NOVOMYKHAILIVKA, Ukraine—In the woods outside this front-line town in eastern Ukraine, a battle-worn unit of Ukrainian soldiers have hunkered down for the winter.
The troops live and fight sometimes only a few hundred yards across no man’s land from their enemies, a combined force of pro-Russian separatists and Russian regulars.
Some of the Ukrainian soldiers here have been fighting since March 2014. They belong to the Aidar Battalion, a former paramilitary unit now incorporated into Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense as a volunteer combat unit.
After nearly three years of constant combat, the war has become more than a fight against the enemy. It’s a daily battle against the deadly cold of eastern Ukraine’s continental winter, and a grinding fight to maintain morale as the troops are tested by a conflict with no end in sight, and which many feel has been forgotten by their own country, as well as by the rest of the world.
“I’m not fighting for the Ukrainian government,” Alex, a soldier in his mid-30s, says from his front-line redoubt in the woods outside Novomykhailivka. “I’m fighting for the people of Ukraine.”
Many Ukrainian soldiers have asked that their last names not be used due to security concerns for their families.
The white overcast sky seems to blend in with the open, snow-covered fields, which divide the Ukrainian troops from their enemies.
It is painfully cold. The continental winter is frigid, with temperatures well below freezing at night. And there is a steady, biting wind, which easily cuts through layers of warm clothing.
Uncovered fingers quickly go numb. Even under layers of fleece and down, this correspondent quickly begins to shiver.
Traveling throughout the ragtag Ukrainian positions scattered within the leafless woods, the word “Bastogne” comes to mind. One considers, with little imagination, the suffering that soldiers in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army must have endured fighting in this region, as well as the suffering of Nazi and Soviet troops who fought over this land in World War II.
This winter is the third in a row in which Ukrainian soldiers and their combined Russian-separatist foes are suffering the same brutal conditions that broke the most powerful armies in history.
The Ukrainian soldiers’ forest redoubts offer little respite from the cold.
A small plywood cabin marks the entrance to one such position in which a handful of troops are holed up.
Just to the left through the entrance is a small kitchen space. It’s open to elements and frigid inside.
Here, the soldiers make coffee in tin cups over a gas burner. Their breaths mist in the subzero air. Knees bob up and down—an instinctual tick to keep warm—as the soldiers sit and chat.
Food comes mostly from tin cans. But there are some vegetables and other basic foodstuff brought in by volunteers.
There is a bowl of cold mushrooms on which the soldiers munch, as well as a can of sweetened condensed milk, which is a favorite staple among Ukrainian troops. (For a high-calorie snack, some soldiers like to scoop gobs of sweetened condensed milk with slices of cured pork fat—a Ukrainian specialty called salo—like chips and salsa.)
Underground, where the soldiers sleep, the earth provides some insulation, but it’s still bitter cold.
A stairway descends from the entrance into an underground chamber. Wooden bunks line the bare earth walls; roots protrude out of the black earth. Flashlights are the sole means of illumination.
The soldiers’ existence is objectively miserable. Yet, they see little alternative.
“You protect your homeland,” an Aidar soldier who goes by the nom de guerre “Moscow” says. “That’s it. You have only one motherland.”
Beaming with a wide smile, Moscow shows off his Soviet passport. It has a picture of him as a 14-year-old. On the document, his nationality is listed as Russian.
The 41-year-old was born a Russian, but spent most of his childhood in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. He was conscripted into the Ukrainian army in 1993 while living in Crimea.
“I went to the army as a conscripted soldier in 1993,” Moscow says. “And when I went to the army, it was already an independent Ukraine. And I pledged to the people of Ukraine.”
“I was born in this country,” Moscow continues. “I grew up in this country, even when it was the Soviet Union.”
Moscow’s personal circumstances, while complicated, are not exceptional.
Within the Aidar Battalion there are volunteer soldiers from many countries, including Israel, Tajikistan, Belarus, Georgia, and Russia.
“I don’t understand when people say that Russians are bad and Ukrainians are good,” Moscow says. “I’m Russian, and I understand that it’s not about nationality. It’s about people.”
The Tides of War
After almost three years of war, Ukrainian soldiers like Moscow and Alex are battle-hardened and habituated to war as a way of life.
“I get more nervous when it’s quiet,” Moscow says. “I prefer when it’s shooting. When the shooting stops, that’s when things get scary for me.”
Both Moscow and Alex fought at the second battle for the Donetsk airport in the winter of 2014-2015.
The battle for the airport that winter was one of the worst of the war, pitting opposing soldiers in close-quarters battle—sometimes even sleeping on different floors of the same building.
