KYIV, Ukraine — Foxholes will never be obsolete. That fact came back to me on a trip to visit front-line fighters outside Kyiv.
Foxholes and bunkers are where the men and women of Ukraine are in large part fighting for their futures, proving the oldest rule of war: When technology and strategy give way to fixed and semi-fixed positions, dig in and improve your position.
In insurgencies like Afghanistan, the home team would say, just as their fathers told their Russian occupiers a generation before, “You have the watches, we have the time.”
And here it is again. Outside Kyiv, within small-arms range of Russian invaders, Ukrainians sit in their foxholes and bunkers and smile knowing that, in the end, this war will come down to will and time.
I was taken to the front with a deputy brigade commander as he checked on his unit. By the crazy odds that exist in armies everywhere, we had been in the same spot in Iraq at the same time during my days as an Army Ranger, though we didn’t cross paths.
“We’re gonna win,” he tells me. “It’s just a matter of time.”
We found his men dug in, eyeing a tree line about 500 meters away known to have Russian positions. To my right and left were a long series of bunkers and foxholes.
We witnessed one moment of peace that seemed completely outside the modern war being fought around us: In a negotiated passing, civilian casualties were allowed to pass through both lines. Across a farmer’s field came two relics of past centuries: a tractor pulling a cart and a horse pulling another. Together they held about 15 or so women, kids, and older men with grievous injuries.
But aside from these rare moments of cease-fire, the Ukrainians at the front face Russian artillery, rockets, and snipers. And they’re also fighting brutal elements. Their gear is good, modern and warm, but below-freezing temps are the norm — 30s in the day, low teens at night — and medical kit is in short supply. In their sectors, up and down the line to their front and within small-arms range are their homes and the homes of their friends and family. Homes in ruins, and now under Russian control, or at least contested. Rumors of atrocities and killings behind the lines are everywhere, but here they stay, manning the line, and stopping the advance on their capital.
It’s a feeling like the Band of Brothers series, in the Battle of the Bulge episode. There’s no snow on the ground, but they’re living in their foxholes here. There are no trucks rotating dudes out at night, or other relief. There are a couple of village buildings to the rear, which they use to cook or dry clothes, but it’s trench warfare up front.
There’s occasionally smoke visible through wood lines and ineffective mortar fire that falls close enough to feel or at least make noise, but it’s clearly just harassing and ill aimed.
We talked to a machine-gunner carrying an RPK, the Ukrainian version of an automatic rifleman. He had served in the war in Donbas in 2014 but left the army and has since worked in information technology. Now he was back in uniform and on the front.
“I think we have nothing but to win,” he said in clear if slightly broken English. “We will fight to the end. It’s our people, our villages, we don’t even have a thought we can lose or whatever. We will win. It’s 100%.”
The only question, he said, was the cost.
“It depends how soon it will be because how soon is how many peaceful lives we will lose.”
His family, he said, was 700 kilometers away, but when he calls them, he hears sirens over the phone. “I am not sure they are in safety,” he said.
A woman serving as a medic ran between foxholes, checking on her troops, bringing supplies as needed, inspecting for trench foot. She knew her stuff, with a well-stocked aid bag and rapid, professional assessments. When we asked for an interview, I’m not sure of the exact translation of her reply, but it sounded a lot like “fuck, no.”
The platoon leader who kept the unit running reminded me of an 82nd Airborne paratrooper — kit squared away, in obvious great shape, professional and focused on his troops and the mission. He exuded leadership, and his troops reacted to it as he circled among them.
In Kyiv, paranoia has, understandably, gripped security forces. For the sin of taking pictures of an empty street this week, I had two territorial soldiers grab my camera, flip through my pictures and interrogate me about the suspicious nature of images from my hunting trip to Montana.
On the front, soldiers talk and don’t mind cameras. They just want to do their job.
The lines here still move back and forth from day to day, as the Russians push or the Ukrainians push back, but there’s no sign — or belief among Ukrainians — that the Russians have any real intent to take Kyiv. The city is now a fortress, far too big to truly encircle, and its defenders have now proven beyond any doubt that they will die where they stand before turning it over.
Instead, the foxholes are dug and the artillery barrages continue.
These are professional soldiers, not so different from the ones I served with as a Ranger. But what these soldiers have that I’m not used to seeing is patience. We never had patience in Afghanistan and Iraq. All we had was the watches. The Ukrainians have the time.
This story is compiled from Denman’s on-site dispatches and further reporting by Coffee or Die military editor Matt White.