Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines of the Donbas region in October 2021. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.
The Ukrainian soldier warned me to speak no louder than a whisper. The enemy lines were less than 50 meters away, he told me, and my voice — if too loud — could carry across no man’s land and invite gunfire from the other side.
“Only 50 meters?” I asked on the back of a very timid exhalation.
“Da,” the soldier confirmed in Russian.
“It’s like Stalingrad,” I muttered.
The soldier nodded.
We’re standing at one end of an abandoned factory on the outskirts of the city of Avdiivka, in Ukraine’s eastern war zone. The Ukrainians had seized the building in a 2017 battle that involved close-quarters, brutal fighting — sometimes room to room, and hand to hand. At one point, the two camps controlled opposite ends of the factory. Today, Ukraine’s 25th Air Assault Brigade controls the entire building. On this day in October 2021, the war-ravaged structure clearly evidenced the violence of the combat that took place here — and still does, albeit at a lower and more sporadic intensity these days. In short, the destruction was absolute. Nothing short of apocalyptic, actually.
At the far end of the factory facing the Russian lines, the Ukrainians have built a fortified barricade from stacked rubble that seems more fitting for a Mad Max movie than a modern battlefield. Within the wall, they have established an array of peek-holes — that’s to say, small trapdoors through which they can steal quick glances at their enemies who are entrenched only 50 meters, or about 160 feet, away.
After warning me to keep my voice down, the Ukrainian soldier waved me up to one such peek-hole. He asked if I was ready. I nodded my answer. First, he opened the small wooden door, which was about the size of a basketball, and quickly looked through for himself before ducking his head out of the opening’s shadow.
“There’s a tree in that direction,” the soldier said in Russian, denoting the vector with his hand. “The Russians are there.”
He arched his eyebrows — the only facial expression available under his balaclava — and gave me a nod that said, “You’re up.”
I swallowed and raised my head to the peek-hole’s height. I looked in the prescribed direction and saw the tree. It seemed so close that I could hit it with a tossed football, in other circumstances. I scanned the irregular outline of some cobbled-together defenses but saw no signs of movement. Nevertheless, a chill ran down the back of my neck. A warning from the reptilian core of my brain. An image flashed in my mind of my head snapping back from a sniper’s bullet: boom, down, lights out before even understanding that I’m dead. I ducked down and out of immediate danger and excitedly declared how fucking crazy it is for these two opposing military forces to be dug in so close to each other, and for so long.
Moments later, after we stole a quick look through another peek-hole about a dozen meters down the line, the single stark smack of a sniper’s bullet landed nearby. The Ukrainian soldier put a hand on my shoulder, applied a dose of subtle but stern pressure, and said, “Let’s go.”
I did not resist.
Seconds later we stopped. Just like that, a few meters farther down the line to diminish the danger, and we’re once again comporting ourselves (relatively) casually. In the Russo-Ukrainian war, the chances of death are a product of seconds and inches. By modulating these minute intervals of distance and time, you’re able to drastically affect your chances of survival.
At this moment, I had the presence of mind to try and say something into the camera. I looked into the black orb of the lens and searched, in vain, for some profound words to express my visceral impressions of this contemporary close-quarters war. All I could muster was an inelegant declaration of the obvious: “This is a crazy war. And it’s far from over.”
Along a fortified front line, about 160 miles in length, Ukraine’s military continues to fight against a combined force of Russian regulars, pro-Russian separatists, and foreign mercenaries. In October, I undertook a weeklong trip to the Donbas war zone.
I began at the northern limit of the war zone outside of Luhansk in a position near the town of Shastya. After visiting the front lines near Avdiivka, I ended at the southern terminus of the war zone in the town of Shyrokyne on the Sea of Azov coastline.
A February 2015 cease-fire has frozen the conflict along its current boundaries and generally limited the intensity of fighting by banning the use of certain heavy weapons. But the war never ended. Daily shelling and sniper fire continue to take lives. So do small weaponized Russian drones, which patrol high overhead and drop lethal explosives with little or no warning.
Altogether, it is a bizarre conflict, blending modern weapons and technology with battlefield conditions similar to those of the World War I trenches. At some places no man’s land can be several miles wide. At others, such as the Promka position outside of Avdiivka, the Ukrainians and their enemies are close enough to trade shouted insults.
So far, Europe’s only ongoing land war has claimed nearly 15,000 lives. Some 1.7 million more have been displaced. For its part, the Ukrainian side is not fighting to achieve a breakthrough or to take back territory. Rather, they’re simply holding their ground, under fire, against what they say is a Russian invasion of their homeland.
Yet, with two of Europe’s largest land armies exchanging daily fire, there’s always the chance that this stalemated war could escalate into a much bigger, and far deadlier, disaster.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2022 print edition of Coffee or Die Magazine as “Dispatch From the Trenches.”
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