An icy wind raged across the steppe near Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. The thermometer showed minus 17 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit). The frontline of the war against Russia, fought over the towns of Bakhmut and Soledar, is only a few miles away.
Soldiers of a Ukrainian tank unit trained here in the middle of a field, just a few days after taking a short break from the fighting near Bakhmut. To reach the spot, they had to cross-country ski for several kilometers.
“So, is it hard to walk in a body armor? Are your arms and legs freezing yet?” asked Ihor, an officer of the armored unit, who accompanied DW to where the troops were deployed. “Imagine the guys lying in the frozen trenches, where you’re not even allowed to light stoves so their positions aren’t betrayed,” he said.
DW talked to the soldiers here during a break. Like Ihor, they did not want to give their full names and not everyone wanted their picture taken. Some have relatives in Russian-occupied territories. In some cases, their families did not even know they were on the front line.
‘They have such huge losses’
According to the officers of this armored unit, the balance of forces in the area is currently about 10 Russian soldiers against one Ukrainian. Along this part of the front, the Ukrainian soldiers mainly face members of the Wagner Group, a private force that has recently been recruiting prisoners from Russian prisons.
At Bakhmut and Soledar, the positions of the Russian and Ukrainian forces are very close, said Oleh, one of the commanders. Time and time again, the soldiers have engaged in hand-to-hand combat, he said. “We can even hear the orders of the enemy commanders.”
Like everyone here, Ihor, an infantryman in his forties, was clearly exhausted. “The Ukrainian army is fighting at the limits of human strength,” he said, adding that they have no chance to sleep. They are under fire day and night and are constantly attacked by the Russian infantry.
Small groups of 10 to 15 Russian soldiers are moving “in waves” toward the Ukrainian positions, right into the crossfire from the Ukrainian trenches, another officer said.
“We shoot, they die – there are piles of bodies on the field. Then the next group comes,” the officer said. “They don’t even help their wounded, they just keep coming to us.
“It’s hard to bear this, but we have no choice,” said his comrade Dmytro. “I want and must defend my country, my family, so that we have a future.”
The legacy of Soviet weapons
Ukrainian troops need more equipment and weapons – preferably of non-Soviet design – to continue their counter-offensive and liberate more occupied territory, the unit’s commanders say.
The unit’s engineers lead DW to a pair of Soviet T-72 tanks for post-fight repair. Out in the field there are toolboxes and generators. A truck with a crane pulls the engine block out of one of the tanks.
The engine stalled once during combat, but “miraculously, the mechanic restarted it and the crew was able to save themselves,” recalled an engineer named Andriy. “See this hole in the engine? It’s shot,” he added.
The mechanics replaced the old block with a new engine. However, the description “new” is relative. All spare parts for the T-72 are made in Russia, and Ukraine stopped making them a long time ago. “We still have spare parts in stock. But some things are missing. Then we cannibalize our damaged or captured Russian tanks,” said Andriy.
The Ukrainian army should get rid of its old Soviet tanks, in fact all Soviet equipment, he said, arguing that it cannot compare to modern equipment and that it barely protects the troops. Deputy Birgade Commander Konstantin agreed. The Russian army can only be defeated with modern technology, he said, and the Ukrainian army needs Western weapons and equipment.
Wait for Leopard 2 to arrive
The soldiers would like new tanks because they want to “complete the liberation of Ukrainian territory as soon as possible,” the commanders told DW.
The soldiers here talked about the potential of the German Leopard tanks and what they could do, as well as the armored infantry fighting vehicles – the German Marder and the American Bradley – promised by Western partners. They also discussed the debate in Germany about the delivery of the tanks. On Wednesday, Germany said it would send 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and re-export any German-made main battle tanks from other countries that they want to send to Ukraine.
“The leopard is what we need now – the high-precision sights and night vision work in all weather conditions,” Konstantin said, adding that “the Russians are especially afraid of the leopard.”
Meanwhile, Serhiy was welding a radiator that was more than 50 years old. The mechanic has been in the army since 2014, his hands bruised from work.
“Ukrainian armed forces need Western equipment, preferably with spare parts and logistics for repairs,” he said. Serhiy is convinced that he can also repair Western equipment, suggesting that the engines are not so different.
“The most important thing is that I know how to get everything going again,” he said.
Under pressure, Serhiy and his team repaired several tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and trucks here. The fighting at Bakhmut and Soledar gets more and more intense, so that even the engineers hardly sleep. They say to be “steadfast”.
“This war is terrible,” Ihor said. But there is no other option for him and his comrades. “We have to win so that we can continue to live in freedom,” he concluded.
This article was originally written in Russian.