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DONETSK, Ukraine — An open field and a few rows of trees separate Ukraine’s First Tank Brigade from Russian forces in the Donetsk Oblast in eastern Ukraine. Explosions can be heard in the distance — these are the front lines of the war. Walking through the trenches, the soldiers joke with one another, trying to find some lightheartedness as they prepare for the next morning, when they believe Russian forces will launch a strike, and they will be face to face with an enemy that is right now less than two miles away.
It is a cold day when I visit the soldiers of the First Tank Brigade in their trenches. The ground has begun to thaw in eastern Ukraine, creating mounds of mud that cause people to slip with nearly every step. In the trenches, men test out a long-range gun and prepare for the next day. They have been fighting together since the beginning of the war and have become a family. Tomorrow, the First Panzer Brigade’s 25 infantry will face 50 Russian soldiers at around 9 a.m.
But for now, it is quiet. The designated sleeping area is a dug-out room in the trenches filled with sleeping bags and a makeshift wooden cupboard for food. Here, a 44-year-old soldier named Volodymyr introduced me to the troop’s two kittens, who are lying on the bed. “This is our joy, who brings us peace and calm,” he said. “Because in our soul, they really calm us down.”
The war has reached a critical turning point in recent weeks. Russia has made significant advances on the besieged town of Bakhmut, a three-hour drive from where the First Tank Brigade sits, and there is still uncertainty as to what will come of the months-long battle.
Looking around at his surroundings, lit by a lantern, water dripping from the ceiling, Volodymr smirked. “This is how we live. This [is] our kitchen,” he said, pointing to the cupboard. “Here we have bread. Here we keep the food. Here, these are the rations we’re given.” He pointed to a small wooden carving on the wall across from the sleeping area. “This is our little guardian angel.” None of the men in this unit have been killed.
The fight to defend the Donetsk region of Ukraine is already tense, and the rain that comes along with spring creates more problems. “When it’s raining and all of that, it’s hard. Hard to move around,” said Volodymr. “In the case of shelling, it’s hard. We try to get used to it, and adjust.
“The science of war teaches us first of all to survive, and you need to dig for that.”
Volodymyr served in Ukraine’s military in 1996 and 1997, but he never expected to see combat again — until Russia invaded his homeland. I asked him if he is afraid of dying in combat. After a pause, he replied, “There’s a state where a person is just not afraid [anymore]. When I go to a position I greet death and I [speak] four days with God.” His communion coincides with his unit’s four-day rotation.
“Spiritual state. It gives me strength. It steadies the spirit.”