LUHANSKE, UKRAINE — As Russia’s war drags into its fourth summer, the defensive lines on both sides of the front are hardening. With no end of the war in sight, the trenches and dugouts are becoming more elaborate and formidable.
Near Russian-controlled Debaltseve, a Donetsk Oblast city some 700 kilometers southeast of Kyiv, the soldiers of Ukraine’s 53rd Mechanized Brigade are protecting the town of Luhanske behind a two-and-a-half meter wall of concrete blocks and sandbags. The line bristles with gun barrels, trained due south towards enemy lines.
“In this area, (Russian-led forces) are some 600 meters away from us,” says soldier Valeriy Kupriyenko, whose nom-de-guerre is “Tracer,” as he peers through a firing slot, looking for signs of enemy movement. “We hold on tight here and keep that field in front of us under total fire control: There’s no point in our enemy going over the top — they’d be riddled with bullets.”
Dozens of Kalashnikov rifles are leaning against the wall, next to ammunition boxes filled to the brim with cartridges. At least one soldier is always on duty at the DShK heavy machine gun. Several loaded grenade launchers are also on hand, in case armored vehicles attempt to break through the line.
Although intense exchanges of gunfire are now relatively rare in this area, soldiers strongly advise against peeping over the defensive wall at the enemy lines.
“There’s no need to tease their snipers,” they said.
Life in dugouts
Rather than making suicidal, head-on infantry attacks, Russian’s proxy forces now tend to strike from a distance, usually at night, with heavy mortars, howitzers and self-propelled guns — all of which were supposed to have been withdrawn long ago under the 2015 Minsk II peace agreement.
“In trench warfare, a soldier rarely sees his foe’s face,” Kupriyenko said.
As evidence of regular shelling, the whole area around the Ukrainian trenches south of Luhanske, for many hundreds of meters around, is dotted with impact craters. They grow in number almost every day.
The shelling forces Ukraine’s infantry to go below ground, just as on the battlefields of World War I. History is repeating itself a century later at Debaltseve: as protection against enemy mortar and artillery fire, the soldiers build dugouts out of thick layers of timber, buttressed with concrete, deep into the earth.
A Ukrainian soldier walks through a muddy trench at a defensive position near the Ukrainian-controlled town of Luhanske in the Debaltseve area on July 31. (Volodymyr Petrov)
During a recent overnight mortar attack on July 31, an 82-millimeter mortar round made a direct hit above one of the shelters. The shell left an impact crater, but nobody in the dugout was hurt — the thick layer of soil covering and heavy timber of the shelter absorbed the blast.
“The deeper you dig, the less you suffer,” the infantrymen joked, repeating an old barrack-room saying.
The timber used in the dugouts eventually rots because of humidity and rain, however, and once a year the soldiers have to unearth their shelters and heave fresh heavy lumber into place.
The war is mostly about hard labor, not fighting, the soldiers said.
In their dugouts and trenches, Ukrainian servicemen sleep and eat, live and fight for many weeks without leave, so they try to make their positions comfortable, as far as is possible at war. The underground barracks have electricity, and when off duty, Ukrainian fighters sometimes watch TV as they rest on their bunk beds under the dim, yellowy light of a weak bulb.
Right next to their firing points, among caches of rifles, grenades and ammunition, the soldiers and their officers dry laundry and boil water for tea on makeshift stoves — the battlefield has become their backyard, and household chores often go on even amid fighting.
Back in the winter of 2015, the fighting for Debaltseve, a strategically important railway hub that used to connect industrial centers of the Donbas, virtually devastated the region, turning it into a sparsely populated, gloomy wasteland.
Whole villages were evacuated in a frantic rush under intense shelling, and following the battle, 80 percent of the city lay in ruins.
Although many civilians subsequently returned to their homes, the area has never recovered from the effects of the hostilities. Branch lines of the city’s rail junction have been abandoned, their torn railway tracks slowly rusting, and broken electricity wires drooping from their pylons.
The towns of Svitlodarsk, Luhanske and Myronivsky, some 15 kilometers northwest of Debaltseve, remained under Ukraine’s control, but are war-battered and abandoned by many of the locals. Residential houses were badly damaged, or gutted by fire, as a result of enemy shelling.
