Snipers on the Eastern Ukraine Front

The mission of the snipers at Maryinka was to scout and fight when necessary, but they had to be careful at every step to avoid exposure and exposure to Russian fire.

Shortly after the Ukrainian sniper team reached Maryinka, a Russian shell hit the base, shattering the windows and floor. The second and third grenades continued to pour.

On this tense morning, the sniper team’s job was to establish a forward position in the town of Maryinka, in Donetsk Oblast, eastern Ukraine, to slow the Russian advance. For the mission, they had to negotiate a route of more than 270 meters full of dangers, including the main road, which was shelled by Russian forces.

These snipers must avoid stepping on mines or revealing themselves to locals to avoid the risk of being spotted by Russian forces.

As the shelling subsided, Dmytro Pyatnikovskiy, 38, captain of a five-man sniper team, ordered everyone to move away. But right after that, another shell shook the ground.

Russia is now focused on the Donbass battlefield in eastern Ukraine, attacking villages and towns like Maryinka. Russian forces attempted to advance south from the city of Izyum and west from the separatist-held areas in an attempt to gain complete control of the Donbass.

But the Ukrainian army put up fierce resistance here. More than a month after shifting the focus of the campaign eastward, Russian forces have achieved limited results.

“The Russians are currently only using artillery and tanks to attack from afar,” said Curly, 35, a drone operator on the sniper team. “They didn’t send troops directly into battle because they knew we would defeat them if we did.”

The crackling of firecrackers stopped again. Pyatnikovskiy, aka Dima, glanced at his teammates and nodded. This is your chance.

Armed with guns, they moved out of the building onto the next street. Curly, a pre-war welder who has been fighting in the city since April, joined the sniper team. When they reached an intersection, Curly suggested they go straight, but Dima disagreed.

“You want to walk through this park? You have nowhere to hide,” said Dima.

Dima pointed to the path to the left and added that “at least there are walls here”. Everyone then followed him.

Members of a sniper team run down a street in the town of Maryinka in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk province May 17.  Photo: Washington Post.

Members of a sniper team run down a street in the town of Maryinka in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk province May 17. Picture: Washington Post.

They followed the walls of abandoned houses, some of which had been destroyed by artillery fire. This place is like a ghost town. Local residents did not see them.

As they approached the main street, the soldiers began to run.

A day ago, the sniper team set up camp in a village overlooking a lake about 8 kilometers from Maryinka. They took food and other supplies, built their own baths, and dug makeshift toilets.

Like many Ukrainian soldiers, five of the snipers were civilians before Russia launched its military operation on February 24. All hail from the city of Dnipro in the south-east of the country and share a common passion for guns. They were all members of a local rifle club called Wild Fields.

They joined the army of volunteers and were sent to protect strategic locations. But what they really want is to use their shooting skills. They finally had a chance. For three of the five, Maryinka was their first assignment at the front.

Alex, 34, is a boxing coach. Andrei Kolupailo, 47 years old, is a businessman. Oleksi Shapoval, 33 years old, is a construction worker. Dima is also a construction worker and a sniper trainer at the club. Everyone bought their own sniper rifles.

The last is Oksana, 35 years old, mother of a 5-year-old son. She used to be an electrical engineer and spent 6 years in a circus that performed all over the world. She is currently one of the few female snipers in the Ukrainian Armed Forces capable of hitting targets at a distance of more than 1 km.

The sniper squad’s primary role is reconnaissance, but they are also ordered to join the war if the opportunity arises. “We were trained to be here,” Oksana said.

But these ADCs also understand the volatility of the situation and how quickly things can change in Donbass. The region includes the two provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk, part of which is controlled by Russia.

Russian troops captured almost all of Lugansk and surrounded the strategic city of Severodonetsk from three sides. If the city falls, it could pave the way for Russia to push into major cities like Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.

Ukrainians still control much of Donetsk, but after a few weeks of bombardment, Russian troops captured the city of Mariupol in the south-eastern part of the province. Therefore, preventing the Russians from taking control of Maryinka became more urgent.

“It is very important. If it loses this location, Russia can attack Donetsk,” Kolupailo said.

Ukrainian gunners on the Eastern Front

Ukrainian sniper team in the city of Maryinka, Donetsk Oblast, video: Washington Post.

The city has been in the spotlight since 2014, when conflict erupted between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists. Before the ceasefire was signed in 2015, Maryinka was heavily shelled.

The city is now divided into regions controlled by Russia and Ukraine. Both sides are waging a war of attrition in which soldiers rarely see each other.

“It is difficult to regain territory here because the Russians have had a lot of time to strengthen their defensive positions. But they also have the problem that they cannot expand the frontline any further towards Ukraine,” Dima said. “It’s a back and forth situation.”

However, this did not prevent the Russians from breaking through the defenses of Ukraine. Last month they approached the bridge about a kilometer from the base. The Ukrainian side destroyed it, but the Russians tried to cross the river and a battle ensued. In the end, the Russian troops were repulsed.

Since then, Russian soldiers have not advanced any further.

“We sometimes had to retreat to our positions because of shelling and bombing. We didn’t surrender, we retreated tactically,” Curly said. “Now the Russians are fired upon by Ukraine every time they try to advance with tank support. You cannot advance further.”

The challenge with the sniper team is no less. Your reconnaissance mission means observing Russian forces to understand the numbers, movement time and amount of enemy equipment.

“It is very important for us to understand the threats to avoid targeting the Ukrainians,” Osaka said. “As a gunner, we try to minimize the risk to all units on the ground and in the field.”

But getting too close to Russian forces was a risky proposition. Both sides planted mines and homemade explosives throughout the city. “Mines are everywhere. You have to pay attention to every step,” said Kolupailo.

Another danger is revealing the location and being discovered by Russian forces. “The first obstacle is that you have to choose a place wisely. The second is to sneak into the place quietly and leave safely,” Kolupailo added.

But even the best plans can go wrong. Two weeks ago, another group led by Dima set up a post in a building. Other units said intelligence said there were no Russian forces nearby.

“A few minutes later, a grenade fell from a grenade launcher a few meters from us,” said Shapoval, who was also present at the time.

The intelligence was wrong. The snipers dismounted their weapons and fled the position before being targeted again.

All these risks weigh heavily on Dima, Shapoval and Alex as they run down the main street. Oksana and Kolupailo stayed at the base and prepared for the next shift.

The gunners crossed the street and quickly passed a deserted market. As they approached a yard, a grenade fell.

“Run, run, run,” Dima shouted, telling everyone to hide against a nearby wall.

They opened the red gate and entered the debris-filled courtyard of an old government building whose windows were sandbagged. Step by step they climbed the stairs to the top floor.

Be careful not to trip over land mines or booby traps. They lowered the mover to the window to avoid being targeted by Russian snipers.

Snipers aim at an abandoned house in the city of Maryinka, Donetsk Oblast.  Photo: Washington Post.

Snipers aim at an abandoned house in the city of Maryinka, Donetsk Oblast. Picture: Washington Post.

The focus of the Ukrainian sniper team’s attention was on a green hilltop more than 1 km away. “Over there is the position of the Russian forces,” Dima said, pointing to the window. “The sandbags you see are Ukrainian. Anything beyond that is Russian.”

In the corner of the room, away from the window, the sniper team had a rifle positioned, aimed at the hilltop. Alex pulled out his binoculars and Dima instructed him to watch the Russian position.

The Russians began firing mortars, artillery, and Grad rockets into this area. The rifle used by the snipers could hit targets at a distance of more than 1 km, which the Russian artillerymen fired at. “This will be our shooting position,” said Dima.

than tam (Corresponding Washington Post)