HRANITNE VILLAGE, Ukraine front line — Ukrainian soldiers are taught to drop in their trench position and stay down for at least 15 minutes if a sniper’s bullet misses them. The hope is the sniper will believe them dead. But elite Russian snipers usually don’t miss.
In a hand-dug trench a half-mile from the front line in the restive Donbas region on eastern Ukraine, bright green grass grows and red poppies flower just inches above the heads of Ukrainian soldiers manning their position.
The nearby village of Hranitne is like many in post-industrial eastern Ukraine. A showy, Soviet-era rectangular City Hall, an abandoned agricultural factory converted to a military installation, and a central plaza with a stepped platform where a statue of Lenin once stood.
But this village is different.
Schoolchildren cross a military checkpoint from occupied territory to Ukrainian-controlled territory so they can continue attending the same school. Young soldiers walk the streets. Many of them volunteered from wealthier western Ukraine to fight Russian officers and commandos and their own Ukrainian brethren who have taken sides with Vladimir Putin in yet another protracted conflict spurred by the Russian president.
The war between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in the semi-states known as the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics is largely contained to a no man’s land in empty fields on the outskirts of small villages like this. Tree lines are where the opposing sides establish their positions, digging trenches to store weapons and provisions and to hide armored vehicles, should they be necessary.
In this low-intensity conflict, most soldiers are dying from sniper fire.
“At night, you see nothing,” said a Ukrainian soldier who gave his name as Unit Commander “Marhanets” to the Washington Examiner for operational security.
“Right now, there is no sniper at this position, but they are there. We received a warning because their intelligence position is nearby,” Marhanets said, a green face mask pulled up just below his eyes to conceal his identity.
All day, every day, he and the other dozen or so troops in his unit take turns peering through periscope binoculars positioned just below camo netting and fixed on the enemy front line.
They used to watch the enemy dig trenches until spring rains came and the grass grew taller. Now, they stare at a tree line across the field, looking for movement.
The view of the enemy frontline in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic through periscope binoculars near Hranitne village, eastern Ukraine June 6, 2021. Photo by Abraham Mahshie/Washington Examiner
Marhanets knows two comrades hit by sniper fire. One died. One survived. The one who survived is still in the hospital, paralyzed from the neck down.
In the underground network of sandbag positions and lookout spots, any peek above ground level is potentially lethal.
“There’s a little window where you look up, and the sniper hits exactly where you look,” he said.
In 2015, shortly after the conflict broke out, Marhanets was on the front line with no night-vision goggles or thermal vision technology.
“We were in a position at the north, and on the radio, we captured a signal, that’s how we knew a diversion group was moving towards our direction,” he said. “But what can you do? You cannot make your eyes see better, you cannot make your ears hear better. You are just sitting and waiting, and there’s nothing you can do to know when they will arrive. And when you have this vision, it really helps to see the situation.”
Russian snipers with night-vision technology can see Ukrainian movements and kill the soldiers one by one. Enemy intelligence groups known as “sabotage groups” can walk right up to a position, shielded by darkness, and kill soldiers directly in the trench.
Then, American assistance began to arrive.
It included sniper rifles, thermal optics, laser rangefinders, optical detection systems, and electronic warfare systems.
“There’s actually a very dangerous situation in eastern Ukraine in terms of the sniper attacks that we see on Ukrainian forces,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia Laura Cooper told the Washington Examiner in a May Pentagon interview.
“There’s also a number of other systems that we’re providing that are effective and fill critical requirements for the Ukrainian armed forces. That includes sniper rifles, counter-artillery radars, grenade launchers,” she added, noting that nonlethal assistance includes military medical equipment and armored Humvees. “I want to also be clear that this isn’t something we invent in Washington. This is something that responds to what the Ukrainian armed forces themselves have identified.”
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba underscored the importance of the American support in a meeting with the Washington Examiner in Kyiv.
“Almost every week, we lose soldiers in the east, and almost every day, some young Ukrainian man enlists in the Ukrainian army willing to defend it,” Kuleba said.
“All of us have friends or relatives or someone who has been affected by the war, either as an internally displaced person or as a soldier or as a civilian. I mean, this is part of our life,” he said. “We know that no one is going to fight this war for us. We’re going to fight it, but it’s much easier to fight and prevail when you have reliable friends next to you, standing by you and behind you. And that’s the role of the United States of America.”
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dymtro Kuleba in an interview with the Washington Examiner in Kyiv June 3, 2021 described his country’s hopes for a comprehensive defense agreement with the United States. Photo courtesy Ukrainian Foreign Ministry
In late March, Russia built up 100,000 troops on the border of eastern Ukraine, threatening another invasion and escalation in the conflict. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited front-line positions, calling for international assistance and a path to entry into NATO.
Leaders of NATO, the European Union, and President Joe Biden condemned the Russian move.
The U.S. spoke of support for a path to eventual NATO entry, but needed reforms would have to come first. Secretly, the National Security Council prepared a $100 million contingency aid package, the NSC confirmed to the Washington Examiner.
“In addition to the $275 million that has already been authorized for aid to Ukraine this fiscal year, as has been reported, a $100 million contingency package was prepared given escalating tensions on Ukraine’s border in April 2021,” a U.S. official said. “That contingency package is prepared for whenever it is needed.”
U.S. assistance to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 has totaled $2.5 billion.
Ukrainian soldiers walk near a frontline position in the ongoing war with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine June 6, 2021 Photo by Abraham Mahshie/ Washington Examiner
Kuleba said absent NATO entry, his country seeks a broader defense agreement with the U.S.
“Ukraine exists in a security void. We are not members of NATO. We do not have a single security guarantee agreement,” he said.
“If NATO membership is not an immediate answer, then a defense partnership with the United States could be an answer,” he suggested. “We are buying the military equipment from you. You are giving us some of the equipment, but what we need is an agreement that would kind of certify that relationship that would bring it to the next level.”
Kuleba said his government envisions tying up disparate programs so that U.S. departments from the State Department to USAID to the Defense Department are working in concert to secure Ukraine’s democracy against Russian aggression.
Meanwhile, 600 miles from the capital, over muddy tracks on gently rolling hills outside an otherwise peaceful village, young Ukrainian soldiers forfeit rotations back home to serve repeat tours on the front line.
Here, they live in a sort of primitive brotherhood but with the sophisticated tools they need to survive.
“Right now, many people die from snipers,” Marhanets said. “When there is a ceasefire, when there is no heavy artillery working, then snipers are working.”