News center
We cater to custom orders with pleasure

Two Weeks at the Front in Ukraine

May 17, 2023

By Luke Mogelson

Soldiers on the front in Ukraine adhere to a maxim that grows more sacrosanct the longer they survive: If you want to live, dig. In mid-March, I arrived at a small Army position in the eastern region of the Donbas, where shock waves and shrapnel had reduced the surrounding trees to splintered canes. Artillery had churned up so much earth that you could no longer distinguish between craters and the natural topography. Eight infantrymen were rebuilding a machine-gun nest that Russian shelling had obliterated the previous week, killing one of their comrades. A torn piece of a jacket, from a separate blast, hung on a branch high above us. A log-covered dugout, where the soldiers slept, was about five feet deep and not much wider. At the sound of a Russian helicopter, everyone squeezed inside. A direct hit from a mortar had charred the timber. To refortify the structure, new logs had been stacked over the burned ones. Ukrainian soldiers often employ netting or other camouflage to evade drone surveillance, but here subterfuge would have been futile. Russian forces had already pinpointed the position and seemed determined to eradicate it. As for the infantrymen, their mission was straightforward: not to leave and not to die.

The helicopter deployed several rockets somewhere up the tree line. The soldiers climbed back into the light, found their shovels, and resumed working. One of them, called Syava, had a missing front tooth and wore a large combat knife on his belt. The others began mocking the knife as unsuitable for a modern industrial conflict.

"I’ll give it to you as a gift after the war," Syava said.

" ‘After the war’—so optimistic!"

Link copied

Everybody laughed. On the front, to talk about the future, or to imagine experiencing a reality distinct from the baleful present, smacked of naïveté or hubris.

The term "infantry" derives from "infant," and was first applied to low-ranking foot soldiers in the sixteenth century. Five hundred years later, infantrymen remain the most disposable of troops. But in Ukraine they are also the most essential. Syava and his comrades belonged to an infantry battalion in the 28th Separate Mechanized Brigade, which had been fighting without respite for more than a year. The brigade was originally based near Odesa, the historic port city on the Black Sea. At the start of the invasion, Russian forces from Crimea, the southern peninsula that Vladimir Putin had annexed in 2014, failed to reach Odesa but did capture another coastal city, Kherson. The 28th Brigade was at the forefront of an ensuing campaign to liberate Kherson. For some six months, the Russians staved off the Ukrainians with a deluge of artillery and air strikes, exacting a devastating toll whose precise scale Ukraine has kept secret. Finally, in November, Russia withdrew across the Dnipro River. Battered members of the 28th Brigade were among the first Ukrainian troops to enter Kherson. Crowds greeted them there as heroes. Before they could recover, they were sent three hundred miles northeast, to the outskirts of Bakhmut, a besieged city that was becoming the scene of the most ferocious violence of the war.

Syava's battalion, which numbered about six hundred men, was posted on the edge of a village south of Bakhmut. The village was controlled by the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization notorious for committing atrocities in Africa and the Middle East. For the war in Ukraine, Wagner recruited thousands of inmates from Russian prisons by offering them pardons in exchange for combat tours. The onslaught of expendable convicts proved too much for the Ukrainians, who were still reeling from Kherson and had not yet replenished their ranks and matériel. The commander of the battalion, a thirty-nine-year-old lieutenant colonel named Pavlo, said of the Wagner fighters, "They were like zombies. They used the prisoners like a wall of meat. It didn't matter how many we killed—they kept coming."

Within weeks, the battalion faced annihilation: entire platoons had been wiped out in close-contact firefights, and some seventy men had been encircled and massacred. The dwindling survivors, one officer told me, "became useless because they were so tired." In January, what was left of the battalion retreated from the village and established defensive positions in the tree lines and open farmland a mile to the west. "Wagner kicked our asses," the officer said.

The Russian mercenaries subsequently left for Bakhmut, to shore up other forces there, and the conventional troops who replaced them were far less numerous and suicidal. By the time I joined the battalion, about two months had passed since it had lost the battle for the village, and during the interim neither side had attempted a major operation against the other. It was all the Ukrainians could do to maintain the stalemate. Pavlo estimated that, owing to the casualties his unit had sustained, eighty per cent of his men were new draftees. "They’re civilians with no experience," he said. "If they give me ten, I’m lucky when three of them can fight."

We were in his bunker, which had been dug in the back yard of a half-demolished farmhouse; the constant rumble of artillery vibrated through the dirt walls. "A lot of the new guys don't have the stamina to be out here," Pavlo said. "They get scared and they panic." His military call sign was Cranky, and he was renowned for his temper, but he spoke sympathetically about his weaker soldiers and their fears. Even for him, a career officer of twenty-three years, this phase of the war had been harrowing.

On a road that passed in front of the farmhouse, a board had been nailed to a tree with the painted words "TO MOSCOW" and an arrow pointing east. No one knew who’d put it there. Such optimistic brio seemed to be a vestige of another time.

Just two of the soldiers who were rebuilding the machine-gun nest had been with the battalion since Kherson. One of them, a twenty-nine-year-old construction worker called Bison—because he was built like one—had been hospitalized three times: after being shot in the shoulder, after being wounded by shrapnel in the ankle and knee, and after being wounded by shrapnel in the back and arm. The other veteran, code-named Odesa, had enlisted in the Army in 2015, after dropping out of college. Short and stocky, he had the same serene deportment as Bison. The uncanny extent to which both men had adapted to their lethal environment underscored the agitation of the recent arrivals, who flinched whenever something whistled overhead or crashed nearby.

"I only trust Bison," Odesa said. "If the new recruits run away, it will mean immediate death for us." He’d lost nearly all his closest friends in Kherson. Taking out his phone, he swiped through a series of photographs: "Killed . . . killed . . . killed . . . killed . . . killed . . . wounded. . . . Now I have to get used to different people. It's like starting over."

Because the high attrition rate had disproportionately affected the bravest and most aggressive soldiers—a phenomenon that one officer called "reverse natural selection"—seasoned infantrymen like Odesa and Bison were extremely valuable and extremely fatigued. After Kherson, Odesa had gone AWOL. "I was in a bad place psychologically," he said. "I needed a break." After two months of resting and recuperating at home, he came back. His return was prompted not by a fear of being punished—what were they going to do, put him in the trenches?—but by a sense of loyalty to his dead friends. "I felt guilty," he said. "I realized that my place was here."

