Ukraine suffers on battlefield while pleading for U.S. arms

‘They’re just raining down metal on us,’ said a soldier fresh from the front line where Russia is advancing

Members of a Ukrainian battalion of young soldiers as they return to their base near Kramatorsk, Ukraine, on May 28. They have spent their days digging defensive trenches in a pocket not far from the front line to provide additional support for soldiers battling the Russians head-on. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
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DONETSK OBLAST, Ukraine — The ambulances hurtled into the parking lot one after the other, each carrying wounded troops directly from the nearby front line. One young man stared straight ahead, his face swollen, his neck and back dripping with blood. Others lay silently under foil blankets.

Some stumbled out the back doors and collapsed into wheelchairs as staff members rushed to push them inside. Nearby, bloodied cots sat propped against a tent and other wounded soldiers lingered about, their faces grim, their heads, arms or legs bandaged as the sound of outgoing artillery boomed across the sky.

About 10 wounded soldiers arrived at this hospital in eastern Ukraine in less than an hour Sunday morning — the latest military casualties as Ukrainian forces, outgunned by Russia in the country’s east, continue to lose territory at a critical moment in the war.

Soldiers also helped one civilian woman with leg wounds out of a military ambulance.

The Washington Post is withholding the name and precise location of the hospital out of concerns from staff members that it could be targeted by Russian forces.

“Seventy people from my battalion were injured in the last week,” said a soldier and ambulance driver just outside the hospital gates who identified himself only as Vlad, 29. “I lost too many friends; it’s hard for me. I don’t know how many. … It’s getting worse every day.”

The night before, he said, the shelling was so loud he hardly got any sleep. “It’s all artillery bombing down,” he said. “All the wounded are coming from shrapnel. Most guys in the trenches haven’t even seen the enemy face-to-face.”

Last week, one battalion of young soldiers on a road near Kramatorsk spent their days digging defensive trenches in a pocket not far from the front line.

They were gearing up to provide additional support for the soldiers battling the Russians head-on, preparing for a worst-case scenario in which Russian forces continue or accelerate their current advance. That would be a potential turning point on the battlefield.

It would come at a particularly desperate moment for the Ukrainians. Kyiv is already enraged that some Western voices are floating the idea of ceding territory to Moscow. And the Biden administration is taking weeks to decide whether to provide heavier weaponry that could aid Ukrainian troops at this critical juncture in the war.

“Everyone’s tired,” said Bohdan, a 30-year-old soldier and officer in the battalion who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used and his precise position not be given. “But we are ready to stand and protect until the last man.”

In recent days, Russian troops have captured the towns of Svitlodarsk and Lyman and have closed in on Severodonetsk, a large regional hub, where Russian forces have entered a hotel on the city limits. If Russian troops manage to encircle and take the city, Moscow would occupy nearly all of Ukraine’s easternmost Luhansk region, which makes up roughly half of Donbas.

“I mainly hope the boys don’t get encircled in Severodonetsk,” Bohdan said of his fellow troops. “They need more guns, they need more weapons.”

If he could send one message to Washington, he said, it would be this: “Help us with weapons. The most important is antiaircraft. Close the sky — it’s the civilians who are suffering the most.”

The situation in the country’s east marks a shift from an earlier stage of the war, when staunch Ukrainian defenses forced a broad Russian retreat in Kyiv and other areas, increasing confidence among Ukrainians and their Western backers about the prospects of all-out victory over a poorly organized and equipped Russian force.

Having now regrouped, Russian troops are making incremental but steady progress in their campaign in the east and are regularly employing heavy flamethrowers and long-range artillery that Ukrainian forces lack, leaving Kyiv on the back foot. Though Ukrainian resistance has made the fight a slog for Russian forces, Moscow is inching closer to encircling Ukraine’s biggest strongholds in the Donbas region, while fighting on territory contiguous to Russia with easier supply lines.

In a video address early Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the situation on the battlefield in Donbas was “very difficult,” with Russian forces attacking Ukrainian positions with “maximum artillery and maximum reserves.”

“We are defending our land insofar as the defense resources we have today will allow. We’re doing everything we can to strengthen them — and we will strengthen them,” Zelensky said. “If the occupiers think Severodonetsk or Lyman will be theirs, they are mistaken. Donbas will be Ukrainian.”

For weeks, Zelensky and other top Ukrainian officials have been asking the United States to provide multiple launch rocket systems, or MLRS, which would give Kyiv the ability to strike targets from much farther away and a better chance of resisting the assault in the east.

U.S. officials and congressional staffers told The Post on Friday that the administration is preparing to send the weaponry and could announce the move as early as this week, but the White House must still make a final decision on the transfer.

