The Russian forces were so close that Boghdan, a Ukrainian soldier with the 79th Air Assault Brigade, could see them digging.
Digging is what to do in this forlorn stretch of scorched earth in eastern Ukraine to avoid dying. Boghdan wants the Russians to die. So he lifted a shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenade launcher, peered over the sandbags mounted on the edge of his trench and blasted away. The digging stopped. Moments later, Russian soldiers let loose a volley of automatic gunfire. Then things went silent.
“We made them quiet,” Boghdan said with satisfaction as he made his way to a bunker deeper underground. “I just need to have my coffee.”
This is life at what the Ukrainian military calls the zero line position — the farthest edge of the front lines — with the Russians just 300 yards away.
In the mud and muck, with frozen patches of earth giving way to sloppy, thick clay, there are many ways to kill and be killed. Russian helicopters regularly strafe Ukrainian trenches. The Russians bombard Ukrainian positions with heavy artillery from miles away and send small bands of soldiers to try to infiltrate Ukrainian trenches in the dark of night.
Powerful drones circle high overhead doing surveillance and smaller, off-the-shelf quadcopters drop improvised explosives into the trenches.
Russian assaults can include armored vehicles and tanks, or they can come in waves of infantry soldiers trying to storm a trench.
The Ukrainians hit back hard. And in this pocket of the front, near the destroyed town of Marinka in the Donetsk region, they have largely thwarted every Russian attempt to take new ground for a year.
The New York Times was granted rare access to join soldiers from the 79th brigade at the farthest edge of the front line to better understand how the war feels for the soldiers who are close enough to see the Russians across the torn Ukrainian lands they are determined to defend. The full names of the soldiers are being withheld for security reasons.
Despite intense fighting throughout the winter, Russia has captured only about 400 square miles across the entire eastern front since September, according to a report released in February by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research organization in Washington.
Visiting the trenches, it is apparent why breaking through the dug-in and fortified lines is deadly work. But holding ground also comes at a tremendous cost. Two days before The Times visited, the 79th brigade had suffered heavy losses, the toll of unrelenting combat evident in their bleary and bloodshot eyes.
The troops said they were ready to die. This is a war of survival, they said, not just for them but for their nation. The 79th is one of Ukraine’s elite units, and its forces have battled Russians on the steppes, through forests and in ruined cities. Now, the soldiers are charged with holding a position about 15 miles from the city of Donetsk, a stronghold of Russia and its proxy forces since 2014.
The town of Marinka does not really exist anymore beyond a point on a map, abandoned by the roughly 9,000 prewar residents. Long ago, it joined the list of places devastated by Russian forces, its buildings flattened or reduced to charred, hollowed-out shells. But for Ukrainians, the defense of Marinka has persisted.
Having failed to break through Ukrainian lines there for almost a year, the Russians recently revised their tactics, turning to small assault groups trying to rip holes through Ukrainian defenses that they can try to exploit, according to a Russian manual captured by the Ukrainians.
The manual details how assault platoons of 12 to 15 members can be divided into tactical groups of as few as three people supported by additional firepower to infiltrate a Ukrainian trench.
Ukrainian soldiers have taken to calling these groups “meat,” because of the high rate at which they are killed.
Ukrainian fighters who have witnessed the attacks up close say the Russians often send a first wave of infantry to storm a trench, knowing they are likely to be killed. Russian spotters take note of Ukrainian firing positions and unleash a barrage of mortar and artillery fire aimed at those locations. Then a second wave of Russian infantry race in, trying to infiltrate the trench.
It is a brutal tactic that would have been recognized by millions of soldiers huddled in trenches more than a century ago during World War I. As a French officer, Capt. André Laffargue, noted at the time in a pamphlet called “The Attack in Trench Warfare,” breaching well-defended trenches comes at staggering cost.
“Infantry units disappear in the furnace of fire like handfuls of straw,” he wrote.
To reach the zero line outside Marinka, Ukrainian soldiers must traverse a network of trenches to the rear, and cross open gaps left for tanks and through smashed villages.
The trenches are constructed with bends to contain a blast should a mortar or grenade land inside. Netting and brambles are laid over the top in places to obscure the contours. The Ukrainian soldiers, intimately familiar with the geography, have spotters on constant lookout for threats.
In quiet moments — and even in the most embattled corners of Ukraine, a lot of time is spent waiting for the next paroxysm of violence — soldiers eat meals from tin cans and care for what they call the “Ukrainian war cats” that patrol the trenches for rats.
While the front line stretches over 600 miles, both armies have dug thousands of miles of trenches — arrayed in echelons so that should one network fall, soldiers can retreat to safer positions.
In addition to the small-scale assaults, Russia has been trying for weeks to break through the Ukrainian lines with more comprehensive attacks including armored columns. Shortly after The Times visited, reconnaissance units for the 79th brigade detected a movement of Russian tanks and armored vehicles nearby.
The Russians tried to skirt the trenches around the flanks to “launch a massive assault,” according to a statement from the brigade.
But they were caught out and paratroopers using Javelin anti-tank missiles damaged several Russian tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, the demolition captured in videos released by the brigade.
Back in the trenches, the soldiers know the Russians will keep coming. And they say they are ready for the day when they will go on the attack themselves.
Tyler Hicks contributed reporting.