The sun rises on 2023. Its rays light up the trench, an unwelcoming black void into which we gratefully disappear to take cover from the artillery, rockets and Iranian Shahid drones that are launched daily from the Russian positions just kilometres across the water. All around, the landscape is ragged and torn. This is the emergent topography of southern Ukraine, a land sundered by violence. Nearby, a cat wanders across an expanse of concrete — unperturbed by it all.
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To enter a trench on the frontlines of a war is to go both deep into the earth and back in time. I arrive as the war enters its ninth year, just before New Year’s Eve; the mood seems strangely familiar. Inside the sleeping quarters, at the end of a narrow corridor strewn with coats, shoes, helmets, and automatic weapons, a line comes to me from Isaac Rosenberg’s great First World War poem, Break of Day in the Trenches. We are, I realise, now “sprawled in the bowels of the earth”.
A thick, gnarled tree branch has been converted into a pillar that juts into the ceiling; three bunks surround it. A wood-powered boiler heats the place. It is suffused with the particular combination of body odour, stale cigarette smoke and cheap deodorant common to all small spaces in which soldiers sleep for sustained periods of time. I know that after five minutes I will no longer be able to smell it.
I keep moving through the trench — a maze of narrow alleys with wooden walls dug almost two metres into the ground — to the front and arrive at a lookout post right on the front where a young soldier is manning a DShK heavy machine gun. He greets me and points straight ahead. I follow the line of his finger out into the distance.
“Russian pigs,” he says with a grin.
The 26th Border Guards Division has been in Ochakiv since April 2022. The town is a strategically important point and home to Ukraine’s marine base, built by the US in 2019. When Putin gave his maundering speech declaring the start of the 24 February offensive, he claimed Ochakiv was central to American and Nato plans to launch attacks against Russia. It is also the entrance to Kherson and Mykolaiv by sea. Moscow wants it — badly.
As we arrive from Odesa in the late morning, we are immediately told to take cover. Shahids have been spotted. Inside the Division’s office, a small room adorned with the flags of Ukraine and the Border Guards, I meet Oleg, a 32-year-old senior lieutenant from Mykolaiv, and the second-in-command here. He is a contract (volunteer) officer, and he has been here since April. The job of the soldiers here, he explains, is twofold: first, to detect incoming Russian attacks and to give their coordinates to the air defence forces; and second, to fight what he describes as the “artillery duel” with the Russians a few kilometres away in the occupied Kherson region. Their base here is shot at constantly, he explains. They are dug into trenches because they are attacked by a varying array of drones: Shahids, Russian Lancets and Orlans, and small Mavics. This the most noticeable evolution of the war since I was last here: drones are now at its heart.
“This position is vital,” Oleg tells me. “If the Russians deploy their forces here, it means they would be able to access Odesa.” This autumn was particularly intense, he explains. On the worst day, the Division experienced three waves of attacks: missiles, artillery and — “for dessert” — a swarm of drones. “We intercepted one wave; unfortunately, another was successful and there were some casualties.”
The Shahids arrived in August. He estimates the Russians opposite have about 70 of them. “They are effective because they are cheap [and therefore plentiful].” A small mug sits on the table with “I love you” written across it; some tinsel hangs forlornly over a small fridge. He continues: “As soon as we saw the drones coming, we took up positions and began shooting. I gave the order to use the heavy machine guns — we didn’t have the drone gun yet.” He picks up what looks like a short guitar case and holds it proudly. “It blocks the signal between the drone and its operator — you can either just make it fall or take control of it.”
I ask what he thinks of Russians? He laughs. “They are just killers, destroyers, and rapists. They have no dignity or respect; they come just to destroy everything, but they underestimated us. They broke their teeth on Ukraine. One day they will go back to their fields and forests because they will never win here. They’re just a bunch of Pederas.”
Back in the trench, I meet Artem. He’s 24 and has also been fighting since April. He has a faded smudge of a tattoo on his hand. I ask what it is. “I got it four years ago,”’ he replies. “When I was young and more stupid.” He speaks to another soldier and suddenly becomes agitated. “Pederas,” he snorts. “Russians?” I ask. “No,” he replies. “The postal service. They lose everything. I sent my wife an ant farm as a gift and they fucked up the delivery so when it arrived, almost all had died. Though two survived. So the farm will grow again.”
He snaps back to the present and proceeds to show me how it all works. At intervals across the front of the trench stand lookout posts sitting behind wooden walls topped with sandbags. With a pair of high-powered binoculars, I look at some houses across the river. “Russians are hiding in there,” he tells me. “They fire at us all the time. At night they suck, because their aim is shit. During the day they just shoot all the time. Day and night, we sit and watch them and return fire.” Out here, on the front, far away from politics and civilian life and family, things become very simple indeed.
“It’s easy,” he shrugs. “We look. We find. We kill.”
