Ukraine: sounds and silence of a long war

As the Ukrainian commander-in-chief warns of endless trench warfare, that’s exactly how it feels at the front

November 09, 2023
Image: Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

Grey skies are hopeful in eastern Ukraine, as they tend to reduce incoming shelling and enemy drones. Yet in Kramatorsk, the heart of the Donbas region, the deafening air raid siren hardly ever seems to stop, rain or shine. It emanates from an intersection off the main route, a turning for the railway station, which took a bad hit last year, and the town centre, where a popular pizzeria was destroyed some months ago, killing 13.

Despite the constant loud squall, no one seems to notice, and a mother with two daughters strolls into the supermarket as if it is the most normal thing in the world.

Actually, all along the frontlines, it is. In town after battered town, the throbbing background booms of artillery exchange are mere routine. The countless destroyed buildings and roofless homes remind that any day, any moment, could be your bad fortune.  

This is the frontline of Ukraine’s looming “long war”. In a recent Economist interview, Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi warned of a battlefield “stalemate” —leading to a testy public rebuke from President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

But the general’s comments seem all too realistic in Kupiansk, Kramatorsk and Orikhiv, where amid the endless background noise of artillery fire, civilians are continuing to suffer in an entirely militarised zone.

Towns have become garrisons, soldiers are ubiquitous, regular checkpoints interrupt travel along the deeply pitted roads. Dotted secretly throughout the area are medical stabilisation points, each for a brigade or a designated military direction, where soldiers are brought for an emergency patch-up, before shipping off to a larger medical facility, or to the morgue. 

In the Economist piece, Zaluzhnyi argued that a step change in technology and innovation, as well as a holistic approach to upgrading Ukrainian military capability, are essential to avoid an endless trench war. On evidence from the Donbas region, that’s precisely how it already feels.  

Avdiivka is the current crucible, and expected to be lost. Fighting continues around the fallen and flattened town of Bakhmut. A fearful Kupiansk awaits. 

This town, 110 kilometres outside of Kharkiv in the northeast, was the first occupied in the full-scale invasion, liberated after fierce fighting last September. A kind of stable life returned, but with the threat of a fresh assault, that has proven short-lived.

Russian attacks around Kupiansk are now on the rise. A few small shops and a market function but nothing else, and by early afternoon the near-empty streets are completely deserted. The village of Hroza, where 59 mourners were recently killed, is not far away. With the frontline 6 kilometres to the east, authorities have imposed a mandatory evacuation for families with children in that direction, with courageous volunteers mobilising to carry them away. Some have been killed in the effort.

A Ukrainian psychologist working on the frontlines says the worst day for Ukraine will be the day the war ends, when the exhilaration of the struggle will give way to the realisation of the loss. That is nowhere more evident than in Izyum. 

In a small forest, a sandy dirt path leads to the mass grave site for 440 souls, tortured and murdered during occupation. Under dense tree cover, all is quiet, but for the occasional patter of rain, dripping through the pines. Wooden crosses lean at all angles from row after row of holes in the ground, hundreds of them left from the exhumations like silent, open mouths.                             

The southerly town of Orikhiv—long shelled by near Russian forces but never fallen—provides an example of the incremental wins that Ukraine can achieve. The town is devastated and emptied, significantly deteriorated from earlier this year. A profound bomb crater, more than two storeys deep, nestles just in front of a housing block, abandoned anyway. The scattered few residents found on the street are so isolated and shellshocked that they burst into immediate tears when asked a simple question. 

Still, it is calmer than some months ago. At its outskirts, on a surprise fifth attempt this summer, the soldiers of the 65th Mechanised Brigade secured a critical strategic hill. The Russian first line was breached, and the next village of Robotyne was then taken. Pushing the Russians back allows the town to breathe a little and, crucially, opens the door to further towns and villages southeast. 

As we stood on that hill, on a beautiful, clear morning—interrupted by the whizz-crack of a 152mm artillery shell less than 100 metres away—it was clear that in a tough counteroffensive, this is a spot to savour. On the Zaporizhzhia front, it unlocks the pathway southeast, with the chance to break further Russian defensive lines, disrupt vital logistics links and ultimately, perhaps, provide a gateway to Melitopol and the sea.

If Ukraine ever makes it there, this small victory will have been essential. But as winter approaches, offensive and defensive positions continue to see-saw, and everything remains fragile. 

Deep fortifications and mines, blizzards of kamikaze drones, a bottomless supply of infantry cannon fodder—the Russians’ evolving tactics mean the Ukrainian counteroffensive will be a grind, not a rout. Massive air and artillery bombardment is needed to “soften” the enemy line, a critical luxury the Ukrainian army cannot provide. Their top three needs are clear: munitions, munitions, munitions. 

The admirable mantra for supplying arms and funding for Ukraine has been “as long as it takes”. But that very phrase undercuts the urgency, which in turn only costs lives, soldiers and civilians alike. On my return to Kyiv, a senior Ukraine official insisted a better approach, a better slogan, would be: “as soon as possible”. Enable the determined Ukrainian army to get the job done, and done soon.

Meanwhile, war in this coal region is normalised. Day after day, towns degrade, people leave, people die. They are uniquely conscious that the war started not in 2022 but in 2014, and they do not ask when it will end. It just is.