PISKY, Ukraine — The staccato of machine-gun fire begins at dusk, just as the sunflower fields here turn orange with the setting sun.
A Ukrainian army company of 110 soldiers defends the right flank of this largely deserted village, less than a mile outside of separatist-controlled Donetsk in eastern Ukraine and close to the city’s strategically key airport.
The unit — 7th Company of the 93rd Brigade — is headquartered in a partially destroyed two-story house known only as Point 18. In the front yard are Point 18’s defenses, a series of trenches and firing positions that start at the house’s garage and extend a hundred yards into the farmland beyond. The trenches are six feet deep and shored with felled birch trees and wood panels to keep them from turning into a morass when it rains.
“In May, the trenches were a meter deep,” explained Sasha Bak, the company’s 21-year-old commander. “And after we lost a soldier to shelling, then we dug them deeper.”
During the day, when the shelling is sporadic, the company goes about improving Point 18’s defenses. Some soldiers fill fertilizer bags with dirt and replace those damaged from the night before. Others dig the company’s new living quarters — an underground dugout they will inhabit in the coming months. Point 18, Bak says, cannot suffer many more direct hits before it collapses.
Now in its second year, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has claimed more than 6,000 lives as government forces battle Russian-backed separatists; 7th Company has lost nine men and had 26 wounded this year — all since a cease-fire was signed in February and was almost immediately breached.
At night, as the temperature drops, the fighting begins in earnest. The air is filled with the snap of bullets and the low whistle of mortar rounds. Ukrainian and separatist tanks exchange fire from pre-dug positions, the sound of their massive guns distinct over the din of small-arms fire and mortar impacts.
Inside Point 18, plaster falls from the ceiling and the structure hums when rounds skip off the exposed steel of its frame. Some soldiers prepare ammunition for the automatic grenade-launchers and machine guns in the trenches; others smoke and watch Russian TV on their lone 20-inch set.
Though some nights are quieter than others, on average, 7th Company expends more than 20,000 rounds of ammunition a week — from weapons including Kalashnikovs and the 30mm cannons fired by its armored personnel carriers.
One of the hallmarks of Point 18’s defenses is what the men call “the museum.” In the trench closest to the separatists’ positions is a Russian heavy machine gun made in the 1930s. It is a massive antique the company keeps operational through constant maintenance.
The old machine gun is an apt metaphor for how 7th Company wages war. Almost everything in the company’s arsenal is either aging and Soviet or captured from the better-equipped separatists.
The men fight from trenches, and some live in them — their underground quarters a throwback to World War I. Important information for other commanders is sent by messenger, because separatists frequently listen to their unsecure radios. And 7th Company has only four night-
vision devices for its 110 men.
At night, the separatists fly drones, a capability mostly unmatched by the Ukrainian forces. Most of them are of the cheaper quadcopter variety, though Bak says he has seen bigger ones — much like the U.S.-made Predator. The drones, equipped with thermal and night vision, are used to spot Bak’s positions and help guide separatist artillery, he says.
Although the Ukrainians have air support, they haven’t used it since the government in Kiev signed a cease-fire agreement in 2014, leaving the skies to the lawn-mower whine of separatist drones. The separatists also have radio-jamming equipment and better tanks than the Ukrainian army. At least 10 T-72 tanks are housed in a nearby abandoned chemical factory, Bak said.
“The only reason we’re alive,” he said, “is because those tanks don’t have any trained drivers for them.”
Bak knows that his company couldn’t hold out for long against a full-scale attack, particularly if it included Russian forces, but his defenses are ready. Antitank mines litter approach routes and heavy weapons are concealed in hedgerows.
In March 2014, the United States began sending the first of $244 million in non-lethal aid and training to the Ukrainian military to help counter its Russian-supplied foe. Pentagon spokeswoman Laura Seal said in an e-mail that the aid has included radio equipment, Humvees, counter-artillery radar, night-
vision and thermal-imaging gear, body armor and various other supplies.
The only U.S. aid 7th Company has received is one night-vision device. One of the press officers for the 93rd Brigade, which includes 7th Company, has a U.S.-supplied bulletproof vest. The vest, an older version last used in the Iraq war in the mid-2000s, still had the previous owner’s Bible in one of its pockets.
“America can send everything,” said a soldier who goes by the nickname Ruby. “Javelins [antitank missiles], Humvees, dried food, whatever [the United States] has, we’ll take it.”
But the Obama administration has refused entreaties from the Kiev government to send even defensive weaponry, fearing that it could provoke Russia into escalating the conflict and seizing Ukrainian territory, as it did in annexing Crimea.
It’s also unclear whether Ukrainian units such as 7th Company could handle high-end U.S. equipment. The troops here are a mixed bunch of professional soldiers and volunteers. When the company arrived on the front in March, 18 soldiers deserted when the fighting started. The initial desertions, Bak said, were a sort of “natural selection.” Those who remain listen and fight well.
Prof, a 55-year-old volunteer who served with the Soviet army in Mongolia, is a former coal miner. The only payment he receives while he fights is his miner’s pension. He shuffles around the trenches — his back crooked from years in the mines — wearing denim shorts, kneepads and a light machine gun.
“I have no problem fighting the army I once fought for,” said Prof, who would give only his nickname. “They took our Crimea, and now they want to take the Donbas.”
Bak, one of the youngest soldiers in the company, has been in the army for nearly seven years. When he was 15, he attended the elite Suvorov military academy in Kiev.
“My neighbor fought for the Soviets in Afghanistan,” Bak said. “His stories made me want to join.”
At Point 18, Bak doesn’t sleep much, and the burden of command has crept into the corners of his eyes. The young lieutenant’s couch is usually occupied by 7th Company’s stray kitten, Wendy, as Bak is either on the line or checking on the rest of the company entrenched in the fields outside the village. He moves his hands constantly when he talks, and when he’s not fighting the war, he is fielding calls from the worried relatives of the men under him.
“Most of the mothers of the soldiers have my phone number and call me to see how they’re doing,” Bak said, laughing. “They think I’m the company’s secretary.”
Wounded twice since March, Bak prides himself on his combat skills. Unlike many of his Western counterparts, he leads most of his company’s patrols himself.
The patrols usually are made up of a handful of soldiers who go deep into “the neutral zone” — the 1,000-meter-wide no-man’s land between Ukrainian and separatist forces, where patrols from both sides often meet and clash in gun battles.
“Many of my soldiers are not as well-trained as I am,” Bak said. “That is why I go; I have to do it myself.”
On June 24, Bak’s armored personnel carrier struck an antitank mine, sending four pieces of shrapnel into his left shoulder. After being treated at the hospital, he was given 30 days’ leave to recuperate at home. Much to the dismay of his girlfriend and family, he returned to the front after spending just one morning in his own bed. The men of 7th Company, he said, cried when he returned.
Bak was wounded again — hit in the foot by shrapnel — during the last week of July. He was treated at the front.
Before returning to Point 18 in June, Bak called childhood friends who were out having drinks. He remembers them asking if the front was dangerous and if people were dying there.
“It was then that I realized,” Bak recalled, “that I had nothing in common with them anymore.”