In devastated Donbas, exhausted Ukrainian soldiers warily eye a new year of war

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MYKOLAIVKA, Ukraine — War-weary soldiers on Ukraine’s eastern front lines are bracing for the coming year with casualties mounting and Western support in question as they fight a Russian occupier that shows no signs of quitting.

In a small country house in the village of Mykolaivka, in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, three soldiers of the 17th Tank Brigade are huddled around a stove, enjoying a temporary respite from the intermittent Russian shelling outside. A steaming cup of coffee in hand, 31-year-old Andrii — the unit’s commanding officer — says the day has been relatively quiet. The clouds overhead are hampering the work of Russian drones, a now ubiquitous threat along Ukraine’s sprawling front lines.

One of the men under Andrii’s command, an American volunteer from Atlanta, bore witness to the deadly efficiency of Russian drones. “I was struck by a Lancet drone about a week ago. I’m lucky to still have my leg,” he said in a thick Southern drawl, gesturing toward his bandaged leg.

The men haven’t been rotated away from the front lines for months. Although their motivation remains intact, they acknowledge pessimism.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we faced a scenario like 2014 all over again,” said Andrii, switching to Ukrainian when his English fails him. “The lines might get frozen where they are, the Russians will rebuild their forces, and then they’ll attack again.”

Furrowing his brow, Andrii bemoans the faltering foreign support. He says he fears that Ukrainian society at large is already forgetting about the war and the sacrifices of his fellow soldiers.

“Seeing the stories on Instagram from some of my friends partying in Kyiv, who claim they’re supporting the ‘economic front,’ is infuriating,” he said.

After meager returns on its much-touted summer counteroffensive, the Ukrainian army has increasingly been on the back foot along the front line. In recent weeks, Russian forces have managed to retake the initiative as they step up efforts to seize the entirety of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

Despite staggering personnel and equipment losses, the Russian army has pressed on and claimed limited territorial gains over the past couple of days.

Russia finished 2023 with multiple barrages of drone and missile attacks that hit civilian and infrastructure targets. A New Year’s Day salvo of some 90 Shahed-type drones targeted Odesa and Lviv, but Ukraine’s stressed air defense systems intercepted most.

A Ukrainian strike Saturday across the border in Belgorod killed nearly two dozen city residents and infuriated Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“We’re going to intensify the strikes. No crime against civilians will rest unpunished, that’s for certain,” Mr. Putin said Monday during a visit to a military hospital, according to Russian press accounts.

“Of course, we can strike public squares and Kyiv and any other city. I understand. I’m burning with rage myself,” Mr. Putin said.

Symbolic setback

Russian forces’ apparent capture of Marinka, on the front line in the disputed Donbas region, bears symbolic significance. Russian-backed militias first captured the city in April 2014, but the Ukrainian army liberated it that August.

Despite the disappointment of the summer counteroffensive and the growing uncertainty of Western aid, Ukraine has registered several strategic victories. The army sank a Russian ship docked in Crimea, demonstrating once again its ability to degrade Russian naval capabilities in the Black Sea.

A Russian media report Monday revealed that more than 70 Russian sailors died in the attack, which appeared to ignite ammunition stocks stored on the ship.

The brutality that has characterized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was once again on full display with drone footage published on Dec. 27 and geolocated near the village of Robotyne in Zaporizhzhya. The footage depicted the Russian executions of three unarmed Ukrainians and a soldier later shooting a dead Ukrainian serviceman at close range. In the face of such relentless savagery, Ukrainian soldiers feel they have no choice but to fight to the end — with or without Western support.

“While some of the soldiers are tired, their desire to defend their country remains intact,” one foreign instructor working with the Ukrainian forces told The Washington Times. The instructor, who has had extensive combat experience and is based in Donbas, asked to remain anonymous. “They very much know what they are fighting for: their country, their family, their children.”

He acknowledged, however, that the quality of new Ukrainian recruits has plunged as casualties mount.

“The soldiers I’m tasked with training are older, some of them come from a background of hard labor,” he said. “They suffer from back problems, knee problems. Some of them are career alcoholics.”

In early December, Mr. Putin signed a decree boosting troop numbers by 15%, which would mean the recruitment of an additional 170,000 servicemen if the targets are met. Meanwhile, the text of a draft law posted on the Ukrainian parliament website on Christmas Day proposed lowering the age of those who can be mobilized for combat duty from 27 to 25.

Russia has put its economy on a war footing by stepping up its production of ammunition, but Ukraine’s allies have failed to meet their pledge to supply the embattled country with the shells it so desperately needs.

President Biden is struggling to get a $64 billion Ukraine aid package through Congress. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius warned in November that the European Union would likely miss its target of supplying Ukraine with 1 million artillery shells and missiles by March.

Estonian defense official Kusti Salm said the objective will likely be fulfilled by midyear at the earliest.

The growing war fatigue among Ukraine’s Western supporters has not escaped Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines.

“If people in Europe or America think the Russians will stop at Ukraine, they’re very much mistaken,” Andrii said. “And it’s anyone’s guess where they’ll strike next. Moldova, the Baltic states, maybe Poland.”

Visible from the courtyard of Andrii’s house is the devastated Chasiv Yar, a mere couple of miles away. In the basement of a bombed-out building in the center of the city, drone operators from the 17th Tank Brigade emphasize the need for more ammunition, equipment and vehicles in the new year.

“We’re willing to fight. I don’t even want money or a salary,” says Yurii, who has been serving since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion. “But give us weapons, give us ammunition.”

In a recent interview, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell once again underlined the existential nature of the war in Ukraine.

“Maybe this is the moment in which we have to look at the danger coming from a great power which threatens our democracy, which threatens Europe itself, not only Ukraine,” said Mr. Borrell. He said Europe must “change course” and mobilize all its capacities or Mr. Putin may very well triumph over Ukraine and set his sights elsewhere along Russia’s tense borders with Europe and Central Asia.

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