As Ukraine's war grinds on, soldiers are outgunned and injuries are rising
Updated July 20, 2022 at 4:58 PM ET
DNIPRO, Ukraine — Under the hot sun and relentless Russian artillery, 6,000 Ukrainian soldiers painstakingly drive their vehicles single-file along the Siverskyi Donets river, beating a retreat from eastern Ukraine as Russian troops fire at them.
"The Russians have so much ammunition, they can afford to shell us continuously, and we do not have enough ammunition to suppress their fire," says Oleg, 21, an infantry platoon commander among those retreating. "That was how they eliminated our units."
Against all odds, Ukraine's army has managed to hold off a full-scale Russian invasion. But now they must continue to survive while outgunned and outmanned by Russia.
NPR interviewed Oleg and a half-dozen soldiers in early July, just two days after they came off a brutal three-month stint fending off the Russian military from the strategic Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk. They all requested NPR use only their first names for security reasons, to prevent them from being identified or located by Russian forces.
On June 24, Ukraine's defense ministry said it had been forced to withdraw its troops from Sievierodonetsk. The week after, they withdrew from its sister city, Lysychansk.
As the war in Ukraine enters its fifth month, with no end in sight, these soldiers' experience at the front lines provide a glimpse into what a protracted war with Russia could look like. The men profess strong dedication to protecting their country. But Ukrainian battalion members say they are also increasingly staffed by exhausted soldiers with a constant shortage of military experience, artillery and ammunition.
"Of course, I am afraid of death," Oleg says. "But I am a military commander. If I show fear, my deputies will be scared as well."
Young volunteers and recruits often enter the war with little training or preparation
Oleg was finishing his semester at a Kyiv military academy when Russian soldiers invaded in February and set their sights on taking over Ukraine's capital. His academy let him graduate early, in March, so he could enlist in the Ukrainian military.
Today he is responsible for more than 260 infantry soldiers in an all-new platoon at the front lines. The entire platoon is comprised of volunteers who also enlisted in March. A handful received military training decades earlier, but most were fresh recruits fired up by patriotism. They were woefully inexperienced. At most, they got three weeks of training before shipping out.
"Let me answer this way: I enlisted on March 22, and by April 4, I was in Sievierodonetsk," says Oleksandr, a civil engineer by training who now works setting and clearing mines. "I had to learn everything."
Oleksandr had already lived through eight years of war, starting in 2014, when Russian-backed separatists seized territory in Ukraine's east, next to his home in Kramatorsk. But nothing prepared him for the brutality of the front.
On one reconnaissance sweep, he recalls, his team encountered a group of unsuspecting Russians, leading to a close-range firefight. "Not all of the Russian soldiers were able to leave this encounter, so to speak," he says.
He worries young volunteers are being shipped out without preparation. The high casualty rate also robs the Ukrainian military of a chance to build up an experienced officer corps.
"The young soldiers are like a sponge, they absorb everything, but they need time to be cultivated," Oleksandr explains. "A commander may need 30 years' experience, but they're 20-year-old boys who are giving their lives even though they have not even seen life yet."
The soldiers NPR interviewed describe intense shelling from the moment they arrived in Sievierodonetsk, once a densely-populated city at the heart of Ukraine's eastern Luhansk region known for its rich coal mines and chemical fertilizer plants.
The shelling picked up in May, as Russia added cruise missiles strikes launched off of aircraft and ships in the Black Sea. Oleg, the commander, also says well-trained Russian special force soldiers appeared in May, replacing the previous ill-equipped infantry, and began making advances toward Ukrainian lines at least twice a week.
Not all Ukrainians have welcomed their country's military defenders
Not all Ukrainian citizens are grateful for the soldiers giving their lives to defend the country from Russia. Even before February, Ukraine was deeply politically split, with many people in the eastern regions openly supportive of Russia and nostalgic for Soviet times.
And even Ukrainian residents living in areas subject to deadly shelling from Russian missiles have been susceptible to Russian social media and television propaganda falsely claiming that the strikes are launched by the Ukrainian army, intentionally firing on its own citizens.
Olga Bashey, 45, a front line paramedic known by her nickname "Krokha" (meaning "small" or "baby") says while evacuating injured civilians from Lysychansk, the site of key battles in June, one woman began berating her medical team for being a "Nazi junta" — a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin's false claim that Ukraine's government is run by Nazi supporters.
"She was lucky that I am Muslim and know to control myself," Bashey remembers. "I would have otherwise left her on the field, injured without any help, and let the Russians save her."
Oleg, the infantry commander, said he was surprised by the lackluster welcome they received along the front lines from their fellow citizens.
"They looked at us as if we are aliens, from another planet," he remembers.
In the days after his battalion evacuated Sievierodonetsk, he saw videos on Russian social media featuring Ukrainian residents he'd met and provided food and medicine. But in the videos, they are welcoming the invading Russian soldiers.
"It leaves a residue in the soul," he says.
Eleven days later, the remainder of Oleg's regiment was back at the front lines, fighting again.
Ukrainian forces struggle due to insufficient ammunition and artillery
Sasha, 39, the head of a mortar unit, spent the last three months living in underground dugouts and basements in Sievierodonetsk, running through forests outside the city on eight-hour shifts, packing artillery with new shells.
