NOVOOLEKSANDRIVKA, Ukraine — When he’s not engaged in gun battles with Russian-led forces on Ukraine’s eastern front line, Stas, a scruffy 26-year-old soldier, likes to cozy up in his bunker and brush up on his English skills by watching Stephen Colbert and Saturday Night Live. He cracks up at Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of President Donald Trump.
Watching political satire on American TV — when he’s able to get a strong enough signal on the battlefield to access YouTube — is also how Stas learned that Trump had frozen $391 million in US security aid meant for the Ukrainian armed forces over the summer. The news made him angry. The fighting was hot at the time, and he and his fellow soldiers were stuck with mostly crappy, old gear.
“Look at this. It’s old and falling apart,” he complained of his Ukrainian government–issued bulletproof vest in accented English. It was barely stitched together and slouching on one side. “It’s a piece of shit.”
There’s one thing Stas and the soldiers in Ukraine’s 72nd Mechanized Brigade positioned in the village of Novooleksandrivka do have, which they say has helped them spot enemy soldiers who creep within grenade-throwing range of their trenches at night: a pair of US-made night vision sights.
The only problem? They don’t fit on the Ukrainian rifles.
He explained that “they would definitely be more effective if we had them on our rifles,” which is impossible without a special adapter. He demonstrated how he has to hold the sight in one hand, pick a target, lower the device from his eye, and try to remember where he was looking as he aims and fires his weapon. Despite all this, an extra pair or two would be good, he said.
He wondered: Would his brigade have gotten at least another sight if the security aid hadn’t been held up? If only Americans knew how much the equipment would help…
“Nobody in your country knows what’s happening here,” Stas continued, waving his arms in frustration. “They don’t know how we are fighting for our lives with almost nothing.”
Meanwhile, some 5,000 miles west of Stas’s bunker, inside the Longworth building in Washington, DC, Rep. Adam Schiff’s gavel was falling on an ornate wooden dais to signal the first day of public hearings in the House impeachment inquiry against Trump. Soon after, Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, brought into focus for millions of Americans the importance of US support for the country and its fight against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Even as we sit here today, the Russians are attacking Ukrainian soldiers in their own country,” Taylor said in his opening statement. “The security assistance we provide is crucial to Ukraine’s defense. … It demonstrates to Ukrainians — and Russians — that we are Ukraine’s reliable strategic partner.”
Fought for more than five years in trenches cut through some of Europe’s most fertile farmland, Russia’s war in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas has killed around 14,000 people and brought under its control a chunk of a territory larger than the state of New Jersey. Yet — despite it being fought with $1.6 billion of US help in the form of military aid and training since 2014 — the war had largely been forgotten before it was catapulted into the headlines amid the House impeachment inquiry against Trump.
In fact, if the war had never erupted in the first place, there might not even be an impeachment inquiry. At the heart of the matter is the question of whether Trump froze the latest package of US security aid for Ukraine to pressure the country’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, into investigating Trump’s political rival and the unfounded theory that Kyiv — not Moscow — had interfered in the 2016 election.
The aid freeze was overturned in September, but the damage had already been done. For Moscow, it had signaled that it still has the upper hand in the war and in peace negotiations being pushed by Zelensky. For Kyiv, it had a chilling effect that spread through the Ukrainian capital, where stunned officials began questioning their longtime ally’s commitment.
That chill also spread to the Donbas trenches, where soldiers like Stas said many of their comrades had been killed while the aid was being held up.
“While they were playing with our aid, I wonder, did they know we were dying out here?” asked Oleksandr, a sergeant in the 14th Mechanized Brigade who goes by the call sign “kuvyrok,” or “somersault.” As we crept through trenches outside the village of Krymske, 40 miles northwest of Stas’s position, careful to keep our heads down and out of Russian snipers’ sights, Oleksandr said at least two soldiers were killed at the position over the summer.
The warring sides in Krymske, which is accessible only over a cratered dirt road that winds through a field of dead sunflowers, are so close that they can see each with the naked eye across a desolate no-man’s-land where only feral dogs dare to roam.
Underscoring the danger there, in the days after I visited his position, the brigade lost two more men, including 32-year-old Artem Sokolov, who was killed by a sniper.
According to statistics from the Ukrainian military, at least 46 soldiers have been killed since July 18, when word spread throughout the Trump administration that the president had secretly frozen aid for Ukraine. Around 19 of those deaths came during the window of time in which the aid was delayed. While there’s no way of tying those deaths directly to the lack of new US aid at the front line, more than two dozen Ukrainian soldiers — located at four fighting positions, a tank base, and a military hospital — told me they were disappointed by the news. Their morale suffered, and they felt vulnerable and abandoned by their biggest supporter.
