As invasion continues with western arms deliveries smaller than hoped, ordinary Ukrainians are facing full weight of Russian artillery
O leksandr’s war lasted only a week. The 36-year-old, a Ukrainian electrician working in Gdansk, hurried back to join up after Russia invaded and was deployed on 10 May to guard a chest-high trench in Donbas against the odds.
“We were shelled constantly during the day. There was not 10 minutes without Russian shelling,” he said, describing a fearful human cost: “Every day one person was killed and another couple wounded. Big losses, really big losses.”
On the seventh day, 16 May, it was over. A Russian drone had hovered over Oleksandr’s position near Avdiivka and, armed with the location, the invaders hurled one shell, then another, closer, and finally a third, closer still.
It felt as if he had been “hit by a stone” in his right arm, Oleksandr said, but it was worse: “I looked at my sleeve and then I tried to move my hand. It was just hanging.” Hastily he applied a tourniquet and sought refuge behind the lines.
Now, Oleksandr lies in a crowded part of a hospital in the central city of Dnipro, his wounded right arm held in place by four scaffolded pins, telling a story of how ordinary frontline soldiers like him faced the full weight of Russia’s artillery bombardment – with little or no hope of answering back.
Ukraine’s heavy guns could only fire “one time to their 10,” Oleksandr said, repeating a familiar statement made by the country’s armed forces, while the Russian forces suffered far fewer casualties. There was “nobody to shoot at”, the soldier complained. The Russian artillery was out of rifle range – and in his part of the front, the invaders made no attempt to gain territory.
Oleksandr was left holding a line, trying to survive in a constant state of terror. “I was wearing a helmet the whole time, and I was sure that whenever I got to take it off my hair would have gone grey.” When he spoke to the Guardian, some colour remained.
Over the past fortnight or so, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and key figures around him have begun to emphasise the human cost of Ukraine’s defence, against Russia’s new tactic of artillery bombardment. The number killed each day could be as many as 200, with 800 wounded, advisers to Zelenskiy have said.
Morale among the soldiers in hospital remains high, but their personal stories also illustrate the desperate nature of the defenders’ fight – and how Ukraine improvised an enlarged military to defend itself against the unprovoked Russian invasion, using every human resource to hand.
Perhaps the biggest surprise with Nikolai is his age: the former hospital worker is 60. He volunteered at the start of the war, starting with the defence of Kyiv in late February and March. Ask him why he was willing to risk his life, and, as he lies in his hospital bed, he simply holds his hand to his heart, holds his breath and sighs.
“We just didn’t have enough time to become true soldiers, there was literally not enough time because they [the Russians] went straight from Belarus down to Kyiv. We were training on the go, and basically getting our experience in real battle,” added Nikolai, who had no combat experience prior to February.
After Kyiv, Nikolai was stationed on the southern front around Huliaipole, 50km south-west of Zaporizhzhia, where Ukraine’s forces have been making small, localised gains. But the cost to personnel remains high on what is supposed to be a quieter part of the battle line.
“Out of a unit of 20, 15 people were injured by shelling, one was captured and one was killed,” Nikolai counted. Those wounded from artillery fire included himself, a casualty of Russian counterattack on a fluid section of the frontline, leaving him with long-term damage on the lower part of his right arm.
“We had been digging a trench for about 40 minutes, then there was a shot followed by an explosion. I tried to cover myself with my arms but my right arm was hit. I knew I was injured seriously because I couldn’t cut open my sleeve to apply first aid,” the 60-year-old began. Worse was to follow. “Later, as I was waiting to be evacuated, a shot went through my cheek. It came through and grazed an artery.”
At first Nikolai assumed he would survive, but it took three hours to get safely behind the frontline to paramedics. Such was the blood loss – “it was coming out the back of my neck” – that he was starting to lose consciousness. “I began to think I might die,” he said, but he remained sure that he had “done the right thing” by signing up to fight.
For Ukraine’s leaders, such stories serve to emphasise the necessity of closing the artillery overmatch as the country lobbies for greater western weapons supply. While the US on Wednesday committed to sending 18 more M777 howitzers, on top of 108 already sent, it falls short of what Kyiv thinks it needs to kick out the Russians. Some key figures want a total of 1,000.
The gap suggests a high rate of sacrifice may be required by Ukraine’s soldiers for some time, raising the question of whether the country can sustain more than 20,000 casualties a month while weapons from the west arrive in smaller numbers than hoped.
Both wounded soldiers, though, insist Ukraine’s fight against Russia is necessary. Nikolai said he volunteered so his grown-up son, Dima, who lives in Southampton, Britain, didn’t have to come home and join the war. “I want my generation to fight so my kids can just bring up their grandkids and live in peace.”
As for Oleksandr, when asked if he had been put in a situation where he could not win, in a five-foot trench facing Russia’s artillery might, the former electrician was momentarily circumspect. “I shouldn’t answer that,” he said. So would he do it all again, knowing what he did now? “Yes. There is no doubt. Who else will?”