Although the dugout where Bison and Odesa slept had become a target for Russian artillery, it was about four hundred yards behind the Zero Line—the trenches where infantrymen clashed directly with Russian forces. To reach the Zero Line, you had to traverse a barren valley pocked with mortar holes, where owls and pheasants sometimes burst from the scant underbrush, and then follow a densely wooded ravine that snaked eastward. Sleeping quarters had been constructed on the steep slope, but the ravine ran through a chalk vein, which inhibited digging. Some soldiers had used axes to hack into the white stone; others had cobbled together shelters with sandbags and branches.

The boundary of Ukrainian-held territory was marked with loops of barbed wire. Steps cut into the ravine ascended to an observation post behind a berm. One morning in March, a draftee I’ll call Artem was there, peering through a periscope. From where he stood, an expanse of rotting sunflower stalks led to a tree line occupied by Russian soldiers. The distance was a few hundred yards.

During previous reporting trips to Ukraine, I had encountered the Russian military almost exclusively as a remote, invisible source of bombs that fell from the sky. It was eerie to look across such a short gap at an actual Russian position—and to know that an actual Russian might be looking back. Artem shared my unease. "I shouldn't be here," he said. "I’m not a soldier."

He was a forty-two-year-old father of three who managed a grain elevator in a small farming community in central Ukraine. Men who have three children are legally exempt from conscription but, in December, Artem was still in the process of adopting one of his daughters when he was summoned by his local draft board. A physician, citing a skull fracture that Artem had once suffered during an ice-skating accident, deemed him medically unfit to serve; the board dispatched him to a military training center anyway. His training lasted a month and consisted of tutorials and marching drills—"theoretical stuff, nothing practical." He shot a total of thirty rounds during two trips to a firing range. From the training center, Artem was assigned to the 28th Brigade, and a day after joining Pavlo's infantry battalion he was on the Zero Line.

"The first couple of weeks, I was so fucking scared," he said. "I ran whenever there was shooting." Gunshots and explosions gave him migraines, which exacerbated his anxiety. He’d been there for six weeks and had not so much mastered his fear as accepted the illogic of running: there was nowhere to escape to. All the same, he was so timid by nature that it was difficult to imagine him repulsing a Russian attack. "I hate weapons and violence," he said with wide-eyed incredulity, as if he still could not believe where he was. "I’m just trying to stay alive until I can get home."

A few minutes after I met Artem, a rocket-propelled grenade, or R.P.G., screamed across the sunflower field and detonated in the ravine. Machine-gun fire clattered, and bullets whacked the trees. I ducked behind a barricade of sandbags, where the ranking sergeant—another veteran, like Bison and Odesa—was shouting at his subordinates.

"All good?"

His call sign was Tynda. He had a prim goatee and wore a jungle hat whose floppy brim was snapped up on the sides. I spent twelve days with the 28th Brigade, and I never once saw Tynda, Odesa, or Bison put on body armor or a helmet. When I asked Bison about this, he replied, "If I’m going to die, I’ll die." Such fatalism was endemic in the infantry, but sometimes it conveyed a hard-earned wisdom: the veterans had so internalized the soundscape of the war that they knew instinctively where each munition was coming from and where it would land. While I was talking to Bison, on the edge of a field, he didn't even turn his head to watch as two shells exploded in the middle of it.

Link copied

Automatic bursts continued to hit the ravine, and Tynda yelled at a heavyset soldier to respond with his own R.P.G. The soldier hoisted the weapon onto his shoulder and launched a grenade with a deafening blast, a few feet away from Artem.

"Too high," Tynda admonished. On a walkie-talkie, he told someone, "Use the machine gun."

As the fire from the Russians intensified, Tynda asked, "Who's on the R.P.G.?," but nobody answered. The heavyset soldier had gone to a different fighting position. With a huff of irritation, Tynda removed his jungle hat, set it on the sandbags, fetched the launcher, and shot it himself.

A few draftees were cowering at the barricade. Tynda ordered them to get to a trench on a nearby ridge. When the draftees started walking up an exposed path, he had to shout, "Not that way!"

He had a Kalashnikov that was augmented with another, smaller grenade launcher. Advancing as far as the barbed wire, he aimed the weapon at a high angle, and discharged a grenade. At this moment, a more subtle but no less alarming noise emerged through the bedlam: the faint whirr of a quadcopter drone hovering above us.

"Does it have a grenade?" a soldier asked.

"Who the fuck knows?"

Tynda fired into the air but missed the drone; as it shifted toward the ridge, he went to join the others in the trench. So did I, along with the photographer for this article, Maxim Dondyuk. Midway up the incline, a volley of zinging bullets forced us to crawl on our stomachs.

The trench was still a work in progress: you had to crouch and hunch to hide from snipers. When I’d stopped by a couple of hours earlier, the men there had been busy digging. Now they were shooting. More high-pitched rounds were crossing overhead. The heavyset soldier was squatting near a machine gunner who was staring over the sunflower stalks while resting the barrel of his weapon on a horizontal log.

"Do you see them?" the soldier asked.

"No," the machine gunner said. A voice came through his radio, announcing that a second drone had joined the first one.


Both were circling straight above us: two black silhouettes against the blue, like a pair of buzzards. The machine gunner swivelled his muzzle almost vertically and unleashed a salvo, but the weapon was too unwieldy. I was grateful for the narrowness of the trench, which had initially struck me as a design flaw: the passage was so tight that when you met someone going the other way you had to flatten yourself against a side, briefly exposing your head. This was intentional. The wider the trench, the more likely it was that projectiles or their fragments would find their way into it.

A grenade detached from one of the drones. A small geyser of earth erupted a few yards away from us. Between the snug walls, I hardly felt the explosion.

The contact ended as abruptly as it had begun. The drones, which have a battery life of only thirty minutes or so, returned to their pilots on the Russian side. The Ukrainians set down their weapons and picked up their shovels. In the excitement, I’d forgotten about Artem. He was still at the observation post, one eye to the periscope.

