Poltavka, Ukraine – Ukrainian Territorial Defense troops have had their first breath out of battle in a few weeks, causing fierce winds in the firing range. One by one, they knelt down to test their rocket-propelled grenades as they watched the comrades joke. Others turned to face the sun and enjoyed a quiet moment in the explosion.
One commander reminded the group, “You won’t have much time to go back. “Rest as long as you can.”
Nearly three months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Moscow’s forces have stalled in the east, which President Vladimir Putin has promised to “liberate.” In Donbass, which is no longer recognized as part of Russia or Ukraine, Moscow’s profits have been limited. To the west, near Kharkiv, it has lost territory. Here in the southeastern region of Zaporizhjia, the front lines are almost completely frozen.
Lt. Gen. Scott Barrier, director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate last week that “the Russians are not winning and the Ukrainians are not winning, and we are in a bit of a stalemate here.”
From their bases in small villages in the region, Ukrainian and Russian troops rarely see each other. They have been trading artillery fire for days, hoping it will slow down. Below the arcs of that crossfire, the streets are terribly quiet.
At the firing range last week, the fighters traded their dream of comfort.
“Did I tell you I haven’t tasted milk in five weeks?” One of them asked his commander.
“We don’t think about it now – we need you back for the fight,” said the officer, barking.
Silently, the soldier laughed.
“Of course, but I’m on my way to the grocery store.”
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Situated in the Azov Sea between Donetsk and Kherson regions, Zaporizhiya has been partially occupied by Russian forces, who are now trying to move north. But the front lines have become stiff.
“Both sides are digging, both sides are tearing it apart, both sides are shooting at each other, and both sides are changing hands every day in terms of their control over cities, villages and areas,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters. .
Analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said on Thursday that Ukrainian artillery fire on Russian forces on the western border of the Donetsk region had halted their advance towards the town of Zaporizhia.
That city center has fled and become Assad’s sanctuary. In recent weeks, thousands of civilians across the southeast have arrived in bullet-powered vehicles and hit old buses in a nondescript parking lot where volunteers register them and provide hot meals.
“This is the first time they’ve known they’re safe,” said Oleksiy Sveritsky, a local official who oversees the process. “This region is the gateway to Ukraine.”
Most of the Russian-occupied cities come from further south, including Mariupol, Melitopol and Kherson. Others, however, are fleeing active fighting on the Zaporizhiya front line.
When reporters showed up last week in Poltavka, a village several miles from the front line, a local farmer, Serhi, was the only civilian seen driving. The 42-year-old, who fell on the wheel after a terrifying journey through active gunfire, looked numb with fatigue.
“We left Poltavka this morning,” he sighed as his wife, Olha, sat excitedly and calmly in the passenger seat. “We were the last ones to leave.”
When the artillery battle intensifies in mid-April and most of the residents flee, Serhi and Olha face a dilemma: leave for safety and sacrifice the farm, or try to save it at the risk of their lives. Eventually, they sent their children to Zaporizhia and tried to keep the business afloat. But when the artillery shells began to pound on the outskirts of the village, every week spent in the ghost town seemed even more futile.
“We had to sell half the pigs to get that,” Serhi said. “Soon we would have nothing left.”
As he spoke, only another civilian left, the creek of his wrecked bicycle in a few words in the warm spring air.
“The thing is, we haven’t fought here before – this place was meant to be safe,” Serhi said. “We didn’t expect it to reach us so quickly.”
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Along the potholed road, the dangers have cleared up by the miles. Reporters saw smoke billowing from the villages on either side of the front line into the slow, loud drumbeats of gunfire.
In Poltavka, there are fragments of Soviet-era black-and-copper war memorabilia. Several civilian homes have collapsed. In the backyard and on the door of the house, Ukrainian soldiers were occasionally visible from the street.
Half a dozen members of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force met in the middle of two houses, in the area closest to the field where Ukrainian forces were separated from the Russians. Elijah, 21, said he was a miniaturist before the war, drawing toy soldiers. He was now dressed in green, with the national colors in his arms – blue and yellow.
“There were kids in this house, but they’re gone now,” he said, looking at a mortar round landing hole in the garden.
“Everyone is gone now,” added his colleague, Victor.
Both of them remained silent for a minute. The sound of artillery came from afar, and another wave of smoke appeared on the horizon.
“It was never a job I had ever imagined, but we would stay here as long as we needed it,” Elijah said.
Dimitro Platnikov contributed to this report.