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Story Publication logo April 8, 2024

Battling Under a Canopy of Drones


A Ukrainian soldier uses a remote control

Members of Ukraine’s 1st Separate Assault Battalion describe themselves as firemen. Their job is to...


“First-person view” drones, which the Ukrainians began experimenting with last year, are now also used by the Russians. The proliferation of these aircraft has rendered all front-line troop movements, especially in vehicles, vulnerable to precision strikes. Many drones have thermal cameras that can detect human bodies in the dark. Image by Maxim Dondyuk/The New Yorker.

The commander of one of Ukraine’s most skilled units sent his men on a dangerous mission that required them to outmaneuver a swarm of aerial threats.

Members of Ukraine’s 1st Separate Assault Battalion describe themselves as firemen. Their job is to rapidly deploy to areas along the front that are in danger of collapse. Lately, their service has been in high demand: the front is burning. A large-scale counter-offensive last year failed to achieve meaningful victories, and since then Russia has been on the attack. One of its priorities appears to be Kupyansk, a city in northeastern Ukraine, some twenty miles from the Russian border. According to the Ukrainian military, Russia has amassed forty thousand troops near the city, which it has been bombarding for months. In January, after Russian forces routed Ukrainian soldiers from an uninhabited settlement outside Kupyansk called Tabaivka, the 1st Separate Assault Battalion was directed to halt and, if possible, reverse the enemy’s advance.

I embedded with the battalion three days later. The government had mandated an evacuation of Kupyansk in August, and, as my translator and I entered the city, its ghostly silence was punctuated by the sound of incoming and outgoing munitions. Huge craters gaped on the roadside; factories lay in ruins. Kupyansk sits on a hill that slopes down to the Oskil River. The main bridge had been destroyed, but a makeshift earthwork allowed vehicles to cross. Tank wreckage littered the mud, and smoke meant to thwart laser-guided missiles billowed from a cannister.

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The front line was less than ten miles away, and the battalion had chosen a village between there and the Oskil for its temporary headquarters. About two hundred members of the unit would be participating in the mission; they had been on the ground for barely seventy-two hours but had already scouted the no man’s land, established sniper positions, and begun shelling Tabaivka with artillery. The officers had not yet found a suitable location in which to base themselves and were working out of a box truck whose interior had been converted into a mobile operations center.

The commander sat at the head of a table, studying a map. His call sign was Perun—the name of a Zeus-like god from Slavic mythology—and he looked the part. He was tall and trim, with a razored scalp and a traditional Cossack mustache that drooped to his jaw. He’d served in the Army for five years in the early two-thousands, and was discharged when he was twenty-five. As a civilian, Perun built a lucrative business fabricating and installing doors with intercom systems, which are ubiquitous in Ukraine. Many of his customers were in the Donbas, the eastern region where, in 2014, Russia incited and backed a separatist uprising. Perun continued to work there, regularly crossing separatist checkpoints in a van loaded with doors and welding equipment. He sometimes transported rifles and explosives, which he used to assassinate Russian agents and their local proxies. Perun said that he performed his guerrilla activities on his own, “unofficially,” without oversight from the Ukrainian government. “No one suspected me,” he recounted. “I was wearing overalls, and I had my tools.” His doors were so heavy that soldiers never bothered to look underneath them.

After Russia launched its full-scale invasion, in February, 2022, Perun joined a reconnaissance unit and assembled a small team that ambushed and sabotaged Russian forces behind the lines. He named the team the Wild Fields, a historical term for the Pontic-Caspian steppe. The Wild Fields earned a reputation for audacity and effectiveness, and was integrated into the 1st Separate Assault Battalion, which at the time was led by Dmytro Kotsiubailo, a twenty-seven-year-old who went by the call sign da Vinci. Kotsiubailo was both the youngest battalion commander in the Ukrainian military and among its most celebrated. He was killed in March, 2023, outside Bakhmut, and subsequent internal disputes culminated in about half his former subordinates transferring to a different brigade. Perun was placed in charge of running the assault missions for those who remained.

Da Vinci’s death, like the fall of Bakhmut, a couple of months later, reflected a grim shift in the war, which has devolved into an attritional grind with catastrophic losses on both sides. It is unknown how many Ukrainian service members have been killed. President Volodymyr Zelensky has put the toll at thirty-one thousand, but that figure is risible—the real number is much higher. Perun attributed the stalemate and the soaring casualty numbers in part to the “recklessness” of Ukrainian commanders who lacked “military cunning.” He criticized his country’s prevailing approach as too much like Russia’s: “generals drawing arrows on a map” and “throwing piles of people into frontal attacks.” He had little formal education in strategy—on paper, he was a lieutenant—but his exploits in the Donbas and with the Wild Fields had taught him the importance of guile and creativity in the face of a more powerful adversary. The plan that he had devised to retake Tabaivka would rely on both.

MOST OF THE CIVILIAN POPULATION had fled the village where the battalion had based itself, leaving plenty of empty homes for the soldiers to commandeer. The day after I met Perun, the operations center was moved into a basement with a low concrete ceiling and a dirt floor. Bricks and refuse had been shoved aside, fluorescent tube lights installed, salvaged chairs and tables arrayed. Monitors showed aerial footage from surveillance drones, and various radios and landline telephones blinked in a corner. On the wall hung a flag with the Wild Fields insignia: an angel of death playing a flute while sitting atop three skulls, with a raven on his shoulder. “The raven represents our accumulated wisdom,” Perun told me. “The flute symbolizes the fact that we treat our work as an art. We derive a kind of joy from it—not from killing people but from the successful execution of our tasks.”

An eighty-six-inch digital interactive panel, fixed to an easel, displayed a satellite image of Tabaivka. On the southern and eastern margins of the map, several tree stands were circled in red: they belonged to the Russians. On the western margin, a series of blue triangles along an elevated ridge indicated Ukrainian trenches. Between the two lay the zone from which Ukrainian forces had retreated—a wide swath of wetland and scattered brush, with a few demolished farmhouses—divided into forty-two numbered squares, each a couple of acres in size. Although a Russian platoon of up to thirty soldiers now occupied this zone, the squares were blue, because Perun intended to make them Ukrainian again.

A road descending from the ridge cut straight through Tabaivka, and the conventional thing to do would have been to send some tanks or armored vehicles down it. Recent technological developments have made such brute assaults suicidal, however. Last year, the Ukrainians began experimenting with a new kind of drone, called an F.P.V., for “first-person view.” The name refers to the video goggles that the pilots wear, which resemble virtual-reality headsets. Paradoxically, the key innovation of F.P.V.s is their rudimentary design: they are smaller and lighter than commercial drones, making them quicker and more maneuverable, and they consist of cheap components, some of which can be 3-D-printed. Most F.P.V.s are sacrificed as kamikaze weapons, with payloads zip-tied to their frames. It is exceedingly difficult to shell mobile targets; F.P.V.s can just crash into them.

Although Ukraine introduced F.P.V.s to the war, Russia promptly grasped their utility and now mass-produces them. The proliferation of F.P.V.s has rendered all front-line troop movements, especially in vehicles, vulnerable to precision strikes. This outcome is emblematic of a vicious cycle in which Russia absorbs Ukrainian ingenuity and turns it back against Ukraine, spurring further lethal ingenuity. “They learn,” Perun said. “At the start of the war, we were killing them easily. But everything has changed.”

