“The Russians are just over there.”
The Ukrainian marine driving the truck peers intently into the swirling snow, pointing to the line of trees about a half-mile ahead of us. The Russians, he tells me, “they leave their bodies where they fall,” and shakes his head.
His name is Oleksiy, and he has been full of bonhomie, quips, and curiosity — until we get close enough to the front lines that a forward observer could decide to direct an artillery round at our unarmored pickup. “Listen, if something happens, if something bad happens …” he says, and turns to look me in the eye. “You do whatever you need to do to get out of here.”
The dirt road runs between two wheat fields that are barren and unplowed. No one will plant crops here this year.
We are in Donetsk, where Ukraine has been fighting Russia for eight years in brutal trench warfare. The battle lines were static for most of that time. Now they are not. Russian soldiers have grabbed a chunk of Ukraine’s southeast, and are gaining ground. The marines are here to take it back.
Oleksiy begins driving forward again. The line of trees hiding units of Russia’s 163rd Tank and 11th Motorized Rifle regiments creeps closer.
More than a month into Russia’s invasion and the Ukrainian armed forces stand defiant against one of the world’s largest militaries. Here in Donetsk, members of an elite unit give a rare glimpse into how they continue cobbling together their country’s defense out of ad hoc supplies, mismatched weaponry, improvised tactics, and unlikely volunteers.
While the entire population has been mobilized for war, it is the Ukrainian military that has been fighting to the death in city streets, villages, and in the countryside. Against all expectations, they have routed mighty enemy formations, but the war is far from over. Russia is willing to endure the loss of thousands of its soldiers. For their part, the Ukrainians are united by shared national sacrifice. The last time there was an announcement of casualty figures by the government, more than 1,300 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed. That was two weeks into the war. About a month later, there is no updated tally: A presidential adviser has described military losses as “considerable,” saying the government won’t release figures until after the war. The Ukrainians grudgingly trade land for blood. Yet the price they are paying to save their country may be unbearable.
To get a clearer picture of the shape and course of the conflict, Rolling Stone traveled to multiple battlefronts, meeting with frontline soldiers, and observing conditions firsthand.
It takes days to reach the eastern front from western Ukraine. Lyubomyr Zaboronnyy, who runs part of an aid group called East and West United, lets me tag along on his volunteer supply convoy. He was a battlefield medic and has been bringing home the bodies of fallen soldiers since the war with Russia started in 2014. His group works with the Ukrainian diaspora across Europe and America to gather supplies and vehicles to bring to soldiers in the field.
Zaboronnyy is a large man with a crew cut and a boisterous, over-the-top physicality. He will shepherd a string of land cruisers, pickups, and vans filled to capacity with boxes of fruit, vegetables, baked goods, pickles, dumplings, pasta, electronics, clothing, camping gear, and medical supplies across Ukraine.
“It’s all crowd-funded,” Zaboronnyy says. “I was even sent money from Moscow today. I don’t know what to do with it. We need a ton of money. But I won’t use money from Russia.”
Soldiers on the front send his group requests, and they deliver anything they can get. He said the hardest things to acquire now are the most critical: ballistic vests and plates, helmets, long-distance radios, and trucks.
“If we put stuff into the normal supply chain, it just disappears into the void,” he says. “This way I can ensure people get what they need by placing it in their hands.”
It’s what logistics specialists call “last-mile delivery.” Zaboronnyy and his team are a nonprofit Amazon Prime for combat supplies.
“Putin can suck my cock.” The bear of a man delivering this exclamation in a theatrical baritone says he should be called “Martin.”
Martin drives around the city of Kryvyi Rih pointing out landmarks, including the closed factory, where in peacetime he worked in the industrial demolitions department.
As Martin drives, he makes pronouncements like the one about Putin. He’s not having a conversation. Everything about Martin projects “Don’t fuck with me” machismo. He’s an amateur heavyweight boxer, two yards tall and muscular. His grizzled gray beard is cropped close, and so is his hair. His deep voice booms, and he pounds the table with his fist when he speaks. He carries a Kalashnikov variant, an RPG-22 rocket launcher, an RPK light machine gun, a Makarov pistol in a chest holster, grenades, and a long knife engraved with the words “Our freedom — their blood” in Ukrainian.
Within minutes of meeting him, he is giving tips on avoiding snipers and showing off a video of a Russian prisoner being questioned. The Russian was stripped down to his boxers, and his face and neck were covered in blood from what appeared to be a broken nose. His hands were tied behind his back, but he seemed otherwise unharmed.
I ask what happened to the prisoner. Martin just shrugs and says nothing further about it.
