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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Ukraine: the cold war that sometimes gets hot

Bitter cold, few comforts, civilians that give their position away and no end in sight for the Ukrainian soldiers pitched against separatists backed by Russia. Florian Neuhof reports for The National from the front line in the Donbass, east Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers at an observation post on the roof of an abandoned factory overlooking separatist territory in Novoluhanske, eastern Ukraine. Florian Neuhof for The National
Ukrainian soldiers at an observation post on the roof of an abandoned factory overlooking separatist territory in Novoluhanske, eastern Ukraine. Florian Neuhof for The National

On the roof of the hulking factory building, the smell of pig lingers. A huge, decaying concrete structure, the abandoned factory rises high above the snow-covered flatlands of the Donbass, making it an ideal observation post for the Ukrainian troops holding this section of the front.

Unfortunately for the soldiers, the disused factory is next to a working pig farm, where thousands of animals conspire to cloak the bleak surroundings in their sickly sweet stench. It is one further nuisance for the men based here, who wear winter combat fatigues to ward off the bitter cold, and fight in a frozen conflict that sporadically turns hot.

Farm and factory lie near the town of Novoluhanske, and right on the meandering front line that delineates separatist territory around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Separatists seized control of the two cities and the surrounding area in the wake of the Ukrainian revolution that toppled president Viktor Yanukovich and led to the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014.

After Russia sent in soldiers and weapons, the rebels managed to repel Ukrainian attempts to put an end to the self-declared Luhansk People's Republic and the Donetsk Peoples' Republic that were carved out of the coal-rich Donbass region.

After heavy clashes over the summer, a ceasefire was signed in September 2014. Known as the Minsk Protocol, it was almost immediately broken, a fate shared with numerous ceasefires since. A bitter stalemate ensued, where periods of calm are frequently interrupted by one side probing the other's defences, taking potshots, or raining down artillery fire.

"We shoot at each other often, especially at points where front lines are close. The unit opposite us is not very professional, that's why they often shoot at us," says Dmytro Gamay, a Ukrainian officer with the 54th Brigade that is stationed at Novoluhanske.

Mr Gamay, a friendly, slightly portly man with a greying beard, has climbed a dimly lit staircase to the observation post on the factory roof. There, a sentry stands next to field glasses mounted on a tripod. Peering across the icy flats, he points out a couple of hamlets that lie in no man's land, and a railway track leading straight into rebel territory that cuts through the pine forest lining the horizon.

The enemy is nowhere to be seen.

In the morning, buses bring workers living in rebel territory across the front line to the pig farm, and ferry them back at the end of their shift. Getting through the lines is a time-consuming process, says Mr Gamay, but the workers are not the only ones that are fed up.

"The soldiers are tired of this war. But we can't refuse to do our job, we have to protect our country," says the officer.

The Ukrainian government puts the number of dead servicemen at more than 2,700, with three times as many wounded. The bulk of these losses were incurred in the first months of the conflict. But a steady drip of casualties continues to trickle back from the front, and bodies still arrive at the mortuaries in the rear.

On a recent visit to the mortuary in the city of Dnipropretovsk, The National was told that the bodies of five soldiers had been delivered the previous day. One dead soldier lay on an operating table, his forehead pierced by a bullet.

A half-hour's drive from the pig farm at Novoluhanske, the small town of Svitlodarsk lies under a thick blanket of snow. On its fringes, where the quaint wooden houses lining the road peter out, soldiers shiver in field positions dug into the fertile earth of the Donbass. A squad has turned one of the outlying houses into a base, and the men make sure the kitchen oven is well supplied with firewood.

Behind a slight rise lies the front line, where sentries keep an eye on their opponents. In a copse behind the house, an armoured personnel carrier is parked, ready to drive up the road and fire its cannon at the separatists.

Life on the front is monotonous and basic. The small house is divided into a kitchen, a pantry, and a living room, filled with bunk beds. The men barely get reception on their mobile phones. During the winter, there is no hot water to shower. Still, they are lucky that their section of the frontline brushes past the town. Other units are stuck in the middle of the steppe, and have no houses to warm themselves in.