During the first few days that I spent with the battalion, five men were wounded and hospitalized after being spotted by drones. A sniper was attacked by a swarm of F.P.V.s that snagged and detonated in the tree branches above his foxhole, sparing him. The sniper told me that he’d heard the drones zipping down at high speeds, which led him to suppose that their pilots were novices: usually F.P.V.s descend slowly through the canopy, then accelerate at you.

Perun had decided that, instead of a mechanized blitz, a small number of his soldiers would infiltrate Tabaivka stealthily on foot. These men would then skirt the contested zone of blue squares, hook behind the Russian platoon, and trap it against the Ukrainians on the ridge. Because surveillance drones are now typically equipped with thermal cameras that register the heat signatures of human bodies, the cover of darkness would be insufficient for the team to elude detection. The mission was therefore contingent on weather that would prevent both Ukrainian and Russian drones from flying. “We need to do it blindly,” Perun explained. “We’re trying to use the element of surprise to appear where they’re not expecting us.”

Heavy snow was forecast for the coming days.

PERUN KNEW THAT the Russians could dispatch reinforcements down the road that bisected Tabaivka, and he wanted to deprive them of that option ahead of the infiltration, by blowing up a small bridge over a creek. Such a job would normally fall to sappers, but Perun had at his disposal an electric land drone with all-terrain tires and a rocket launcher, as well as an F.P.V. controller and goggles. The device had been built in one of his company’s factories. I later visited the factory, which his twenty-three-year-old daughter, Yulia, managed. She showed me several rejected prototypes of the land drone, in a warehouse full of lathes, planers, mills, and other metalworking tools used for making intercom doors.

Outside the operations center, a soldier hitched a small trailer to the back of the land drone, which was a bit bigger than a Radio Flyer wagon, and loaded it with thirty antitank mines. The soldier was code-named Chub; two decades earlier, he’d served in the Army with Perun. Chub had gone on to become an electrical engineer, honing his faculty for all things mechanical and computational. When I asked his age, he said, “Forty-two years, three months, and one day.” He’d joined the battalion “a year and ten days ago,” and had been a reconnaissance soldier until he was wounded in Bakhmut. Now he walked with a limp. The land drone, which Chub had helped develop while recovering from his injury, included a flat platform on which he could ride to and from Tabaivka. A pin in the hitch could be retracted via the controller, enabling Chub to deposit the mine-stacked trailer remotely. Later, in an apartment that he shared with Perun—and where I was also staying—I watched Chub rig up an antenna for the controller with wires, tape, and a fishing rod.

The antenna’s range was less than a mile, meaning that Chub would have to sneak beyond the Ukrainian-held ridge to insure a stable connection. When I asked whether he was nervous about venturing into the no man’s land with more than six hundred pounds of T.N.T., he answered in his typically logical fashion: “The main thing is not that you are not afraid—everyone is afraid. The ones who were not afraid were the first to be killed.” The main thing was not to “break down because of fear.”

Some days later, a monitor in the operations center relayed a live aerial feed of the land drone travelling up the road into Tabaivka. The electric motor was almost invisible on the thermal video: a faint smudge that you would not have noticed unless you were looking for it. When Chub triggered a detonator lodged in one of the mines, an enormous cloud of flame roiled up from the now impassable bridge.

WHILE CHUB HAD BEEN loading the trailer, a woman walking up the street, pushing a bicycle, had stopped to watch. Chub had stared at her until she’d continued on her way. “I suspect everyone,” he told me. “Locals sometimes help the Russians.”

In February, 2022, while Ukrainian forces scrambled to defend Kyiv from an armored Russian column bearing south from Belarus, other Russian contingents, approaching from the east, encountered less resistance. After the mayor of Kupyansk received a phone call from a Russian commander, he surrendered the city without a fight. (Ukraine later charged the mayor, in absentia, with treason.) Some residents of Kupyansk confronted Russian soldiers in the streets, but dissent was soon quashed; later investigations revealed executions and cases of torture. In the village where 1st Battalion was based, a small grocery store had stayed open throughout the Russian occupation. “It was hell,” Lyuda, a forty-five-year-old cashier, told me. She excused herself and went into a back room; when she returned, I saw that she’d been crying. She described a tyrannical regime of arbitrary abuse and detention, murders, and constant dread exacerbated by an “informational vacuum.” Without Internet or cell service, the only news source had been a single Russian radio station.

Six months into the occupation, the Ukrainian military stunned Russia with a lightning offensive in the Kharkiv region, liberating dozens of towns and cities, including Kupyansk. When the Russians withdrew from Lyuda’s village, she believed that the worst was over. Her optimism had since turned to despair. The war was inching back. One night, Perun and Chub’s apartment was shaken by a series of blasts, accompanied by bright flashes, and the next morning I found neighbors repairing broken doors and nailing plywood over shattered windows. A kitchen had been levelled. A seventy-year-old retired farmer named Volodymyr, with gold teeth and plastic-framed glasses, was inspecting a front gate that had been blown off its hinges. He’d built the house himself, more than twenty years ago. “I love this land,” Volodymyr told me. “I’ll stay until they kill me.”

Lyuda was less resolute. She’d sent her daughter away, and her husband was now fighting on the southern front. Her bags were packed: she was prepared to leave the moment the Russians broke through from Tabaivka. “If they come back, I think it will be another Bucha,” she said, referring to mass killings that occurred outside Kyiv in 2022.

There was more at stake than just the village. If Russian forces reached the Oskil River, Ukrainian units to the east of Kupyansk would be imperilled. Eliminating a platoon in Tabaivka wouldn’t stop the Russians, but it was a step toward putting them on the defensive. One of the tree stands circled in red on the map was believed to conceal hundreds of enemy troops, and the forthcoming assault would help interrupt their supply routes. Perun was determined to avoid a direct clash with those soldiers. In July, during the counter-offensive, he had been ordered to recapture similar terrain elsewhere on the front—and to do so immediately, without conducting proper reconnaissance or formulating a plan. “We were just hurled straight at them,” one 1st Battalion officer recounted. “Like two freight trains colliding.” A nine-hour firefight ensued. Eighteen members of the battalion were killed and many more were wounded.

According to the officer, the higher Ukrainian command was “always pushing us to work quicker, quicker,” no matter the cost. While Perun was waiting for it to snow, he received daily phone calls from superiors who wanted to launch the mission regardless of the weather. “Colonels see war as an opportunity to become generals,” he told me; generals were less interested in the welfare of their troops than in “squabbles over military decorations.” Perun had no career ambitions in the Army, affording him a degree of independence. When I asked how he handled pressure from superiors, he said, “I smile and ignore them.” Of course, that was an oversimplification, and I had the sense that preserving the lives of his men required Perun to play two games of “military cunning” simultaneously: one against the enemy, the other against his own hierarchy.

We’d been in the village for almost a week when Perun summoned his officers and sergeants to the operations center. Time was running out. He was worried that if they delayed much longer they might be redeployed to another hot spot, wasting their meticulous preparations for Tabaivka. After going over some adjustments to the plan, Perun turned to a thirty-five-year-old junior lieutenant who stood in front of the interactive panel, peering at the map through prescription ballistic glasses.

