The soldiers seek shelter from the cold inside the bukhanka, the Russian-made light truck par excellence that features a heating system that turns its interior into an almost tropical paradise. Outside, on the Bakhmut front in eastern Ukraine, it is raining and the temperature refuses to rise above 8ºC (46ºF). The men of the Grad rocket company of the 17th Ukrainian Armored Brigade have been waiting for hours for the battalion commander’s order to go into action. Their best friend is their cell phones and the satellite internet connection provided via a Starlink antenna.
“Most of the time in war, it’s about waiting,” says company commander Lt. Volodymyr. EL PAÍS accompanied two of the brigade’s three Grad rocket units to a camouflaged position on the second front line, 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from Bakhmut, in early May. The fiercest battle of the Ukraine war is being fought in multiple layers, from the trenches and in the rearguard of both armies. The Grad units of the Benjamin Company — the code name of their commander — will be ready in 50 minutes to position themselves within miles of the target they are given. They will be in the forward attacking position for no more than four minutes: they will fire and then race back to avoid being identified by Russian artillery.
Until that moment arrives, the six men operating the two launch vehicles pass the time with what they have at hand. On a table they have made using crates of explosives, they play cards or dominoes; the driver of the bukhanka uses his knife to shape a piece of wood into a spoon; Yevgen, 24, was a bartender in Kyiv before the war and lists the cocktails he makes best; inside the van, Danil, 22, plays the popular online game World of Tanks on his phone. His favorite model in the game is the Kranvagn, a 1950s armored prototype designed in Sweden to prevent a possible Soviet invasion of Scandinavia.
The unit’s commander drinks one tea after another while awaiting orders. In chat groups with other brigade officers, possible enemy coordinates and satellite imagery are shared. One of the groups is called NATO. The orders are detailed in a digital program that updates to the minute, and with high precision, the location of the enemy, also identifying the military assets that are at the Russians’ disposal with differing levels of certainty. While he waits, Lt. Volodymyr remains glued to the tablet containing all the confidential information from the front, with the opposing armies designated by color: blue for the Ukrainian units and red for the Russians.
Duty rotations last for three days; three days during which the soldiers sleep next to the Grad, in holes dug in the ground, among the trees, because at night Russian artillery and air power hunts for their positions. On the Liman front, 50 kilometers (31 miles) to the northeast, the men of the 63rd Infantry Brigade spend only one day in the line because the enemy is right in front of them.
Mortar shells, howitzers and helicopter missiles hit their trenches constantly, says Walter, the code name of the company captain, whose unit is positioned on a lake. On the far shore is the gray zone, a five-kilometer stretch of no man’s land.
An MT-LB armored vehicle awaits the EL PAÍS team five kilometers from the front. The base in this sector is located in a village between Liman and Svatove, between the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. From there, this Soviet armored infantry transport vehicle will cross abandoned agricultural fields to the second line of trenches, the first of which is located 500 meters ahead.
Helmets, always unfastened
The first instruction soldiers give journalists is that helmets must be worn unfastened: if a bullet hits a fastened helmet, it will pierce it. On the other hand, if it is not fastened, the bullet will glance off. One of the soldiers, meanwhile, recounts his experience in Bakhmut, one of the most bloody battlegrounds of the war: “Sometimes we were hit by 20 shells a minute. It was tough, but we held out. We didn’t retreat a meter.”
Around the trenches are stockpiles of Soviet Pion mobile howitzer shells, a 203-millimeter caliber projectile and one of the most powerful in the world. The mission here is to contain a Russian breakthrough attempt. The front in this sector has been static since last September, when a Ukrainian counteroffensive liberated Kharkiv province and gained a foothold in Luhansk.
Sitting at the table where his men eat, Walter, a veteran of the 2014 Donbas war and Bakhmut, considers it a near-suicidal mission to try to cross the front line across the lake, but adds that the Russians continue to send waves of men in an attempt to advance a few meters. “The Russians have not learned in this war,” he says. An officer of the 63rd Brigade illustrates the point with the fingers of one hand. The tactic is always the same, and the enemy always repeats the same mistake: in a row of defensive positions, the middle finger is withdrawn and the Russian units go straight in and take it, while the ring and index fingers close in around them.