After Debaltseve fell, the frontline took on its present position, and has gradually hardened.
There has been little heavy fighting in the area since late December 2016, when Ukrainian forces retook the gray zone town of Novoluhanske just west of Svitlodarsk, at the cost of five soldiers killed.
Ukraine’s servicemen sometimes call the bow-shaped system of fortifications in the area the Svitlodarsk Bulge — another reminder of past wars, such as the Kursk Bulge of World War II.
Defending the bulge is a strategically important mission — Svitlodarsk and Myronisky each have a thermal power plant, situated just six kilometers from each other on the banks of the River Luhanka. The plants generate vitally important electricity supplies for the whole region.
Russian-led forces now control two out of the six thermal plants of Donetsk Oblast. If Ukrainian forces were to be pushed back in the Debaltseve area, the Kremlin’s puppet states would gain control of two more plants.
Road of Life
Apart from holding the defensive lines south of the power plants, Ukrainian forces also maintain positions along the deserted Bakhmut-Debaltseve highway, which stretches southeast towards the occupied city.
Dubbed “the Road of Life,” it is the route by which 2,500 Ukrainian troops withdrew from the surrounded city back in the winter 2015. The rusting hulks of destroyed armored vehicles and cars still litter the fields along the empty highway.
Roughly three kilometers before the road meets enemy lines near the occupied village of Lohvynove, Ukraine’s forces have a standalone fortified observation point.
Situated in the flat steppe partially covered by sparse woodland, it is exposed to fire from two directions, and is often caught in the crossfire during combat. Nevertheless, despite the danger, Ukrainian fighters continue to fortify and develop the position, which is situated less than 10 kilometers from Debaltseve.
The position is valuable because it allows Ukrainian servicemen to keep a watch out for enemy movements across the open terrain. The soldiers serve four-hour watches at the machine guns, and then jump out of the trenches and rush down the hill away from the position one by one, keeping a distance between each other — the whole area is a live fire zone.
“In daytime, we rarely open fire,” said the commander of the position, Second Lieutenant Anatoliy Tsymbaliuk, as he scanned the horizon through binoculars. “But at night the (enemy) starts probing our defenses, trying to approach us from behind the tree cover in the field. Through thermal scopes, we sometimes detect sabotage squads creeping through the field — and shoot them down.”
During a thunderstorm the night before, a group of the enemy managed to approach a destroyed infantry fighting vehicle some 500 meters west of the position. After coming under a short burst of fire from a Kalashnikov machine gun, the enemy retreated, melting back into the pouring rain, Tsymbaliuk said.
In daylight, the roof of a wooden dugout at the militants’ advance position three kilometers away is visible through a periscope raised over one of the observation point’s trenches. Now and again figures in camouflage jump up from the ground and rush back to the dugout — it is the enemy changing watches at their own machine gun nests.
“The separatists are fortifying their trenches too,” Tsymbaliuk said. “We sometimes see cement mixers and excavators at their lines — they seem to be building real bunkers there, bringing local civilians in to work.”
With both armies steadily building up their defenses, the stalemate war in Debaltseve area, as well as at other hotspots, could last for many more years, Tsymbaliuk said.
“It’s the logic of World War I — because of machine guns, both parties could not crack the enemy lines then, before tanks were invented. We have absolutely the same model — we are banned from using tanks, heavy artillery, aviation. And in their turn, the militant forces don’t have the strength to knock us out. So we have to square off with the enemy infantry, with very little progress. Sometimes we call it the Great Standoff.”
He watches his soldiers stamp through the clayish trench mud moistened by the previous day’s rain as they head to their gun positions. The trench floor is covered by wooden duckboards made from old ammunition cases.
“Erich Maria Remarque would find this picture quite familiar,” Tsymbaliuk smiles, referring to the German author of the World War I novel “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
Lviv-born Tsymbaliuk was one of those who managed to break out of the Russian forces’ encirclement in Debaltseve back in 2015. More than two years later, he still believes that the stalemate war will end one day, and Ukraine will regain control of the Russian-occupied parts of the Donbas.
“Every night here at the position I see the lights of Debaltseve on the horizon,” he said. “I’ve spent all these three years of war here in this area of Donetsk Oblast, and started to love this place. Who knows — maybe I will see that city once again.”