Donetsk Region, Ukraine — The ground beneath Ukrainian positions was scorched black, burned by flares dropped by Russian jets. The green fields of wheat beyond were riddled with craters ripped out of the ground by Russian artillery bombardments.
“It was such a beautiful scene,” said the unit commander, looking out over the hilly landscape on Friday morning, “and they ruined it, the pigs.”
The commander, who asked to be identified only by his codename Kandalaksha, leads a volunteer unit camped in the hills of eastern Ukraine. For two months, the unit has held part of the line south of the city of Izium, blocking a Russian offensive to encircle and capture the eastern Donbass region.
Kandalaksha is something of an anomaly. He comes from Russia and describes himself as a political refugee. An opponent of President Vladimir V. Putin’s government, he left his homeland in 2014 when Moscow annexed Crimea and began supporting a separatist war in the eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
“I fought the Putin regime,” he said, “and I realized that the hottest place to fight the Putin regime was in Ukraine.”
Shortly after arriving in Ukraine, he took a step beyond political activism and joined a volunteer military unit in 2015. “I was looking for myself and looking for a way to be useful,” he said. “I thought it would be most honest to fight for the country.”
When Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, he volunteered again and fought for a month in the northwestern suburbs of the capital, Kyiv. When Russia then withdrew from Kyiv and concentrated its forces on the battle for the Donbass, its unit was also sent east.
“We don’t see them, but they shoot at us,” he said of his former compatriots, the Russians, stationed about 10 miles from his outpost. “Hardly a day goes by without being shelled. They’re trying to bite us, but our forces are holding their positions and won’t let them advance.”
Ukrainian forces are under increasing pressure in eastern Ukraine as the Russian military has changed tactics. It has concentrated its forces and firepower on a much smaller target with a more limited objective: encircling a final crescent of towns and villages belonging to Donetsk and Luhansk.
Every few days, soldiers from this unit of the 95th Air Assault Brigade descend on what they call Ground Zero and give others a break from the pounding artillery. The soldiers are caustic about the type of warfare they are engaging in in the open countryside of eastern Ukraine. Describing themselves as cannon fodder, they become “cotton” or fiberfill under the heavy barrage of artillery.
But their morale appears to be high, and as volunteers, most said they believed in the need to resist Russian aggression.
One of the volunteer soldiers is a theater director, another economics lecturer at the university.
“Sitting and doing nothing is much more difficult,” says the lecturer, alias Academic.
Maksim Bulgakov, 40, the theater director, said he never wanted to join the army. “My father, my brother and my grandfather were artillery officers, but I never wanted to be,” he said. “But it’s such a time. You have a problem and you have to make a decision.”
The men and a woman sleep in a farmhouse and remain out of sight of Russian drones during the day. They operate artillery pieces from the tree lines in the area but did not allow visiting reporters to see them in action.
Russian planes have bombed the area, leaving huge craters 10 feet deep and damaging some hamlets and farms. An artillery shell landed nearby, but the few soldiers at the outpost seemed unconcerned, cleaning weapons and chopping wood under the trees.
They sleep on wooden boards and sleeping pads and share the stable with two small cats; one of them they called Hitler because of a black spot on his face reminiscent of the Nazi leader’s mustache. The cats climb over the sleeping bodies while the soldiers come and go throughout the night, taking turns on guard duty for a few hours.
The commander, Kandalaksha, also assumes his duties. “Our spirits are high,” he said. “All fighting men understand that the whole world depends on Ukraine right now. We will do what we can.”
The commander, a qualified electrical engineer from Murmansk in the far north of Russia, became interested in politics around 2008 or 2009 when he saw a video of opposition figure and politician Alexei Navalny. The segment exposed the corruption and embezzlement of billions of dollars in state funds by the Russian leadership.
“After that, I understood that all this money goes to the president and high-level people,” he said. “I started asking questions and got pretty active. He began distributing leaflets and evading police roadblocks to take part in a major protest in Moscow around the time of the 2011 parliamentary elections.
But soon he was targeted by the Russian secret service. He worked at a hydroelectric power station, but felt that his political activity caused the leadership to refuse him a promotion. “They wanted me to go,” he said.
He found a job in southern Russia in 2013, and when pro-democracy protests began in Ukraine – which eventually led to the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych – he began considering leaving Russia altogether. Family members opposed his move, but they understood, he said.
He asked that his family members not be identified for their own protection.
He said he had no regrets about leaving. “I don’t think I’ll ever go back,” he said. “I feel very comfortable here. I’m home.”
He is both cynical and hopeful about the possibility of change in Russia. He said Mr Putin calculated that the West would not resist his imperial ambitions.
“His guess was that it would get little response,” he said. “But if you fight him, anything is possible.”
“This is the moment when many things will be resolved,” he added.
He does not believe in a change of leadership would change something. “If Putin goes, the system stays” he said. “We need to change the system”
He said he was appalled by recent comments by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger suggesting that Ukraine should cede territory in a possible peace deal with Russia. An editorial in the New York Times was interpreted as suggesting the same thing.
“It’s a terrible thought,” he said. “The whole world must destroy Russian cancer. It is the quintessence of evil and should be defeated by all of humanity.”
He said large-scale Western support for Ukraine would help change minds in Russia as people see the improvements and development of freedoms. The youth of Russia have already understood how unfair their system is, he said.
“I hope Russia will change and stop being what it is now,” he said. “It’s not that I want it destroyed, but I hope the Russians change their minds.”
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