“Do you agree?” Perun asked him.

The lieutenant, whose call sign was Sever, would lead the twelve-man team of shturmoviki, or “stormers,” spearheading the ground assault. Unlike Perun, nothing about Sever suggested his vocation. He was short, with a slight paunch, and so soft-spoken that you had to strain to hear him. A bandage was taped across his brow. The previous night, he’d been riding in the bed of a truck that had plowed into a crater. One of his men had broken a leg.

Sever pointed at a tree line circled in red. A three-hundred-yard gap separated it from the blue squares. “If we’re forced to fight them, I’ll need more people,” he said.

Perun scoffed, “You are proposing more people so that you can attack the tree line? This is a stupid idea, Sever, honestly.” He reminded the lieutenant that the objective was to flank the Russians in the blue squares without being noticed. The three-hundred-yard gap was a natural buffer that neither Russian nor Ukrainian forces could traverse without exposing themselves to enemy fire. Perun chided Sever: “Imagine a machine gun opens up on you—what will you do?”

“Pull back a bit, and then kill the fucker.”

“In my experience, when the machine gun opens up, everyone will shit his pants and fall to the ground where he’s standing.”

Sever grinned and conceded, “One hundred per cent.”

“Let’s not repeat the mistake of moving big groups and getting them killed,” another officer said. “The smaller the group, the harder it will be to spot.”

“I would like to keep the plan as it is,” Perun told Sever. “But it’s up to you. If you want more guys, tell me how many and what you will do with them.”

Sever approached the interactive panel. He’d been fighting off and on for almost a decade, since Russian forces had first entered the Donbas. He had no wife or children; he’d mordantly joked to me, “I’m the ideal soldier.” He would rather have become an architect or a builder. “I always dreamed of making a bridge or a house, creating something useful,” he’d said. “Now I just destroy bridges and houses. I guess it’s my fate to leave destruction behind me.”

Most of the veterans in the battalion had been so close to death so many times that they seemed to have accepted its company, and this acceptance appeared to have fostered uncannily placid demeanors. Sever, though, was an extreme case. His movements were sluggish, his handshake limp, and a deep ruefulness informed his subdued speech. All this felt less symptomatic of inward calm than of profound fatigue and, perhaps, depression. Nevertheless, according to Perun, Sever was the battalion’s most aggressive officer, often to the point of heedlessness. “When he asks for more people, I know what he wants to do,” Perun said. “So I try to cool him down.”

Sever turned from the map and shrugged. “Let’s leave it as it is,” he told Perun.

IN THE TRENCH WARFARE of eastern Ukraine, assault units such as 1st Battalion move the line forward—then regular infantry units must hold and defend it. The soldiers who would assume responsibility for Tabaivka if 1st Battalion reclaimed it belonged to a brigade in the Territorial Defense Forces, or T.D.F. After Russia’s invasion, the T.D.F., a type of national guard, absorbed more than a hundred thousand civilian volunteers and reservists. Most were initially posted to checkpoints and other rearward duties in their native regions, but that changed as the Army hemorrhaged personnel. The T.D.F. brigade assigned to Tabaivka came from Lviv, in western Ukraine, and many of its members had enlisted at the war’s outset; presumably, few of them envisaged fighting two years later, seven hundred miles from home.

A few nights after the briefing in the operations center, Sever visited a house where twelve T.D.F. soldiers were lodging. During the mission, they would follow behind Sever and his stormers, digging trenches and foxholes and remaining in the positions that the team cleared. Sever called them “the anchor group.” When he entered the house, the men were crammed into a bedroom with a foldout couch and framed photographs of the family that once lived there. They had not yet unpacked, having just arrived. They were replacements for a previous anchor group whose members I had met the night before. Those men had told me that their commander had tricked them into volunteering for the mission by assuring them that they would be guarding a base. When I’d asked how they felt now that they knew the truth, their leader replied, “I have two young children and a pregnant wife—how do you think I feel?” Although they had been deployed in eastern Ukraine for the past year, they were aghast at the prospect of flanking around a Russian platoon. “What these guys are doing is crazy,” one of them said. “Everything we’ve been through is nothing compared with this.” Another soldier was so anxious that he had trouble talking. At one point, he had to take a homeopathic sedative; a nurse had given him the medicine some months earlier, when he’d vomited in a morgue while identifying a comrade. The morning after I met the men, all twelve reported that they were ill or otherwise unfit to go to Tabaivka.

Sever had the substitutes gather around him, and explained to them what their role would entail. He emphasized that anyone who didn’t wish to participate should say so. “I won’t judge you,” he said. “I won’t curse you. I don’t demand anything now—but, when we cross the line, then I will make demands.” He went on, “If you hesitate, if you stumble, nothing good will happen. So we must work together. On my side, I promise that I will not abandon you, and I expect the same from you.”

Nobody spoke. Before Sever left, he said, “If we’re together, we have to fight together, for one another. There is no other option.”

Sever’s deputy, a sergeant called Casper, took over the meeting. Casper was gruffer, louder, and less stoic than Sever, as well as more ready to judge and to curse. He’d spent four days tutoring the previous anchor group—teaching them how to space their foxholes, move silently, hide from F.P.V.s—and his patience had waned. “The task will be hard, but it’s doable,” he told the new group. According to Casper, only a serious health ailment constituted a legitimate excuse to back out.

An older man with hunched shoulders and a hangdog expression, who’d been sitting mutely in the corner, announced that he had an eye condition. Another man claimed to have the flu. A third complained of a kidney disorder.

“I need to hear whether you can execute the mission or not,” Casper barked. “If you can’t, we won’t be able to execute ours. . . . So will you?”

“No, I can’t do such a mission,” one of the men, who looked more able-bodied than many in the group, said. He was a thirty-nine-year-old factory worker. Six months earlier, he had been picked up by conscription agents while walking to a bus stop. His issue was not physical, he admitted. “Once, we were ordered to attack,” he said. “I felt sick and just fell down.”

“Panic?” Casper asked.

“Yes. It’s happened twice.”

“Same with me,” Casper told him. “I’ve panicked and fallen down. But then I got up.” He went on, “I won’t lie to you, it’s going to be tough. But, fuck, not going because you’re scared? Don’t worry, when you get there you’ll be switched on.”

“I don’t want to be a burden to the group,” the draftee persisted.

Yet another soldier spoke up: there was a problem with his spine.

“What fucking problem?” Casper shouted. “Can you walk? If you can walk, you can do this. Tell me straight—are you weaseling out or not?”

The man appeared to be in his fifties. Whether or not he really had a problem with his spine, he looked dejected and perhaps ashamed.

“I won’t go,” he muttered.

In the end, Casper sent him back to his unit, along with the draftee. He shared more of Sever’s tolerance than I’d anticipated. He later told me, “Before the war, they were simple blue-collar workers, just like our guys. But ours get good training and these ones don’t.” A soldier in the first anchor group had told Casper that, during the counter-offensive, “our commander just pointed where to go and then disappeared—there were tanks in front of us, but he didn’t care.” After two-thirds of the battalion had been killed or wounded, the survivors were merged with another T.D.F. unit, which had suffered comparable losses. The men hardly knew their new superiors, or even one another. They had been sent to Casper without aid kits or proper winter clothing. “Their commanders don’t give a shit about them,” Casper said. “They’re on their own, so they’re fucked.”

