‘Always Under Fire’: On the Battlefield With Ukraine’s Elite Troops

Rolling barrages of artillery strikes have cratered and pockmarked the hills and forests of eastern Ukraine.

As Ukraine presses its offensive in the south, its elite assault brigades are deployed elsewhere to help stabilize defensive lines against Russian attacks.

Those brigades have been fighting without a break for nearly 600 days. They know the price of victory will be high.

As Moscow looks to pin down Ukrainian troops, the Russian forces mount waves of attacks that can gain a few hundred yards one week before losing them the next.

Hidden in the forests, an extensive underground network is Ukraine’s first line of defense and where its soldiers prepare for the fight ahead.

‘Always Under Fire’: On the Battlefield With Ukraine’s Elite Troops

Photographs by Tyler Hicks

By Marc Santora

Marc Santora traveled with Ukrainian air assault brigades in eastern Ukraine. Tyler Hicks has documented the war from locations all along the front line.

Oct. 11, 2023

On patrol on a ruined street in a ruined city in a ruined corner of eastern Ukraine, a sprawling war is condensed to a few hundred yards in every direction, including into the sky.

“Drone,” Oleg, a 23-year-old soldier in the 79th Air Assault Brigade, said as the whirring of what sounded like a lawn mower grew closer.

“We keep going,” he said. Russian attack drones were one more danger in a life full of them. “You have seen our location — it is always under fire,” Oleg said. “It is very difficult to hold these lines.”

The 79th was dispatched to stabilize the defense of a crucial sector of the front around the city, Marinka, more than a year ago. They have been there ever since. The outfit, along with other air assault brigades — elite units — are constantly engaged in skirmishes with Russian forces on a front line that stretches hundreds of miles.

The 79th Air Assault Brigade has spent more than a year fighting around Marinka, in eastern Ukraine.

The conflict has turned areas around the city into wastelands, razing some buildings to their foundations and leaving others as shells without windows, doors or roofs.

The motto of the assault brigades — “always first” — is testament to the fact that they are often assigned the most challenging and deadly jobs.

In the forest belts of eastern Ukraine, the Russian forces continue to mount relentless assaults in a maze of scorched pines.

“Russians use almost the entire nomenclature of its weapons in these forests,” said Evgeny, a 45-year-old unit commander in the 95th Air Assault Brigade. Whether it’s grenades launched from trenches a few hundred yards away or 1,100-pound bombs dropped from warplanes, the bombardment rarely lets up.

While attention has shifted to the south, where Ukrainian forces have been battling since June to break through heavily fortified Russian lines and divide the occupation forces, furious fighting rages on the eastern front, too.

It is a sprawling area that cuts a path through woodland around the cities of Kupiansk and Kreminna near the Russian border, along the cratered hills surrounding the ruined city of Bakhmut, to the apocalyptic wastelands around Marinka and Vuhledar, where the Donetsk region ends and the southern Zaporizhzhia region begins.

In some places, Ukrainian forces are on the defensive. In others, including around Bakhmut, they are on the offensive. Along much of the eastern front, they are simply fighting to hold the line against a daily barrage of shelling.

Soldiers with the 95th Air Assault Brigade in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
On the move with troops of the 95th.

In the early light, the silhouettes of exhausted soldiers of the 95th, covered in dust from the night’s fighting, appear like ghosts in the middle of the pines.

Stretchers stained with blood are nestled alongside the splintered stumps of trees blasted apart by shelling.

Evgeny acknowledged that his soldiers were fatigued after so many months of brutal combat. But they know why they are fighting, he said, and that gives them an advantage.

“We did not invite the Russians here, so they must be expelled,” Evgeny said. “Everyone understands that it is difficult and you can lose your life here. But someone has to do it.”

Outside Bakhmut, where the Ukrainian forces are on the offensive, soldiers with the 80th Air Assault Brigade took in a moment of quiet as they prepared to rain a hail of metal and fire on the Russian troops.

Soldiers with the 80th Air Assault Brigade loading into an armored personnel carrier in eastern Ukraine.
Troops with the 80th have been fighting near the ruined Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s an attack or a defense,” said Yaroslav, 32, the commander of an artillery unit. “The task of any artillery is always to support the infantry, counter-battery combat and direct destruction of the enemy.”

The call went out to mount up and the soldiers jumped into a truck carrying a rocket system known as a Grad.

They hurtled across fields pockmarked by shells, making sharp turns. Upon halting, the men jumped out and set up the rocket battery. They adjusted the range before dashing back, out of the way of the tongues of fire unleashed as rocket engines lit up the night sky.

They repeated the operation one more time before taking off, mindful that Russian troops could detect their position and fire back. Yaroslav said that he did not know if the rockets would hit any Russian positions but, he noted, that was not the point of this operation.

“In principle, it is actually very difficult to kill a person,” he said. “I tried to do it more than once and it takes a lot of effort.”

Sometimes, he said, it is enough just to silence the opposing guns.

“There are times when our forces come under enemy artillery fire. And in order to preserve their lives, it is necessary to make it so that enemy artillery cannot work,” he said. “It is not necessary to kill them for this. But it is necessary to make them shut up.”

Troops from the 95th firing toward Russian positions.

It is hard to comprehend just how many shells explode across the vast front line every hour of every day.

Over four days in August, in one small area of the northeast, Russian forces fired artillery 2,581 times, launched 67 airstrikes and mounted 23 ground assaults, according to Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for the Ukrainian military in the east.

The gigantic holes left by bombs dropped by planes cut across the trails that soldiers use to reach forward positions. Nothing survives those blasts, not even the trees that were rooted there for decades.

Past the craters, hidden in the dappled forest light, the extensive underground network that is Ukraine’s first line of defense comes into view.

Evgeny, the unit commander in the 95th, said that the Russian forces were trying to advance in the northeast to tie down Ukrainian troops and prevent them from being dispatched to the offensive in the south.

“I don’t know what kind of motivation you need to have to just go and die in this forest,” he said, referring to the Russian forces. “

For every meter of land, they pay hundreds of lost soldiers.”

The 95th is fighting in the northeastern sector, where Russian forces continue to mount relentless assaults in the maze of scorched pines.
A member of the 79th Air Assault Brigade in a frontline trench in the Donbas region.

Oleg, the soldier from the 79th, goes by the call sign Ares, the Greek god of war. But all he wants is peace, he says.

“I want to start a family, build a house and plant a tree,” Oleg said. “I want to live the life of a normal person.”

There is nothing normal about the area he helps to defend outside Marinka. Road signs litter the ground, torn by shrapnel. Houses have been razed to their foundations and those that still stand are mere shells with no windows, no doors, no roofs.

Clumps of fur around the skeletal remains of a dog ruffle in the wind. The front line here has barely moved since the full-scale Russian invasion 18 months ago, but it remains fiercely contested.

“We can say that this is the center of important logistics arteries of Ukraine,” Oleg said. “That is why we hold this front, and we understand that behind us are important Ukrainian cities and settlements.”

After many months in the field, wrestling with exhaustion is a constant struggle for soldiers of the 95th.
The motto of the assault brigades — “always first” — is testament to the fact that they are often at the tip of Ukraine’s military spearhead.

Evgeny, of the 95th, said that he believed the fighting spirit of his soldiers remained strong.

“This is our land,” he said. “And we must win this war. And we will definitely do it. But the question is how long it will take and how many people will die.”

Gaëlle Girbes contributed reporting from the front line.

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