Fear and defiance on Ukraine’s frontline: ‘We don’t like dictators here’

·7 min read

With ageing Soviet-era rockets and a depleted, elderly fleet, Ukraine’s military hold their breath for Moscow’s next move


Yiry Ulshin surveyed a scene of ruin. Before him were the remains of what was once a school. Desks were covered in debris. A photo of the class of 2011 lay in the wreckage. There were abandoned crayons and year 3 books in Ukrainian and Russian. Beyond a bullet-scarred wall was a view of pine trees and sea.

“My heart is hurting. Why did Russia do this?” Ulshin, a Ukrainian army commander, asked.

The abandoned primary school is situated in Shyrokyne, in eastern Ukraine, on the frontline between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian forces. The village was once a resort. Tourists would stay in its guesthouses, walk along the sandy beach and paddle in the picturesque Sea of Azov.

Now it is a ghostly wreck. In 2014 Russia annexed Crimea, down the coast, and kickstarted a violent conflict in the Donbas region. The following year Ukrainian militias clawed back some of the province’s seaside strip including Shyrokyne, 14 miles east of the port city of Mariupol. “My friend was killed in fighting here,” Ulshin said.

Today the village’s holiday complex resembles a phantasmagoric film set. An alley of pulverised flats leads on to a glass-strewn summer terrace. There is a rusted child’s bicycle, a washing machine and a savagely twisted bonnet from a GAZ-53 truck. The ground is pitted with shell holes. Swimming is not advised: the beach is mined. A seagull floated above it.

The separatists did not retreat far, ensconcing themselves in the hillside village of Vodyane, just over a mile away and visible from the net-covered former sanatorium that serves as the soldiers’ frontline base. Washing was hanging on a line; logs were piled up for fuel. “Two days ago they fired a rocket at one of our cars, out on patrol,” Ulshin said. “It missed.”

Activists hold posters during a Say NO to Putin rally in Kyiv on 9 January.
Activists protest against Russian aggression at a rally in Kyiv on 9 January. Photograph: Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Was anywhere in the village safe? “No,” Ulshin said. “Death happens when you don’t expect it. The Russians [separatists] work very professionally. A sniper shot me in 2018. I lost so much blood, people thought I wasn’t going to make it. But here I am. Ten of my men have been wounded.”

Since autumn, Russia has assembled a potential invasion force of 100,000 soldiers on Ukraine’s borders. The latest signals are ominous. The Kremlin says military exercises will take place next month in Belarus, 90 miles north of the capital, Kyiv. According to the Ukrainian government, Russian forces are covertly stationed in rebel mini-fiefdoms in the cities of Donetsk – adjacent to Mariupol – and Luhansk.

So far, Putin has kept the world guessing as to what he plans to do. The EU and US have condemned Russian aggression and threatened sanctions. This week the UK flew defensive anti-tank weapons to Kyiv. The Biden administration is reportedly considering military help. On Wednesday the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, visited Kyiv. None of this is likely to stop a Russian incursion should Putin order one.

A lot of us are ready to fight. We will resist in every city, in every village. Ukrainians hate Putin

“Look at history. All conflicts have an active phase and a less active one,” Ulshin said. The Kremlin would not seize the whole of Ukraine, an enormous and bloody undertaking, he thought; instead it would pursue hybrid war, with the goal of toppling Ukraine’s Nato-aspiring government and replacing it.

Ukraine’s soldiers are motivated, professional and ready to defend their homes. But it is obvious they are badly outgunned. Ulshin said he had received some help from Lithuania in the shape of four lightweight bulletproof plates. In the near distance shots rang out, followed by a percussive boom from an auto-grenade launcher.

Ukraine lost much of its navy in 2014, when Russian special forces seized Crimea. Moscow eventually returned the Donbas, an ageing Soviet warship that now sits in Mariupol’s port alongside two small armoured artillery boats, the Ludny and Kremenchuk. This meagre collection is no match for Russia’s mighty Black Sea fleet.