While Tynda and his team were fighting from the trench, long and powerful fusillades had issued from another Ukrainian position, on a hilltop behind them. I later went there with Tynda. In a blind overlooking the no man's land stood an improbably antique contraption on iron wheels: a Maxim gun, the first fully automatic weapon ever made. Although this particular model dated from 1945, it was virtually identical to the original version, which was invented in 1884: a knobbed crank handle, wooden grips, a lidded compartment for adding cold water or snow when the barrel overheated. The gun's operator, a rawboned soccer hooligan with brass knuckles tattooed on his hand, spoke of the Maxim like a car enthusiast lauding the performance of a vintage Mustang.

In the course of the past year, the U.S. has furnished Ukraine with more than thirty-five billion dollars in security assistance. Why, given the American largesse, had the 28th Brigade resorted to such a museum piece? A lot of equipment has been damaged or destroyed on the battlefield. At the same time, Ukraine appears to have forgone refitting debilitated units in order to stockpile for a large-scale offensive that is meant to take place later this spring. At least eight new brigades have been formed from scratch to spearhead the campaign. While these units have been receiving weapons, tanks, and training from the U.S. and Europe, veteran brigades like the 28th have had to hold the line with the dregs of a critically depleted arsenal. In December, while Pavlo's battalion was being decimated by the Wagner Group, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, told The Economist that it was "more important to focus on the accumulation of resources" for future battles. "May the soldiers in the trenches forgive me," Zaluzhnyi said.

The most advanced and expensive U.S. contributions to the war have been longer-range howitzers and missile systems that operate from the rear. The infantry on the front relies on rudimentary muzzle-loaded mortars, for which there is currently a dire ammunition shortage. The major in charge of artillery for Pavlo's battalion told me that in Kherson his mortar teams had fired about three hundred shells a day; now they were rationed to five a day. The Russians averaged ten times that rate.

To help compensate for this deficiency, the battalion used a Soviet antitank gun called an S.P.G.-9. The sergeant responsible for the weapon was code-named Kaban, or "Wild Boar." He was forty-two years old and had been fighting since 2015, shortly after Russia first encroached on the Donbas. His beard was turning gray, he was going bald, and he walked stiffly, having recently torn a meniscus in both his knees. Still, his call sign denoted a toughness and pugnacity that were as visible as ever.

When Kaban told me that he had an eighteen-year-old son, I assumed that both of them were in the Army. I’d met other fathers in the battalion whose adult sons were serving. But Kaban, despite his dedication to the military, had sent his son to Germany. "I told him, ‘If you come back, I’ll kill you myself,’ " he explained. "We all understand we’re going to die here."

Kaban said this in front of his subordinate, code-named Cadet, who had just turned nineteen. When I asked Kaban what it felt like to supervise someone his son's age, he answered, "Like fatherhood."

We were in a dugout where the pair lived along with a third man, a draftee in his thirties who sat mutely in the corner. The shelter was vastly more comfortable than the one where Syava, Odesa, and Bison slept, but it was claustrophobic nonetheless. The most important element of any dugout is the roof. Raw logs are brought on trucks as close to the front as possible, then carried by soldiers to the trenches. A proper roof consists of three layers of logs stacked crosswise under three feet of dirt—a thickness greater than the distance that most projectiles can penetrate during the millisecond between their impact and their detonation. Railroad ties serve as vertical posts. The dugout should be deep enough that the top barely crests the ground; from outside, all you see are steps descending to a subterranean door. Many of the dugouts that I visited had a cast-iron stove with a chimney pipe running to the surface. The interiors of more rearward shelters could be relatively plush: pallets laid down to make a floor, bunk beds with ladders, shelves and coat hooks mounted to walls that were lined with the lids of wooden ammunition boxes, like wainscoting. The major in charge of artillery had furnished his dugout with a folding garden chair and a glass hookah. Pavlo's command bunker was adorned with children's drawings, including one of a horizontal stick figure with a scribbled head wound, labelled "Putin."

Closer to the Zero Line, the dugouts were much smaller and cruder. Kaban's was dimly lit by a string of L.E.D. lights powered by a car battery. A trench led from the entrance to a log parapet, underneath which the S.P.G.-9 was concealed from Russian drones. There wasn't much to the weapon—a bazooka on a tripod—and it was in decrepit condition. The trigger mechanism was broken. To activate each warhead, Kaban had to pry open the rocket's gunpowder-filled cartridge with a pocketknife, twist together two wires at its base, connect those wires to a household electrical cable, then hook the cable onto a loop of bare copper that was attached to the gun with masking tape. He and Cadet would lug the S.P.G.-9 out into the open, where Cadet would take aim and fire. Then they would hurry back to the dugout before Russian drones or artillery could find them.

At around 7:30 P.M., the team was informed that the Russians might be preparing an assault. A mine-clearing vehicle had been spotted in the no man's land.

"Well, we have nothing to lose, right?" Cadet said.

Kaban replied, "I’d hoped that you would get married first, so I could fuck someone at your wedding."

The draftee nervously stoked the stove. Suddenly, I had a keen sense of how isolated and vulnerable the position was. Other dugouts at the front had Starlink satellites, which enabled direct communication with the battalion command. Kaban used only a portable Wi-Fi router that depended on a local SIM card with spotty service. Kaban's point of contact, a young officer, sent him short voice messages on Signal.

"I’m going on watch," Kaban said. "Don't panic."

If their position was overrun, Kaban had told me, he would not allow himself to be taken captive. A few weeks earlier, a video had circulated on social media of Russian soldiers near Bakhmut gunning down a Ukrainian prisoner while telling him, "Die, bitch." Another video, also from the Donbas, showed Russian soldiers castrating a Ukrainian prisoner with a box cutter. After I met Kaban, a video surfaced of a Russian soldier decapitating a Ukrainian prisoner as he screamed and writhed. "The best-case scenario is that they just execute us," Kaban told me.

Before he left the dugout, his phone dinged with a new message from the officer. Kaban and Cadet were to shoot the S.P.G.-9 every hour until dawn. Kaban kept in his cargo pocket a digital tablet with several dozen targets flagged on a satellite map: Russian bunkers, trenches, and observation posts that had been identified by Ukrainian drones. "The key is regular strikes," the officer said. "It's crawling with infantry over there."

Both Kaban and Cadet were now smiling.

"Here we go," Kaban said.