Now, nearly two years after the February 2015 cease-fire went into effect, the war has become a static battle fought from trenches and fortified positions.
The rules of the cease-fire are a moderating factor, which keeps the war limited most of the time to long distance artillery and sniper fire pot shots.
On this day, Dec. 19, it is relatively calm on the front lines outside Novomykhailivka. The distant rattle of machine gun fire occasionally drifts in through the woods. The staccato, metallic notes softened by the layer of snow on the ground and the snowflakes lightly falling through the air.
Similar to other places along the front lines in the Donbas—Ukraine’s embattled southeastern territory on the border with Russia—fighting here is sporadic, and almost nonexistent during the day.
Yet, the war is not over. It is only reduced in intensity by the cease-fire. The fighting picks up each night after international cease-fire monitors have taken shelter.
A small village just behind the contact line is reduced to charred and gutted ruins from years of artillery fire. The wasted structures underscore the intensity of the fighting, which has ebbed and flowed over this land for almost three years like an unending tide of war.
Cease-fire monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, don’t travel in the war zone at night, which is when the brunt of the fighting takes place along the length of the front lines.
The Aidar Battalion troops outside Novomykhailivka claim they’ve never seen the cease-fire monitors during the day, either.
“There’s no warm beds or restaurants here, so why would they bother with this place?” Alex says.
The Contact Line
To get to the Ukrainian positions outside Novomykhailivka, you travel along a dirt road (barely identifiable under the snow), which precariously weaves through minefields.
The soldiers in the vehicle point out a location where two of their comrades died due to a landmine.
At the side of the road at the edge of a clearing, four lonely crosses offer quiet testimony to the war’s toll.
At regular intervals, you pass small groups of soldiers hunkered down in the woods. And every so often, you pass an armored fighting vehicle hidden under concealment.
At one bend in the road, Moscow, who is driving, presses the gas to accelerate. The ride becomes jarring as the 4×4 cuts over the terrain like a speedboat over choppy whitecaps.
Moscow apologizes for the acceleration, but explains that a sniper was active on this section of the lines the day prior, and it’s safer to drive through this stretch as fast as possible.
The Ukrainian positions are scattered and concealed within a tree line on the edge of a vast clearing. The opposite side is territory controlled by the Donetsk People’s Republic, one of two self-proclaimed, Russian-backed breakaway territories in eastern Ukraine.
The Aidar Battalion troops had previously holed up in positions inside of villages and towns along the contact line in this area. But their presence drew artillery fire on areas where Ukrainian civilians were still living.
The Ukrainian troops say they shifted their positions into the woods to spare civilian casualties.
The soldiers spend about a week on the front lines before rotating out to positions a few miles to the rear where they can take warm showers, eat hot food, and leave the direct line of fire. Although artillery and rocket attacks can still easily reach the rear positions.
While on the front lines, the troops typically spend about two hours at a time in the trenches and weapons emplacements before they swap out to warm up in their underground shelters. It’s simply too cold to stay outside much longer than that.
Reasons to Fight
The Aidar Battalion was one of the Ukrainian volunteer paramilitary units that were key in the early days of the conflict, when Ukraine’s regular army was caught on its heels by the combined Russian-separatist forces’ rapid advance.
The unit was formally incorporated into the Ukrainian military in March 2015, and it was renamed the 24th Separate Assault Battalion. The troops, however, still refer to themselves as the Aidar Battalion.
On the front lines, many of the Aidar Battalion soldiers claim that, after almost three years of war, they are still almost entirely dependent on civilian volunteers for everything from water to food, socks, and underwear.
On this day, a civilian volunteer named Edward Kulinich has brought some gifts and supplies, which go great lengths to bolster the soldiers’ well-worn spirits.
In an improvised ceremony, Kulinich presents Moscow and Alex with awards for bravery.
Both soldiers are visibly affected by the moment. They look down and grow quiet after receiving the medals, trying to compose themselves. Years of struggle collectively commemorated by this simple award from a Ukrainian civilian volunteer, witnessed only by a foreign journalist, in the snowy woods at the edge of no man’s land.
“I didn’t really know what to say in such a moment,” Kulinich later remarked. “But those guys are the real heroes. Hopefully they feel like they’re not forgotten.”
Kulinich also brings a box of letters from elementary school students, and a laminated, illustrated copy of a poem the students wrote for the soldiers.
In the ramshackle kitchen area of the front-line redoubt, Alex reads the poem aloud, his breath frosting in the frigid air as he speaks. He reads in stops and starts, composing himself between the lines.
