An icy, biting wind is sweeping across the steppe near Donetsk. The thermometer shows minus 17 degrees, the front where fighting for the cities of Bakhmut and Soledar is only a few kilometers away. Soldiers from a Ukrainian tank brigade are practicing in the middle of the field. A few days ago they were withdrawn from the fighting at Bakhmut for a brief lull in the fighting. To get to the soldiers, you have to walk several kilometers across country.
“N / A? Is it hard to walk in a bulletproof vest? Are your arms and legs freezing already?” asks Ihor, an officer in the armored brigade, on the way to the battalion’s location. “Imagine the boys lying in the frozen trenches where you are not allowed to light ovens lest positions be given away.”
During a rest break, the soldiers speak to DW. Not everyone gives their names, not everyone wants to be photographed. Some have relatives in the occupied territories, and their families don’t even know that others are at the front.
According to officers of the armored brigade, the balance of forces in the area is currently around ten Russian soldiers to one Ukrainian. On this front section, the Ukrainian soldiers are mainly dealing with the Russian private army “Wagner”, which recruits prisoners from Russian prisons.
The positions at Bakhmut and Soledar are very close together, says Oleh, one of the brigade commanders. Again and again the soldiers would be involved in close combat. “We can even hear enemy commanders’ orders,” Oleh said.
The approximately 40-year-old infantryman Ihor is visibly exhausted – like everyone here. “The Ukrainian military is fighting on the edge of human strength,” he says. “We have no way of sleeping.” They are under fire day and night. Again and again there are attacks by the Russian infantry.
An officer, also named Ihor, says that small Russian groups of ten to fifteen men were moving toward the Ukrainian positions “in waves” – right into the crossfire from the Ukrainian trenches. “We shoot, they die – there are mountains of corpses on the field. Then the next group comes. They don’t even help their wounded, they just keep moving towards us,” Ihor said.
“We lose people too. But I don’t understand: you have such huge losses. Doesn’t anyone look at them?” asks Infantryman Ihor. His comrade Dmytro says that “it’s hard to take it all. But we have no other choice. I want and have to defend my country, my family, so that we have a future.”
In order to continue their counter-offensive and liberate more occupied areas, the Ukrainian forces need more equipment and weapons – preferably of non-Soviet design, say the commanders of the armored brigade.
Their engineers lead us to a couple of Soviet T-72 tanks that they are repairing in the open air in the middle of the field after the fighting. Tool boxes and generators are on the floor. A truck with a crane pulls the engine block out of a T-72 tank. Engineer Andriy says that the engine stalled once in the middle of a fight, but “miraculously the mechanic restarted it and the crew was able to save themselves.” “See that hole in the engine? It’s over,” says Andrij.
The mechanics swap the old block for a new engine. However, it is only “new” to a limited extent. All spare parts for the T-72 are made in Russia, and Ukraine has long stopped buying them. “We still have spare parts in stock. But some things are missing. Then we slaughter our damaged or captured Russian tanks,” says Andriy.
According to him, the Ukrainian army should get rid of the “Soviet tank heritage” and all Soviet equipment. It does not stand up to comparison with modern equipment and can therefore hardly protect the soldiers. His deputy commander Konstantin agrees: in order to have a greater advantage at the front, the Ukrainian military needs Western weapons and equipment. The Russian army can only be defeated with modern technology.
Battalion commanders tell DW their soldiers would like to get new tanks as soon as possible because they “want to complete the liberation of Ukrainian territory as soon as possible.” Within the troops, the capabilities of the German Leopard tanks are discussed, but also how Germany is discussing the delivery of such tanks to Ukraine. There is also talk of the armored personnel carriers promised by the western partners – the German Marder and the American Bradley.
“The leopard is what we need now. The high-precision sights and night vision devices work in all weather conditions. Above all, the Russians are afraid of the leopard,” says officer Konstantin.
Meanwhile, mechanic Serhij is welding on a more than 50-year-old radiator in the open air. Serhiy has been in the army since 2014 and his hands are completely bruised from patching. “The Ukrainian armed forces need Western equipment, preferably with spare parts and repair logistics,” he says. Serhij is convinced that he can also repair Western equipment: “There are no major differences in the engines,” says Serhij. “The main thing is that I know how to get everything going again!”
Under time pressure, Serhij and his comrades repair several tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and trucks. The battles at Bachmut and Soledar are becoming increasingly fierce. The engineers in the tank battalion hardly get any sleep either. They say you have to “hold out”. Officer Ihor sees no other option either. “This war is terrible,” he says. “But we must win so that we can continue to live in freedom.”
Adaptation from the Russian: Markian Ostapchuk
Author: Alexandra Induchova
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The original of this post “Ukrainian soldiers in Bakhmut: “This war is terrible”” comes from Deutsche Welle.