Clouds covered the moon and the stars. The battalion had begun the war with about seventy-five American night-vision devices, but many had been lost as soldiers were killed or injured in firefights. Kaban and Cadet had to use red lights on their headlamps to navigate in the dark. An application on the tablet computed the coördinates of their weapon and the Russian target, factored in up-to-date meteorological data, and then advised Cadet how to adjust the gun's angle and elevation.

When he pressed the trigger, a dull click signalled a misfire. Kaban clambered out of the trench and fiddled with the wires. On the next try, the gun produced a thunderous clap and a radiant gush of flame that lit up the sky. It was hard to say which felt worse: not being able to see, or being able to be seen.

As soon as we returned to the dugout—our ears ringing and pulses racing and nostrils filled with the metallic tang of the rocket's propellant—Cadet lit a Marlboro menthol and began playing video games on his phone. This, I’d learn, was his routine. He had joined the Army the day after his eighteenth birthday, which had occurred four days after Russia invaded. He could not yet grow facial hair, his voice was still unsteady, and he retained the roundish, doughy features of an adolescent.

Cadet seemed to be so completely a child of the war that he’d never developed an instinct for self-preservation. He had grown up on a subsistence farm where his family raised pigs and chickens. In the Army, because of his age, he had first been assigned to a company of reserve soldiers who replaced casualties in other units; among the twenty-eight men in his platoon, he knew of only two who were still alive. He claimed to have fired the S.P.G.-9 more than a thousand times, and to have made "not one but many" confirmed kills with it. He smoked between two and three packs of cigarettes a day. Cadet did not use the trench to move between the dugout and the parapet; he scampered nimbly through the black woods, hopping over berms and foxholes, unencumbered by helmet or body armor. During one firing mission, a little after 2 A.M., he turned on a flashlight instead of his red headlamp. Back at the dugout, Kaban kicked him and demanded, "What the fuck is wrong with you?"

"I forgot it," Cadet muttered sullenly, like a grade-school student without his homework.

Although Kaban had characterized his relationship with Cadet as a paternal one, I wondered whether he admired or resented him for not being in Germany, like his real son. Later, Kaban entertained us with stories about his past romantic escapades, and Dondyuk, the photographer, asked him whether he’d imparted any lessons to Cadet.

"There's no point," Kaban said. "He’ll be dead soon."

Cadet laughed, but Kaban didn't.

As it happened, Cadet's girlfriend was also a Ukrainian refugee in Germany. He’d found her on TikTok, and they chatted when the Wi-Fi in the dugout permitted. They’d never met in person. "We’re hoping the war will be over this summer," Cadet said. "And then she’ll come back, and we’ll see." Kaban interrupted, sternly telling him to go dig in the trench. Like Syava, who’d joked about giving away his combat knife after the war, Cadet had made the mistake of envisaging a peaceful future.

Birds were chirping in the trees—the sun had risen. Possibly because of Kaban and Cadet's efforts, the Russian assault had not materialized. Kaban's tone softened. "I’ll come with a shovel, too," he said.

On February 24, 2022, Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, declared a general mobilization for male citizens between the ages of eighteen and sixty. Civilians of all stripes flocked to military-registration offices, eager to fight. Some waited in line for days, only to be told that no more men were required. Today, popular support for resisting rather than negotiating with Russia remains high, but, as in every war, the burden of sacrifice has fallen increasingly on the underprivileged. Nearly every draftee I met in the trenches had been a manual laborer—farmer, carpenter, dockworker, plumber—and stories abounded of Ukrainians with means dodging conscription through graft or nepotism. "You could find people from the higher classes in the infantry at the beginning of the war," one veteran told me. "But, after a year, you don't see an end to this—your chances of dying are higher, you’re fucking tired. Now most of the people are being drafted."

The preponderance of draftees—and the corresponding dearth of professional soldiers—has shifted more responsibility onto the officer corps, which has also been diminished. Lieutenants and captains whose duties were traditionally more administrative have become front-line fighters. The officer who had directed Kaban via Signal, code-named Volynyaka, was thirty years old and had the gung-ho physicality of a high-school quarterback. In addition to overseeing the S.P.G.-9 team, Volynyaka commanded one of the battalion's remaining combat vehicles. (Others had been wrecked by shelling.) The machine, a relic of the Soviet Union, was known as a B.R.M. It had tracks and a cannon but was too lightly armored to qualify as a tank, and its inability to withstand direct fire had earned it a grim epithet: the Iron Casket. When Volynyaka had put out a call for crew members, even Cadet had balked. "I’d seen how people burn alive inside," he told me. "One R.P.G. or mortar strike, and that's it."

Volynyaka, along with a driver and a gunner, had commandeered a vacated red brick house in Kostyantynivka, the town nearest to the Zero Line still inhabited by civilians. Twice a day, the three men brought the B.R.M. to a field behind the trenches, shot fifteen or twenty rockets, and returned to their base. (The vehicle was too conspicuous a target to park near the front.) The first time I accompanied them on this sortie, I rode behind the gunner, who was surprisingly compact in stature and stood in an open hatch wearing a black sweatshirt, a black beanie, black cargo pants, black boots, black gloves, black sunglasses, and a black neck gaiter pulled over his face, printed with the white teeth and jaw of a skull. When we got back to Kostyantynivka, the gunner removed his gaiter. Code-named Darwin, he was a baby-faced youth about the same age as Cadet.

Darwin wore all black because uniforms turned that color anyway after two days in the B.R.M. "I feel less dirty like this," he explained. He was from Kherson, where he’d lived with his parents until two months into the Russian occupation. He had evacuated with another couple by pretending to be their underage son. After passing through nine Russian checkpoints, Darwin had gone to Odesa and joined the 28th Brigade.

His small size was an asset within the B.R.M.'s tight nest of hoses, pipes, levers, and gears. Volynyaka, by contrast, was too big-boned and brawny to squeeze through the hatches while wearing body armor. A rosary hung near the dials and switches of the control panel, and as we approached a white church outside Kostyantynivka I noticed Volynyaka crossing himself. In town, I asked him if the war had made him more religious. "No, the opposite," he said. "I’ve started to question the existence of God."

