NEVELSKE, Ukraine — A silhouette stood out for just a moment, which was plenty of time for Dancer to ready his aim. He squeezed the trigger, and the pixelated human figure was upright for roughly two seconds until the sniper’s bullet found its mark, crumbling the enemy fighter onto frozen earth.
Smile Platoon lived up to their name, gathering around the kitchen table to watch the video of a recent kill. The snipers laughed, recounting that the recent operation was the same spot they had earlier killed Russian-backed separatists.
“Are they stupid?” one asked in amused bewilderment. “Are they immortal?” another bellowed, watching the handiwork of Dancer, the call sign for a sniper whose ballet training in a past life helped him silence his footsteps. One of the soldiers hit play, and the video rolled again.
My colleague and I visited the platoon’s team house in the days before the Russian invasion, when the platoon kept busy terrorizing separatist fighters outside Donetsk, working on a front line that no longer exists. With the conflict widening into all-out war throughout the country, the platoon has gone dark except for one message.
“It is war here. These f--kers attacked us,” Serhiy Varakin, the 58th Independent Motorized Infantry Brigade sniper platoon commander, said in a text last Friday to my colleague, also named Serhiy. “What else can I say?”
My colleague Serhiy has tried a few times to speak with the commander and hopefully learn they are doing okay since the invasion. Their lack of response is understandable given their secretive job and their new reality — they’re not interested in telling us what they are doing.
But before then, the Smile Platoon team house was a warm and inviting place to two outsiders, where the salo and tea flowed all day and night.
Natalia, a platoon scout, counted the days on her gunmetal-painted fingers until her Facebook ban for creating a second account was lifted. Vitaliy’s florist wife dutifully took over her husband’s home front job, watering their vast expanse of potted plants in his absence. And a sniper with the call sign Medikfinally got his care package from the United States: a Weatherby .338 rifle and advanced optic that outperforms what his own military provides.
The big bang of Ukrainian sniper units occurred after the 2014 invasion, when the muddy tangle of trench warfare in the east forced commanders to shed Soviet marksman manuals, catch up to modern technology and kill more accurately from farther away.
Their growing proficiency and professionalization backed by Western forces has swung a pendulum back at their adversaries, who often wield superior rifles and surveillance systems, snipers in the platoon said. They even absorb hallmarks of American warfighter culture from the soldiers who helped advise them.Black Rifle Coffee Co. mugs litter the living quarters, and at any given moment, a few of the snipers crowd around a smartphone, watching videos of gun influencers on Instagram.
Ukrainian snipers are an elite bunch distinct from regular troops, they are quick to tell you.
I’ve met many like them, first during my time in Iraq as an Army infantryman and later when I became friends with former Marine snipers who served in Afghanistan. They speak about ballistics and windage with a monkish devotion to their craft and relish the idea of psychologically tormenting their enemies. Watching their enemy’s heads split apart in their scopes is not a traumatic hazard, they explain. It’s a job perk.
Gathered around the dining table as a soldier sliced vegetables to drop into a pot of simmering borscht, I asked why they were called Smile Platoon.
“Because we can see their faces,” Natalia said. “And we’re happy to kill them.”
But they also described a Ukrainian defense establishment and industry mired in Soviet-style bureaucracy that doesn’t understand what they do or how to equip them properly, down to the ammunition they use and the rifles they wield.
In a profession when milliseconds and millimeters count, the consequences can be dire.
Ruslan Shpakovych, a sniper instructor and adviser to units in and outside the military, said the problems afflicting the community are interrelated, beginning with gaps in funding that forbid pricey items, like high-end surveillance and monitoring devices. Instead, Shpakovych said, the snipers rely on Frankenstein reconnaissance systems pieced together with digital cameras and monitors that don’t allow them to see as far or as well as their counterparts on the battlefield.
Another issue is the kind of ammunition they are issued. It’s designed for hunting, but when it strikes body armor, it tends to pancake on impact, he explained on a visit to the team house. Its trajectory is also marred by minor disturbances.
“I just recently visited the guys in Kharkiv,” Shpakovych said, speaking of the large city in northeastern Ukraine that days later was bombarded with Russian missiles and artillery. “They were shooting through the branches. And they were lucky that the branches weren’t deflecting bullets — a soft bullet can get deflected by a branch.”
The solution, he said, was to use steel core ammunition, which is designed to punch through armor and heavy enough to maintain its trajectory. But factories in Ukraine don’t produce such ammunition, he said, and there have been years-long delays to overhaul the factory.
There is also no native production of the sniper rifles they need the most. Ukrainian manufacturers make a .308-caliber sniper rifle, but they don’t produce a military version of the .338 rifle, Shpakovych said, which the snipers say is a good solution for most of their work and reliable for hitting targets a kilometer away.
The supply problem has forced the snipers to buy their own rifles with their own money or get them via donations from nonprofits, such as Come Back Alive, where Shpakovych works as an instructor. That has also created complications, he said, when Ukrainian import restrictions on arms through nonmilitary channels have sometimes held up gear.
Medik, who goes by a call sign derived from his medical training, said it took about three weeks to receive a rifle and advanced optic he purchased from the United States. It cost him more than $6,000, even after Shpakovych helped get him a discount. The ad hoc reality of gun purchases has created a dizzying mix of weapons, calibers and barrels that are all different, many of them cheap U.S. models that wear out too quickly. Everything must match, Shpakovych said.
While security assistance continues to flow into Ukraine, it’s unclear if anyone in the United States is receptive to the needs of soldiers closest to the fight. The United States has providedmore than $1 billion worth of security assistance to Ukraine in the past year, but the Ukraine Defense Ministry and the Pentagonwouldn’t discuss any of these specific issues.
“The U.S. will provide defensive assistance to help Ukraine address the armored, airborne and other threats it is now facing,” said Army Lt. Col. César Santiago, a Pentagon spokesperson. He did not address questions about the status of aid most important to the platoon, including the delivery of Barrett MRAD rifles, which are becoming the standard issue for U.S. snipers.
“We’ve been promised these for quite a while,” Shpakovych said.
Varakin, the commander, was careful in his assessment of the supply challenges. He praised the current defense ministry and military leadership, saying they are the first senior officials to understand the utility of snipers on the battlefield. But his ability to get the right resources, including vehicles, has frustrated him at times.
“Although our army receives Javelins, we snipers don’t get enough supplies,” he said. “Even though the usefulness of our work becomes more evident.”
Varakin has three rules for his snipers: abstinence from alcohol, dedication to service above all else and a willingness to do anything to achieve high performance.
The last one leaves Smile Platoon with lighter pockets each month. Sitting around the dining table, the snipers pick at smoked smelt and endlessly browse gunmaker websites, looking for the next rifle to buy with a few months’ worth of salary.
Maybe the gun they were counting on would reach them in time for the invasion a few days later. Maybe it wouldn’t.
Medik contemplated how their world would change when that moment arrived, and Russians wouldflood the battlefield. It would provide something perhaps only a sniper would think about: a promising opportunity to hone his craft.
“We’ll just have more work,” he said. “I hope we’ll have enough bullets.”