April 23, 2024

Sept. 19, 2023

“Today, the situation is very bad.”

For weeks, this forest in the Donbas region had been fairly calm, but this morning, with the Russians on the offensive, things were heating up again, said a Ukrainian deputy commander named Yevgen who was escorting journalists for The New York Times.

It was Aug. 9, and soldiers from the 95th Air Assault Brigade were set up under pine trees that in more peaceful times might have been more likely to shade mushroom hunters than men in camouflage.

The outpost that day was a swarm of activity. New soldiers were rotating in, and others were rotating out. There was a steady stream of incoming artillery and mortar rounds.

Then orders came in, and several Ukrainian soldiers went to their SPG-9 recoilless rifle. The weapon, which is more like a rocket launcher than a rifle, sends shells arcing at high speed toward targets a thousand or more yards away.

As the men worked, the air in the forest was pierced by the sounds of radio chatter, soldiers shouting to one another, and the roar of incoming and outgoing fire.

When Yevgen gave the order to fire, flames gushed out of the SPG-9 and dust rose into the air, engulfing the men — and offering any Russians who might have been watching a telltale signature to target.

They repeated the process several more times, removing spent propellant charges from the rear of the gun, tossing them aside and sliding in fresh projectiles. As their radios chirped new instructions, they adjusted their trajectory. Then the weapon — that one, anyway — fell silent.

Yevgen offered a salute, and his men sought safety, or the closest thing to it one could hope for on the front lines. The gun was concealed again. Until the next time. And then the commander turned to his visitors.

“OK. Time to go.”

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