This encircling tactic is precisely what General Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, is attempting to achieve in the battle for Bakhmut: to withdraw from the center and cut off the Russians inside the city.
Ukrainian sentries are waiting at the lake to set a trap for the enemy, or to monitor the arrival of the air threat, as they do every day. “They’re all the same here,” says one soldier. “There are no Mondays, no Tuesdays, no Sundays, no holidays.” They see missiles passing overhead daily toward Kramatorsk, the city that serves as the capital of the Ukrainian-held Donetsk region. There are also drone bombs, which are met by units armed with shoulder-fired Stingers, the U.S. surface-to-air missiles made famous in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when the Mujahideen used them against Red Army helicopters.
Roman leads a team of two soldiers equipped with a Stinger. Crouched in the bushes, he and his partner are preparing the weapon when they hear the buzz of a drone engine. The entire position goes on alert trying to identify the source of the sound while Walter instructs the press team to evacuate with the MT-LB.
PTSD, the invisible enemy
Back in the village that has been converted into a temporary base, the invisible enemy, post-traumatic stress disorder, appears. A soldier bursts into tears and is comforted by two comrades. Vitali, an officer, serves as the battalion’s therapist. He confirms that the soldier has had a nervous breakdown resulting from a concussion caused by an explosion that has left him with a psychiatric sequela.
Vitali is an engineer by profession and was mobilized in February. He took a course to learn the Army’s protocols for “psychological and moral support.” His task is to detect those soldiers who need psychological assistance, including being removed from the front line.
He illustrates the methods he has learned to care for a shellshocked soldier. He asks one of the journalists to sit in his desk chair, surrounded by bunk beds, sleeping bags and mats: “The first thing to do is to approach him, take away his weapons, pass them to someone else, hide them. Ask him, quietly: ‘Are you listening to me, how do you feel?’ Then you take him like this, with your fingers you start massaging him here... then his hands. You massage for a couple of minutes, then you hold his hands like this, with your fists, just sit in front of him, hold his hands, and talk to him without stopping, very quietly. This is done so that the person in a state of stupor begins to listen to you. So that his reflexes are activated. Then you have to say unpleasant things into his ear.”
The first thing to do is to approach him, take away his weapons, pass them to someone else, hide them”Vitali, Battalion mental health therapist
What unpleasant things do you say to a soldier concussed by an explosion? Vitali provides a few examples: “That his wife is cheating on him, that his brother has died... It will bring the man out of his stupor; he will begin to react to his surroundings. Then, when he comes to his senses, you have to explain that it was necessary, and tell him not to get angry. And then he thanks you.”
The mental health of Ukrainian soldiers is, experts and the military hierarchy have warned, a major problem that the country will have to face, and one for which it will need abundant resources that will be hard to come by. Around half a million men and women have already experienced combat, according to figures provided to EL PAÍS by high-ranking military officials, and Ukraine does not have enough therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists to care for those who need help.
Yuliia Sobolta, a therapist at the DoLadu organization who since 2017 has specialized in providing psychological assistance to soldiers suffering from disorders, admitted that only now is the military establishment — by nature a conservative organization in an already conservative society — beginning to accept that infantrymen on the front line perform meditation exercises to stabilize their mental state.
“When you are fighting, you don’t have much time to think about what’s going on,” reflects another soldier, 52-year-old Roman. “You could say that you get used to war over time. For me, it’s not the same now as when I started, in March 2022. But when you think about it, it’s difficult. It’s very difficult to see comrades die.” He lost a friend with whom he had been at the front since the beginning of the war, who was just 28.
There is still a long way to go, as evidenced by the laughter provoked by the relaxation exercises Vitali practiced on this correspondent. Despite the skepticism of some, his experience on the front lines has convinced him that where he can be of most use is by fighting the war that rages in every soldier’s head. That’s why, Vitali says, he will put aside his career as an engineer to study psychology.
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