The war in Ukraine has been locked in a static stalemate since 2015. Photo by Nolan Peterson.
Trench warfare is a true test of a soldier’s grit. The thing is, there’s no escaping the danger. You could die just as easily while walking to the toilet as you could while holding the line under artillery fire. You never know when the shelling will start or when a sniper has you in his sights. In the end, your chances of survival usually just depend on good luck and the odds of not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As they say — it’s better to be lucky than good.
After seven years of constant combat in their country’s embattled, eastern Donbas region, some Ukrainian soldiers have learned to simply laugh at the danger and treat the war like a sport. Others grow quiet and gloomy, imagining at every moment how they could die. And then, there are those exceptional warriors who are able to see the war for the tragedy it truly is and go on fighting anyway.
In the summer of 2015, while embedded with the Ukrainian regular army in the front-line village of Pisky, I befriended a young soldier named Daniel Kasyanenko who was among this rare breed. He was only 19, but Daniel had an uncanny ability to put the war in perspective. He understood the toll that combat was taking on his young soul and recognized the war was not black and white.
“Maybe they’re not all bad guys,” he told me about his enemies.
Yet, Daniel never failed to pull the trigger when he had to. Consequently, the things he had done and seen in war haunted him. He told me that war had “ruined him” and his “understanding of life.” It would have been better to go to war as an old man, he confided.
When I left the front lines, Daniel and I pledged to stay in touch. We talked about the possibility of him coming to America one day, which was his dream. But a few days after I’d returned to Kyiv, I received a somewhat disjointed text message from Daniel.
He’d been injured by a mortar, he told me, and had what the Ukrainian medics called a “brain contusion,” which probably meant he had a concussion, or, more likely, a traumatic brain injury. In any case, Daniel’s commanders gave him a few weeks’ leave to go back to his hometown of Zaporizhia, only a three-hour car ride from the front lines.
Well, Daniel explained that he’d run out of money on the way home and needed my help to buy a bus ticket. It wasn’t much, and I was more than happy to help and wired him some cash. It was the least I could do, under the circumstances.
Daniel spent a couple of weeks at home, living with his parents, Marina and Konstantin. It was a tough time for Daniel’s parents as they tried, over and over, to convince their son that he didn’t have to go back to war.
And the truth is, he didn’t.
You see, when Russia invaded Ukraine in the summer of 2014, Daniel, like so many young men and women in Ukraine at the time, simply headed for the front lines and joined the ranks of an irregular militia that had formed to fight the Russian invasion. These volunteers learned how to be soldiers while on the front lines with no formal training. They jokingly called it “natural selection” training. Daniel, for his part, was only 19 when he went to war. He went straight from living under his parents’ roof to living under Russian artillery and sniper fire. There was no chance for him to become a man before he became a soldier.
Marina later told me that she would watch her son sleeping while he was home on convalescent leave. He’d changed so much in the few months he’d been away, she remarked.
“He went to war as a boy and came back as a wise old man,” she said.
On the day he left to go back to war, Marina begged her son to stay. “You’re too young,” she told him.
“Mom, I have to go back,” Daniel answered. “I have to go back to my friends. It’s my duty.”
He did. And two weeks later, a mortar killed Daniel during a battle in Pisky. He was just 19.
After Daniel’s death, I reached out to his parents, and my wife and I took a trip to Zaporizhia to meet them. There, I asked Marina if it was okay for me to use her story as a way to tell people about the war in Ukraine, and what her son had died fighting for.
She replied, “You do what you can to prevent our boys from dying. The whole world must learn the truth about the war in Ukraine.”
So, here’s the truth.
The war in Ukraine is not a civil war. It never was. It always has been, and it remains, a Russian invasion.
I’ve lived in Ukraine for seven years to report on the war. During that time I’ve experienced, firsthand, a type of combat that has exceeded in intensity anything I experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan, both as a special operations pilot (my former profession) and while on the ground as a war correspondent.
In September 2014, for instance, I watched a tank battle from a hilltop in the coastal city of Mariupol. Yes, a tank battle. In Europe. In our time. It was like something out of a Hollywood movie. Except, it wasn’t. It was for real.
