundering, except to poke fun at concerned reporters or respond to the occasional ‘incoming or outgoing’ question with a shrug of their shoulders and a laugh. During one of the more prolonged savlos that actually caused some of the soldiers to rush inside the bunker-like structure we’re staying in, I meet a commander called Kandalaksha. Surprisingly, he’s Russian, and even has a Russian passport. Asked what he’s doing here in Ukraine, a soldier calls out, “He came for a woman, what else,” and everyone laughs. In reality, he was an anti-Putin activist, and came to Ukraine to support the Maidan Revolution. He ended up staying and joining the fight in the east in 2015.

 

Oksana is a lawyer who specializes in human rights.

He’s not alone in having Maidan and the revolution as a galvanizing force that led to him taking up arms against the Russian military. Maidan proved a beacon, a guiding path of sorts, for many here, who were motivated originally to take the streets before they took to the trenches because they wanted a better future for Ukraine. They saw ousting the Russian-backed President Victor Yanukovych as the only way to accomplish that, much as they now see ousting the Russian military.

Maidan is also where Oksana and her husband Stanislav grew close, especially after both were injured by police. They had met previously in 2013 at a book reading. Stansilav was a former police officer in Crimea, but after exposing a sex trafficking ring connected to Russian politicians, he fled under threat of imprisonment from the Russian aligned political and law enforcement structure there. He ended up in Kyiv, where he found hope for his county in Maidan, and Oksana.

They both see this fight as a continuation of the initial protests.  “I didn’t think about leaving [when the war started] because before the war began we agreed to join the army together,” Oksana says. “It was something obvious to me, that there would be a war, all the time I thought I was going to fight.”

The two were married in 2016. Both are now lawyers, or were lawyers, before they joined the military. Oksana had focused on human rights. They’re currently working on their PHDs in criminology, with her dissertation focusing on detention methods and his on polygraph tests, and hope to tackle anti-corruption issues when the war with Russia is over. “Corruption is the second biggest enemy in Ukraine after the Russians,” says Stanislav.

Stanislav had also fought during the outbreak of war in the east in 2014, where he once spent 3 months on the front line with no break. “You get used to everything around you, even being at the zero line,” he says. The poorly equipped, poorly organized Ukrainian military was a different force then. He hopes the last 8 years of improvements will be enough to help them now hold the line.

Stanislav and his wife Oksana, are both working on their PHDs in criminology.

As nighttime falls, there’s a respite in the shelling. A blackout curtain is placed just in front of the door so that no light can be seen by an enemy drone as men venture in and out to use the bathroom or go on guard duty. Some soldiers spend most of the night on their phones, lying on the mats placed over wooden slats that serve as makeshift beds. Others drink tea or cook communal meals of canned meat and buckwheat while discussing the finer points of their training. There’s a tediousness to it all, especially when there’s no telling whether or not the men will still be cycling in and out of here for months or even years to come.

At one point, Oksana calls us outside. There are a number of small fires in the field, burning bright. She tells us its white phosphorus, but it’s likely thermite rounds. Later that night, an older man comes in and introduces himself as Akademik, a call sign he picked up because he’s a university lecturer in economics. He tells us to take his picture at one point, and I wonder if it’s a problem for his job, or if he fears potential consequences from Russians. Later, though, he tells us his wife thinks he’s only a volunteer delivering supplies, not a soldier who is on the fronts.

If Ukraine is to hold the line, they’ll need men like Akademik to keep signing up. He joined on February 28th, after taking his child and parents to safety in the west of the country. He was in Kyiv for a while, but now that it’s safe, felt like a fool for walking around in camouflage fatigues “like a tough guy.” So he chose to come here. Kyiv didn’t sit well with him. “It’s not so good, because people are out in the streets, laughing and drinking,” he says.

Akademik touches on another potential fault line for the war as it drags on. In Kyiv, things have normalized. The cafes and bars are open, and packed. Young people hang in parks drinking beers or sit at outdoor cafes with cappuccinos. Will there still be an appetite for continuing to fight a grinding war with dozens of deaths every day in the west as 3 months turn into 6 and then 9? Will those in the east sacrificing their lives grow resentful of those who continue their lives as normally as possible?

Life inside the bunker: “You get used to everything around you, even being at the zero line,” one fighter says.

All important questions for the future, but for Akademic, his concern is whether or not he and his unit can continue to hold out against the Russian bombardments in the immediate future. “These two weeks will be difficult, but after that I hope it will be better,” he says. “We still don’t have every weapon that we need. Russians understand that and they will try to take as much as possible.“

He, like others, notes the new tactic of slow advances preceded by massive volleys of artillery and missiles. “They’re very careful now. They’re trying to make dead territory before they come,” he says.

That morning, we wake up to a salvo of loud artillery that, thankfully, is mostly outgoing. The bunker/farmhouse empties out except for a few late sleepers who had the midnight shift on the night’s watch. The men clean the bunker, their weapons, themselves, and go about their daily routines, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, anything, really that can help them stay sane before heading back to the front.

The question on everyone’s mind here, and in Kyiv and even in Washington, DC, is how much longer they can hold out under such relentless assault. Before I leave, Akademic comes by with what he says is good news. Tomorrow they expect to have 8 new volunteers coming by to sign a contract with the military; much needed reinforcements, however small they may be.

Despite the neverending barrage they’re facing, Oksana is still confident. “If you read the news you think everything is occupied here, today or tomorrow the Russians are coming,” she says, with a laugh. Still, she doesn’t see a quick end. “I think it will last for years, maybe this active phase will end in a few months but the war will go on, because I don’t think Russians will leave us in peace.”

Adds Stanislav, “They can’t [afford to] lose. And they can’t win.”

In This Article: Ukraine

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