Commander Nafania advances at a steady pace through the snowy forest. Barely two years ago, this narrow-smiling miner, born in the Dnipropetrovsk region in central Ukraine, could not have imagined himself like this, with a rifle on his shoulder, in a frozen trench on the eastern front of Koupiansk, with a brigade made up of other miners, warehouse managers, operators, a store manager, drivers, a financial analyst… All converted into soldiers, enduring one of the hottest spots on the more than 1,200 kilometer front line of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Nafania, the war badge of the commander of the 40th Separate Rifle Brigade (Kodak), marks a gap in the ground where the trees are turning white. And another beyond. “These are the remains of the Russians. This area was occupied, now they want to come back,” he mutters. A buzzing sound precedes the explosion of a missile. The rain of artillery roars. The Russian positions are less than two kilometers away. The Kremlin wants to surround the entire area and is not giving any respite.
Russia has intensified its offensive on the stronghold of Kupiansk, about 40 kilometers from the border with Russia, a city it took with little effort in the first days of the invasion and which the Ukrainian army recovered in September 2022. Moscow used the city, of around 60,000 inhabitants before the invasion, and the rest of the area as an important logistics center. He now wants to take it back and use it as leverage to seize the entire Luhansk region (which he already keeps almost entirely occupied) and from there march towards the north of the Donetsk region. He also seeks to use it to advance towards Kharkiv – before the war, Ukraine’s second most populous city – and achieve a better approach to punishing this city that Russian President Vladimir Putin coveted from the first moments of the attacks and that of recent years. days it has been busy striking with storms of missiles and drones.
Russian troops are focusing one of their main war efforts on the Kupiansk front, analysts say. Chechen special forces and several Russian motorized rifle units operate all the way to the occupied city of Kremina. Moscow is now also preparing to strengthen its push with up to 5,000 additional troops, several Ukrainian military observers say. Russia has advanced a few meters – “marginal,” experts say – since it restarted the offensive in October to also try to divert Ukrainian troops from the counter-offensive to the south, which ultimately failed.
“They launch constant assaults, they try to advance and if their companions fall, they don’t even come back to collect their bodies,” Nafania explains. “I still can’t understand what his motivation is,” said the 34-year-old soldier, nicknamed after the character in a Soviet-era animated film. The 40th Separate Rifle Brigade, formed as a territorial defense force at the start of the invasion, was integrated into the Ukrainian army and now remains alongside others in the region, dotted with villages and forests and surrounded by labyrinths of trenches.
Two years later, Putin maintains his goal of subjugating Ukraine. “He wants to occupy the entire country and has launched a major operation to take Donbass in the east,” says Mijailo Samus, a renowned Ukrainian military analyst. “It’s trying to move in different directions both north, east and south,” he explains over the phone. Samus doubts the strategic importance of Kupiansk and the entire region for Moscow. “They occupied this area for six months and it was of no use; Plus, if they only succeed in one direction, it doesn’t matter. From an operational point of view, it is absurd,” adds the expert, who describes the intense assaults launched by Russian troops to advance on the Kupiansk front with mortars, artillery of all types, drones and armed vehicles.
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Meanwhile, for kyiv’s forces, advancing into this now frozen area would open an interesting door to reclaiming Lugansk. In addition, if you move back several meters, finding them later would be much more complicated. But for now, with difficult terrain, a lack of ammunition, overloaded weapons and the need for reinforcements, Ukrainian troops are struggling to hold the line.
Back at the 40th Separate Rifle Brigade outpost, it’s lunch time. One of the many Dmitris, the cook on duty, made Borscht, a Ukrainian beetroot soup that warms the body after crossing snowy trenches. Another Dmitri, a former financial analyst, checks drone equipment and consults on his laptop. He is one of those responsible for the technical part of the unmanned aircraft that the brigade incorporated and which proved essential to the battle. Especially with such small arsenals and scarce ammunition. Dmitri, now a technician, claims to have succeeded in detecting and repairing a flaw which allowed Russian troops to attract drones and capture them using electromagnetic warfare tools, which the Kremlin deploys to try to thwart the proliferation of unmanned aircraft in Ukrainian brigades.
Many soldiers of the 40th had never been to the east of the country, explains a third Dmitri, alias Doc, an electronics engineer who always wanted to become a doctor. Most of them come from the regions of Zaporizhia in the south or Dnipropetrovsk in the center of the country. “In 2014, when the war in Donbas started, I thought it was far away, that it was not something that affected me,” he says slowly. “I didn’t do anything, I didn’t go anywhere. Now I think I should have done more. So when they started bombing our cities on February 24, 2022, I got involved,” he says. And there he is, alternating his time between the outpost and the trench in the snow. When he can, he draws landscapes, churches, his children, his country house. Show your drawings on your mobile screen. He’s a good painter. “It helps a lot for morale, to disconnect the mind,” he admits, shrugging his shoulders.
Nafania and the three Dmitris have not returned home for months. There is no replacement. Most of those who aren’t already in trenches like that, where they’ve had a large infestation of mice that still crawl around the three cats that live with the brigade, have lost their sense of existential urgency. They don’t want to go to war. Ukraine is now divided into two: that of the battle fronts – trenches with mud, snow and mice in the rain of Russian artillery – and that which is experiencing a new normal, altered from time to time by bombings. Maybe three Ukraines, with the areas occupied by the Kremlin. Troops and citizens are exhausted everywhere.
But as the invaded country enters its third year of war, with an extremely difficult 2024 in which many doubt whether Western support will hold, others in the snowy forest of Kupiansk remember that Russia expected to travel hundreds of kilometers across Ukraine and succeed in a few days. In February 2022, Russian military commanders had asked officers to pack their uniforms that they hoped to wear in victory parades in kyiv. Nothing happened as Putin hoped. Nearly 700 days have passed and Russia continues to occupy 20% of Ukrainian territory and pushes to conquer the Donbass and the south, while bleeding its country dry.
With the latest airstrikes on major Ukrainian cities, from Kharkiv in the east to kyiv, the capital, or even Lviv in the west, Putin is not only seeking to deplete Ukraine’s stockpiles of air defense equipment. He also wants the world to forget that Russia is facing the greatest human and strategic catastrophe since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And he is trying to play the patience card, believing that his allies will eventually tire and leave Ukraine alone.
Evening falls on the Kupiansk front and dense clouds emerge in the sky. The drones that Russia deploys to monitor and attack have less visibility. The rain of artillery continues. “It’s hard, it’s difficult, but I’m happy to be able to be here to secure our future,” Doc says. “Further, maybe they don’t feel the war like they do in the trenches, but that’s because we’re here. “If we retreated, everyone would be on their knees.”
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