JThe enemy on the other side of the wood is heard as the wind blows towards the deep Ukrainian trenches. Russian voices carry through the frigid air, as do the grunts of tanks and the hum of suicide bombers and reconnaissance drones.
But that’s not all that comes over the pines to break the disarming silence in this barren stretch of Ukrainian defense in Sumy, a northeastern region that shares a 560 km (350 mile) border with Russia.
“After January 7, the shelling became intense. For 10 days, the bombardments have been happening almost every day, ”explains Lieutenant-Colonel Roman Tkach, 51. In what form did the attacks take place? “The Russians fire with artillery guns, mortar fire, the Grad rocket salvo firing system. Aviation is used. They fire unguided aerial missiles from helicopters and drop bombs from airplanes” Tkach explains, “Two days ago they dropped a big bomb from a plane that destroyed a house. They seem to have endless missiles.”
Tkach speaks from a maze of trenches and machine gun posts in a position southeast of Sumy, 1,500 meters from the official Russian-Ukrainian border. His words are punctuated, from time to time, by the soft sound of artillery bombardment somewhere further along the defensive line.
“It’s only small now,” he said reassuringly. The Russians threw everything here, the soldiers say. Similar testimonies can be heard from entrenched Ukrainian soldiers across the region, where a quiet New Year gave way to a loud, dangerous and disconcerting January.
On Sunday alone, four buildings and 28 houses were hit by shells in the Sumy region, as well as a hotel, an administrative building, a church, a sports hall, three shops, a cafe, a kindergarten and a post office. A total of 88 strikes were recorded in one day. Still, it was nothing out of the ordinary for a month.
A gang of Russian saboteurs was caught trying to cross the border for unknown purposes last week. They fled under fire. Two weeks ago, an assault helicopter fired seven rockets at targets just 800 meters from this position. “And rockets from a Grad system hit that hill there,” says Artem Volynko, 25, a senior lieutenant with the state border guards, pointing to a completely uninhabited and unremarkable rise. But why? “It’s in a Ukrainian national park – maybe they wanted it to burn?”
It’s a theory, if not one of the strongest.
There are many theories going around in the Ukrainian military about this sudden and baffling increase in activity. Because, truth be told, much of the bombing seems to be entirely random and chaotic. A firestorm here, a barrage there. Gunfire and drones dropping small packets of explosives disturb the defensive lines from morning to night. But the soldiers are not killed in significant numbers. Few pieces of military equipment are taken out of service. It’s probably a waste of ammunition.
There is an explanation, of course. The Russians were driven out of the country by Ukrainian forces in March last year after the debacle of the February 24 assault on the north. Could they be looking to soften Sumy’s defenses for another crack? Oleksiy Danilov, chairman of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, which is coordinating the country’s response to the invasion, said this week that Russia was preparing for “maximum escalation, mustering all possible forces” for a possible resumption of February 24 from the north, south and east.
Volynko was on the front line when they first came. He held a checkpoint with 10 other people in the village of Velyka Pysarivka, not far from these trenches, and previously best known for being the site of the murder of 36 of its inhabitants during the Nazi occupation in 1941.
“The Russians started hitting our checkpoint with small arms, but we couldn’t see them in the dark, it was chaotic fire,” he recalls. “They also used underbarrel grenade launchers.” They were ordered to withdraw to reserve positions, but Volynko was tasked to then advance again to an observation point to scout as the defenders sought to control the scale of the invasion. .
“There was so much Russian military equipment that the smoke from their exhaust obscured our view of the checkpoint. Because of the big cloud of smoke, I couldn’t even see our checkpoint.
It was the start of a four-day battle in which the Russians approached the nearest town, Okhtyrka, but were eventually pushed back, leaving a mess of destroyed villages. Having seen the weapons the Russians had last seen, Volynko is skeptical of the suggestion that a similar assault may be imminent.
There is activity on the other side, but it seems to be defensive, he suggests. “The Russians can theoretically go on the offensive in this direction, but here we are carrying out constant aerial reconnaissance. And we see how they are constantly building engineering fortifications on the territory of the Belgorod region of Russia. They are erecting barriers anti-tank tanks and dig anti-tank ditches. And for us this is strange.
Tkach has an alternative: Sumy is trying to convince the Ukrainian General Staff that it cannot afford to move forces to Donetsk – and in particular to the town of Bakhmut – to relieve Ukrainian efforts there. Zelenskiy recently admitted that the situation there was “very difficult”, with Russia claiming significant gains in recent days.
“The amount of military equipment we now see on Russian territory near our home does not pose a threat to a major invasion,” Tkach said. “Maybe they want as many Ukrainian servicemen as possible to stay in those positions and not be transferred to other trouble spots.”
This leaves Kyiv with a dilemma. Those troops fighting in Donetsk report that they don’t have enough artillery, they lose control of their defensive positions in the face of a Russian onslaught that seeks to destroy everything in front of it, before sending in the infantry to clean up. Should Zelenskiy’s generals start moving their pieces? This is a question that goes beyond the level of remuneration of those who are in the trenches of Sumy. Instead, it’s time to batten down the hatches and hope they can continue to resist what’s coming your way.