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Battalion commander Oleksander, 36, has trained at U.S. military bases.

Battalion commander Oleksander, 36, has trained at U.S. military bases. (Michael Robinson Chavez/Washington Post)

NOVOTROITSKE, Ukraine - The battalion commander made a left turn in the trenches and walked into a cramped, pitch-black den. Strips of cloth lined the walls and ceiling. He pulled back a flap. Midmorning light streamed in, allowing the day’s first look at the enemy down below.

Ukrainian government forces have the strategic high ground in this position along the demarcation line in their eight-year conflict with Russia-backed separatists. Oleksander, the battalion commander, warned that the observation window can’t be left open for too long. The separatists might notice and target it.

“Whatever Russia does or doesn’t do, we’re watching,” he said, referring both to the current standoff with separatists and a potential war with their Russian backers. Like other members of Ukraine’s armed forces interviewed for this story, Oleksander offered only his first name and rank, for security reasons and in keeping with military rules.

He is one of the approximately 209,000 active-duty personnel charged with defending the country in the event of a fresh attack from Russia.

But Ukrainian soldiers like Oleksander have been fighting Moscow’s proxies since 2014, when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea and war with separatists aided by Russia broke out in the eastern Donbas region. That fight, which has killed some 14,000 people, is ongoing.

Ukraine’s military has changed in that time, armed and trained by billions in military aid from the United States and other NATO allies. But as a much more menacing threat looms, Ukraine’s armed forces face a fight largely alone.

Ukraine is not a part of NATO, and Russia is demanding the West draw up a written guarantee that it never will be. The Western alliance has rebuffed the Kremlin, saying its open-door policy remains. But the United States and NATO allies also say they will not deploy forces to Ukraine in the event of a Russian attack.

The soldiers in outposts such as Novotroitske and across Ukraine’s military are outmatched on paper - Russia’s active-duty military is more than four times the size of Ukraine’s. Russia spends more than $61 billion on defense annually compared with Ukraine’s approximately $6 billion.

While Moscow’s forces have modernized, Kyiv is reliant on the West for antitank and antiaircraft missiles. Its arsenal still includes Soviet relics. Military experts say Ukraine would be ill-equipped to stop an air or sea assault, though its army might fare better on the ground - where it has been fighting for eight years.

“Our defense is our job,” Oleksander said. “But whoever helps us, we’ll be grateful for it.”

Oleksander continued his check of the post. He stopped by the kitchen, which was cooking borscht, a traditional beet soup. Okroshka, a kind of cold soup, was also on the menu, which Oleksander crinkled his nose at because “it’s Russian.”

He knows this front-line turf so well. Any sound other than that of boots smacking against the mixture of mud and ice on the ground causes him to pause and scan the area for a potential threat. He heard voices in the distance and halted in alarm. His comrade assured him it was soldiers from their battalion.

Oleksander whistled. It was a tune only his guys would know. They appeared in response. Oleksander smiled in relief and moved on with his day.

A visit to trench-line positions means a ride in the back of a GAZ-66 truck. One soldier described it as the most hated vehicle in the Ukrainian military.

“You’re about to find out why,” said Vanya, a 29-year-old corporal in Oleksander’s battalion.

“Hold on to everything and anything,” he warned.

The GAZ-66, used mostly for off-roading expeditions, dates back to the Soviet Union. The trip was a jostling and stomach-lurching experience, like a jaunt on a mechanical bull.

Vanya was unfazed after seven years’ worth of trips in the flatbed. He animatedly launched into a story about another brush with the past. He said he once attended a training session with Soviet-era commanders who carried old firearms that had bayonets fixed to the end. He couldn’t take the instructors seriously. Who, he said, carries weapons like that anymore?

The back of his helmet has an American flag patch, a gift from a U.S. military specialist Vanya met during drills in western Ukraine last year on how to use U.S.-made weapons, such as Javelin antitank missiles.

“That’s more my thing,” he said.

The GAZ-66 reached its destination, its tires deep in thick, black mud. The battalion was digging a new trench position - a third line of defense. Oleksander said this happens periodically. New positions are needed to keep the enemy on edge and guessing at their location, he explained.

But Oleksander wasn’t happy with what he saw. There was trash throughout the trench’s pathway. Wood logs were sitting on the ground when they should have been reinforcing the dirt walls.

“But I see you have WiFi,” Oleksander said sarcastically to a young soldier who goes by the code name Vampire. A router was among the first things set up.

Another soldier was standing by and nervously watching the exchange. He said he was 18 years old.

Vanya winced at that. He was 22 when he enlisted. The war was one year in and still in its bloodiest phase. He remembered his posting in Avdiivka, “when there were fireworks every night after 6 p.m.” He was so close to the enemy then that a good throw could peg a separatist with a rock.

Life in most trenches now is standing around smoking a cigarette and waiting. This position in Novotroitske is considered a comparatively cushy assignment because it sees less action than some other points along the front. It used to be a hot spot years ago, but the Ukrainians recaptured the hill from the separatists and now hold their ground.

“These young guys come here and say they want to fight,” Vanya said. “I’m like, ‘Boys, you came at the wrong time.’ “

What’s not said is that the quiet status quo at the outpost could change at any moment.