The next day, I toured that battlefield. It was Sept. 5, 2014, the day the war’s first cease-fire was signed. What I saw was a wasteland of destroyed tanks and armored personnel carriers. And lots of dead soldiers too, their charred, ruined bodies scattered on the ground, frozen in the moments and the motions of their deaths like the plaster molds of the dead at Pompeii.
I’d never seen a war like that. But what was even more shocking is that it all felt like a secret. And it still does.
Today, Ukrainian troops remain entrenched along a 250-mile-long front line in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. There, Ukraine’s military continues to fight a static trench war against a combined force of pro-Russian separatists, foreign mercenaries, and Russian regulars. And with Russian troops massing by the tens of thousands on Ukraine’s frontier, the possibility of a much larger war seems very real these days.
So far, the war has killed some 14,000 Ukrainians — roughly half that number died after the Minsk II cease-fire went into effect in February 2015. And with 1.7 million people who still can’t go home because of the conflict, Europe’s only ongoing land war is also the continent’s biggest humanitarian crisis.
Under the guise of a separatist rebellion, Russian Special Forces and intelligence units orchestrated an irregular-warfare takeover of the Donbas in the spring of 2014. The preceding February, Ukrainian protesters had braved snipers on Kyiv’s central square during a revolution to overthrow Viktor Yanukovych, the country’s pro-Russian president. At its heart, the revolution was about the country turning away from Russia toward a pro-European, pro-Western, pro-democratic future.
Yet, through a campaign of weaponized propaganda, Russia painted its 2014 seizure of Crimea and the ensuing conflict in the Donbas as a grassroots uprising created and led by disaffected Russian-speaking Ukrainians who believed the new government in Kyiv was illegitimate.
For Kyiv, the situation was dire in the summer of 2014. Combined Russian-separatist forces were on the march, and there were worries then that Ukraine could be split in two, or that Russia might launch a large-scale invasion. At that time, Ukraine’s regular army had been depleted by decades of corruption and was only able to field about 6,000 combat-ready soldiers. Officials advised citizens in Kyiv to use the city’s metro as a shelter in case of a Russian attack. Spray-painted signs on the sides of buildings pointing to the nearest bomb shelters became ubiquitous sights in cities across Ukraine.
In those early months of the war, with Ukraine’s regular army on its heels, everyday Ukrainians filled the ranks of irregular, civilian combat units. Meanwhile, legions of volunteers collected and delivered supplies to support the front-line troops — often at great risk. It was a grassroots war effort, underscoring a widespread attitude of self-reliance among Ukrainian citizens who were unwilling to wait for the government to act in a moment of crisis.
By July of 2014, Ukraine’s ragtag armed forces (the “Bad News Bears” of war, as I call them) had retaken 23 out of the 36 districts previously under combined Russian-separatist control. With its troops on the march, it looked, briefly, like Kyiv might be able to take back all the territory it had previously lost to Russia’s proxies. But then, in August, Russia sent thousands of its own troops and massive amounts of weaponry and military hardware into the conflict.
Many Ukrainians feared a full-scale Russian invasion was in the works; a sack on the port city of Mariupol looked imminent. A September 2014 cease-fire prevented the war from escalating to catastrophic levels. However, that first cease-fire quickly collapsed, and the subsequent Minsk II cease-fire in February 2015 ultimately froze the conflict along its current geographical boundaries.
But the war never ended.
The status quo stalemate along the trench lines in eastern Ukraine has developed into a volatile standoff in which Europe’s two largest standing land armies, in terms of manpower, exchange daily fire. It’s become a long-range battle mainly fought with indirect-fire weapons like mortars and artillery. For the most part, soldiers hardly ever see at whom they’re shooting — except for the snipers, which I always thought was the most terrifying part of this war. Unlike the arbitrary, haphazard threat of artillery, when a sniper shoots at you, it’s personal — someone is specifically looking through a scope, trying to kill you.
At some places, no man’s land can be several miles wide. At others, the Ukrainians and their enemies are close enough to shout insults at one another. In the front-line town of Shyrokyne, for example, I was on hand in 2015 when drunk soldiers from the Russian side crawled up to the Ukrainians’ lines in the night and challenged them to single, unarmed combat to the death. Like gladiators, or something.