You didn't need to believe in God to solicit his protection, though. The randomness and unpredictability of Russian artillery had turned many of the soldiers superstitious. Talismans were ubiquitous. The B.R.M.'s twenty-three-year-old driver, code-named Criminal, had adopted a stuffed doll as a co-pilot. Pavlo, the battalion commander, carried an American silver dollar in his pocket. During seven years of war in the Donbas, he’d put no stock in lucky charms, but Kherson and Bakhmut had changed his perspective. "We need luck much more now," he told me.

The second time that I went out with the B.R.M., we passed an elderly woman walking down the road with a cane. When I looked back, she was blessing the crew. Such good-will gestures were the exception in Kostyantynivka. In other parts of Ukraine, people almost always waved or pumped their fists at any vehicles headed to the front. Here, most of the civilians averted their gazes. According to Volynyaka, "almost everyone" who had not already fled the town was pro-Russian. A clerk at the local grocery store had told him, "We don't want you here." I asked him if the hostility had eroded his motivation to keep fighting. He shook his head. "I know it's my land—why should I care what they think?"

The soldiers of the 28th Brigade, many of whom came from rural areas, shared a concept of Ukrainian land that was strikingly literal. In the trenches, several infantrymen had nodded at the dark-brown walls surrounding us, which were marbled with pale, healthy roots, and asked me if the soil in the United States was as rich and arable as theirs. The fact that this same soil now shielded them against injury and death had only deepened their attachment to it. They had become a species that burrowed to elude predation. On the Zero Line, there was only enough water for drinking, not for washing, and the men's cracked fingernails and thickly calloused palms were so encrusted with dirt that it seemed to have become part of them.

At sunset, at the red brick house, a soldier was in the yard, making troughs with a shovel and sowing them with pea seeds. "This is what we’re fighting for," he said, his sleeves pushed to his elbows. "This land is dear to us." He was a forty-seven-year-old construction worker whose job was to extend the range of the B.R.M.'s rockets by disassembling them with a monkey wrench and removing a component that caused them to detonate after a certain distance. In his spare time, he tended the vegetable patch, which he hoped would be sprouting when the homeowners returned.

Darwin, manning the turret of the B.R.M. while it charged over an open field, had pulled back the string on an imaginary bow and released an imaginary arrow toward the Russian line. He later told me that his preferred avatar in his favorite video game, Skyrim, was an archer. "GROVE ST 4 LIFE," a reference to Grand Theft Auto, was tattooed on his forearm. When he found enough bandwidth, he planned to download a game called World of Tanks onto his phone.

Neither Darwin, Volynyaka, nor Criminal had been trained on the B.R.M.; they’d figured out how to operate it the same way that Kaban and Cadet had learned to hot-wire the S.P.G.-9—by consulting the Internet. Such digital literacy had its perils, though. Two days after I met the B.R.M. crew, the 28th Brigade was poised to attempt its own advance across the no man's land. Then, on the eve of the offensive, a young member of the brigade posted a video of himself and his comrades in which he announced where "we will be attacking." By the time the video was deleted, it had been viewed more than eleven thousand times.

Early the next morning, Dondyuk and I went to a deserted village where one of the brigade's medical platoons was based. The medics had stayed up all night preparing for the operation, which now appeared to have been cancelled. Nonetheless, an unusual number of Ukrainian tanks and Humvees were passing through the village. The activity prompted speculation that the video might have been a Ukrainian feint designed to divert Russian attention from elsewhere in the vicinity of Bakhmut. With both sides so adept at manipulating information, you never knew what was real and what was a stratagem. "It's better not to think about it," a medic advised.

Five medevac teams worked in shifts around the clock. The team on duty was stationed in a sod-roofed root cellar on an abandoned wheat farm. The property owner had spray-painted the double doors of his barn with the words "do not break locks." The locks had been broken. Inside was an M-113, an American personnel carrier from the Vietnam War. It looked like a green metal box on tracks: there was no turret or gun, and its aluminum hull could deflect bullets but little else. The driver, Kyrylo, was a middle-aged man with a stutter who’d grown up working with his father on tractors and combines. He’d never even seen a manual for the M-113. "I can drive anything with an engine," he said. "A vehicle is a vehicle—you don't have to be a genius."

A medic and a dispatcher made up the rest of the team. The medic, a forty-seven-year-old grandmother named Leonora, was the only woman I encountered in the 28th Brigade. She’d worked as a trauma nurse for more than a decade before joining the Army, in 2019, after her husband moved to France without her, and now she was a sergeant. She had silver hair and narrow eyes that almost vanished when she smiled, which she did when I asked her how it felt to be surrounded all the time by men, and infantrymen at that.

"I’m used to it," Leonora said. "I don't notice."

We were eating a breakfast of bread and Nutella when a request came over the radio for a medevac at the Lower Harbor—code for a specific trench position.

"Fuck," the dispatcher said. "It's dangerous there."

Kyrylo was already running to the M-113. There was about an inch of clearance on either side as he pulled out of the barn. A ramp folded down, and Leonora, Dondyuk, and I climbed in. Two bloodstained canvas stretchers were propped on wooden ammunition boxes. Leonora grabbed a ceiling strap with each hand as Kyrylo accelerated toward the front. During evacuations, he drove at full speed. The maxed-out machine sounded like a blender full of silverware.

Leonora seemed to be in a meditative trance, numb to the cacophony, breathing deeply and slowly through her nose. After five minutes or so, Kyrylo stopped. Leonora stood up and stuck her head through a hatch in the roof, announcing into her radio, "We have arrived at the Lower Harbor. We are waiting."

A burst of bullets whizzed by. "Shit, motherfucker," Leonora said, sitting back down. Kyrylo moved the M-113 a few yards; from inside, we couldn't see where we were or what was happening. Leonora tried again to hail someone. "Silence," she reported.

"Where are we supposed to go?" Kyrylo asked.

There was more small-arms shooting—and then what sounded like an R.P.G. Gazing up through his own hatch, Kyrylo either heard or saw a drone: "Fuck, there's a bird above us."

Leonora repeated into the radio, "We are waiting at the Lower Harbor." After a second R.P.G. blast, she told Kyrylo, "I can't reach anyone."

Amid extended exchanges of machine-gun fire, eight loud explosions reverberated outside. Kyrylo, concerned about the risk of fire if we were hit by artillery, said, "Maybe we should open the door."

"Not yet," Leonora said. "Bullets might ricochet in."

"They won't."