Some White House officials had expressed concern that providing MLRS weaponry with a range of more than 180 miles would allow Ukrainian forces to hit targets far into Russian territory, potentially prompting an escalatory response from Moscow, but the White House is now comfortable managing that risk by withholding the longest-range ammunition for the system, a senior U.S. official told The Post.

Whether the weaponry will get to Ukrainian forces in time to stave off a significant defeat in the east is now unclear, as Russian forces unleash a wave of attacks with gruesome weaponry on Ukrainian positions, forcing an exodus of people from the country’s embattled easternmost regions.

In an Instagram post on Friday, Andriy Yermak, head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, said Ukrainian forces needed the weaponry “yesterday,” as well as other systems that have been requested, such as air defense systems and tanks.

Outside the hospital Sunday, men who were recently wounded in Severodonetsk lamented the difficult conditions on the ground. “We need more Javelins,” said Lapa, 26, who spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his call sign.

On Saturday, he said, many dead soldiers slain in fighting nearby were carried out. Now, he said, “Ukrainian soldiers are pulling back.”

He was at the hospital to be treated for a fracture in his leg and a wounded arm. Another soldier in his unit, who identified himself as Adik, 41, had broken ribs. A bloody bandage covered the side of his head where he had been hit with shrapnel.

“They’re just raining down metal on us,” Lapa said. Nearby, a 25-year-old with his head wrapped in a bandage puffed on a cigarette. He goes by Koleh and had recently hit a mine, he said, although he didn’t know how exactly he ended up wounded.

Severodonetsk, he added, “is the worst.”

Ukrainians waiting for help away from the front lines are suffering too.

On Saturday, at the train station in the eastern city of Pokrovsk, a hub where civilians have arrived to evacuate from cities across Donbas, four elderly women lay crammed side-by-side in the back of a van, a mix of dirty blankets and pillows covering their frail legs. Underneath, they wore nothing but diapers.

Hours earlier, volunteers had evacuated them from a nursing home in Chasov Yar, a small town less than 50 miles from Severodonetsk. Now, one by one, they moaned and wailed in pain as they were lifted onto pieces of tarp and carried from the van into an evacuation train heading west — a trip their caretakers hoped might save their lives.

“They’re shooting a lot, they’re bombing a lot,” said a woman named Halya, who was 73 and missing the lower half of her right leg. “Now the war has gotten to us and it’s gotten a bit scary.”

Many elderly evacuees — all with red bracelets strapped around their wrists — said they did not know exactly where they were going. One said her family was trapped nearby in occupied territory. Another couldn’t speak at all, tears streaming down her face as she grasped the hands of two reporters.

On a main road heading east from the city of Dnipro on Saturday, even a gas station attendant urgently appealed to a Washington Post reporter for more support from the United States — begging for antiaircraft weapons to help protect her two sons serving on the front line near Donetsk. At a nearby checkpoint, a Virgin Mary statue draped in a Ukrainian flag sat propped up high, another plea posted beneath her: “Pray for Ukraine.”

As Ukrainian forces seek to hold the line, officials in Kyiv have been disheartened to see suggestions from the West that Ukraine should give up part of its territory to satisfy Russian President Vladimir Putin and end the war.

For days, top Ukrainian officials have been fending off suggestions from European leaders, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and the New York Times editorial board that Kyiv should enter talks with Russia and make concessions.

Kissinger says Ukraine should cede territory to Russia to end war

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have been pushing peace talks, and top Italian officials submitted a peace plan to the United Nations that would freeze the current front lines, leading to a significant loss of territory for Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials believe that any concessions to satisfy Putin now will only lead to Russia regrouping and launching a far more vicious war against Ukraine in the future.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, told The Post that the Ukrainian government refuses any plan other than a military loss for Russia on the battlefield.

“If Russia doesn’t lose, they won’t have any internal transformation,” Podolyak said. “A Russia that doesn’t lose will, on the contrary, be more chauvinist and have an even more revanchist outlook, because they will hate us for humiliating them in front of the rest of the world … and, accordingly, in two years they will come back and kill us even more brutally.”

Zelensky, who said Kissinger was living in 1938 — a reference to attempts to appease Adolf Hitler before World War II — chided “great geopoliticians” trying to give away parts of Ukraine in a post on Instagram on Saturday, saying they were unwilling to see the people who live in those territories as real people.

“Ordinary Ukrainians. Millions of those who actually live in the territory they propose to exchange for the illusion of peace,” Zelensky said. “You must always see people. And remember that values are not just a word.”​

In Pokrovsk, many of those people rushed to board the evacuation train, some carrying animals or children. One young couple held each other close — then kissed before the woman took her seat inside, leaving the man on the platform to watch her through the window.

They stayed on the phone until the train pulled out of the station — not knowing if or when they might see one another again.

Bearak and Sonne reported from Kyiv.