MANY MEMBERS of 1st Battalion contended that leadership was the crucial factor differentiating the professionalism and esprit de corps of their unit from the ineptitude and demoralization of others. “The soldiers aren’t the problem—it’s how they’re being used,” Sever said. He and Casper cited Perun’s history of fighting alongside them as fundamental to his authority and to the trust that they placed in him. Perun told me it was occasionally incumbent on him to demonstrate that, “just as my guys make sacrifices, I am also willing to make sacrifices.” During an assault this past autumn, Perun kicked a grenade away from several of his men. The explosion burst his eardrums, and he’d since received an implant and undergone surgery to graft tissue from the inside of his cheek onto the damaged membrane.

An exemplary command culture was not 1st Battalion’s only advantage; unlike the T.D.F., it was able to select its members. Sever and Casper recruited their stormers, from Ukraine’s national basic-training camps. Physical prowess, age, education, and even skills were less important than a display of heart. “But you never know until they go through it if it’s sincere,” Sever said. When I asked Casper how he picked candidates, he answered, “The eyes—if they’re true.”

Perun, the commander of the assault mission, in the operations center. He watched aerial drone footage as Russian grenades, appearing onscreen as black splashes, exploded around his men. Image by Maxim Dondyuk/The New Yorker.

The men Sever and Casper chose were not always whom you would expect. The morning of the mission, I went to the house where the stormers were staying. It was a little before 3 a.m.; in the kitchen, a forty-five-year-old soldier called Noah was swathing a sprained ankle with a compression wrap. He’d been a narcotics detective in Odesa until 2007, when he was accused of a variety of crimes, including falsifying official documents, dealing drugs, and unlawful imprisonment. When I first met him, he told me, “In those days, there wasn’t much difference between the gangsters and the cops.” His mistake had been antagonizing the local prosecutor’s office, which, according to Noah, was as corrupt as the police. He’d spent two and a half years in pretrial detention, then paid a bribe to be released. After another decade of delinquency—burglary, bank fraud, robbing cars—he’d joined a Catholic commune. He retained a monkish aspect: a shaved head, a bushy goatee, a wooden rosary.

Another stormer, Sanjek, entered the kitchen in long underwear and heated some water on the stove. He had also been in jail—though he wouldn’t tell me why. When I asked how long he’d been in for, he quipped, “Which time?”

Neither man considered himself especially patriotic. For Noah, service was redemptive: “I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life, and now I’m doing something good.” Sanjek had volunteered for the Army ten months earlier, after completing his most recent stint in prison. “Here and there is almost the same thing—it’s like a family,” he’d told me earlier. “The difference is that here I’m sure my friends will help me if I’m in trouble. There, they’ll check my pockets.”

Turning from the stove, he asked Noah, “How did you sleep?”


“So you’re going to die.”

“We’ll see,” Noah said.

Sanjek asked for one of Noah’s “pills.” Some Ukrainian and Russian soldiers are known to consume amphetamines, but Perun enforced a strict prohibition against drugs and alcohol while the battalion was deployed. Casper had punched a T.D.F. member in the face for getting drunk, leaving him with a swollen jaw. Still, when Noah handed Sanjek two white caplets, I privately wondered if he was not quite as reformed as he’d claimed to be.

Noah explained that the pills were medication that induced constipation. The mission would last at least thirty-six hours, during which time there might not be an opportunity to defecate safely. (Another stormer told me that he took laxatives after returning from assaults, to counteract the effect.)

Sanjek nudged a heavyset soldier who was snoring on the couch: “Get up, the Russians aren’t going to kill themselves.”

The soldier was a thirty-three-year-old railroad worker called Kamin. He’d joined the battalion a year earlier, with four other recruits. Three of them had been killed and the other medically discharged. This past fall, Kamin spent twenty days in the hospital after a Russian threw a grenade at him while he and Noah were retrieving dead comrades following a bloody firefight in October.

“Who stole my fucking belt?” he grumbled, stepping into camouflage pants. “What’s wrong with people?”

Soon, the rest of the stormers had congregated in the kitchen. Most of them were newcomers, and this would be their first assault. Their backpacks contained hundreds of rounds of ammunition, to refill the preloaded magazines on their flak jackets. For sustenance, each man brought two litres of water, a couple of Snickers bars, beef jerky, and cigarettes. They were not taking sleeping bags, because they would not sleep. The men would walk for miles and needed to be mindful of weight. They had gas masks, compasses, maps, cell phones, power banks, night-vision monoculars, thermal-imaging visors, and medical supplies. There would be no medevac option. If someone was wounded, he would have to wait until the following night to be hauled up the ridge. Each stormer carried at least eight hand grenades. Strapped onto their packs were shovels, which were wrapped in cloth so that they wouldn’t clank. Fixed-blade knives, attached to their vests, would help them hack open icy ground.

It was twenty-four degrees Fahrenheit outside. To reach the blue squares on the map, the stormers would have to cross a swamp that had not frozen solid. They had been issued knee-high rubber shells to cover their boots, but they were short a pair. Sever had simply tied plastic garbage bags around his feet. Officers were often the best-equipped members of other units I’d observed, but the lieutenant said that “it should be the opposite.”

Sanjek spritzed cologne around his neck gaiter. “Don’t forget your rifles,” Sever deadpanned as the team filed out of the house. A pickup truck and two cargo vans were waiting on the street. Their tail-lights dwindled as they headed east.

IT BEGAN SNOWING shortly after dawn. The stormers and the anchor group had made it to the Ukrainian trenches on the ridge and were waiting to infiltrate Tabaivka. In the operations center, a monitor on a table played aerial footage of the settlement from a surveillance drone. If Ukrainian drones could still fly, so could Russian ones. “How is the weather?” Perun asked the pilot over a Discord channel on a laptop.


“We want it to be unworkable.”

“I’ll keep you posted.”

The pilot was a red-bearded bricklayer from the Carpathian Mountains called Boyko. He’d been working in the Netherlands when the war erupted and had rushed home to be with his family. He had three young children, which exempted him from service, but he had volunteered anyway. Drones both fascinated and disconcerted him. “People don’t realize how fast the technology is developing here,” he’d told me. His team had transformed an apartment into a workshop cluttered with wires, explosives, batteries, and circuit boards. In the living room, crates and Styrofoam boxes containing artisanal F.P.V.s were stacked from floor to ceiling. Boyko foresaw a bleak future—on and off the battlefield—in which “all these things being tested in this war will become powerful tools of oppression.” When he started using F.P.V.s, last summer, their maximum range was about two miles; now it was twelve. Still, whereas surveillance drones hover at high altitudes, F.P.V.s must swoop low to hit their targets, requiring tall antennas on the ground to maintain a connection with the controller. Antennas are like flagsticks for enemy drones, and Boyko had already been the victim of an air strike in Tabaivka that nearly killed him.