Oleksander and Vampire walked to where troops were digging out a trench.

At the sight of Washington Post journalists, one soldier said, “Well, maybe someone will see this and send us two Javelins.”

“Actually, better they send us an earth mover,” he added.

In the basement of an abandoned eastern Ukrainian house - converted into a military headquarters - Oleksander showed off his “command center.” He insisted that no photo or video cameras enter this space, the heart of his battalion’s operation.

He pointed to a row of three desks labeled with acronyms from the Latin alphabet. First was the spot for “S2,” or reconnaissance. Next was “ADA,” or air defense artillery. Then “FSO” for the fire support officer.

“It’s simple, like in the United States,” Oleksander said.

At another desk across the room, miniature Ukrainian and U.S. flags were posted beside each other in a V shape. Upstairs, one room was labeled “S1” to denote a sort of administration office. Kyiv’s push to reform its army starts with the small details, such as the adoption of U.S. military jargon.

“One step closer to NATO,” Oleksander said, then added: “I hope.”

Also in the command center: Oleksander’s sword and crossbow - a nod to his code name, Witcher, the protagonist in a fantasy novel series by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. The Witcher is a hulking man of supernatural ability who uses his powers to slay monsters and mythical beasts.

Oleksander thinks he, too, was destined to be a warrior. He always had a toy saber or gun in his hands as a kid. At 14, he enrolled in a military academy. Now, at 36, he’s nearly two decades into his Ukrainian military service.

“I put on the uniform and never gave up on it,” he said. “And I never regretted it.”

In 2011 and 2012, Oleksander participated in an international training program at Georgia’s Fort Benning and San Antonio’s Lackland Air Force Base. He was in his mid-20s and learned English through joining the bases’ Bible studies, even though he doesn’t consider himself religious. Those were the days when he experienced American clubs, tequila and his first tattoo - not necessarily in that order.

He also got an appreciation for the U.S. military’s methods, everything from the system of training to lessons on how a headquarters operation should be run. It was a rude awakening when he returned to Ukraine in 2012 and saw how much his own country’s military was lacking - even with basics such as proper boots and helmets.

“It changed me,” Oleksander said. “The uniform didn’t change. The weapons didn’t change. Nothing changed. But mentally, I could see the difference - the difference between what we had and what was possible, what could be implemented.”

Two years after Oleksander came home, Russia captured Crimea with little resistance, and Ukraine was plunged into a war that forced its military to modernize while fighting from World War I-style trenches.

Oleksander was quick to defend the dugouts.

“I saw something just like this at Fort Benning,” he said.

After lunch, Vanya settled onto his bunk bed and flipped open his computer. He slipped on headphones and fired up the next part of his daily routine, one that he considers vital to improving his craft. It was time to play “Call of Duty.”

The first-person-shooter video game was how he learned the difference between the basic configuration of an AK-47 rifle and an improved one. It showed him the attachments a firearm could have, such as a scope.

“As for my vision of what a fighter should be, it really derives from gaming,” he said. “Earlier, we only used to see the Soviet army. We didn’t have games where we could see, for instance, the Special Forces of the U.S.”

“But now we see all that through a video game,” he added. “I don’t want to be a Soviet moron. I want to be a proper fighter.”

The Stars and Stripes hung above Vanya’s bed. There were Christmas lights draped along the wall, creating a surprisingly cozy feel with the lights dimmed.

This headquarters is three stories, flanked by armed checkpoints outside. The mess hall is a couple of blocks down - also in a house that’s been long abandoned. This used to be a bustling coal-mining village, but only about 30 people remain. Stray dogs are now so unused to seeing civilians that they bark at anyone not dressed in military fatigues.

Time passes here with soldiers playfully hurling obscenities and crude jokes about each other’s mothers. One of the privates, Evgeny, is known as the resident ink master. His services were booked that night. He was tattooing a large image of a valkyrie on Bohdana’s shoulder - symbolic because women in Ukraine’s armed forces are often referred to as the warriors from Norse mythology.

The troops are at ease without ever fully letting their guard down.

“We can’t let each other relax,” Vanya said. “That’s when it’s dangerous.”

Conversation never drifted to the potential assault this room of special forces could face from Russia. Instead, the friends and comrades lamented domestic political issues and how hard it is for veterans to find jobs after they’ve completed their military service. They said employers assume they’re all suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The personal consequences of this long conflict aren’t lost on them. Vanya’s code name is Rex - because he’s like the large dinosaur with a mean bite. He said he sleeps with headphones on and a gun nearby - even when he’s on leave and away from the front. Sometimes, to calm his restless head, he’ll drive around without a destination for hours.

He’s two months away from being a father, but “planning anything is like building a sand castle.”

“What I know for sure is who will help us in case of a conflict, an escalation,” Vanya said. “It’s this one fighter here and another one, a few others in that room and fighters a couple of kilometers from here. That’s what I can say for sure because they are right here, right now.”

“And whether anyone else will come to help, to be honest, we might not even live to that moment.”

The Washington Post’s Serhiy Morgunov and Whitney Shefte contributed to this report.


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