Ukraine Unit Faces Blizzard of Russian Attacks

Near Bakhmut, Ukraine — On the deserted edge of a town near the front line in eastern Ukraine, a Ukrainian soldier kneels in a firing position, a gloved finger on the trigger of his high-powered rifle.

’The Russians want to control this road,’ says his commander, who goes by the call sign ‘Virus,’ looking up and down a snow-covered residential street.

Dogs bark behind the garden walls and beyond as small-arms fire crackles in the near distance, in between the muffled sound of artillery shelling.

A serviceman, call sign ‘Virus,’ prepares to patrol the front line from an abandoned house near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Feb. 18, 2023. A serviceman, call sign ‘Virus,’ prepares to patrol the front line from an abandoned house near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Feb. 18, 2023.

As the anniversary of Russia’s invasion approaches Friday, expectations are high that the fighting will intensify in Ukraine.

But for Virus and his ‘Witcher’ unit, who have been deployed across the disputed eastern region of Donetsk, there has been no letup in Russian attacks for the last 12 months.

Up and down the front line, particularly in the city of Bakhmut, Russian forces have put Ukrainian troops under constant pressure, he said.

He insists that the Ukrainian line is holding — and that they are ready if the conflict escalates.

’If you ask me, for our unit the situation hasn’t changed,’ he said before heading out into a blizzard, hoping to take advantage of the cover of gray skies and snow drifts to scout out positions.

’Some people can talk about a new offensive, but the Russians attack every day,’ he told AFP.

’Meat grinder’

The latest Western battle tanks are on their way to Ukraine, after weeks of hesitation by its allies for fear of escalating the conflict into a direct fight between NATO and Russia.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s shopping list of urgently needed materiel now includes fighter jets, which has again given the alliance pause.

Virus, with a helmet-mounted camera, AR-15 assault rifle and warm, waterproof camouflage clothing to keep out the stinging cold, certainly does not appear to lack the latest kit.

But he agrees that on the ground, ‘aviation technology’ would help defend against Russian airstrikes in his sector and stem the flow of attacks from waves of enemy troops.

Russian tactics, particularly the use of the Wagner mercenary group in Bakhmut, bolstered by inexperienced convicts, have come under scrutiny.

The heavy losses and monthslong war of attrition for control of the city has seen it dubbed graphically as ‘the meat grinder.’

But Virus says Russia is using similar tactics elsewhere on the eastern front, sending five groups of 10 men in quick succession to attack Ukrainian positions.

Ukrainian troops pick off the initial waves, he said.

But he added: ‘By the time we get to the fifth, they capture the trench because we don’t have time to reload our weapons, just because we have no time to kill them.’

’They don’t care about their soldiers’ lives.’

House for headquarters

The men from Witcher, fueled by dried noodles, biscuits, sweets and sugary tea, busy themselves at their base in a small, abandoned house that appears to have belonged to an elderly resident.

Open ammunition boxes lie on the floor, with semiautomatic weapons propped up against a living room cabinet of crockery and china ornaments, in a floral flock wallpapered room.

Nearly a year into the conflict, and with little sign of an end in sight, Virus and his men said high morale and a sense of common purpose had sustained the Ukrainian resistance.

One member of the unit, radio operator ‘Spider,’ said he is prepared to turn his hand to anything to push Russia out of Ukraine to secure peace.

’If I’m needed to shoot a machine gun, I’ll do it,’ he said. ‘If I’m needed to operate an anti-tank system, I’ll do that too.’