Ukrainian volunteer fighters in the east feel abandoned

By Sudarsan Raghavan
May 26, 2022

DRUZHKIVKA, Ukraine — Stuck in their trenches, the Ukrainian volunteers lived off a potato per day as Russian forces pounded them with artillery and Grad rockets on a key eastern front line. Outnumbered, untrained and clutching only light weapons, the men prayed for the barrage to end — and for their own tanks to stop targeting the Russians.

“They [Russians] already know where we are, and when the Ukrainian tank shoots from our side it gives away our position,” said Serhi Lapko, their company commander, recalling the recent battle. “And they start firing back with everything — Grads, mortars.”

“And you just pray to survive.”

Ukrainian leaders have projected and nurtured a public image of military invulnerability — of their volunteer and professional forces triumphantly standing up to the Russian onslaught. Videos of assaults on Russian tanks or positions are posted daily on social media. Artists are creating patriotic posters, billboards and T-shirts. The postal service even released stamps commemorating the sinking of a Russian warship in the Black Sea.

Ukrainian forces have succeeded in thwarting Russian efforts to seize Kyiv and Kharkiv and have scored battlefield victories in the east. But the experience of Lapko and his group of volunteers offers a rare and more realistic portrait of the conflict and Ukraine’s struggle to halt the Russian advance in parts of Donbas. Ukraine, like Russia, has provided scant information about deaths, injuries or losses of military equipment. But after three months of war, this company of 120 men is down to 54 because of deaths, injuries and desertions.

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