'In this war, the ordinary infantryman is nothing': Ukrainian soldiers in Donbas feel abandoned and outgunned

·7 min read
Ukrainian servicemen ride on top of a military vehicle in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on May 29. Some soldiers fighting in the eastern region feel abandoned by the central government in Kyiv and ill equipped to fight off the Russians. (Carlos Barria/Reuters - image credit)
Ukrainian servicemen ride on top of a military vehicle in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on May 29. Some soldiers fighting in the eastern region feel abandoned by the central government in Kyiv and ill equipped to fight off the Russians. (Carlos Barria/Reuters - image credit)

Throughout more than three months of war, Ukrainian troops have largely held Russian forces at bay. With skilful tactics and grim determination, Ukrainian defenders have pushed Moscow's troops away from the capital, Kyiv, and forced them to abandon designs for capturing the entire country.

But in the country's east, where Russian forces are intensifying efforts on the embattled Donbas region, weeks of brutal combat have pushed the defenders to a breaking point.

Now, under ceaseless bombardment and after immense casualties, some Ukrainian troops say they are feeling abandoned by their leadership — left to die in hopeless conditions.

On a sunny day last week in Bakhmut, the Eastern Ukrainian city was preparing for a seemingly imminent siege. Buses streamed out of the city heading west, carrying loads of the most vulnerable: the elderly and mothers with children. Heavy military equipment passed them in the other direction, with a pair of BM-27 Uragan rocket launchers carrying deadly cargo toward the front lines with Russia.

Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images
Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

The region is no stranger to war. Ukrainian forces have been battling Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas since 2014, long before this most recent invasion.

At one of the city's few open businesses, a shawarma stand, a steady stream of exhausted soldiers and emergency workers returning from the front paused for a quick break, as artillery boomed in the near distance.

Alexey, a 28-year-old paramedic, had just returned from his latest journey. He and a colleague spent most of the day dashing to and from the town of Soledar, just north of Bakhmut, which is under direct Russian shelling.

"There were 23 shells that hit Soledar in the last day alone," recalled Alexey. "We were bringing a wounded civilian back — he didn't make it."

(As active-duty servicemen, none of the soldiers or emergency workers CBC spoke with were authorized to give their last names.)

Despite worsening conditions in the region, some people who had fled earlier in the fighting have since returned to the area, driven by simple economic necessity.

Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images
Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Alexey estimates that about 30 per cent of Bakhmut's pre-war population of about 75,000 remains, before mentioning a nine-storey building that was recently hit by a missile.

"At least 10 apartments are inhabited — the people came back and just patched up their flats as best they could," he said. "They're afraid, but they've got no money."

Despite the war around him, Alexey's spirits seem high enough. It's a different story for other soldiers and volunteers returning from the front.

Francisco Seco/The Associated Press
Francisco Seco/The Associated Press

'Closer and closer'

Two fighters — Nikita, 35, and his companion, Mikhail, 56, both members of a Ukrainian army unit stationed nearby — just returned from the front line east of Bakhmut, about five kilometres from the city.

"The front just comes closer and closer," said Nikita. "We keep getting pushed back, further and further."

Russia has advanced to Ukrainian cities of Rubizhne, Popasna

Nikita has been fighting in this region for more than a month now, pushing back against a Russian assault that broke through Ukrainian lines in mid-May and continues to close in on Bakhmut.

His colleague, Mikhail, had also fought in 2014, against the initial Russian invasion of Ukraine. This time, he says, is different.

"[In 2014], I could fight well enough with my rifle," said Mikhail. "Now, I can't. They hit us with planes, helicopters, mortars, tanks, GRADs [rocket artillery]."

"In this war, the ordinary infantryman is nothing," said Nikita. "Now it's all artillery and heavy weapons. The average soldier, he can't do anything."

"We are just cannon fodder," Mikhail interjects.

Bernat Armangue/The Associated Press
Bernat Armangue/The Associated Press

Ukraine's forces are taking massive casualties in the region. In a May 31 interview, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Ukraine was losing between 60 to 100 soldiers every day on the eastern front, with about another 500 people wounded daily.

On June 5, he met with some of the soldiers in Bakhmut during a visit to the eastern front and thanked them for their service. "I am grateful to everyone," he said, according to Agence France-Presse. "Take care of yourselves."

