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Lessons from the Front

Lessons from the Front

An unvarnished look at life along the frontline with Ukraine’s Tenth Separate Mountain Assault Brigade.

Askold Krushelnycky

Ukraine’s Tenth Separate Mountain Assault Brigade was deployed to the northwest of Kyiv when I first met them in April of last year. Their mission, in the first weeks of the invasion, was to block Russian troops then pouring in from across the Belarusian border. Known to be one of Ukraine’s best fighting units, the brigade performed formidably in the fierce battles that were instrumental in forcing a Russian retreat from many parts of Ukraine.

The Tenth Brigade then moved to the eastern steppe lands around Bakhmut in May of last year—the site of the longest and bloodiest battle in Europe since World War II. I stayed with some of these troops recently: for weeks now, many of the brigade’s thousands have been spread along a twenty-mile front.

My friends were staying at a house whose owners had fled the fighting, but who had wanted the Ukrainian Army to move in. They knew, that way, it wouldn’t be looted.

The single-story house had no bathroom or toilet. There was a well for drawing water, a hole in the ground in a shed for a toilet, and a 150-liter plastic tank filled with water atop another rickety structure serving as a shower. It’s surprisingly pleasant—the chill well water warmed by intense summer temperatures scorching the mostly unshaded steppes.

Sounds of explosions and machine-gun fire provided a constant backdrop, even though we were some distance from the frontlines. The explosions seemed mostly safely distant. But sometimes, the Russians get information from remaining sympathizers among the population. And then, they try to target specific places such as Ukrainian military bases; a pizza restaurant; or indeed, that place where I was staying with a number of Tenth Brigade officers.

My friends didn’t try to conceal that both their brigade and other Ukrainian forces were taking many casualties, or that their advance was slow. But they said they’d always known that it was never going to be a rapid roll through Russian-held territory. They were not going to risk their men’s lives to satisfy the expectations of media pundits and armchair Napoleons, impatiently waiting for Ukraine’s “big push.” It’s some of these pundits who warn that if Ukraine does not make huge gains using Western-supplied modern tanks, armored personnel vehicles, precision missiles, and other cutting-edge weapons, then Western allies may pull back their support.

Perhaps in this regard Ukraine is a victim of its military’s spectacular successes last fall, when it regained huge swathes of Russian-occupied territory following a surprise offensive in the Kharkiv region. Last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had to caution that the fighting was not like a Hollywood movie script; that it would rather evolve in a way to spare Ukrainian lives—unlike the suicidal Russian human wave attacks that cost (by Western estimates) tens of thousands of lives, and only for Moscow to claim a distinctly pyrrhic victory, as they did in Bakhmut earlier this year.

The Russians were throwing everything they had into the defense of Bakhmut’s ruins, my Ukrainian military friends explained, because it’s their only “victory.”

They further said that the Russians had had plenty of time to construct three formidable lines of defense. The first line includes the terrain over which the Ukrainians have to advance. It’s densely sown with anti-personnel and anti-armor landmines. These exact a hefty toll; they can only be cleared slowly. On this no-man’s land the Russians have also zeroed in huge arrays of their artillery. They regularly saturate it with massive barrages.

My friends are confident that they will eventually break through this first line of defense. The second and third lines will of course be daunting, they admit, but there they’ll likely face less experienced and ill-trained conscripts. The Ukrainian officers pointed out that the Ukrainian forces had not yet employed most of its newly-supplied weapons, and that thousands of Ukrainian troops are still being trained abroad by NATO allies. Ukraine, in other words, was wisely still probing for Russia’s weak points. The full offensive would thus only begin when the Ukrainians decided it was to begin.

Nonetheless, the battles near Bakhmut and elsewhere are taking many lives.

I recently met up with a friend, Yaroslav, a lieutenant from a unit only formed in April. At the start of June, his unit was deployed northeast of Bakhmut, in the areas of Lyman and Siversk. He said that at some points, his battalion was only 150 meters from the Russian lines, and yet that they did not have anywhere near their full complement of weapons. And meanwhile, the anti-tank and personnel mines that the Russians had densely sown the terrain with were devastating Ukrainian lives and armoured vehicles.

