VERKHNOTORETSKE, Ukraine -- Underground, in the bunker, the Christmas tinsel is still up. "We're too lazy to take it down,” one soldier said. “Plus, it'll be Christmas again in 11 months. Why bother?"
Aboveground, in the trenches, the nights are often so quiet that it's easy to lose track of time.
“Why is no one shooting?" It's hard to know why. Your mind goes around in circles," said another. And then there’s the mud that cakes to your boots and covers anything and everything: "You don't notice it, really."
If the direst warnings from U.S. and Western intelligence officials are on the mark, Russia is on the verge of launching a major new offensive, with well more than 100,000 troops and powerful weapons poised to smash their way across Ukraine.
If that happens, this company from Ukraine's 503rd Naval Infantry Battalion, and the serpentine trenches they've dug for hundreds of meters along and under an abandoned railroad, will be directly in the path of a potentially unstoppable onslaught that would overrun these positions with token resistance.
For the moment, these soldiers aren't particularly worried.
"Sure, our guys might read the news headlines: 'Oh look. Russia is moving more troops. Russia is about to attack,'" said Captain Dmytro Bahatyuk, the company commander. "And then it's off to clean the gun barrels, cut wood for the stoves."
"In 2019, they said the Russians are going to attack. In 2020, they said the Russians are going to attack," he said. "It's old news for us. We've heard it before."
Ukraine's military today is not what it was in 2014, when poorly equipped soldiers desperately battled trained and well-armed separatist fighters across the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Russian military intelligence soldiers were widely known to have been in the mix, helping to equip, train, and even command. Private Ukrainian paramilitaries also rushed into the breach, helping prevent complete collapse.
Today, Ukraine's armed forces have undergone substantial reforms, with better command, better organization, better weaponry, and wide backing from Ukrainian society. Some experts say there hasn't been nearly enough reform and that the country's military industrial complex is still hobbled by corruption, bloat, and Soviet-style inefficiency.
Ukraine's Naval Infantry Brigades, however, are considered among the most elite of the country's military units.
'All Soldiers Are Crazy'
This 503rd Naval Infantry Battalion is known as the Badgers. This particular company is deployed in Verkhnotoretske, on the front line north of the separatist-held provincial capital of Donetsk.
In the bunkers and trenches dug into the hillside and adjacent fields, with field telephone lines strung through brush and trees, the company's soldiers are, for the most part, simply waiting. And often "very, very bored," said Roma, a machine-gunner and private first class from Mariupol, an Azov Sea port city on the government-held side of the line further south.
"All soldiers are crazy, of course, in their own way," he said, asking, like all the soldiers in the unit, to be identified only by his first name and rank, in line with Ukrainian military guidelines. "How does life go around here? It's the fields. It's the mud. It's no electricity."
"Ninety percent of war is standing around waiting. Ten percent is when there's action, something happens," Roma said. "The worst is just you're waiting. You're waiting."
"War is hell," said Rosytslav, a 29-year-old private first class from the city of Zaporizhzhya who has been in the Naval Infantry since 2014, one of the longest serving members of this company. "It's hard to know what will happen" with the Russians.
The rotation for the soldiers consists of six-hour shifts, day and night, monitoring and surveilling the positions of the Russia-backed separatist fighters about 1.5 kilometers away, across a snowy swale and up to a line of trees. Ukrainian units, this one and others, are under strict orders not to open fire on enemy positions, and not even to return fire when fired upon without explicit senior orders.
Since before the New Year, there's been virtually no notable gunfire, the soldiers say, which makes for many excruciatingly tedious hours simply watching the tree line, and the snow-covered scrub and fields, with night-vision scopes or thermal-sensor binoculars. Most of the movement is stray dogs or hares racing across the open spaces or along the abandoned rail tracks.
On rare occasions, the soldiers will take a handful of spent bullet casings and heat them up on a small wood-fired stove in one of the forward bunkers. Then the glowing casings are put into a bag and lofted above the edge of the trenches, to draw fire from an enemy position watching with similar equipment.
"It's hard to understand sometimes what the point is, all this waiting, nothing happening," said Bohdan, a 29-year-old senior sergeant from the northwestern region of Volyn, near the Polish border. "You spend a lot of time standing around with all sorts of thoughts flying through your head."
"I don't think it will happen," Bohdan said, asked about the likelihood of a new Russian invasion.
Most of the company rotated into this position in late August and early September. Shortly after arriving, there was a heavy barrage of artillery, likely from a 152mm medium-caliber howitzer, according to Bahatyuk. One of the company's members was seriously wounded in the barrage and was evacuated to a hospital for treatment. He won't be returning to service, he said.
'I Miss Her All The Time'
The tedium of long, eventless days or nights is broken by endless tasks of maintaining a rudimentary forward post. The bunkers for sleeping, cooking, and eating are dug meters deep into the thick loamy soil, roofed with logs and makeshift plastic and thermal building materials to try and seal out the elements. In midwinter, with temperatures yo-yoing above and below freezing, all the roofs leak, dripping cold water onto clothes, packs, sleeping pallets, and the rest.
In the main sleeping bunker, six soldiers sleep 2 meters underground in plywood bunks, in a space that is warmed by a wood-burning stove. It’s hard to turn around without colliding with someone or something. Asked about the holiday decorations still stapled to the entrance door and ceiling, Vasyl, a private first class from the central city of Cherkasy, joked: "We brought an Italian designer in this year to decorate."
The tedium is also lessened by a WiFi signal that the company uses to download videos, trawl Facebook, and chat with spouses. "Without the Internet, we'd definitely go crazy," Bohdan said.
Roma, the machine-gunner from Mariupol, said he's been working his way through the American miniseries from HBO called Generation Kill, about U.S. Marines spearheading the attack on Baghdad in 2003 and the more mundane, bureaucratic obstacles and logistical problems they faced.
Lyosha, a 29-year-old private who is also from Mariupol, managed to take leave two weeks earlier, in January, to celebrate his daughter's first birthday.
"But I've missed her first tooth, her first steps. I miss her all the time," he said.
The Russian soldiers, he believes, lack what the Ukrainian soldiers have: motivation. The Russians, he argued, are deployed and, if ordered, they do their jobs and fulfill the orders like any soldier would. But for Ukrainians, he said, "the motivation comes from defending your family, your country, your land."
Seated in shorts and a T-shirt in his own, more spacious, bunker, Bahatyuk, the company commander, said that the gunfights and artillery exchanges were more intense in 2017, 2018, and 2019, and that the expectation for imminent war that is portrayed in newspaper headlines and television broadcasts isn't really reflected in how the company's soldiers do their work. They do what they've been doing all along, he said.
Asked about the growing number of weapons shipments coming from countries including the United States, Britain, the Baltics, and the Czech Republic, Bahatyuk said they are most welcome but that they aren't something that will have immediate benefits.
"If they gave them to me tomorrow, I'd say, 'Great! Thank you.' But I wouldn't know what to do with them," he said. "You need to be trained with them. You need to know how to gauge distance. You need to know how to aim them. That takes time."
"It's war," Roma said, laughing. "It's not for everyone."