Dondyuk asked Kyrylo if he was worried that we might be trapped inside. "Yes," Kyrylo said, his stutter almost preventing him from getting the word out. "It's happened before."

Some minutes later, Leonora ascertained that the man needing evacuation was not at the Lower Harbor but at another position a short drive away. When we arrived there, Kyrylo lowered the ramp. We were in a muddy field. A soldier, whose face was covered with dirt, emerged from some trees, supporting a limping man with a wounded chest.

"Let's go!" the soldier yelled. "Quickly!"

The man belonged to an assault unit that had just captured a Russian trench. He had been injured by shrapnel. Blood was smeared across his brow, but his comrades had already bandaged his chest, and there was little for Leonora to do. The man winced in pain and clung to the other soldier, who hugged him close as Kyrylo sped off, dust and debris scudding into the compartment through the open hatches.

About a mile and a half from the trenches, we arrived at a casualty-collection point—a dusty intersection filled with armored vehicles, including one with a metal chair mounted on its roof behind a twin-barrelled anti-aircraft gun. From the cramped hull, medics were extracting a man who couldn't walk. Leonora handed over the wounded soldier, and Kyrylo proceeded to the farm. I never found out whether the assault unit's attack was a downsized alternative to the offensive leaked in the Ukrainian soldier's video, or whether the video was a deliberate diversion from the attack.

Back at the root cellar, half-eaten bread slices were lying where we’d left them. I asked Leonora if, on our way to the Lower Harbor, she’d been praying. Not exactly, she said. She had been practicing visualization: marshalling positive mental energy to bring about a desired outcome. "I think about the soldier, to protect him until I arrive," she said. Then she went outside to smoke a cigarette and wait for the next call.

The following afternoon, I got a text from Odesa, the soldier who’d once gone AWOL. He was now in Kostyantynivka. Every week or so, the men in the trenches went to town to do laundry, bathe, eat a hot meal, and pick up mail. We met in the parking lot of a post office, where a line of soldiers snaked out the door. (Care packages often contained treats from home. While I was with the 28th Brigade, one infantryman received a Napoleon cake made by his mother; another, two plastic bottles of moonshine from his uncle.) When I told Odesa about the wounded soldier, he said he’d heard that the assault unit had killed several Russian soldiers. I asked how things were at his position. "The usual," he said.

Freshly showered and shaved, Odesa looked like a different person. But the trips to Kostyantynivka usually lasted only several hours. Most of the veterans had been granted extended leave just once during the past year—typically for a week and a half. Volynyaka had taken advantage of his break to marry his girlfriend. Odesa told me that the next time he went home he planned to do the same with a woman he’d got pregnant while he was AWOL. "It gives me motivation to stay alive," he said.

Unlike U.S. soldiers in every American conflict since the Second World War, Ukrainian draftees are generally not being contracted for fixed periods of service or deployed on tours with defined limits. They are being indentured for as long as they are needed. One officer told me, "You come home with victory, without a limb, or dead." A fourth option was desertion. "Sometimes they return, sometimes they don't," the officer said.

In January, Zelensky signed legislation that raised the maximum punishment for desertion to twelve years in prison. It is unknown how many Ukrainians have been sentenced to date, but one factor potentially obstructing enforcement of the law is the reluctance of superior officers to denounce offenders. Odesa's platoon leader, a senior lieutenant named Ivan, told me that he pitied the draftees in his platoon; like Pavlo, he placed the blame for their shortcomings on inadequate training. One of his soldiers, he said, "was just walking down the street when guys approached him and physically took him to the draft center—in less than two days, he was with the brigade."

Ivan did not begrudge Odesa the two months he had gone AWOL. All the old hands were burned out, the lieutenant explained, himself included. "I’m tired," he said. "I want to go home. I just want three months of rest. After that, I’ll happily continue to fight."

Dondyuk and I were at Odesa's position a few days after I’d seen him at the post office. Shelling had further razed the area; more trees had been knocked down, and those which stood were mangled and lacerated. The men were still rebuilding the machine-gun nest where their comrade had been killed. One of the medics I’d met had responded to the strike; it had been the first time, he said, that he’d seen shrapnel decapitate somebody.

Ivan wanted the soldiers to dig more and better trenches. "The chances of dying when you’re not in a trench are much higher," he scolded. "I’m not going to yell at you—I’m just explaining."

In contrast to the draftees, the lieutenant was elaborately outfitted, with high-quality body armor, noise-cancelling earphones, a lightweight ballistic helmet, and a new assault rifle decorated with a Unicorn Princess sticker from his daughter. He’d bought most of the gear with his own money. Ivan had attended a reserve-officer-training program while in law school, spoke fluent English, and wore a Star of David patch given to him by a friend from Israel. When I asked him if he felt out of place in the infantry, he said that everyone did: "It doesn't matter if you’re a soldier, a sergeant, a commander—you want to transfer from the infantry." After I left Ukraine, Ivan joined a drone-reconnaissance team, and texted me that he was now a "happy bastard."

Link copied

At the machine-gun nest, Ivan's men wearily accepted his chiding. "It's fine," Syava assured him. "We’re going to dig." He’d been up since 2 A.M., when an air strike had woken him. Everybody looked haggard and sleep-deprived. Exhaustion bred complacency, but so did habituation. When incoming artillery drove us into the dugout, I recognized a forty-three-year-old carpenter whom I’d met ten days earlier. At the time, he had just arrived and was clearly unnerved and disoriented. Now he seemed as unimpressed as Syava by the booming ordnance. When I remarked on the difference in him, he said, "I was a civilian," as if he were describing some distant chapter of his life that was no longer germane.

Despite the apathy and the lassitude, there was an animal alertness in the air. Nobody strayed more than a few steps from the dugout, and the taut communal anticipation of the next Russian strike recalled a row of sprinters in the blocks listening for the starting pistol.

At lunchtime, some of the men forked cold meat out of cans while others opened up packages of stale jelly-filled rolls. The carpenter had recently made his first trip to Kostyantynivka, and had brought back a box of chocolate pastries to celebrate his son's thirteenth birthday. The dugout was so tiny that the soldiers had to lie shoulder to shoulder—their clothes were kept outside. An explosion had incinerated Syava's winter coat. Food and trash were strewn everywhere. The mess had attracted mice. Adding to the unsanitary conditions, feces and soiled toilet paper littered the periphery of the position. Nobody wanted to die while burying his shit.

