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Inside the Trenches in Ukraine Where Exhausted Soldiers Fight to Hold the Line as Ammunition Runs out

Tom Mutch tells a harrowing story of resilience and desperation

A Ukrainian soldier carries a shell on his back during the war against Russia
A Ukrainian soldier carries a shell on his back as troops fight not only Russians, but diminishing ammunition supplies on the front line in Kharkiv

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The smoke from the last shell was still drifting through the trees, silhouetting them like mist when we heard “Ready, Fire!” Another shot ran out, then another, and a camouflaged Ukrainian soldier ran from a trench with a shell on his back.

He passed it to the men on the gun, a self-propelled DC1 Gvozdika Self-Propelled Howitzer who promptly fired another barrage at the approaching Russians. Recent news of Ukraine’s fight has been dominated by Russia’s gains in the Donbas and exhausted soldiers- but further north, in the Kharkiv region, a more optimistic picture emerges.

Around the Kupiansk region, troops are holding the line against increasingly aggressive Russian assaults. But unlike the Donbas, where Ukraine has lost significant ground, the Ukrainian stand here seems a model for the country’s new strategy of ‘active defence’.

“You guys are very lucky to be here today!”, the commander of the unit, codenamed ‘Leshy’ said as he beckoned us over. “We got a delivery of shells just before you guys arrived! Most days are not like this.”

The Russians had attempted to assault a trench a few kilometers in front of us, and two “high value targets” had been destroyed by the shots fired in front of us. Inside the dugout, Leshy’s mood had been dour. His voice was raspy and quiet; he spoke slowly and deliberately.

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He was ashen-faced and exhausted. He’d been fighting since 2014, and this was one of the lowest points of the war. It was hard for the soldiers to hide their bitter disappointment with the US Congress’s inability to pass aid, blocked by hard-right Republicans.

It was only after the artillery unit had completed his mission that Leshy’s demeanour changed. He started to talk more excitedly, moved with more energy and allowed himself a grin as he explained the Russian targets that had been destroyed.

The adrenalin that comes from being in combat and destroying the enemy seems to be one of the only things keeping these soldiers going. Leshy said that they constantly requested fresh supplies of ammunition – but had little control over when it would arrive.

‘Leshy’ has been fighting since 2014, and says this is one of the lowest points so far. Photo: Tom Mutch

The gun itself, as well as the shells, were delivered by Slovakia- a country that also briefly suspended aid to Ukraine before changing its mind at the beginning of this year. It had been a frightening drive to their positions, just a few kilometers from Russian lines.

The Russians had conducted airstrikes throughout the region, and we could see black smoke rising from the fields all around us. In the distant sky, we could see the vapour trails of what looked like a Russian jet, as it fired a bomb towards Ukrainian positions. In these trenches, Ukrainian forces are trying to repel a fresh Russian assault on the city Kupiansk.

A sign at the entrance to the city shows four Ukrainian soldiers, and reads “Thanks to the Armed Forces of Ukraine, for the new day”, a reference to the Ukrainian liberation of the city in 2022.

Those heady days of regular Ukrainian victories feel like a lifetime ago for the soldiers that have manned the trenches ever since. As we scurried into a dugout, one officer sat next to us, his eyes red and his head in his hands, as if he could fall asleep at any moment. The soldiers here had been fighting in the field for almost two years, and in that time, had just two weeks leave to go home if they were lucky.

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It was a hole in the ground with a tarpaulin roof and walls. A laptop was perched on a table in the corner, and they had fashioned a small shelf packed with coffee, cigarettes and snacks. After a few minutes, Leshy received a radio call. A Russian assault group was attacking a trench, trying to take advantage of Ukraine’s ammunition shortage.

We rushed out, and several men ran forward to clear the camouflage netting off the front of the artillery to allow it to fire. Another ran forward with a shell over his shoulder to load the gun. They fired around ten rounds towards the Russian assault group, before declaring the job completed. Most days the Russians have an overwhelming advantage in ammunition, which stops Ukraine assaulting and allows their adversaries to chip away at their territory.

Most days they must ration artillery, firing only at the highest value Russian targets such as tanks, leaving enemy infantry free to advance. Many soldiers closer to the front would use mortars or drones to repel the enemy.

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But these cannot replicate the speed or explosive power of artillery shells, which remain the most important weapon in the war. “They have been striking civilian infrastructure, energy facilities, water and heating infrastructure constantly,” Andrii Besedin, the Mayor of Kupiansk said in an interview in Kharkiv. On separate visits, we could see the city gradually being ground into dust by repeated Russian strikes.

On our first visit, we stopped outside a popular café. On our second, it was a burned shell, having been struck by a Russian missile the previous day. Hundreds of the inhabitants leave each week on buses to Kharkiv, many for good. It is near impossible to find a person under middle age in the city who is not a Ukrainian soldier. Besedin says that the shortfall in American aid has made a significant difference to Ukraine’s battlefield prospects here.

On its own, he reckons Ukraine can hold the Russians off – but to liberate any further territory, it will need significant Western assistance.

All of Ukraine’s Brigades in the region have faced intense pressure in recent months. “We have a lack of heavy equipment of all types, from tanks to artillery and ammunition,” says Nadya, a press officer with Ukraine’s 14th Mechanized Brigade, deployed in the town of Synkivka that the Russians have been assaulting recently. “The Kupiansk direction is a priority for them. They are trying very hard here, looking for weak spots day by day. For the past six months, the intensity of the fighting here has gotten worse and worse. The Russians have more troops and ammunition than they did a year ago.”

Morale, they say, is middling. Soldiers are nowhere near surrendering, and the lines are not going to collapse. But nor does anyone expect a victory, or for Ukraine to rapidly regain its territory.

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Nadya confirms that the Russians have tried armoured thrusts in the region, explaining: “There was an episode recently where they tried to advance with a column of tanks in one area near here. They were all destroyed, but it was an indicator that more assaults are coming soon.”

Still, the news from Kupiansk paints a less dire picture than has been seen in reports from the Donbas region, where Ukraine recently lost the Donetsk suburb of Avdiivka and several surrounding villages. The geography here is helpful for the defenders, with the Oskil river providing a natural defensive barrier.

From the main square of the city of Kupiansk, you have the high ground and can see the plains and forests of the region sprawling in front of you – a perfect vantage point for drones and artillery. Soldiers here are confident that they can hold the line indefinitely. All they need are the shells to keep their guns firing.


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