As the snow intensified, the feed on the monitor started to glitch. Boyko reported that it was no longer possible to fly, and Sever and the stormers began descending the ridge toward the blue squares. “Maximum attention! Maximum caution!” Perun exhorted them from the operations center. Half a dozen of his officers sat in chairs, staring fixedly at the monitor, which was now blank. Perun was too restless to sit. He paced the basement and cracked his knuckles, switching his attention from the radio to the Discord channel to Signal messages on his phone.

Three Ukrainian machine gunners were spread out on the high terrain above Tabaivka, and three snipers were hidden below them; suddenly, one of the snipers spotted an enemy squad moving in the Russian-held trees to the east of the three-hundred-yard gap.

Perun, striding to the interactive panel, bellowed, “Azimuth!” He was asking how many degrees to the north or south the Russians were from the sniper’s position. Using a compass, the sniper took the bearing and relayed the measurement to Perun. On the satellite map, Perun plotted a line along that angle from the sniper to the stand of trees, thereby obtaining a grid coördinate on which to call in artillery. He also plotted a line from the grid coördinate back to one of his machine gunners on the high ground. Although the machine gunner couldn’t see the Russians, he could aim his weapon along the angle that Perun gave him. The sniper, through his scope, observed where the rounds made impact in the snow. Perun passed the information on to the machine gunner, who zeroed in on the Russian squad by lowering or raising his barrel accordingly.

It was disorienting to watch Perun orchestrate all this remotely and without video—“blindly,” as he’d put it. The Russians, still oblivious of the stormers creeping through the swamp, were pounding the Ukrainian trenches on the ridge with artillery, and I knew that Tabaivka must be quaking with a ferocious cacophony of explosions and gunfire. In the stand of trees, wounded and frightened Russians were probably crying out. It was hard for me to correlate that reality with the scene in the basement, where officers were quietly sipping plastic cups of tea. Perun, however, acted exactly as if he were on the line, stridently hollering over the din of battle. He’d warned me that he would be yelling and using a lot of “bad words”—not from anger but deliberately, to impress on his men the urgency of his commands. When Boyko flew his drone too close to the stormers, who mistook it as Russian, Perun roared at him, “If you do that one more fucking time, I’ll send you on the assault, so you can feel what it’s like to have some asshole over your head!”; when someone accidentally left his radio on, Perun told him, “I will rip open your fucking mouth!”; and, when a machine gunner advised that the artillery should shift “a bit to the right,” Perun responded, “Give me the azimuth, fucker! I’m going to stick that compass up your ass!”

Several soldiers later told me that Perun’s harsh manner was helpful. According to Sever, “When you’re stressed and afraid, you can go numb. Sometimes yelling like that is the only thing that can penetrate.” In the field, the soldiers wore earpieces, so Perun was literally a voice in their heads.

By the afternoon, while the Russians remained focussed on the ridge, Sever and the other stormers had navigated around the blue squares without firing a shot. On the way, they’d taken two Russians prisoner. No sooner had the anchor group joined Sever’s team on the far side of the squares than the snow abruptly stopped and drones were in the air again.

“Thank God,” Perun said. “Just in time.”

Now that the stormers had successfully bypassed the Russian platoon, Perun wanted them to hunker down for the night. They would assault the next day, in the light. “Dig as much as you can and cover yourselves with ponchos or branches, so that you won’t be seen by thermal,” he radioed Sever. “Dig like a mole if you don’t want to die.”

THE T.D.F. SOLDIERS were not complying. They were refusing to entrench themselves, objecting that the place Sever had chosen was too exposed. “Smack them with the fucking shovel,” Perun told Sever. But the men remained obstinate, and when Perun attempted to contact them they did not answer. It was getting dark. Perun summoned a potbellied officer from the T.D.F. brigade to the operations center. “You are their commander,” he told the man. “We’ll do our job, and then we’ll leave. The question is, how will you control your men?” Perun’s contempt was palpable. He suggested that the officer go out himself, at least as far as the ridge, and offered him transportation in an armored vehicle. There was an element of shaming—Perun’s staff was watching. On one of the basement walls, a couple of feet away from the officer, someone had mounted a framed portrait of da Vinci, the renowned commander who had died in Bakhmut.

The officer declined Perun’s proposal.

Sever found a compromise location for the anchor group. That night, he sent a soldier back to Perun, with the two Russian captives. I found them the next morning in a basement adjacent to the operations center, sitting on the floor with their hands bound behind their backs and tape over their eyes. A member of 1st Battalion was asking them questions and typing their responses into his phone. He was a thirty-one-year-old I.T. professional called Litsey. He’d lived in Kharkiv before the war, in the same building as Perun’s daughter, Yulia, and the two men had met while Perun was renovating Yulia’s apartment. Litsey told me that Perun had been “a completely different person” during peacetime—easygoing and affable. He added, “You would never have guessed that he was rich. He was driving around an old van full of construction materials.”

Litsey was a signals-intelligence specialist. He had grown up in Severodonetsk—which Russian shelling had reduced to a wasteland, and which was now under Russian occupation—and he was more expressive of his hatred for Russians than were other members of the battalion, some of whom could be surprisingly magnanimous. (“They’re human like we are,” Perun said. “They love their wives, their children.”) Of the two prisoners, Litsey had told me, “The only reason we’re keeping them alive is so we can exchange them.” However, in the basement he betrayed none of his enmity, speaking politely to the men as soon as they proved coöperative. At the end of the interrogation, he stuck cigarettes in their mouths and lit them.

I later interviewed the men myself, after their guard agreed to remove their blindfolds and let them sit in chairs. Both were named Alexei. They had been in the military for only a couple of months and on the front for only a few days. They’d been sent on their own to a grid coördinate in Tabaivka, with a mandate to remain there until they were relieved. Carrying a litre and a half of water and two cans of smoked fish, they walked to the position using AlpineQuest, a Spanish navigation app designed for trekking. (Litsey later uploaded the AlpineQuest data from their phones onto the interactive panel, adding a number of enemy positions to the satellite map.) When the Alexeis arrived at their destination, there was no dugout or trench, and they had no shovels. They radioed their commander, who told them to dig with their hands. The first two nights, they slept on the forest floor, but when it started to snow they abandoned the position, walked to a half-collapsed house, and holed up in the basement. That’s where Sever’s team discovered them.

“I never wanted to kill anyone, and I haven’t killed anyone,” the older Alexei insisted. He was forty-three, with gray stubble and a buzz cut. He’d joined the Army for money—like most of his comrades, he said. He’d earned about five hundred dollars a month driving a taxi in his home town, outside Moscow. The military paid him more than four times that.

The younger Alexei, who was in his thirties, also claimed to be a victim of circumstance. He’d spent five years in prison for counterfeiting rubles, and shortly after his release he was arrested for fighting in a bar. His opponent turned out to be a detective, and Alexei was given a choice between enlisting and returning to jail. He’d never really considered the ethical dimensions of the war, but he said that he had “always been against authority—against Putin.” He’d renounced Christianity and converted to paganism. “I believe in the old gods, like Perun,” he said.

After the interviews, I stepped outside with the 1st Battalion soldier who’d been guarding the prisoners. “That’s the first time during this war I’ve seen a live one,” he said. He looked perturbed. “I don’t fucking get it. If Ukraine wanted to invade Russia, I’d rather go to jail instead.”