While Russian forces are likely suffering heavy losses as well — roughly 10,000 Russian soldiers are believed to have been killed in the war to date — this has not yet blunted their assault in the Donbas.

Despite the thousands of pieces of Western military aid delivered to Ukraine, Nikita said he and his men have seen nothing of them.

"We have just our rifles. Maybe an RPG [launcher] or two. Against a tank or an armoured vehicle? What am I supposed to do?" he said rhetorically.

Gleb Garanich/Reuters
Gleb Garanich/Reuters

In his view, the leadership in Kyiv cares little for those fighting out here.

"[Kyiv] has not sent us any new weapons — and they're not going to," said Nikita.

"Everything new and fancy has been reserved for those other places: Kyiv, Kharkiv, the big cities. Headquarters thinks, 'Well, you [in the east] have been fighting the Russians for eight years already. You'll be fine.'"

Nikita shakes his head, before turning to even harsher words for his superiors.

"You have to understand that there are two castes in this country," he said. "There's the upper caste, and then there's us: the lower caste. We are just pawns. Nothing more. The upper caste gets the money, and we get the command: 'Forward!'

"That's how it's always worked here [in Ukraine]," he said, before emphasizing that he doesn't expect anyone to believe him.

"No one here wants to hear the truth," said Nikita. "They just want the beautiful story of how Ukraine is united. But here, we're f--ked."

Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images
Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Escaping Mariupol

Other soldiers filtering through the shawarma stand also tell dire tales of being outgunned and outnumbered as fighting in the region intensifies.

Two scouts with Ukraine's naval infantry, both in their early 20s and both named Sergei, have been fighting since the first days of the war.

They arrived in the Donbas after escaping the most difficult battle of Ukraine's war to date: Mariupol, the port city destroyed during a brutal two-month siege.

"We've been [fighting] along the entire eastern front line," said the younger Sergei, 21.

"We were sent all over in the Mariupol area, in Nikolne, Rozivka, Zachativka," he said, listing villages north of the port city.

Francisco Seco/The Associated Press
Francisco Seco/The Associated Press

One of their assignments involved being sent to cover the retreat of Ukrainian forces pulling out of Mariupol — a task they say nearly saw them killed as they were overwhelmed by a Russian force they were not equipped to fight.

"Our guys [in Mariupol] were almost encircled, so we were sent there to guard the exodus," said the younger Sergei. "The Russians put out 200 vehicles against us. They caught us and surrounded us in a village. [It was] just 70 of us against all that."

The only weapons on hand for that fight, said the older Sergei, 24, were machine guns and a few N-LAWs, British-made anti-tank missiles.

"We held out for six days. We managed to destroy the first tank in their column and that held them up, as the others were stuck behind it," he said.

"But they brought up their artillery. We had almost nothing to fight them with. Finally, we managed to escape at night — we snuck out on foot."

Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images
Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine's Defence Ministry did not respond to a request for comment about the soldiers' allegations, including the claims that at least some units were not receiving the donated weapons.

Over the course of the war, Zelensky has repeatedly called on allies to supply Ukraine with more and better weapons, at times accusing the West of moving too slowly.

The U.S., the U.K. and Germany recently pledged some of the most advanced weapons yet, including helicopters, Javelin anti-tank weapon systems, anti-aircraft systems and heavy artillery pieces.

The U.S. military has also begun training Ukrainian forces on the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), a sophisticated medium-range multiple rocket launcher — though officials have said it would take about three weeks of training before they could go to the battlefront.

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There is evidence that some of the new weaponry has made it to Eastern Ukraine. Reports show American-made M777 advanced howitzers in use at Lysychansk, at the northern edge of the Donbas front. A Politico report further describes M777s at Kramatorsk, about 30 kilometres northwest of Bakhmut.

Still, for these soldiers, the fight is not getting any easier.

Dmitry, a 41-year-old member of Ukraine's Territorial Defence, uses a little humour to confront the grim reality of the situation. "Bakhmut, it's like Monte Carlo," he said, laughing. "Russian roulette on every corner!"

Then his eyes darken, and his smile fades.

"I can describe the situation here in a few short words," Dmitry said. "Very f--king awful."

Carlos Barria/Reuters
Carlos Barria/Reuters
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