Ukraine – Casper, Sniper, Hammer, Owl. These are just some of the nicknames of Ukrainians who volunteered to serve in the Donbass Battalion, a unit formed in 2014 to fight pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country.
On the front line they call each other “friend” in lieu of the old Soviet-style “comrade.” And each goes by his nickname. It’s not just for fraternal reasons. There are many common first names in Ukraine so an officer searching for “Sasha” might find several men in each unit with the same name.
Over several days on the front line of Ukraine’s “frozen” war – being fought in the east of the country against pro-Russian separatist republics that broke away in 2014 – these fighters detailed the challenges they face daily.
This corner of the world seems forgotten, even in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. And except for a few recruitment posters for the armed forces, there are few reminders that a simmering conflict, which takes up to two dozen lives a month, is still ongoing. Yet along hundreds of kilometers of what is called the cease-fire line, the Ukrainian Army is tasked with supervising a 2015 agreement which was supposed to lead to a cease-fire.
“The ‘frozen’ conflict freezes in the morning, melts during the day and at night there is firing,” said a sergeant who commands a position in Avdivka, one of the closest positions to the separatists.
Peering through a concrete wall pierced by tank shells, he says his men not only face volunteers from the separatist area around Donetsk, but also face Russian soldiers.
“There are Chechen war junkies and Russian mercenaries,” among the separatists as well, according to Vyacheslav Vlasenko, commander of the Donbass Battalion.
For men in his battalion, this war is personal. Many volunteered in 2014 after the Maidan protests in Kiev forced Viktor Yanukovych, then Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, to step down and flee the country. When a rebellion broke out in the mostly Russian-speaking part of eastern Ukraine, volunteers streamed to fight on both sides.
It’s not a conflict split along linguistic lines though. Most of the men from the Donbass region who chose to fight on the Ukrainian government side are Russian speakers.
In 2014, with the Ukrainian army struggling to cope, these volunteers made up with spirit what many of them lacked in military training.
Sitting in their local base, a former civilian home near the front, the men showed videos and shared stories of tough battles in 2014 and 2015 at places like Ilovaisk and Debaltseve. Casper, one of the unit’s marksmen who looks to be in his 40s, says the enemy is only 200 meters from their position on the cease-fire line. “We spent the last campaign [rotation] here – 160 days in this area – and we definitely can confirm we killed 52 [separatists].”
“Separatists know Donbass Battalion, and they know if they challenge us it will be heavy fighting,” he said.
At the end of what was once a quiet civilian street of small homes with corrugated metal roofs, a human-like scarecrow figure that looks like the Grim Reaper marks the front line. Sandbags have been filled to create a covered trench, with several rooms and sniper positions.
Such positions are equipped with DShK’s – a Soviet-era heavy machine gun – rocket-propelled grenades and grenade launchers. Heavier weapons were supposed to be withdrawn from the line after the Minsk II agreement signed in February 2015 between Russia, Ukraine and the two self-proclaimed separatist states Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. So no armored vehicles or artillery are visible.
The Donbass men stress they could re-take this part of Ukraine if they had orders. But for now their job is just to man the position and respond when fired upon. For some of them that task is a bit boring.
They have lost friends over the years and they want to fight.
“Barmaley,” a man nicknamed after a fictional pirate and cannibal, has affixed his 1964-era AK-47 with a home-made silencer. When there is fighting to be done, those monitoring the cease-fire won’t hear it. Down the road, a position manned by men from a volunteer unit named Pravy Sektor (Right Sector), regularly get in gunfights at night. This is the “rhythm” of the front line, some shooting at nightfall, and then off and on until dawn.
In early August, one volunteer was wounded during clashes in Marinka.
According to a website named liveuamap that tracks the conflict, 24 Ukrainian soldiers were killed in July and 71 wounded. The numbers killed on the other side during this same period have not been made public.
Part of this personal war also involves propaganda on both sides.
Russian separatists call the Ukrainians “fascists” and “NATO punishers,” and the Ukrainian volunteers respond in kind. Each seems to adopt the motif of the Cold War, with Ukrainians seeing themselves as still throwing off the Soviet era and their opponents seeing them as collaborators with the West.
On the wall of an officer’s room in the Donbass local headquarters, a piece of artwork sent by a Ukrainian child shows the Kremlin painted in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. It reads: “Putin’s nightmare.”
Although some of these men may not always articulate it, they are on the front line of a geopolitical conflict that is watched closely in chanceries in Europe, Moscow and the US.