ACCORDING TO THE ALEXEIS, there were approximately twenty more Russians stationed in the blue squares. The majority were sheltering in an underground root cellar in the back yard of another farmhouse. Some of the men in the cellar were more senior fighters.

Boyko piloted his drone over the small, fenced-in property where the root cellar was situated. What had been a house was now a heap of rubble. Snow blanketed the yard, but it was possible to discern the hump of a slightly cresting roof with a stovepipe protruding from it. Boyko zoomed in on a trail of boot prints near what appeared to be the cellar door.

“Are they going to or from it?” Perun asked.

“Looks like he went to take a shit and came back,” an officer posited.

Other tracks went from the cellar door, which was open, toward the three-hundred-yard gap between the blue squares and the Russian-held woods. “The enemy is definitely inside,” Perun said into the radio. Six stormers were already hiding with Sever beneath some trees across a dirt road from the property. Perun told them to work in pairs: two men would make sure that the destroyed house was empty, two would toss multiple grenades through the cellar door, and two more would drop additional grenades down the stovepipe. Sever would remain in the trees in order to direct the action. The cellar, made of concrete, was big and deep, according to the Alexeis, and the Russians had likely augmented it with their own fortifications, so the stormers would need to use a lot of grenades—at least twenty, Perun said—and throw them down the stovepipe and through the entrance simultaneously, before the Russians could seal either portal or call for support. Speed was imperative, because the yard lacked any cover or protection from Russian artillery and F.P.V.s.

“I understand everyone is exhausted,” Perun said. “But pull yourselves the fuck together. Let’s do this—one final push—and then we can all exhale!”

“Roger,” Sever said. From where he stood, he did not have a good view of the cellar, and he began to probe the outskirts of the property. We could see all his movements in the drone footage, which meant that he was dangerously visible. Perun grew agitated. “Fucking do this now,” he commanded. “Quicker! You’ve already tugged fate by the balls as it is! Enough, goddammit!”

Earlier in the mission, Sever had been far enough away from Perun that most of their communications had been passed through a “repeater” stationed on the ridge, who relayed the messages back and forth. From the root cellar, however, no middleman was required. Perun, not realizing this, said to the repeater, “Tell Sever he must stay in the trees. Otherwise that asshole will try to go with them.”

“This asshole can hear you,” Sever replied.

“O.K., stay where you are, asshole.”

On the monitor, we watched the six stormers approach the property, in single file. Sanjek, the ex-con, went to the destroyed house with another soldier while the four others entered the yard. One of them was called Banker, because he had worked for a bank for thirteen years, rising from teller to manager. He was among the most experienced men on the team and had already been wounded by a Russian drone. When Banker arrived at the rear of the cellar, he noticed a narrow ventilation shaft that Perun had missed on the video feed. Banker tossed a single grenade through the shaft. “To the other side!” Perun yelled. “Throw grenades in the entrance, so they don’t come out!”

Another pair advanced along the humped roof. On the way, one of them, a young soldier called Kyivstar—the name of Ukraine’s main telecommunications network—dropped a grenade down the stovepipe. A dark geyser spurted up. Smoke was now drifting from the ventilation shaft. Because stovepipes and ventilation shafts typically channel air into root cellars through angled conduits behind interior walls, there was a decent chance that the two grenades had inflicted minimal damage—and now the Russians knew that they were under attack.

“Grenades! Grenades!” Perun screamed. “More! ”

They needed to hit the cellar entrance. Kyivstar’s companion had left him behind and was walking there alone. His call sign was Wolf. He was a welder from a rural village in western Ukraine who, when the war started, had been working in the Czech Republic, sending money home to his wife and their young son and daughter. He’d been with 1st Battalion for about a month, and this was his first mission. Sever hadn’t intended to bring him to Tabaivka, but Wolf was filling in for the soldier who’d broken his leg when their truck crashed into the crater. At the house, Wolf had struck me as the team’s most timid member, sheepishly observing Sanjek and Noah’s shenanigans. When the stormers were leaving for the operation, Banker had scolded Wolf for guzzling a tall can of energy drink, which would make him have to urinate. In the cargo van, right before Banker shut the door, Wolf had said, “Fuck, I forgot my ballistic glasses. Oh, well, whatever.”

He was now doing something inexplicable. Instead of sneaking up to the cellar entrance, he was approaching it openly—revealing himself to anyone who might be watching from inside. “He was confused,” Kyivstar later told me. “I was yelling at him, trying to get him to come back.” He added, with frustration, “There was no need for him to go ahead by himself like that. It was like he was going there to die.”

In the operations center, Perun yelled into the radio, “No! Don’t cross in front of the entrance!” But Wolf couldn’t hear him. He kept walking until he reached the open door. For several long seconds, everyone in the operations center watched as he stood there, motionless. Then he crumpled.

“They got him,” Perun said, not loudly, and not over the radio.

He tried to reach Sever. When there was no response, he contacted the repeater on the ridge. “Repeat everything I say,” he told him. “ ‘Climb on top of the fucking thing and throw grenades in from above.’ ”

The stormers, however, knew something that Perun did not. Wolf had frozen because he’d been surprised to see, instead of a staircase descending straight into the cellar, a room a couple of yards long and then a second door, which was closed. The staircase was behind that. Wolf had been peering into the room when someone behind the second door shot him.

Kyivstar and Banker backed away from the entrance. Casper, the sergeant responsible for training the anchor group, was in the operations center that morning. Bending close to the monitor, he said of Wolf, “It looks like he’s wounded.”

“Then why isn’t he crawling?”

“I can’t watch this,” Casper said. He turned to leave the operations center but stopped midway. Dark splashes were bursting in the white yard, around the entrance, where Wolf lay.

Perun said, “The fuckers are throwing grenades from inside!”

Meanwhile, someone from across the three-hundred-yard gap was firing on the team. Bigger, darker splashes appeared much closer to Kyivstar and Banker. “A.G.S.,” Perun said, using the abbreviation for a Russian automatic grenade launcher. “Son of a bitch!”

He ordered the stormers to retreat, and asked Sever whether Wolf showed any signs of life. If he was still alive, they would be unable to shell the area.

“Sever can’t say for sure,” the repeater replied.

Boyko zoomed in on the body, which appeared to be lying in a fetal position. “Group decision,” Perun said to his staff. “What is his status? Casper?”

“He’s dead.”

“There’s no movement,” another soldier said.

The remaining stormers fled the property as more A.G.S. rounds exploded in it. Perun told them to get away and find cover. He needed to think about what to do next.

THERE WERE TOO MANY Ukrainians in the vicinity to try to destroy the root cellar with artillery, and since it was in a defilade, at the bottom of the ridge, Boyko couldn’t reach it with an F.P.V. The cellar was also inaccessible to the land drone, because of the swamp. Ultimately, Perun decided to drop a number of antitank mines on the entrance with a heavy-duty six-rotor drone called a Vampire—and known to the Russians as Baba Yaga, after a witchlike character from Slavic folklore. The Alexeis had shared the radio frequencies and call signs used by their commanders, which Litsey had written on a whiteboard next to the interactive panel. After the Vampire dropped its payload, intercepts on the frequencies revealed that the Russians in the cellar had survived both the grenades and the mines, and that their unit was sending reinforcements.

