“If before joining the army you imagined death as something sacred, evil, something that happens very rarely and shouldn’t happen, then in the army you begin to understand that death is commonplace,” Serhiy Hnezdilov says on a video link from a field near Kurakhove, west of Donetsk. “Anyone can die at any moment. Your relationship with death simply reaches a new level.”
Born and raised in the port city of Odesa, Serhiy was just 14 years old when Russia invaded Crimea and the east of Ukraine in 2014. Back then he was unable to fight back. Now 22, the former student and charity worker is on the frontline in a war for the existence of his country.
Serhiy’s comrades-in-arms, who can be heard teasing him while he talks via a laptop in the shade of a tree near the frontline, share his determination to expel the Russian invader. “Everyone understands why we are here,” he says.
The story is the same in the Zaporizhzhya region, 100 miles to the west, where Nazariy Luharev, who first joined the Ukrainian armed forces in 2011, is the only professional soldier in a company of men aged between 18 and 56.
“Everyone is so damned motivated to defend Ukraine and ready to die for it,” he says. “But we need to kill for it, not die.”
Part of Nazariy’s job is to transform motivation into professionalism through training, including teaching his men the basics of survival in conflict and the importance of security, sleep, food, and water.
When his company was sent up the line, Nazariy felt that sense of confidence that soldiers sometimes describe — a certainty that they will return alive. That feeling didn’t extend to his mobilized and conscripted men. “I had experience, the task was to save them,” Nazariy, who has a wife and two-year-old son waiting for him at home, says via video link. “To survive you need a little luck,”
The motivation and commitment on the Ukrainian side are in marked contrast to reports from the Russian frontline of conscripted soldiers who are demoralized and sometimes mutinying as they act as pawns in Vladimir Putin’s war of conquest. But it’s not the only difference. While the Russians have vast resources to flatten large tracts of Ukraine, the defenders do not. Ukraine’s frontline soldiers echo their government’s appeals for more hardware to turn back the invasion.
“Western weapons literally save the situation whilst ours are outdated and unreliable,” Nazariy says. “When you wear Western kit, you feel ready for battle.”
While both men are pleased with the weapons their units have received so far – and personnel is being trained as quickly as possible to use them, they say much more will be needed to repel the invasion. Once the ammunition is used, it needs to be replaced, and it’s being used fast.
Portable missile systems, such as the US Javelin anti-tank missile and the UK’s Starstreak anti-aircraft missile, have proved invaluable in halting Russian advances, countering its air power, and dislodging occupying forces. A soldier can be taught to use the Anglo-Swedish NLAW portable short-range anti-tank guided missile unit in less than a day and, weighing just 12.5kg (26lbs) with a range of up to 800 meters, it has played a crucial role in repelling ground attacks.
Drones, both donated by Ukraine’s allies and bought by its Ministry of Defense, have been vital for reconnaissance and precision attacks on Russia’s military. “Drones and artillery save infantry blood,” says Nazariy, who — like many Ukrainians — has donated his own money to crowdfunded efforts to buy more of the aircraft.
Serhiy, who carries out aerial reconnaissance for his unit, agrees. Reconnaissance for soldiers on the ground is a highly perilous activity, as opposed to flying an unmanned aircraft and “finding everything you need,” he says. For him, the equation is clear: “The more Ukraine invests in drones, the fewer people will die.”
Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites, which provide internet access, have also been revolutionary in the conduct of the war, Serhiy says. They have facilitated drone activity, both for information gathering and attacks, and improved communications on the frontline so commanders can effectively direct operations.
“Earlier in the war it was a regular situation to not have any connection,” he says. “Now, thanks to Starlink, we feel like people who have touched on technological progress.”
These connections to the outside world have also enabled soldiers on the frontline to raise money to pay for fuel and the maintenance of equipment needed for the fight. Nazariy smiles as he remembers appealing on Facebook for 16,000 hryvnias ($540) to pay for repairs to a car used by his unit. By the end of the day, 87,000 ($2,940) had been collected.
Other improvements rely on older technology, which the soldiers have embraced to make their lives more bearable. Nazariy’s unit has built a smokehouse to preserve meat and ensure the soldiers’ protein intake during the summer months, and they built a sweat lodge, so they can have steam baths to keep them clean.
Every three or four days, the men in Serhiy’s unit are rotated out of the line to have a shower and prepare food and coffee on a fire. Soldiers also relieve stress in ways that would be recognized on battlefields for hundreds of years: Some draw, others write poetry, sports are played and songs are sung.
There’s no such thing as an ordinary day, Serhiy says, a far cry from the office and student life he left behind. “While it’s quiet, you sleep, when it’s not quiet, you do something,” he says. “There’s no waking up at 6 am every day here, to have breakfast and go to work. Everything is completely different.”
Kateryna Panasiuk is an author and journalist studying politics at the Ukrainian Catholic University. When war came to her home, Ukraine, she chose to do what she knew best and started a volunteer project to collect and share stories of Ukrainians affected by the war.
Mykyta Vorobiov is a freelance journalist studying politics at the Ukrainian Catholic University and the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla academy. Forced to leave Kyiv when war broke out, he has since combined work at Lviv City Council with coordinating a journalism project and editing articles.