With Low-Tech, Trench Warfare, Ukraine’s Army Isn’t NATO Caliber

POPASNA, Ukraine — The soldiers live in dugout bunkers, and cook all their own meals. They dry their wet socks on clotheslines underground. Many of their weapons are remnants of the Soviet era, half a century old.

In the icy trenches of eastern Ukraine, where government troops are fighting Russian-backed separatists, one of the critical issues in the standoff between Russia and the West — should Ukraine be allowed to join NATO? — seems hardly pressing or even relevant: Little about the day-to-day activities of Ukrainian soldiers suggests the kind of sophisticated, contemporary military that distinguishes NATO members.

“You dig a hole, then you sleep in that damned hole,” said Pvt. Yuri Todorchuk, who is 53, summing up service in the Ukrainian army in the east. “Even younger men have sore backs” from all the digging, he said.

Pvt. Yuri TodorchukCredit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has massed about 130,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, stoking fears of an imminent invasion by an upgraded and lethal Russian fighting force. And he has insisted to the United States and Western Europe that Ukraine must never be allowed to join NATO, a demand the West has rejected.

But several days of observation at the front lines last week showed the grinding, relatively low-tech tactics of a Ukrainian army. Hard-pressed for soldiers, the military now admits enlisted men up to age 57 on three-year contracts. It has been reforming and re-arming but remains almost wholly focused on the manpower-intensive trench fighting in the east, a decidedly old-fashioned form of war.

The eight men in one small unit, Lima squad, part of a mechanized brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, arrived at their position in June and set about digging, soldiers said.

They burrowed out their underground homes — two sleeping quarters, each with four bunks; a subterranean kitchen; and a room for steam baths — and have lived in these cavelike spaces since.

Lima squad’s underground bunker.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Above ground, plastic sheeting claps in a freezing wind. With separatist trenches close by, in a tree line across a snowy field, the only truly safe place is underground.

Nothing about the unit suggests a connection to NATO other than the name, Lima, which is the NATO phonetic alphabet designation for the letter L. Under an overhaul as part of Ukraine’s aspiration to join the alliance, military units were renamed according to NATO standards.

The conflict is fought mostly with rifles, machines guns, rocket propelled grenades, mortars and artillery systems dating to the 1970s or earlier. American-made, and more recently dispatched, British-made anti-tank missiles are intended mainly to repel a broad Russian attack, not for use on the front.

American Javelin anti-tank missiles were deployed only last fall to eastern Ukraine. Turkey has provided another of the country’s newer weapons, the Bayraktar TB2 armed drone, but the Ukrainian military has acknowledged using it only once in combat, last October.

Still, military analysts say the force is in far better shape than in 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and fomented the war in the east. The United States has provided $2.7 billion in military assistance in the years since. In recent weeks, it authorized Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to send American-made Stinger antiaircraft missiles to Ukraine, and Britain has provided guided anti-tank missiles.

And the Ukrainian army is battle hardened. About 400,000 Ukrainian soldiers, including about 13,000 women, have gone through rotations along the eastern front, providing a pool of veteran fighters.

But multiple rotations have also taken a heavy toll, soldiers in this position, who range in age from 25 to 59, said. Pvt. Volodymyr Murdza, 53, is halfway through his second three-year contract. His son is also serving in the war and his wife worries terribly, he said. “She calls and says, ‘I worry because you don’t call me,’” Private Murdza said. “And I say, ‘Dearest, sunshine, I call whenever I can.’”

Pvt. Volodymyr MurdzaCredit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

The closeness of the lines is a continual source of unease, Private Murdza said. Just two days earlier, a soldier from another unit serving in a position 100 or so yards away was wounded from shrapnel from a mortar, after the Russian-backed separatists apparently ascertained its location.

So, in the pre-dawn, three soldiers in Lima squad awoke for an operation to prevent a similar setback in their small maze of trenches.

The orders were to fire a heavy machine gun from a position where it is not typically stationed. The soldiers described opening up with the gun as a routine necessity, to mislead the other side about the location of their positions, and prevent an attack. Neither side observed repeated political announcements of cease-fires. The most recent cease-fire announcement came last week, after diplomatic talks between Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine in Paris.

“Are you ready?” one of the soldiers asked, pulling back a lever to load the gun. “It’s happening now.” It was 3 a.m.

With that, a small, log-framed dugout filled with the roar of the 50-calber machine gun, muzzle flashes and acrid smoke. A few bursts of a dozen or so bullets each were fired.

Firing a heavy machine gun toward separatist positions.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

In the distance, across the pitch-black, fallow farm field that separates the two sides, answering volleys rang out. But the shots went wide, flying overhead dozens of yards from the Ukrainian dugout. A radio crackled. Then it was silent again, except for the crunch of Ukrainian soldiers’ footsteps in the snow as they returned to their usual position.

The level of violence has ebbed and flowed over the eight years of war in eastern Ukraine, but it has mostly been a low-intensity conflict.

Deployments that last six to eight months are hard, but so are leaves at home, said Pvt. Roman Leskiv, 30, the commander of Lima squad, who has been serving in the east since the war started.

“It feels stifling; people don’t understand me,” said Private Leskiv, explaining that after so many years at the front he has trouble assimilating to life away from it. “Vacation is the hardest part of the year for me.”

Pvt. Roman LeskivCredit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

But seeing only the faces of the same half-dozen other men, for months on end, also grates on his nerves.

A few years ago, he married a nurse who had treated him in hospital after a shrapnel wound, but they divorced.

“She asked, ‘When will you come home?’” said Private Leskiv, sitting by the wood fire in the unit’s kitchen, running a hand over a scar on his scalp underneath his buzz-cut hair. “And I said, ‘Soon, soon, soon.’ But soon never happened.”

Dr. Oleksandr Astrakhantsev, the doctor assigned to the larger unit that Lima squad reports to, treats battle wounds, mostly from shrapnel, but also everyday ailments of men in their 50s living in rough circumstances. “In these conditions, any problem becomes more acute,” from stress to lack of sleep, he said.

Psychological difficulties also arise. “When you see the same faces every day, and every day nothing changes, it can get you down,” said Dr. Astrakhantsev. Soldiers recede into themselves, stop talking.

“We used to call it Afghan syndrome,” he said. “Everybody out here has it. Even if a soldier goes home, a part of him stays out here in the east.”

A Ukrainian Army position in Popasna.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
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