Altogether, it’s a bizarre conflict, blending modern technology like drones and electronic warfare with battlefield conditions similar to those of the World War I trenches — albeit on a much smaller scale. When not in the trenches, the Ukrainian troops usually live in the basements of abandoned homes. It’s simply too dangerous to spend much time above ground with the constant shelling and sniper fire.
Every second, in the back of your mind, you’re worried about dying. And that constant background din of danger was far different from what I experienced on deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, in which we had relatively safe places to return to and decompress between missions.
Yet, even with all the hardships they face, Ukraine’s troops have learned how to adapt. War has become their way of life. The same goes for those Ukrainian civilians left living within the war zone. It has always amazed me how life goes on in spite of the war. Children still attend school, even amid the daily shelling. Shops and grocery stores are still open. Families still gather together for dinner. In Mariupol, for example, there’s a veteran-owned restaurant that delivers pizzas to the front lines.
One of the most striking examples of this coexistence of normal life with the war was in the front-line town of Lobacheve. A river divides the town — Ukrainians control one side, combined Russian-separatist forces control the other. But there’s only one school in town. So each day the opposing camps agree to two short cease-fires so that the town’s children can take a ferry across the river, going to and from school.
I witnessed one of these bizarre, brief timeouts from the war in 2016, and it was surreal to watch the Ukrainian soldiers casually standing on the riverbank, smoking cigarettes, waving at their enemies on the other shore. But when the truce was over, the snipers came back out, the soldiers took cover, and the war was back on.
“War is a dark comedy,” a Ukrainian soldier named Andriy told me that day as we scrambled for safety.
There’s obviously no love lost between the two camps, even though many Ukrainians have family in Russia and vice versa. In fact, some older Ukrainian soldiers served in the Red Army alongside Russians during the Soviet era. I’ve even observed some Ukrainian troops sending Facebook messages to their enemies, whom they knew from university or from growing up.
“It’s difficult to make war when the enemy speaks the same language, and they have the same religion,” 54-year-old Ukrainian soldier and Soviet Army veteran Oleksandr Derevyanko said. “But we have to fight this war — we have no choice. Russia attacked us, and we have to defend our motherland.”
Derevyanko fought in Afghanistan as a Soviet soldier in the 1980s.
“In Afghanistan, I learned that it’s easy to start a war, but hard to finish one,” the old soldier told me.
As a veteran of Afghanistan myself, I couldn’t have said it better.
Today, the current war in Ukraine is nothing less than a sword of Damocles suspended over Eastern Europe, threatening to spark a larger conflagration. When the sun goes down tonight, the tracers will cut across the sky. The artillery will rumble. And war-weary soldiers and civilians will hunker down in trenches and in cellars, staving off their fears, as they have for more than seven straight years.
The war goes on and on.
When, and where, will it end?
It’s easy to believe that history automatically arcs in the right direction — that the era of world wars is over. That it could never happen again. But it sure doesn’t feel that way these days in Ukraine.
Remember, just two living generations ago, Ukraine was the deadliest battlefield of the deadliest war in human history. Some of the soldiers who fought in that war, and the civilians who survived it, are still alive today. Thus, no one should think that another war like that is impossible, or that the events of our time are somehow immune to history’s perennial cycles of war and peace.
The American war correspondent Martha Gellhorn once wrote:
“Unless they are immediate victims, the majority of mankind behaves as if war was an act of God which could not be prevented; or they behave as if war elsewhere was none of their business. It would be a bitter cosmic joke if we destroy ourselves due to atrophy of the imagination.”
You see, the war in Ukraine isn’t just the front line against Russian military aggression. It’s also the front line to defend the spirit, and the promise, of democracy.
American support, in any form — whether through diplomatic gestures or weapons — sends a signal to Ukraine’s soldiers and civilians that they haven’t been forgotten, and that the democratic world order, which they want to be a part of so badly, is still worth fighting for. And these days, I think that’s a message the whole world needs to hear.
With history as our guide, one thing is clear: If the war in Ukraine escalates into a far bigger and deadlier conflict, Ukrainians and Russians won’t be the only ones fighting in it.
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