The word is that Martin killed two Russians with his knife. It is rare in modern combat for anyone to get close enough to kill someone with a knife. And I think about the prisoner. I hope that isn’t what people mean when they say Martin killed two Russians with his knife. Later, I ask Martin to clarify about the knife. He understands the seriousness of the implications of what I’m asking. He tells me that indeed, he killed two Russians with the blade. But it was in close combat, he says: One was a sentry, and one was a commando. He hates the Russians for what they’ve done.
Kryvyi Rih is President Volodomyr Zelensky’s hometown. The Russians have advanced to within a dozen miles or so of the city, the farthest north they’ve gotten in their thrust out of Crimea. Martin is helping to organize the city’s defenses. He commands a large number of Territorial Defense Force volunteers, irregular soldiers responsible for their own equipment, and seemingly for their own command structure as well. He has to deliver one of his men to a rally point, where two units are in contact with the Russians, south of Kryvyi Rih.
We drop the volunteer off at the side of the road, where he takes cover in a copse of trees. I ask Martin what he can tell me about the Ukrainian forces, and what they are doing here.
He says no, he can’t tell me anything for security reasons. “It’s enough for you to know they are out there,” he says, gesturing at the landscape where his forces lie in wait for the Russian army.
The quiet morning is broken by the concussions of artillery, punctuated by the whoosh-whoosh-whooshing of Grad multiple-launch rocket systems, which can fire 40 10-foot-long rockets in seconds and can hit targets 25 miles away. The distinctive sound means the Grads are very close, but the fire is outgoing.
The Ukrainian army is counter-attacking the Russians near a hamlet called Vysokopillya. But it is slow going: Ukraine wins back a few square miles of land over a week of battle here. The fighting is village to village, and brutal. And it is just one small piece of Ukraine taken back from the enemy.
After four days on the road, the convoy arrives at a derelict schoolhouse in Donetsk just before dusk, a few miles from the front lines. From here, the Russians are both to the south and to the east.
The schoolhouse is being used by Ukrainian marines as a supply hub. It’s in the middle of a village that seems abandoned, but smoke wisps from a few chimneys, and an old man peeks out at passing vehicles from behind a fence. Many who have stayed behind here are just too old to contemplate becoming refugees. They’d rather die in their homes than take to the road to live among strangers.
The vehicles park, and two pirates step out of a van. They are both towering, lean, hard, and bearded. One carries a marksman’s rifle on his back, the other a camouflaged AK-74. They may look like pirates, but they are from the Ukrainian Naval Infantry Corps — they call themselves marines.
Bohdan Maslyak wears a forest-green bandanna over his head, a trim gray-and-blond beard framing his face. The other man has an earring and a forked beard, and wears a baseball cap with an American flag on the side.
Maslyak is a famous volunteer fighter in Ukraine. There are pictures of him in a recent photo essay called “What I Would Do If It Weren’t for the War.” But instead of a uniform, he’s wearing a chef’s jacket, and instead of a rifle, he’s holding a chef’s knife, cutting vegetables and smiling. The caption says if it weren’t for the war, he’d renovate a restaurant and travel the world.
Because of his age and his serious demeanor, I mistake him for the unit commander at first. Only later do I learn he is the lowest rank in the marines. You wouldn’t find a forty- or fiftysomething seaman in normal times. But it’s a war. Maslyak volunteered to join this elite unit. Who gives a fuck about rank, if it means a chance to go out and fight the people invading your homeland?
The marines take stock of the supplies that Zaboronnyy and his team brought, separating the urgently required items from those that can stay behind. Artillery rumbles a mile or so to the south. Maslyak’s radio crackles. A Russian attack is underway. The marines need to go. Now.
Zaboronnyy straps on his body armor and races off in his ambulance, following the piratical-looking marines.
As night descends, the artillery fire increases. The village is completely dark; there is not a light on for miles. In the distance there is the red glow of a spreading fire. It is far to the north, fanned by a biting wind that howls through the trees.
Inside the abandoned school, as the soldiers climb into sleeping bags, a young marine sits by the window in oblivion, watching a sitcom on his phone. A fierce spring storm arrives. The thunder of artillery and the wild wind blend together, echoing through the empty rooms. Soon, snores play a countermelody to the furious hum of the gale and the staccato rumbles of battle.
It’s snowing in the morning. Cold, wet, muddy, and miserable. Low-hanging clouds mean the Russians can’t use drones to spot Ukrainian movements or coordinate fire. An exquisite day for infantry.
Zaboronnyy arrives back at the schoolhouse with a strapping marine. He’s Oleksiy, and he’s here to figure out what to do with me.
“Do you want to see a Russian cruise missile that landed nearby?” he asks. “Let’s go.”
