In some villages along the front, Ukrainian and Russian soldiers face each other closely, sometimes within sight of each other.
The impact of a tank round broke the plaster roof of the bunker and caused uniformed men to scramble. Flak jackets and helmets were thrown up and automatic weapons cocked. Amid a crescendo of machine-gun fire, a tall soldier slung an anti-tank missile launcher over his shoulder and took a slow drag on his cigarette.
The Russians were close.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine was mostly remote, with Ukrainian and Russian troops launching artillery shells at each other, sometimes from tens of kilometers away. But at some points along the zigzagging eastern front, the combat becomes a vicious and intimate dance, with enemy troops getting glimpses of each other as they battle for command of hills and makeshift redoubts in towns and villages shattered by shells.
One such dance took place on Wednesday when a Russian unit of about 10 men entered the village where soldiers of a Ukrainian contingent, the Carpathian Sich Battalion, had dug in. In all likelihood, the Russian troops were there to identify targets for incoming tank fire, including the bullet the Ukrainian soldiers used to act. Ukrainian troops saw the Russian soldiers and opened fire and pushed them back.
“It was a sabotage group, intelligence agency,” a 30-year-old fighter known as Warsaw said, panting after the brief firefight. “Our boys did not sleep and reacted quickly, forcing the enemy to flee.”
So it goes every day, every hour, for the fighters of the Carpathian Sich Battalion, a volunteer unit named after the army of a short-lived independent Ukrainian state that was founded just before World War II. Attached to the Ukrainian Army’s 93rd Mechanized Brigade, the battalion is deployed along a row of villages and dug farmland in the Kharkiv region, tasked with stopping Russian troops pushing down their stronghold in the occupied Ukrainian city of Izium.
The battalion authorized a DailyExpertNews reporter and photographer to visit a front line on the condition that the precise location of their base would not be disclosed. Most soldiers agreed to identify themselves only by their call sign.
They have not had an easy battle.
The Russian army has deployed a massive force along this front in eastern Ukraine, demonstrating its overwhelming superiority in tanks, fighters, helicopters and heavy artillery.
The war machines seldom remain silent for long. Tanks in particular have become a serious threat, fighters said, often coming within a mile of battalion positions and wreaking absolute havoc. This month, 13 soldiers with the battalion have already been killed and more than 60 wounded.
“It’s a very different war than I’ve seen in places like Afghanistan or Iraq,” said a colonel who called himself Mikhailo. “It’s tough fighting. Nobody cares about the law of war. They shell small towns, use forbidden artillery.”
Many of the battalion’s soldiers had experience in the eight-year war against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and had fought in some of the most intense battles of the conflict. But most had been used to civilian life for years.
A tall, bearded soldier known as Rusin owns a bathtub selling business in the mountainous region of Transcarpathia, western Ukraine. But when Russia invaded on February 24, he quickly married his girlfriend — saying he wanted someone to wait for him at home — and left for war with a sense of mission.
“We understand that this is not a war between Ukraine and Russia,” he said. “This is a war of the pure and the light that exists on this earth, and darkness. Either we stop this horde and the world gets better, or the world is filled with the anarchy that takes place wherever there is war.”
Fighters from the battalion have temporarily taken up residence in an underground maze beneath a building now perforated by artillery shells. The cannons and ammunition boxes piled up in the corners are covered in the plaster dust that drops every time a grenade hits nearby.
Aside from soldiers, the bunker is inhabited by a menagerie of animals who have also sought safety from the bombs – several small dogs and black goats that like to make a mess of the kitchen. On Wednesday, Chevron, a very large German Shepherd, was sleeping in front of a stack of American Javelin rocket launchers, already out of their suitcases and ready to fire.
The whole region is rumbling with war. Low-flying Mi-8 attack helicopters share the air with fighter jets flying over the countryside, occasionally lighting fires in the fields as they fire flares to divert heat-seeking missiles.
The unit’s drone operator is Oleksandr Kovalenko, one of the few without a gun. While his job is to help his comrades focus their artillery on Russian positions, he approaches his work like an artist, occasionally cutting and saving photos when the balance between light and shadow in the frame is to his liking.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
To the ground. A Ukrainian counter-offensive at Kharkov appears to have contributed to the sharp decrease in Russian shelling in the eastern city. But Moscow’s troops are advancing along other parts of the front line.
It shows off an overhead view of the surrounding farmland. It is green with spring growth, but pockmarked like the moon of artillery strikes. As he scans the landscape, a patch of trees where Russian troops are deployed suddenly erupts into a fireball that shatters into a mushroom cloud.
The battalion is a hodgepodge, with fighters from all over Ukraine and the world. There’s Matej Prokes, a wispy 18-year-old from the Czech Republic who has scribbled “Born to Kill Russians” on the side of his helmet, but admitted somewhat shyly that he hadn’t fired yet. Elman Imanov, 41, from Azerbaijan, was moved to fight against Russia after seeing the atrocities committed against non-combatants in Ukraine.
“I pulled a four-month-old from a nine-story apartment with my own hands,” he said, a rack of gold teeth glistening in the bright fluorescent light. “I will never be able to forget that and I will never be able to forgive. He had never seen anything. What was he guilty of?”
And then there’s a 47-year-old soldier called Prapor, who is exotic even to the battalion. Born in Siberia, Prapor had a full career in the Russian military before retiring in the early 2000s, though he declined to say where he fought. He joined Ukrainian forces when Russian troops began shelling Kiev.
“What can I say, they studied well,” he said. “But the fact that they have started killing peaceful civilians, looting, this is indecent.”
The battalion commander, Oleg Kutsin, said this diversity is part of his contingent’s ethos. When the original Carpathian Sich was established in the 1930s, it welcomed anyone willing to fight and die under the blue and gold banner of an independent Ukraine, he said.
Not only are virtually all troops welcome, but also equipment, he said. In addition to the Javelins, troops fighting in the area recently received another gift to help them even enter the playing field: American-made M777 howitzers, a long-range artillery piece the Ukrainians were desperate to put into action.
“We wanted to revive this military tradition of the Ukrainian armed forces,” he said at his unit’s command center, where a desk was covered with maps of the region and a flat-screen TV showed live images of the smoky battlefield.
“They’re coming,” he said, “we’ll give them weapons and point them at the enemy.”