Some soldiers are sheltering in Second World War bunkers built by the Germans to stem the advance of the Red Army, says Mr Gamay.

Ukraine hastily drafted thousands into the army in 2014 to boost the ranks. Now that the fighting has died down, fewer soldiers are needed and those that remain in the Donbass are there voluntarily. The pay is good by Ukrainian standards, but the men at Svitlodarsk dismiss the idea that they are in it for the money.

"Even if it's not an official war, it's still a war, and it's not honest to sit at home while others are here in the trenches," says 38-year-old Maxim, who was drafted at the start of the war and stayed on with the army.

The patriotic credentials of some units are beyond reproach. In a sprawling repairs yard several kilometres behind the front, the Donbass Battalion is taking a break. Soldiers huddle around the canteen shack in sub-zero temperatures, waiting for the cooks to serve up a modest dinner of cabbage and bread. Others relax in their quarters, simple industrial buildings with sparse lighting that have been packed with field beds. To pass the time they smoke hashish, listen to music on their headphones, or hold boxing training sessions between the rows of beds.

The battalion is formed of volunteers who joined to prevent the Donbass breaking away from the Ukraine. Some are from areas now controlled by the separatists, and cannot visit their homes even when they are on leave. The unit has now been incorporated into the regular army, but its soldiers remain more motivated and determined than the rest of the military.

Yet even the most committed admit that winning back the lost territories is a tough task.

"It's difficult because of the Russians, without them it would be possible," says Aver, who is from the capital, Kiev, and has been fighting in the Donbass since 2014.

Russia has sent soldiers and heavy weapons into the area, even providing anti-aircraft missiles that accidentally shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014. Fighting without insignia, the Russian troops in the Donbass were nicknamed "little green men". They were crucial in halting the Ukrainian advance into separatist territory.

In December, Russian president Vladimir Putin for the first time publicly admitted Russian military personnel were in the Donbass.

“We never said there were not people there who carried out certain tasks including in the military sphere.” he said, insisting this was not the same as regular Russian troops.

The Ukrainian troops at the front insist that they are still facing Russian fighters today.

"We know there are Russians on the other side," says Mr Gamay.

Russian interference ensures that the ill-equipped and under-resourced Ukrainian military is unable to reclaim the areas controlled by the separatists. This is bad for morale.

"It is frustrating to stay on one frontline and not move forward," says Aver, summing up the mood.

While the soldiers see themselves as patriots defending their country, the local population is not always as enthusiastic about their presence, and the separatists enjoy considerable support in the area.

Migration resulting from industrialisation during the Soviet Union era brought more ethnic Russians into the region, especially the industrial centres such as Donetsk and Luhansk. Comprising almost half of the population in the Donbass, many Russians were dismayed by the toppling of Mr Yanukovitch, who had fostered close ties to Russia.

"Ninety per cent of the people here speak Russian. They blame us for the destruction that is caused by the terrorists," says Lieutenant Ivan Burdich, who is based in the town of Marjinka with the 30th Brigade.

Marjinka is another frontline town and Ukrainian soldiers have dug in on its outskirts. As in other frontline towns and villages, families that cannot afford to leave their homes live right next door to houses turned into army bases, with gardens littered with dugouts and camouflage netting.

The civilians are exposed to the firefights that sometimes flare up between the opposing sides, but they also pose a security risk for the troops.

Aver, who has previously served in Marjinka, admits that even some of the locals in Ukrainian-held areas sympathise with the separatists.

"It's difficult to fight among them, they give our positions away. Once we were shot at from behind," he complains.

Unable to dislodge the separatists from the Donbass, but unwilling to concede the country's traditional industrial hub to Russia's proxies, Ukraine will keep a heavy troop presence in the area, and the conflict will simmer on. The soldiers know they are stuck in a cycle of stultifying inactivity and deadly outbursts of violence.

"Every war has to stop, but I can't see it ending here," says Lieutenant Burdich. "It is like a disease, and sometimes the symptoms are more noticeable."