The impact of a tank round cracked the bunker’s plaster ceiling and sent the uniformed men struggling. They put on bulletproof vests and helmets and cocked automatic weapons. Amidst a crescendo of machine gun fire, a tall soldier slung an anti-tank missile launcher over one shoulder and took a slow drag on his cigarette.
The Russians were close.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine has been largely at a distance, with Ukrainian and Russian forces lobbing artillery at each other, sometimes from tens of kilometers apart. But at points along the zigzagging eastern front, combat turns into a fierce and intimate dance, allowing enemies to glimpse fleeting glimpses of each other as they vie for control of hills and makeshift holdouts in shattered towns and villages. for the projectiles.
On Wednesday, one such dance unfolded as a Russian unit of about 10 men entered the village where soldiers from a Ukrainian contingent, the Carpathian Sich Battalion, had barricaded themselves. Ukrainian soldiers in action. Ukrainian forces saw the Russian soldiers and opened fire, forcing them back.
“It was a sabotage group, intelligence,” said a 30-year-old fighter with the call sign Warsaw, gasping after the brief firefight. “Our guys weren’t asleep and they reacted quickly, forcing the enemy to flee.”
It happens every day, every hour for the fighters of the Carpathian Sich Battalion, a volunteer unit named for the army of a short-lived independent Ukrainian state created just before World War II. Attached to the Ukrainian Army’s 93rd Mechanized Brigade, the battalion is deployed along a line of trenched villages and farmland in the Kharkiv region, tasked with holding off Russian forces pushing down from his stronghold in the occupied Ukrainian city of Izium.
The battalion gave a New York Times reporter and photographer permission to visit a front-line position on the condition that the precise location of their base not be revealed. Most of the soldiers agreed to identify themselves only by their call signs.
They have not faced an easy fight.
The Russian military has deployed a massive force along this front in eastern Ukraine, asserting its overwhelming superiority in tanks, fighter jets, helicopters and heavy artillery.
Massive war machines rarely remain silent for long. Tanks in particular have become a serious threat, fighters said, often coming within a mile of battalion positions and wreaking utter havoc. Already this month, 13 soldiers from the battalion have been killed and more than 60 wounded.
“It’s a completely different war than what I’ve seen in places like Afghanistan or Iraq,” said a colonel named Mikhailo. “It is an intense fight. Nobody cares about the law of war. They bombard small towns, they use prohibited artillery.”
Many of the battalion’s soldiers had experience in the eight-year war against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and had seen them fight in some of the conflict’s most intense battles. But most had settled into civilian life for years.
A tall, bearded soldier with the Rusin call sign owns a business selling bathtubs in the mountainous Transcarpathian region of western Ukraine. But when Russia invaded on February 24, he quickly married his girlfriend (he said he wanted someone to wait for him at home) and headed off to war filled with a sense of mission.
“We understand that this is not a war between Ukraine and Russia,” he said. “This is a war of the pure and the light that exists on this earth and the darkness. Either we stop this horde and the world gets better, or the world is filled with the anarchy that occurs wherever there is war.”