Lt. Yaroslav said that his battalion, along with other Ukrainian units, possesses some modern Western-supplied artillery and missile systems, including American HIMARS-type equipment, which strike with pinpoint accuracy. These weapons were far superior to the outdated, Soviet-era artillery the Russians mostly used, he said. And yet his unit was often desperately short of ammunition for their cutting-edge weapons. As he put it,

Whereas we have to be very sparing with our ammunition, the Russians seem to have plenty of artillery and an endless supply of ammunition, and shell us without pause. And although their equipment is inferior it still kills many of our people. Every meter of land we take is drenched in blood, and means death and maiming.

During my sojourn, I drove toward Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, the two cities closest to the Bakhmut front. The drive took me through Izyum, a city that had been occupied by the Russians. I’d gone there last fall a few days after it was liberated. There were hundreds of dead bodies, overwhelmingly civilians. Some of the dead had been executed at close range, their hands bound behind their backs. Much of the city was levelled when the Russians took it and then again when they fled. Then, they’d destroyed large, important bridges across the Siversky Donets River on a main highway south.

On the way to Slovyansk, I saw the vapor trail of a Ukrainian missile streaking across the sky to intercept something launched by the Russians. I couldn’t see if that one found its target. But in Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, air-raid sirens sound many times daily, while booms register the frequent incoming Russian missiles.

Most people seemed to ignore the air raid warnings. They told me that they refuse to spend a large proportion of each of their days cowering from Russian threats. We know that human beings can get used to all sorts of dreadful, even nightmarish, conditions. I witnessed it: As the sirens sounded I saw young and old couples holding hands, strolling through parks; some with children in tow; some pushing prams with babies.

It’s not complacency. It’s defiance and an eloquent, brave riposte to Putin and his fellow psychopaths.

Sometimes that comes at a cost. I saw that, too. Whilst I was in Slovyansk, Russian missiles targeted a crowded, popular pizza restaurant in nearby Kramatorsk. Thirteen people were killed, including foreign journalists and Ukrainian novelist and poet Victoria Amelina.

I spent a day at the camouflaged base of the Tenth Brigade’s air defense units. We were some way back from the front line, but the backdrop of explosions and machine gun fire was constant. The unit’s commander, a captain whose war name is “Kamin”—“Rock”—told me that they were holding their own as the Russians committed increasing numbers of airplanes, helicopters, and drones to the Bakhmut front.

I asked what he wanted journalists to tell the world about the Ukrainian offensive. He answered:

Unlike the Russians, we value the lives of our fighters and we are not going to risk them recklessly just to satisfy a battle timetable imagined by someone who might not even [ever have] been close to a real conflict or seen what the terrible human cost of war is.

We will win this war because we have no alternative. The world has seen the barbarity—murder, rape, torture—the Russians inflicted in the areas they captured. But our military needs more weapons of every sort.

The most admired person in Kamin’s unit is a sergeant nicknamed “Boroda”—“Beard”—who has four confirmed “kills”: downing two Russian fighters and two helicopters, including a K-52 “Alligator,” which the Russians had boasted was virtually indestructible.

Boroda’s response was that “everyone knows we have never asked anyone to fight for us but we need more weapons of every type and much more ammunition for them. At the moment, because we have a limited number of weapons, we have to calculate very carefully whether to fire them or not.”

And, Boroda added, while units like his can keep Russian airpower at bay, they would be able to take back territory more quickly and with less casualties if their Western allies gave Ukraine key fighter planes, chiefly F-16s. He said that Ukrainians had shown that they could swiftly master new, sophisticated weapons supplied by the West. “Give us F-16s and our people will be able to advance and we’ll finish this war.”

Ukraine getting F-16s will certainly increase her ability to drive Russian forces from her territory.

However, more than any cutting-edge weapon, the most important thing Ukraine's allies can do is ensure no fissures develop in their support for Ukraine. Putin's only hope for survival is if Western support wanes and cracks emerge in the NATO alliance. Anything he can sell to his benighted people as a sign that may be happening will prolong the slaughter.  Support for Ukraine must remain united, vigorous and loud.

Askold Krushelnycky was born in London to Ukrainian WWII refugees. He has worked most of his professional life as a staff foreign correspondent for British newspapers and lives in Washington, D.C.

Image: 10th Brigade soldiers preparing to fire a "Grad" multiple missile launcher. (Askold Krushelnycky)

Eastern EuropeEuropeRussiaUkraineU.S. Foreign Policy