“After so much war, it’s easy to get tired, to feel like you’re losing your spirit, or forgetting who you used to be before the war,” Moscow says. “But these things,” he says, gesturing toward the gifts from the students, “these remind us what we’re fighting for.”
He pauses, and then adds: “Sometimes children understand war better than adults.”
At a coffee shop back in Novomykhailivka, two middle-aged women work behind the counter. They serve coffee, as well as groceries such as cookies, sausages, and over-ripe bananas.
The ceiling is gouged from shrapnel. An artillery-blasted window is sealed with plastic and duct tape.
The door swings open. Soldiers enter. They stomp their combat boots free of snow on the doormat. They remove their gloves and blow warm breath into their fingers. Next, they take off their beanies and run their thawing hands through matted hair to loosen it up.
Then, to the coffee. On a day as cold as this, a warm cup of coffee is an essential shot of life.
There are several tables inside. At one table are a few younger soldiers. At another, opposite this correspondent, is 54-year-old Red Army veteran Olexandr Derevyanko.
“In Afghanistan, I learned that it’s easy to start a war, but hard to finish one,” Derevyanko says, speaking about his combat tour in Afghanistan as a Soviet soldier in the 1980s.
Today, Derevyanko is a soldier in the Aidar Battalion. He has been serving in combat since the summer of 2014, and he has two sons in the Ukrainian army.
“I’m fighting for my family,” Derevyanko says.
Derevyanko has a gray handlebar moustache. He is solidly built and speaks energetically.
At one point, he briefly excuses himself to answer a cellphone call from his 80-year-old mother. She calls frequently to make sure he’s safe, he explains, smiling.
Derevyanko’s upbeat demeanor speaks little to what he has endured as a soldier in this war.
A native of the eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk, which was briefly under separatist control in 2014, he has fought in some of the deadliest battles of the war in Ukraine, including the ones at Illovaysk, Debaltseve, and Shyrokyne.
“How could I sit here and do nothing when there is a war?” he says. “I saw Russian people that weren’t our citizens in our town. They pretended to be from Slavyansk, but they were from Russia. Maybe if we Ukrainians were allowed to have guns we could have stopped them earlier. But we didn’t, and now we have a war.”
Derevyanko’s attitude toward the United States reflects a reversal of allegiances held by many Ukrainian veterans of the Soviet military.
In Afghanistan, Derevyanko fought alongside Russian troops against an enemy that was armed by the U.S.
Today, Derevyanko considers Russia to be the enemy and the U.S. to be “Ukraine’s only true friend in the world.”
“This is a war against Russia,” Derevyanko says. “Russia started the war, so I came to the war. I wanted to fight.”
The Soviet military veteran framed the conflict in Ukraine as a Russian invasion. And he said there was more at stake than just Ukrainian independence.
“Europe doesn’t understand that if we don’t stop [Russian President Vladimir] Putin here, he could invade deeper into Europe,” Derevyanko says.
Derevyanko’s family ties to Russia and Soviet military background highlight the often complicated personal ties between Ukrainian soldiers and the enemy they face.
Derevyanko’s wife is Russian. Yet, “she’s more Ukrainian than most Ukrainians,” he boasts.
And, unlike in Afghanistan, the enemy’s humanity in this war is not dimmed by differences in culture, language, and religion.
“It’s difficult to make war when the enemy speaks the same language, and they have the same religion,” Derevyanko says. “But we have to fight this war, we have no choice. Russia attacked us, and we have to defend our motherland.”
In this conflict, as in others throughout history, acceptance of the enemy’s humanity has been eroded by the grind of years of combat and the stratified layers of hate that accumulate among soldiers as the list of friends killed or maimed grows.
During the first New Year’s Eve of the war in Ukraine, in 2014, the opposing sides fired their weapons into the air. They weren’t aiming at their enemies, but filling the night sky with explosions to celebrate the holiday.
This winter, that fleeting concession of the enemy’s shared humanity is a distant memory.
On Dec. 18, while this correspondent was on the front lines, combined Russian-separatist forces launched their biggest offensive in months near the town of Svitlodarsk. In the greatest single-day loss of life in five months, five Ukrainian soldiers died and 16 were wounded in the battle.
The attack came the night before St. Nicholas Day, a religious holiday in Ukraine and Russia, which are both predominantly Eastern Orthodox countries.
“If someone shoots at me, I shoot back,” Moscow says. “You see, the enemy is not totally Russian. The enemy is the one who approaches you with a weapon in his hands. You see? This is the enemy.”