After machine-gun bullets buzzed the trees and we again crammed into the dugout, Syava complained, "It smells like dirty socks in here."

"Whose socks are those?" another soldier demanded.

"It must be Lyova," Syava said.

"What's wrong with him?"

"He has smelly feet."

Not long after, Lyova was hospitalized with tuberculosis. It is unclear when and where he first fell ill, but in such unhygienic quarters, viruses were rampant. When a sergeant overheard a draftee telling me that he was sick, the sergeant interjected, "Everybody is sick."

A long path leading from Syava's dugout to Ivan's snaked around craters cordoned off with deadwood, so that soldiers wouldn't fall into them at night. The battalion had retreated from the Wagner-held village when the ground was still frozen, and this had complicated their digging. Ivan's shelter had been made by blowing up hundreds of pounds of antitank mines, then squaring off the gaping hole with shovels. Now several infantrymen were working on a system of narrow channels that branched out from the bunker, which would prevent it from flooding when it rained.

Ivan shared the dugout with his superior, the company commander, who was called Oper. A forty-year-old former police detective, Oper had reason to be preoccupied with staying dry. In Kherson, the relentless Russian shelling had precluded his men from building adequate shelters, obliging them to sleep on the ground. Oper had contracted a bacterial infection, which spread over his skin and was aggravated by ravenous fleas. For months, he was plagued by open sores that he could not stop scratching. "I almost rotted alive," he said, taking out his phone to show me photographs of his torso mottled with pustules. Now he was perennially bundled in a down hoodie, a British Army coat, a German Army poncho, and a balaclava. His scraggly beard and eyebrows complemented the cold-weather apparel, giving him the look of an Arctic explorer.

While we were sitting in the dugout, Pavlo, the battalion commander, informed Oper, via Signal, that the Russians were preparing a "feast," or a heavy bombardment—perhaps in retaliation for the assault unit's attack on their trench, or perhaps as a probing tactic ahead of their own offensive. "Be ready," Pavlo said.

The feast began soon afterward. Close impacts caused the dugout's log roof to flex. A mortar blew open the door with a bright flash. The precise, repeated strikes made Oper and Ivan suspect that the Russians had realized the position was a command post.

"Maybe the drone saw the Starlink satellite," Ivan said. "Or they saw our toilet. It's obviously for officers." (The toilet was just a pit that had been dug deeply enough to afford its occupant protection while squatting.)

"They might have seen people getting dropped off here," Oper said. "They’re not stupid."

Ivan grabbed a pastry from the food rations. "I want to eat some cake before I die."

"If you want to die, get the fuck out of here," Oper said.

All the infantrymen told jokes to relieve the singular feeling of helplessness induced by artillery, but Oper's sense of humor was unrivalled. As the feast went on, he recounted one bawdy anecdote after another, patiently delaying their punch lines while combing his fingers through his beard.

Morale was as crucial an asset as any in the infantry. One day, while I was on the Zero Line, an "Army psychologist" had visited. He did not have a degree in psychology, and his role was limited to identifying soldiers who were incapacitated by fear and could not "overcome their paralysis." He explained, "I try to convey to them why they must follow their orders. If that doesn't work, then we send them to a real psychologist."

The Ukrainian military code for a wounded soldier is Three Hundred. For a dead soldier, it's Two Hundred. Soldiers who refuse to follow orders are sometimes facetiously labelled Five Hundreds. Ivan claimed that men often faked injuries in a bid to escape the trenches. "It happens all the fucking time," he said. But, he allowed, such desperation could arise from genuine psychological damage. The process for determining which Five Hundreds were malingering and which were what the Army psychologist called "mentally ill" was ambiguous. Few men seemed to satisfy whatever the criteria were for receiving medical leave. Almost all the veterans had suffered multiple concussions, but, as Kaban had told me, "If we get sent for treatment, who will stay in the trenches?"

Post-traumatic stress disorder did not seem to be an apposite diagnosis for anyone on the front, because the traumatic event was still happening. Taking leave, however, could trigger episodes of P.T.S.D. Oper, who had last returned home for his daughter's baptism, told me, "It's easier psychologically to stay here. It's hard to come back after visiting civilization." During the night that I spent with the S.P.G.-9 team, Kaban had recalled going to Odesa a few months earlier and experiencing a panic attack as soon as he exited the train station. The overwhelming stimuli—bustling crowds, speeding cars, jarring city noises—felt like an onslaught of potential threats. Strangers were rifling through their bags, making phone calls; Kaban instinctively reached for his Kalashnikov, only to realize that he was unarmed. When he spotted a group of soldiers patrolling the station, he ran to them, pale and shaking. "Don't worry," a soldier assured him. "You’re not the first. This happens a lot."

At least once a day, another Soviet armored vehicle, this one called a B.M.P., resupplied Ivan and Oper's dugout. Its arrival triggered a frenzied rush to unload boxes of ammunition, bales of razor wire, cases of energy drinks, and other provisions. Soldiers who had been given permission to leave the front would scramble onto the roof, hugging the cannon or clinging to whatever they could as the vehicle roared off.

The first time that Dondyuk and I hitched a ride on the B.M.P., it showed up at dusk, while we were being shelled. "That's it, let's go!," Oper, who was also heading to Kostyantynivka, shouted. Rounds were slamming into the field as we sprinted from the dugout. "Faster, faster! Son of a bitch!," Oper yelled at half a dozen soldiers crowding onto the B.M.P. In the air, rocket-propelled grenades exploded just shy of us. "Faster!," he bellowed. "What the fuck are you waiting for?" Once we were out of range of the R.P.G.s, which left black clouds of smoke hanging in the twilight, a cigarette was passed around.

The evening after the feast, Dondyuk and I decided that it was time to leave the unit. We joined the men who were trickling into Oper's dugout to await the B.M.P. Syava was there, using the Starlink connection to video-chat with his wife. They both laughed at his unkempt beard and hair, and Syava promised to "shave properly" when they were reunited. This time, perhaps in deference to Syava's wife, no one chastised him for having reveries about returning home.