For the rest of the day, a steady stream of small groups of Russian infantrymen—between two and six soldiers each—walked to Tabaivka from the east. Few made it across the three-hundred-yard gap. The snow had relented, and Boyko easily stalked the groups with the surveillance drone. Perun bounded between the panel and the radio, shouting himself hoarse, calculating azimuths, and correcting the aim of his stormers, snipers, and machine gunners. It was madness: Russians kept marching down the same paths, to the same spots where their comrades had just died. One 1st Battalion machine gunner later told me he had fired his weapon so much that it had kept him warm in his frigid dugout. He couldn’t see the men he was killing. But since they kept reappearing in certain places, he memorized different branches below which he could point his barrel to hit specific coördinates up to a mile away.

Unlike the machine gunner, those of us in the operations center had a bird’s-eye view of the Russians on the receiving end of the barrages: men running and stumbling as they fled the bullets and the shells, crawling after being shot or hit by shrapnel, hiding behind tree trunks and under bushes. At one point, the monitor displayed six Russians hurrying up a road toward the safety of a dense forest. Two of them were helping along a limping soldier who had his arms draped over their shoulders; two others were dragging an injured or dead soldier across the snow on an improvised toboggan. Perun called in cluster munitions on them: a smoking warhead that scudded down, followed by a dozen impacts all around the group. Another 1st Battalion drone pilot was attacking Russians with F.P.V.s. Footage from one of them captured two infantrymen diving away, too late, in the split second before the F.P.V. detonated and its video feed cut out.

Above the monitor that showed this procession of carnage hung the flag with the angel of death playing his flute. I recalled the “joy” that Perun had mentioned. (During other conversations, he’d referred to the “aesthetic pleasure” of his work.) The Ukrainians in the basement derived obvious satisfaction from the Russian casualties, some of which elicited rapturous cheers. “Oh, look at them run!” Perun exclaimed, almost giddily, after one strike.

When night fell, Boyko switched on a thermal camera, and the black figures dying in the white snow became white figures on black. Sever and his team rotated out from Tabaivka at 2 a.m., while the Russians were preoccupied with their hopeless efforts to reach their marooned comrades in the root cellar. The stormers had been walking and digging and fighting for forty-eight hours.

THE NEXT MORNING, I went by the team’s house at around nine-thirty to find Sever in the kitchen, watching the drone feed on a TV. No one else was up. “They’re tired as dogs,” he said. “The cold exhausts you more than the lack of sleep.” While crossing the swamp during the infiltration, Sever had broken through the ice; the garbage bags around his feet had not prevented his socks from getting drenched. He’d smoked all his cigarettes on the first day. By the time they hiked back up the ridge, “everyone was hallucinating a little,” he said. Reaching one of the Ukrainian machine gunners, Sever saw two purple halos glowing around the man’s head.

I noticed that he was wearing a pair of rubber slippers with “WOLF” written across each strap. They were his dead subordinate’s slippers. When I asked how the team was feeling about the loss, Sever said, “Like shit, but it’s not the first time. We know tomorrow it could be us.” He planned to call Wolf’s wife. She would receive an official notification, but, until they recovered the body, Wolf would be classified as missing in action, and Sever wanted her to know the truth.

One by one, the rest of the team joined us. Banker moved stiffly, from lingering muscle cramps, and Sanjek’s hands were swollen. He and Noah began grinding up a slab of beef for meatballs. In the afternoon, Casper made them all review the video of the assault on the root cellar. Nobody spoke as they watched Wolf collapse in front of the door. They didn’t know why he’d acted so recklessly. “Maybe he wanted to do something courageous,” Sanjek speculated.

During the next five days, the Vampire unleashed a deluge of heavy ordnance on the root cellar, including twenty-pound thermobaric bombs. But the subterranean structure held. According to intercepts, some of the Russians inside were badly injured, and they were out of food. Their unit continued to send reinforcements, who continued to be killed. Three more Russians were taken prisoner. Now and then, one of the men in the cellar would make a run for it. Each was mowed down. When a 1st Battalion sniper shot and wounded a Russian near the entrance, Litsey—whom Perun had left in charge of the operations center while he rested—ordered the sniper not to finish him. He wanted the Russians in the cellar to hear the soldier dying slowly and pleading for help. During a siege, Litsey told me, “it’s important to lower their morale.”

The temperature warmed and the snow melted. The world on the monitor was transfigured from a blank expanse to a colorful and variegated landscape teeming with detail. The room above the cellar had been razed, and the second door had been shattered; the Russians below had hung up sheets to prevent the Ukrainian drones from seeing down the stairs. Wolf’s body lay amid the rubble. One afternoon, Boyko came by Perun’s apartment to collect leaflets that Perun wanted him to drop around the entrance. The text on the leaflets guaranteed the safety of the Russians if they surrendered. “We invite you to exercise common sense,” it said. “There is no need for you to die in a foreign country for someone else’s interests.” That night, several of the Russians, in a desperate dash, successfully escaped. Those who remained in the cellar were presumed to be too gravely wounded to pose a threat.

I left the village the next day. When I stopped by Sever’s house to say goodbye, most of the men were out getting supplies. They would soon return to Tabaivka, to help the anchor group better fortify its trenches. Now that the blue squares were Ukrainian, 1st Battalion would stay with the T.D.F. members as long as possible, to insure that they did not retreat. That often happened, Sever said. During the firefight in October, Noah and Kamin had told me, the anchor-group soldiers had fled before the battle was over. One stormer had shot at their feet, to try to make them hold their ground.

I asked Sever whether he thought that the T.D.F. members might lose Tabaivka again, nullifying 1st Battalion’s hard-earned gains. He shrugged resignedly.


Kyivstar was upstairs, smoking by a window. He’d been to a market in Kupyansk that morning and bought a necklace with a silver cross. “For protection,” he said. He was standing over a sleeping bag unrolled on a thin foam mat. It was Wolf’s, as was a winter coat hanging from a nail. The team had pooled some money, which it planned to send to his wife and children, but Kyivstar said that he was unsure what they were supposed to do with his belongings. Wolf’s deployment bag was unzipped; inside, there were kneepads, gloves, and, though I didn’t see them, somewhere among the gear was a pair of ballistic glasses.

IN MANY WAYS, the 1st Separate Assault Battalion is an outlier. It was by far the most professional and effective unit that I have encountered in the Ukrainian military, and, not coincidentally, it was also the best equipped. Republican obstructionism in the U.S. Congress has left Ukraine critically short on weapons and ammunition, but Perun was generally supplied with the matériel that he needed to do his job. Nonetheless, the unit was running low on an indispensable resource: men. “It’s getting harder and harder to find new soldiers, because not a lot of people are willing to do this work,” Perun told me.

The challenge went beyond replacing casualties. After two years of war, all the veterans in the unit were exhausted. Perun, who neither drank nor smoked—and who had often spent his rare downtime in our apartment curling heavy dumbbells—was afflicted by a chronic cough that grew distressingly vicious as the operation progressed. By the time I left, he’d acquired a nebulizer machine with a mask, which he would hold to his mouth between bites while eating breakfast. Many soldiers had been wounded at least once; the intensity of assault missions, however, could be more psychically than physically taxing. “The worst thing is not the Russians,” the officer who had lost eighteen comrades in a single day told me. “It’s when guys you trust and have fought with start mentally flagging. They fade out like a candle.”