The soldiers, whom I met over the course of a week this month while traveling along the snaking 250-mile front line in eastern Ukraine, painted a clear picture of just how important US military assistance is for Ukraine in its war against Russia. The soldiers spoke on the condition that their surnames not be used for security reasons. In what many described as a David-and-Goliath-like fight, they shared several stories about how the US aid has helped level the battlefield and stop the larger and more powerful Russia from grabbing more of their land.
They also said that any aid freeze — even a temporary one — jeopardizes not only themselves but perhaps the very future of Ukraine.
The war exploded in 2014, shortly after Ukrainian revolutionaries ousted kleptocratic former president Viktor Yanukovych and Russia responded by invading and annexing Crimea. Ukraine’s military, which had been dismantled in the peacetime that followed its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, initially struggled to fight back and relied on scrappy volunteer forces. Eventually, with Western help, Ukraine and its military got back on its feet and halted Russia’s advance, but not before much of the Donbas was lost or destroyed.
Today, much of the region is a battle-scarred wasteland. The front line that slices through it divides 6 million people — 2 million living on the government-controlled side and 4 million under Russia’s control. With thousands of apartment buildings and private homes badly damaged or destroyed, people who didn’t have the money to flee, or didn’t have family elsewhere to stay with, or had a disability, or were too stubborn to go elsewhere have been forced to rough it. They shack up in crumbling homes patched together with tape and plastic tarps, and they huddle in dark, dank basements with no ventilation, where at least they believe they’re safe from shelling. Desperate, many people have hung religious icons over their doors in the hope that somebody above is looking out for them.
Some 75 miles southwest of Stas’s position — past sandbagged checkpoints and over roads so badly chewed up by military vehicles that the locals liken driving on them to “riding on a washboard” — lies the city of Avdiivka, where Svitlana Savkevych is the librarian at School No. 6.
Savkevych lives with her husband in the old part of the city — not far from an industrial area known as the Prom Zone, where some of the heaviest fighting takes place. In her neighborhood, there’s hardly a home that hasn’t been hit by gunfire or leveled by artillery shells.
“So many people and families have been killed,” she said. Long gone are the days when she could stroll to the park with her family or take her students on field trips. Instead, she said, everyone sits at home because it’s just too dangerous to go outside.
For those living in the crossfire, life is measured in minutes and feet — stepping out at the wrong time of day or to the wrong side of the road can mean death. Everyone’s future is uncertain.
Nadiya Barinova knows that all too well. Her mother, Kateryna Volkova, stepped out for groceries on Feb. 1, 2017. Moments later, a series of rockets came crashing down on her neighborhood. Volkova had tried to take cover behind a fence, but one of the rockets exploded beside her. She was cut down with a shopping bag in her hand. I stumbled upon a weeping Barinova standing over her mother’s bloodied body minutes after it happened.
When Barinova and I caught up last week, I could sense the wound left by Volkova’s death was still raw. Barinova said she didn’t blame anyone in particular for what happened but was desperate for the war “to just be finished already.”
Dozens of civilians with whom I spoke echoed her sentiments and said they hoped their new president could strike a deal to end more than five years of fighting.
After winning a popular mandate in the recent presidential elections, Zelensky has taken up the challenging task of negotiating a resolution to the conflict with Putin. The two have taken small steps in recent weeks that include a major prisoner exchange, the restoration of a key bridge that had been blown up and the withdrawal of forces from three locations on the front line. The US has supported his efforts, but the extent of that help has come into question amid the impeachment inquiry and the revelation that Trump was leveraging military support — as well as a coveted White House visit — to get the Ukrainian leader to do his personal bidding.
Speaking to me privately — because of an order from the top not to comment on the record about matters relating to Trump and the impeachment inquiry — officials in Zelensky’s administration and the Ukrainian government said that the aid freeze had weakened Ukraine’s position as Zelensky set out to forge a peace deal with Putin. They said they saw signs in August and September that Putin was acting more aggressively to pile pressure on Zelensky ahead of much-anticipated peace talks, for which the sides have set a date.
The two leaders will meet in Paris alongside French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Dec. 9. While nobody is holding their breath for a breakthrough, anyone who knows a thing or two about the war in the Donbas will tell you this may be the best chance to put an end to it.
In the meantime, Ukrainian troops are holding their line.
While a stark improvement in fighting ability and professionalism is noticeable at the front line today, everything from soldiers’ uniforms to their arms remains unsophisticated. Their ambulances are rusty Soviet-made off-road vehicles that look like Volkswagen buses. Their operating bases are ramshackle cottages and garages polka-dotted with bullet holes. Their dugouts are muddy and lined with wood that they sometimes rip down to burn in stoves when the temperature falls below freezing. And their guns are Kalashnikov rifles from aging stockpiles, reliable but inaccurate.