At some point, Odesa showed up: he had reluctantly agreed to get fitted for a helmet. "It's going to look like a yarmulke," Oper said, teasing him about the size of his head. When I asked Oper if he’d always been a comedian, he answered with another quip: "War makes you funny, doesn't it?" For Oper, at least, levity seemed to provide a necessary insulation from the ordeal of combat. At the start—when there were no Five Hundreds or fainthearted draftees, and everyone was still a volunteer, galvanized by a profound sense of patriotic duty—Oper had commanded twelve extraordinarily courageous men. He had loved them all, and all of them had died. The losses had broken something in him, and he no longer permitted himself to form comparable attachments to his subordinates.

Yet the emotional distance that Oper placed between himself and his men—or that Kaban imposed between himself and Cadet—was nothing compared with the disconnect between the front and the rest of Ukraine. The whole country has been affected by the war, but nobody has absorbed its misery and horror the way infantrymen have. Meanwhile, the scope of the conflict has shrunk even as its brutality has escalated, meaning that a smaller segment of the citizenry has been asked to suffer more for objectives that are increasingly less self-evident. This divide has fostered animosity. Oper believed that draft dodgers should lose their citizenship, and he did not think that having three children should exclude a man from serving. "It should be the other way around," he said. "They have more to fight for."

At the 28th Brigade's trenches south of Bakhmut, we could often hear the fighting in the city, and one of Pavlo's three companies had been dispatched to join the urban combat. Thousands of Ukrainians are thought to have died in Bakhmut, and the city has become an uninhabitable wasteland, leading some to question whether the battle has been worth its cost in lives. Various strategic rationales have been offered: more Russian soldiers are dying than Ukrainian soldiers are; a withdrawal would merely shift the carnage to another town; it is advantageous to tie up Russian forces until the new Ukrainian brigades can launch their spring offensive. But Zelensky has also imbued Bakhmut with symbolic significance. While addressing the U.S. Congress, in December, he claimed, "Just like the Battle of Saratoga, the fight for Bakhmut will change the trajectory of our war for independence and for freedom." This March, Zelensky told the Associated Press that if Ukraine lost the city Putin would "smell that we are weak" and "sell this victory to the West, to his society, to China, to Iran."

Such considerations may be justified, but they have an abstract quality that is far removed from the mud and blood of the front. "The infantry hasn't changed since the First World War," Oper said. "Weapons, communications, and logistics have changed, but our job is the same." Another thing that hasn't changed is the expectation that infantrymen will do their job without necessarily understanding why. When it's unclear how they figure into the broader strategic calculus—and whether they are being sacrificed carelessly, as Odesa had come to feel about his friends in Kherson—infantrymen fight to save one another. The campaign to win a war can then resemble a struggle to survive it.

When the B.M.P. pulled up to Oper's dugout, I climbed onto the turret and sat beside a twenty-two-year-old sniper whose call sign was Student. I’d met him on the Zero Line, where he’d stuffed two candy wrappers into his ears before firing a four-foot-long American rifle across the no man's land. He’d been discharged from the hospital two weeks earlier, after being shot in the thigh. He was visiting Kostyantynivka because he had the flu.

Link copied

Student and I each hooked an arm around the cannon between us, and the B.M.P. sped across the fields, spitting red sparks and black exhaust, rising and dipping over the muddy craters and fallow rows like a ship plowing through choppy seas. In the distance, a bright incendiary munition was drifting slowly down; flames were dancing on a nearby ridge. I’d hoped to see Pavlo a final time, but the battalion command center had been hit earlier that day, and the soldiers were digging a replacement. As the B.M.P. passed Pavlo's old position, I saw that the farmhouse had been flattened. The hand-painted sign—"TO MOSCOW"—still hung on the tree.

Spring had arrived practically overnight a few days before I left the front: bluebells and other wildflowers bloomed on the trench walls, and green shrubbery carpeted the ravine leading to the Zero Line. Since then, the mud throughout the Donbas had dried out, making fields and roads more traversable and setting the stage for Ukraine's much anticipated offensive. On May 11th, the chief of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, stated on social media that Ukrainian forces around Bakhmut had begun "hitting our flanks—and unfortunately, in some places, they are having success." One of those places is to the south of the city, not far from the 28th Brigade. At least for now, though, the same few hundred yards of dead sunflowers separate the Russian forces from Pavlo's battalion.

On May 20th, Prigozhin claimed that his mercenaries had "completely taken" Bakhmut. Zelensky was in Japan, attending a G-7 summit, and during a press conference he both denied that the city had been completely taken and cast Bakhmut's fall as a Pyrrhic victory for Russia. "Today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts," he said. "There is nothing on this place, just ground and a lot of dead Russians." He did not mention dead Ukrainians, except obliquely: "Our defenders in Bakhmut . . . did strong work, and of course we appreciate them."

When Dondyuk and I departed the front and drove northwest, toward Kyiv, we passed through cities and villages that the last major Ukrainian offensive, in the fall, had liberated. Many of them lay in ruins. In Izyum, Russian forces had left behind a mass burial site containing hundreds of civilians; some showed signs of torture. A paved highway connected Izyum to Kharkiv, the second-biggest city in Ukraine and the focus of indiscriminate Russian shelling during the first months of the war. On the southern outskirts of Kharkiv, we stopped at a sprawling cemetery.

Years ago, an "Alley of Heroes" had been reserved on one end of the grounds for residents who had been killed in the Donbas. By the time Russia expanded its invasion, the section contained dozens of granite headstones; since then, the toll had risen too steeply to keep up with, and new graves were little more than low mounds of dirt.

A breeze was sweeping through hundreds of Ukrainian flags marking the mounds. Bouquets covered some of the plots; others had been planted with flowers. The soil was less dark than in the Donbas, but was just as soft and fertile.

Beyond the rustle of the flags, I heard a familiar sound: on the edge of the cemetery, four soldiers were shovelling earth into a fresh grave. A group of mourners silently watched them. A few feet away, a second funeral was taking place. That casket was still open, displaying a middle-aged man in uniform under a silk sheet. Perhaps because the four soldiers were going to bury this man, too, they worked with a discordant urgency, stabbing the excavated dirt with their spades and flinging it back into the hole, sweaty and out of breath. They weren't making a trench; they were unmaking one. But they dug as if their lives depended on it. ♦

The version above has been updated, as of 6 A.M. on May 22, 2023, to reflect developments in Bakhmut that occurred after we went to press.