He hops into a used Nissan pickup newly delivered on a trailer by Zaboronnyy’s convoy, and we drive out to a field where there’s a crater filled with wreckage.
Before the war, Oleksiy was an IT specialist. His job was to troubleshoot network problems for foreign clients.
“Now, I’m still kind of a troubleshooter,” he deadpans.
He tells me that Russia is massing forces for an offensive, and the marines want long-range weapons that can destroy enemy armor in staging areas, before the Russians can start moving. When he finds out I had been in an anti-armor squad in the U.S. Marines, he asks if I have qualified on the Javelin anti-tank missile system.
“Can you teach me how to use it?” he asks. I laugh. Surely there are Ukrainians with more recent experience.
“I just really want to know how to use one. We need them.”
Haven’t the marines been able to use other anti-tank weapons effectively?
Yes, he says. But it’s not enough. They need to destroy Russian tanks before the tanks can get close. The factory that made Ukraine’s domestic anti-tank missiles is near Kyiv, he says. It’s no longer operating. Engaging armor with direct-fire or shorter-range missiles like the British-Swedish NLAW risks Ukrainian lives. The Russians massively outnumber them. They don’t have lives to spare.
“Well, shall we go to the front?” he asks. “Since you’re from Rolling Stone, you can meet some rock stars.”
It isn’t a metaphor. As soon as we arrive at a house serving as a combat outpost, I’m introduced to two rock stars, with the worn fatigues and informality of marines who’ve been in the field for too long.
Andrii Slieptsov and Oleg are musicians with a band called Haydamaky. They’re pretty well-established in Ukraine. I ask Oleg how he would describe their music.
“Well, the simplest way would be to call it authentic Cossack rock.”
Haydamaky is named after peasant insurgents who resisted foreign control by the Poles, the Russians, and the Roman Catholic Church — as well as the local nobility — in the 18th century. Slieptsov plays lead guitar, and Oleg prefers not to be specifically identified. But they’re also marine reservists. When the invasion started, they immediately sent their families to safety and joined their battalion in the field. They’ve been in intense combat for more than a month.
The marines invite me to their outpost on the condition that I not reveal specific operational details or their precise location. Some, like Maslyak, are comfortable sharing their full names and even their faces in photos. Most of the rest are not.
Their unit was involved in savage urban warfare before being redeployed to counter Russia’s renewed efforts in the east. Their losses have been grievous. They provide a specific number, and it is staggering. The marines are exhausted. There are indicators of traumatic stress, but morale remains high.
“We feel the whole country is behind us,” Oleg says. “We know what we are fighting for. This is the most important thing.”
At the outpost, the marines are using Starlink, the satellite internet service created by Elon Musk. Zaboronnyy had delivered the equipment to them, and they had it up and running in hours. When Musk announced he would provide Starlink free of charge to Ukraine, there were concerns the Russians could use it to locate Ukrainian positions. But Oleksiy says the military has dealt with that.
“Can you do us a favor?” Maslyak asks. “Can you tell Elon Musk ‘Thank you, from Ukraine’?”
“I had a video chat with my son today for the first time in a while,” Oleksiy says happily. Then a brief flash of emotion creases his face. “He told me to make sure I didn’t die. What am I supposed to say to that?”
While Oleg is helping me log on to Starlink, about a half-dozen other marines are sitting around smoking, drinking tea, napping, or cleaning rifles. They are snipers. Their job is to scout and hunt. But all of the training, skill, and courage in the world are not enough for a rifle to defeat a tank. So they have to be creative.
They work to lure the Russians into ambushes, targeting vehicle operators at key moments of vulnerability. Then the marines use heavy weapons to destroy or disable the tanks.
Shortly before I arrived at the outpost, a Russian tank group tried to force its way across a nearby river. The marines were waiting in ambush, and eviscerated the Russian unit, destroying or capturing more than half of the enemy vehicles. A marine captain showed me videos of Ukrainian tanks towing captured Russian BMPs from the battlefield, to be repaired and put back into service by the marines. Pirates, indeed.
“These fucking guys brought their dress uniforms in their armored vehicles,” the captain said, laughing incredulously as he showed me pictures. “They actually thought they were gonna get a parade.”
But the long odds are against the marines.
“If you are playing chess, it doesn’t matter if your opponent is an idiot when they have 200 more pawns than you do,” Oleksiy says.
Marine snipers are among the most elite personnel in the Ukrainian armed forces. They are under tremendous pressure, not just because of the enemy’s numbers, but because the war is being fought in their hometowns. Their families and friends are stuck in the middle of the fighting.