Darkness is falling. Before the light goes, Oleg wants to take me on a tour of the surrounding area to show me the effects of the huge artillery battle that is raging. There is much talk here of a renewed spring offensive after the weather starts to get warmer. He expects things to get much worse, he tells me matter-of-factly. I struggle with my body armour, and he comes over to help me. Doing it up at the back, he pats me on the shoulder. “Ok, now you are a special soldier.”
We walk about 30 metres from the trench to a huge bomb crater that must be 2 metres deep. I climb down inside and look up at a grinning Oleg. This was a rocket strike from just three weeks ago, he tells me. We walk on and he shows me the remains of a Grad rocket that also narrowly missed the trench. Another few yards away, he points out yet another piece of enemy hardware. I am, I realise, in the centre of a battlefield.
A short while later, it is time for dinner: a feast of beef, chicken, ham, potatoes, salami, bread and coleslaw is served. The men take it in turns to cook and the camaraderie is clear. They laugh and joke here on the front, as soldiers under repeated attack almost always do. There is little point behaving otherwise. I sit at a table with my photographer Nataliya and six soldiers. The mood lifts. Artem starts joking about the Russians. “They are afraid of our punches in Moscow,” he says. “They are like rats!” he laughs.
Meanwhile, the sound of shelling — “the shrieking iron and flame/Hurled through still heavens” — outside is growing louder. “2022 was hard for everyone, not just Ukraine,” he continues, a glass of Coke in his hand as if nothing is happening. “People all over the world saw that Ukraine is the strongest nation in the world — I appreciate that is my subjective opinion — and that we did not want to be part of Russia. For 2023, I feel hope: hope is the one thing nobody can take away. I want less death and more love — and also more weapons.”
It’s time for a night-time tour of the trench. Just before we leave, Artem shows me some books his wife has sent him on strategy — some are about the US army, he says happily. “You can learn a lot from these,” he tells me. “The brain is the most important weapon in war.” A thick fog has descended. The company dog, a good-natured mongrel Polkan (derived from Polkovnik meaning colonel) who the soldiers take into the trench with them when they are attacked, joins us. The shelling becomes louder and more frequent. As we walk across concrete to the trench, the fog rolls across us. “It’s a bitch,” Artem tells me. “You have to wipe the guns down constantly.”
He shows me the night vision equipment and some imagery on his phone: “See that red dot? … Russians.” The process goes like this: when he hears any Russian movement, he uses the compass app on his phone to locate the direction it has come from. Then if it continues, he uses Google Maps to try to locate the exact position, which he sends to the artillery. “To the strongest boys,” he laughs, “with the strongest punches!”
The new year is approaching. I stand on the lookout post in a trench shrouded in mist; I can see my breath billowing gently into the ether, and it’s all very beautiful. I think about the nine years I’ve spent covering Ukraine. I was here when the war began back in 2014. I was in the Donbas when local “separatists” and then Russians took the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk and Slovyansk. I remember when the thugs with baseball bats and pavement slabs morphed into professional soldiers with machine guns; when shitty local cars were turned into tanks and armoured vehicles. Nine years on, it’s evolved into the biggest land struggle in Europe since the Second World War. I think of all the friends I have made, and the ones that I have lost.
At midnight there’s a brief toast in the office. As the phone’s glowing numbers hit 00:00, we raise a glass of tea and roar: “Slava Ukrainii… Heroyam Slava!” And then as an addendum: “Fuck Russia!”
“Yeah, and fuck Putin too,” says Oleg.
“Good morning, motherfuckers,” says our roommate with a laugh. Last night, several rockets landed just a few hundred metres from our trench, forcing us to take cover. Our beds shook. Sleep was intermittent. I assumed that the tinkling sound near my ears was debris shaking loose from the walls. “Nah,” said my bunkmate, “that will just be the mice.”
“The night was bad,” a soldier explains a little later, “because they like to attack during holidays when people in the cities will have gathered in larger numbers.” I watch the first sunrise of 2023 from the lookout post on the very frontlines of the war in Ukraine. The sky is a deep red. The new year has brought with it the same old madness from Putin. In his new year address, he said that Russia is fighting to protect its “historical territories in the new regions of the Russian Federation”.
Conspiratorial and meandering as ever, it’s clear he has no intention of backing down. The truth is he can’t — he can only double down. “The West lied to us about peace while preparing for aggression, and today, they no longer hesitate to openly admit it and to cynically use Ukraine and its people as a means to weaken and divide Russia,” he rambled. “We have never allowed anyone to do this and we will not allow it now.”
I look out over the sea and think about Putin’s words, and then of the continuing fortitude of these soldiers; and I think of Rosenberg once more. “Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins/Drop, and are ever dropping;/But mine in my ear is safe — Just a little white with the dust.”
I remember what Oleg said to me the night before. “2022 was a very difficult year for our people — we managed to stop a huge army, but in 2023 we will be back to our 1991 borders [when Ukraine declared independence]. Then we will return home to our families and our children, and we will build a huge wall between us and Russians, and never again will anyone call us brothers.”