“It’s old but reliable,” Cptn Oleksandr Hrigorevskiy said, pointing to the Donbas’s bow machine gun. Stamped on the side was a date, 1954. The Russians trashed the ship’s communication system before handing it back, he said, and many of his former officer colleagues defected. The boat subsequently caught fire. It is now used as a command and repair ship.

The deck offers a sweeping view of the Azov Sea bathed in a raspberry light. At 9am each day sailors raise and salute the Ukrainian flag. At night the Russian port of Yeysk twinkles in the distance. The Azov and Black seas are a key commercial route for Russia, linked to a network of rivers and canals.

According to Hrigorevskiy, the Kremlin has annexed the Azov Sea by stealth. Under a 2003 agreement, Russia and Ukraine are supposed to share access. But Moscow now controls Crimea’s Kerch Strait, the only way in and out. In 2018 it started impounding Ukrainian civilian vessels, dealing a death blow to Mariupol as a cargo port.

Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on 19 January.
Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on 19 January. Photograph: Pavel Bednyakov/AP

Of late, Moscow has declared large chunks of the internal sea off limits to Ukrainian boats, citing the need to carry out “naval exercises”. When the Donbas set off towards Kerch in December, sailing in international waters, Putin’s FSB spy agency accused Kyiv of an act of aggression. “We watched a report on Russian TV. They play psychological games,” Hrigorevskiy said.

Mariupol stands in the way of any potential Russian advance from the east. In 2014, Kremlin-backed separatists controlled the city for two months. Since then pro-Kyiv volunteers have moved to the area.

Anatoliy Lozar helped to liberate Mariupol, and subsequently married a local woman. He said Russian sentiment was still strong, especially among older residents. “Television plays a big role,” he said. “You can get Russian state channels for free. You have to pay for Ukrainian ones.” Lozar said most people in Mariupol vote for the opposition party of Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Moscow oligarch accused of treason and now under house arrest.

Over at Mariupol’s aerodrome, soldiers acknowledged that Moscow was likely to bomb the runway and other strategic military targets, should it attack. “Yes, we can’t defend physical infrastructure. But we’ve learned to spread our forces out, to minimise losses,” Taras Eleyko said. He added: “Putin is a card-sharp. He would need 600,000 troops to occupy Ukraine. He doesn’t have that.”

Eleyko was part of a travelling amateur theatre troupe from western Ukraine. The group had arrived at the military airport to entertain troops with a traditional mystery play known as a vertep. This one featured familiar characters such as an angel and devil, as well a crown-wearing Putin – plus Joe Biden, who carried a stars and stripes flag.

A Ukrainian sniper training in the Donetsk region on 17 January.
A Ukrainian sniper training in the Donetsk region on 17 January. Photograph: Anna Kudriavtseva/Reuters

The show took place in what was once the departure lounge, beneath a colourful communist-era mosaic. Someone had pasted Ukraine’s blue and yellow flag over the old hammer and sickle. The play ended with Death – actually Olena Chebeliuk, a historian from Lviv – chasing “Putin” off to hell. She wore a skeleton costume and carried a white scythe.

‘We’re afraid Russia will invade and capture Ukraine. Our army is not very ready to fight,” Chebeliuk said, speaking in fluent English. “We don’t really have Stingers or patriot missiles. We only have old Soviet rockets, many of them not in a good state. If there is a big war, I fear in the first weeks we will have many casualties.”

Chebeliuk predicted that a Russian offensive would set off a partisan war. “A lot of us are ready to fight. We will resist in every city, in every village. Ukrainians hate Putin, especially in the west of our country. I hope Putin is just pretending with his threats, to get something from the west and Biden.”

Whenever Ukrainian rulers began acting like dictators the people rose up against them, she said, citing the 2014 “revolution of dignity” in Kyiv against the then president, Viktor Yanukovych. Chebeliuk rejected Putin’s recent claims that Ukraine and Russia were “one people”.

“Russians have lived for 20 years in a dictatorship. They are happy,” she said. “We don’t like dictators here. Putin is a bit of a dreamer. He wants to be the most powerful man in the world. If he tries to make a dictatorship in Ukraine he will fail.”

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