"Here, we miss the constant boom, boom, boom of war. It is too silent. On the front, silence means the enemy is loading their weapons and about to kill you," he tells NPR from his barracks. "The specter of war stays with us."
Like all the soldiers NPR spoke with, Sasha praises American and European ammunition and artillery such as M777 howitzers that they had received. The problem was there just was not enough.
"Russia uses the same weapons as us, it is just they have more of it. If I set 100 mines a day, they set, say, 500. In terms of manpower, they have six men for every one soldier we have," says Sasha, a former solar panel installer.
A dearth of ammunition hinders any offensives Ukrainian troops can make, soldiers say, because infantry would be quickly wiped out by incoming Russian artillery.
"Without good, intensive support from artillery aircraft that shield you, it makes no sense to go head-on with tanks and machine guns and all that," says Yaroslav, 32, a former policeman who fought in Ukraine's south, near the country's Kherson region, until shrapnel pierced his leg and lungs in June.
The U.S. has given Ukraine advanced guided rocket systems, called HIMARS, which can hit targets up to 50 miles away and allowed Ukraine to score notable victories against Russia's better-resourced army. In July, Ukraine's defense ministry said the HIMARS took out several major Russian ammunition depots, and there are signs heavy casualties may be forcing Russian authorities toward conscription.
Another challenge is the increasingly lethal and often illegal Russian arms, such as cluster munitions, being deployed en masse against both civilians and the Ukrainian military, according to Yakuv Nemykin, the deputy head of the Donetsk region's emergency services.
"The Russians are using lots of new weapons. We have to learn by making mistakes, but it is costing us lives," he says. Those taking part in the department's mine clearing operations have sustained particularly high casualty rates.
Even those hardened by the grim business of war since 2014 say they are shocked by the dire conditions the Ukrainian army faces in the east.
"This war is more aggressive, fought with deadlier weapons that leave behind not just dead soldiers, but dead civilians too," says Bashey, the paramedic. She says few soldiers even survive long enough to be brought to her triage tents, now based in Kramatorsk, an eastern Ukrainian town at the very edge of Ukraine-held land in the eastern region of Donetsk.
On many days, she says her team is often pinned in place by intense, unceasing shelling that frequently forces the medics to choose who to save and who to leave behind on the battlefield because of the limited time they have to evacuate the injured.
"There are times when we cannot pull out heavily injured, so we prioritize the lightly injured," Bashey says. "We do not dwell on those we leave behind. This is war."
Serious injuries are increasing
The casualties of this war are mounting. Precise Ukrainian figures are tightly guarded, though President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said as many as 200 soldiers are dying a day.
The human toll is evident in civilian and military hospitals across the country.
"I've treated soldiers before, but with the expansion of the battlefield and the use of deadlier weapons, the concentration of serious wounds has increased," says a doctor named Oleksander, the head of surgery at a hospital in the central Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih, Zelenskyy's hometown. He asked that NPR use only his first name for security reasons.
Oleksander says he's treated 900 front line soldiers since the start of the war. They were the ones who survived long enough to be brought to the hospital.
Most of the soldiers in the Kryvyi Rih hospital suffered serious injuries and have months of convalescence ahead.
"Recovery is hard, especially when I remember the pain and fear I saw in my comrades as they were screaming in that dugout. There was a lot of blood," says Yaroslav, 38. The former muay thai martial arts instructor was sitting in a roadside dugout in late June when a Russian mortar exploded inside.
He still has flashbacks to the bits of skin and limbs that plastered the concrete walls afterward. Some of the bits were his.
"I now have nightmares at night," he says. "The fear is ever present."
At one point, his heart stopped. He'll need six months to heal the shattered leg and deep shrapnel wounds he suffered.
Kostantyn, 33, remembers everything that happened after a Russian missile hit a tank next to him in June. His ginger beard is still blackened from burns; his left forearm tattoo of a bamboo grove is flayed nearly beyond recognition.
"I went blind and was thrown like a sack of potatoes by the blast. Pain coursed through my body," he remembers.
He could feel his right arm bleeding heavily, so he reached for the tourniquet he kept in his right jacket pocket, but fatigue overwhelmed him.
"I was so tired," he says, "and I thought, just let me die, and I put my head down and waited for the end."
He survived by eventually crawling behind another vehicle.
"Even when they started cutting off the remnants of my clothes from me," he says, "I even remember how the rocket looked as it flew towards us."
The hospital's head doctor describes how he painstakingly put Kostantyn's body back together. It took a month of skin graft procedures to treat the severe burns covering a quarter of the soldier's body. Some of the grafts were Kostantyn's own skin, others were pig skin.
Like many other soldiers in his regiment, Kostantyn has spent most of his adult life fighting: He is a former internet technology engineer who enlisted in 2014, after Russian-backed separatists took control of his home city in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region.
Despite his wounds, he's optimistic that he'll rejoin the fight.
"I feel so much better in this week alone," he insists to his doctor, between labored breaths.
"That is because you have been here for more than a month, but you remember none of it," his doctor gently chides him.
Later, in private, the doctor tells us quietly that Kostantyn's right ear and eye will never regain function at all. He has not had the heart to tell this soldier he is no longer fit for military service.
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