Olena is from Mariupol. She’s shy and diminutive, thirtysomething with a long black ponytail. She has a fearsome reputation as a sniper. Even as her unit was sacrificing lives to stop the tide of Russian armor pushing into Donetsk, her daughter was trying to flee Mariupol. Olena could do nothing to help her daughter. Her duty was with her unit.
The Marines are using inexpensive tablets with a secure tactical operating system put together in weeks by Ukrainian programmers. The goal is to give them greater battlefield awareness. But consumer tech has serious downsides. They have stopped using DJI-brand drones, because one day after they launched a sortie, the Russians hit the pilots’ position with eight 120mm mortar rounds just minutes after the drones took off: Their transmissions had been located.
They wear whatever uniform items or tactical clothing they can get their hands on, with most sporting a hodgepodge of different camouflage patterns. They use civilian 4x4s to get around, repainting them or weaving camouflage netting into roof racks.
“This Chevy Tahoe is great,” Oleksiy says, resting his hand on a pre-2007-model truck. “That V8 has saved our lives. Twice.”
The marines have a low opinion of their adversaries. Oleksiy tells me how a single sniper managed to force a column of nine Russian armored vehicles to retreat. It sounds apocryphal. But one of the snipers nods and says, “Yeah, that was me. They’re terrified of Ukrainians.”
They make me sit down and feed me cabbage blintzes and coffee. The marines show me a stew they are making, and feed me cake. Their dining table is covered in cans of Red Bull, packs of cigarettes, instant-coffee canisters, a packet of baby wipes, and a large jar of homemade pickles.
“This war isn’t really fought with rifles,” Oleksiy says. He says Ukraine needs Western military drones, fighter aircraft, and anti-air systems. He goes into great detail about the capabilities of an integrated air-defense network when used with a specific model of the American F-15 Eagle fighter jet. “Give us 10 of those and we can destroy the whole Russian air force.”
I ask what the marines think about foreign support for their country. Will NATO “close the skies” over Ukraine, they ask. Almost everyone in the country asks this question. I say I know as much as they do, that Western leaders are afraid a “no-fly zone” could lead to nuclear war. Oleg nods thoughtfully. Oleksiy sneers: “Well, we have already fought Russia for eight years without NATO, anyways.”
It’s getting late, and it’s time to leave. Not a good idea to be on the road in the dark, where the use of headlights will draw enemy fire. But the marines need to go to work. The sniper teams start gearing up. They will go hunting Russians in the twilight.
Bohdan, Oleksiy, and another marine take a moment to pose for pictures with a flag that has Ukraine’s new unofficial slogan on it: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.” This was the defiant transmission of a group of border guards on a small island in the Black Sea during the opening days of the invasion, when called upon by the Russian navy to surrender. The words now grace billboards, T-shirts, and posters the length of the country.
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Oleksiy grips my hand and shoulder, and says he wants to drink a beer with me someday. In peace, after Ukraine’s victory.
“We are tired,” Oleksiy says. Then he clarifies his statement. “We are very tired of killing Russians.”
For all the marines’ bravado and success against the Russians, the Ukrainian military is suffering terrible losses. With Russia’s initial assault against Kyiv a failure against intense opposition, the Kremlin is turning its attention back to the east. It intends to consolidate and expand the swath of Ukraine’s southeast that its soldiers grabbed in the opening days of the invasion — a slice of territory roughly the size of Switzerland.
Tens of thousands of occupiers with hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles, supported by artillery, long-range missiles, and air power, continue to ravage Ukrainian cities and villages, and brutalize their inhabitants.
Zaboronnyy’s convoy covers a lot of ground, across 12 out of Ukraine’s 24 provinces. In the towns and villages, in the cemeteries we drive by, every burial ground has fresh graves, often with a funeral in progress or with mourners lighting vigil candles that seem to hover and flicker, like fireflies in the deepening gloam, as we speed past.
Unlike their adversaries, Ukrainians make every effort to return fallen soldiers to their hometowns. In Kryvyi Rih, Martin took me to the burial site of his friend, who was killed by Russians in Donetsk. The big man lit a cigarette and left it, placing it gently on the grave and saying a prayer. There are a dozen fresh mounds nearby for soldiers killed since the invasion, covered in wreaths and portraits of the dead.
The gravediggers are using a backhoe to cut into the asphalt of the parking lot to make room for more. They want to keep all of the fallen soldiers together in one area, and there just isn’t enough space for the amount of death.
As the convoy rambles west, it has one last stop to make. At a morgue in Dnipro, it delivers boxes of body bags. In the parking lot, an orthodox priest chants a prayer song with three mourners. When the entrance of the morgue opens, I realize why the ceremony is taking place outside. There are dozens of dead inside, fresh bodies on gurneys right up to the entrance, their shrouded feet peeking out from inside the doorway.