If it weren’t for the smartphones soldiers carry with them and the Wi-Fi routers they have hooked up to growling power generators, you might think you had time-traveled back to World War II.
Indeed, the bits and pieces that remind you that the war is being fought in 2019 are few and far between — and many have come from Washington. They include counterbattery radar systems, Humvee ambulances, night vision sights, Raven drones, bulletproof vests, modern medical equipment, and battlefield first aid kits. The Ukrainians’ prized possessions might be the lethal Javelin anti-tank missiles approved and delivered by the Trump administration last year — but on the condition they’re used only in the event of a large-scale Russian offensive. Until then, they’re being stored in secure locations behind the front line.
That’s not to say all the American aid works well. For instance, the radars don’t always pick up smaller artillery fire; the night vision devices don’t mount onto Kalashnikovs without the aforementioned adapter; the drones are prone to Russian jamming and hacking; the medical scanners run on different voltages than in Ukraine; and the Humvees suck up gas and aren’t armored.
Still, without it, they would be worse off, soldiers say.
Yuriy Krupko, deputy commander of Ukraine’s 28th Mechanized Brigade, told a story that painted a clear picture of how US aid helps them.
It was 2016, and grenades and mortars were crashing down in rapid succession, wreaking havoc on Ukrainian positions on the edge of Stanytsia Luhanska. Krupko didn't know where the artillery was coming from but could tell it was somewhere beyond the opposing hillside. He also knew that if he didn’t stop them soon his brigade could lose several soldiers and a strategic foothold in the country’s eastern war zone.
In the melee, Krupko switched on a counterbattery radar system that had been delivered to Ukraine as part of a US military aid package. He pinpointed the incoming fire and predicted his enemies’ next moves. Soon after, the Ukrainians unleashed their own barrage and then watched the smoke rise from their enemy’s firing positions.
“We totally destroyed them,” Krupko said.
US military equipment “saves our butts every day,” he added, gesturing to a group of soldiers filing into the chow hall after a tank exercise not far from the front line last week. “And not only our butts,” he continued, “but the butts of the entire Ukrainian Armed Forces.”
I heard more about that in Avdiivka’s Prom Zone, a Mad Max–looking industrial wasteland filled with the detritus of war that serves as the base for Ukraine’s 92nd Mechanized Brigade. There, a chain-smoking officer with piercing blue eyes by the name of Valentin showed off an American Humvee ambulance.
“It’s great but not for the very front line. It’s not armored and it’s too high. It makes us a mark when we’re driving it,” he said as he revved it up. “You have to be a kamikaze to take it out there. But it’s better quality than what we had before.”
And it’s gotten a lot of use in Avdiivka, where fighting has been heavy for years, even as it has abated in other places along the front line. The Ukrainian military suffers casualties there on an almost daily basis. But ask any soldiers if they’ll back down and they’ll tell you, hell no.
“I don’t know what the size of the balls on your guys are over there in the US,” growled Oleksandr, the sergeant in Krymske, cradling a rifle in his arms, “but we have guys with huge ones here.”
To reach the forsaken village of Opytne, you need to drive over a makeshift dirt road that cuts through a minefield. If you visit, you’re likely to come across, Maria Horpynych, a spirited 80-year-old resident who refers to herself as Baba — or “Grandma” — Masha and who wants nothing more than to see the war end.
Horpynych was born as World War II broke out, she told me at her modest cottage, which has fallen into disarray after being pummeled by mortars and rockets, a consequence of living within sight of the destroyed Donetsk airport. Now she hopes she won’t die in another war.
In far-flung Opytne, which more than 300 people used to call home, word of Trump’s decision to delay US aid hadn’t yet reached the 39 elderly residents who remain. They don’t have electricity and phone service is shoddy; the roads are terrible and treacherous, so the news is slow to reach the village. There’s also no running water and no gas to heat homes.
“We are only surviving,” Horpynych said. With a heavy sigh, she added: “We used to have everything here. … There were children playing in the streets.”
If the war comes to an end, soldiers and residents in eastern Ukraine will be able to begin piecing their lives back together. For Horpynych, that will mean she can visit the grave of her son, Viktor. In 2015, he’d gone outside to help a neighbor fix a broken gas pipe. Not long after, that neighbor came running over to say that Viktor had been hit in the head with shrapnel from a rocket that had exploded beside them.
It was too dangerous outside for Horpynych to make it to the cemetery to bury her son.. So she placed Viktor’s body in a makeshift coffin and buried him in a shallow crater left by another rocket in her yard. His body stayed there for five months until she was able to exhume him and give him a proper burial.
“War is misery,” she said. “I wish it would end soon and we could live in peace.” ●
Evgeniy Maloletka contributed reporting to this story.