With no end to the fighting in sight, and an increasingly perilous front line, Ukrainian soldiers can sometimes feel that the only choice available to them is one between death and desertion. A year ago, I embedded with an infantry unit in the Donbas which had lost most of its men and been replenished with new draftees. Among the few soldiers who had been in the unit since the start of the invasion were two friends, code-named Odesa and Bison. Odesa had gone awol after much of his squad was killed in Kherson. He had spent two months at home, and then, nagged by guilt, rejoined the unit. He was killed after my article was published. By the time I met Bison, he had already been wounded and hospitalized three times; after Odesa died, he also went awol—and also returned to the front. I’d just arrived in Kyiv from Kupyansk when their former platoon leader texted me to say that now Bison had been killed, too. I replied that it seemed like all the best men were dying. The officer corrected me: “Everyone dies here. . . . The best, the worst. We remember the bright, strong personalities. Everyone else just fades into nothingness.”

He likened President Zelensky to Pinocchio for claiming that only thirty-one thousand Ukrainian soldiers had been killed. He also reminded me that the figure did not include those M.I.A., which constituted “a huge part of our losses.”

A few days later was February 24th, the second anniversary of the invasion, and relatives of missing soldiers had organized a demonstration in Kyiv. Given the threats posed by Russian cruise missiles and long-range kamikaze drones, public gatherings are avoided in the capital, but when I got there hundreds of people, mostly women, lined an avenue in front of St. Sophia’s Cathedral. One group held a banner that read “free 4th tank brigade.” A twenty-nine-year-old woman named Maryna Litovka had taken the train from Poltava, in central Ukraine, to be there. More than a year earlier, her father had disappeared from his position north of Bakhmut, along with five other soldiers. “The Army doesn’t know what happened to them,” she said. “This is told to a lot of families.” According to Litovka, a hundred and seventy men were missing from the 4th Tank Brigade alone. The Red Cross had been able to confirm only that twenty-three of them were in Russian captivity. “I don’t know what’s harder, knowing that he died or waiting with some hope forever,” Litovka said.

Nearby, I met another daughter of a soldier, standing by herself with a cardboard sign on which she’d painted “fight for them as they fight for us.” Her father was in the Donbas, and she’d come to the demonstration because “a lot of people forget about the war, and we must remind them.”

The cleavage between the reality on the front and the daily lives of people in Kyiv or other cities in central and western Ukraine has grown more pronounced the longer the war has gone on. While conscription agents snatch men from factories, buses, and the streets of rural villages and towns, the draft is much less aggressively enforced in the capital, where the Ukrainian élite live. Bars there overflow with hipsters; cafés are crowded with young couples; concerts, art exhibits, and other cultural events lend the city a sense of comfortable, cosmopolitan normalcy. It is tempting to celebrate all this as a triumph of resilience, but for soldiers on the front it can be galling and alienating. “You feel a little sick to your stomach,” Sever told me. An influx of foreigners in Kyiv—from aid workers to entrepreneurs—accentuates the disconnect. In the popular neighborhood where I’d rented an Airbnb, luxury sedans and armored S.U.V.s were often parked outside chic hotels, and high-end restaurants catered to Western visitors.

​​Sever saw a parallel between contemporary Ukrainian society and the bitter estrangement that he and many of his comrades had experienced between 2014 and 2022, when most of the country went about its business with little concern for the simmering conflict in the Donbas. “They’re building a wall between the two worlds again,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, the discourse about the conflict changes depending on your proximity to the front. In Kyiv, it is still largely taboo to discuss negotiating with Russia, ceding parts of the Donbas, or letting go of Crimea. But, as with every war, the men actually fighting are more earthbound and candid. Odesa and Bison’s former platoon leader told me, “We’re losing. Not badly, but steadily.” In his view, if the West maintains its current level of assistance, Ukraine can hold out for a few more years; if the assistance diminishes, “we’re screwed in a matter of one year”; if aid increases, “there will be a stalemate until we run out of soldiers.”

Perun argued that, from a purely strategic standpoint, “you need to know when to stop and how to lose.” Citing the Russian withdrawals from Kyiv and Kherson, he noted, “The Russians are better at this than we are.” Unlike Russia, he went on, Ukraine is a democracy and therefore “negotiations can start only when society demands them,” but the government—and, specifically, President Zelensky—had given Ukrainians unreasonable expectations and a distorted picture of the military situation. “Society does not know our problems,” Perun said.

Even as these two worlds move further apart, the American debate over Ukraine tends to homogenize Ukrainians. Many Republicans have adopted Donald Trump’s hostility toward the country, regurgitating Russian propaganda that vilifies and dehumanizes Ukrainian citizens. Liberals who consider themselves “pro-Ukrainian,” meanwhile, tend to equate that stance with unconditionally promoting Zelensky’s hard-line ambitions. The latter is perhaps inevitable, because most of the Ukrainians that Americans see and hear—on social media, on TV, at forums and conferences—also espouse those ambitions. In January, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, appeared on ABC News and declared, in impeccable English, “Even if we run out of weapons, we will fight with shovels.” Of course, the collective pronoun was figurative: he will not have to fight with a shovel—nor with a rifle, for that matter. For the Ukrainians who are fighting (overwhelmingly, lower-class manual laborers), the war is not only terrifying and brutal, it is lonely. Many have lost confidence in their politicians, in their commanders, in their fellow-citizens, and now in their American allies.

And yet there remain units like the 1st Separate Assault Battalion. When I asked Sever how he felt about his countrymen who have avoided military service, he said, “I don’t care about them. I’m fighting for my own principles and my own guys. People are coming here, killing children, raping women—for me, I can’t imagine not resisting.”

Toward the end of the Tabaivka mission, the stormers retrieved Wolf’s remains. According to Noah, who helped carry the body up the ridge, the root cellar had fully collapsed and was surrounded by dead Russians. Two days later, Noah was hit by artillery and hospitalized with shrapnel wounds. Kyivstar and Banker were also injured by shrapnel before they left the village; they are now recovering. The rest of 1st Battalion is waiting for the next fire that they will be sent to put out.

To date, half the blue squares in Tabaivka have been lost again.

Wolf’s death means that Sever and Casper will have to recruit another replacement—a task that neither man relishes. “It makes you want to cry,” Sever told me. The night before the apprehensive anchor-group members set off for Tabaivka, Casper had noted that two stormers in their fifties had participated in a number of dangerous 1st Battalion missions. “If they can do this, anyone can,” he’d insisted. I later told Casper that I couldn’t agree with him: most people could not do what he and Sever did. Casper reflected, then responded, “It’s a complicated question—can you or can’t you? Because if you answer honestly, no one can. But, if no one can, the Russians will come and put their dicks on our foreheads.”

The stormers in their fifties were no longer with the battalion. One had been wounded and the other had been killed. 

Published in the print edition of the April 15, 2024, issue, with the headline “The Assault.”


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