Wednesday, May 29, 2024

In the icy trenches of Eastern Ukraine: “Zaluzhny a true hero. We need more soldiers” –

KOLODYAZNE (Eastern Ukraine) – The trench winds along the bare hillside. The soldiers’ passage has turned the snow at the bottom into ice, which doesn’t melt in the minus four degrees of midday, and walking quickly to reach the bunkers involves a continuous balance exercise. The soldiers advise not to slow down and always keep their heads down. “The Russian positions are at distances ranging from 500 to 800 meters.

They can shoot at us with everything they have: from sniper rifles to mortars, to Grad missiles and small suicide drones. We need more soldiers.” The men engaged in the front line for two years now, the fallen comrades, and the wait for new reinforcements: “Those who flee abroad are traitors.” “In the icy trenches of eastern Ukraine: Zaluzhny is a true hero.

In the distance, explosions can be heard, further south there is the Bakhmut salient, and not far away there is that of Avdiivka, where in the last few hours it seems that the Russians have gained some positions. We came to the front line to understand the morale after almost two years of war, but also to talk to the soldiers about soldierly matters that are currently affecting the whole of Ukraine and even risking destabilizing Volodymyr Zelensky’s government. “We are your first line against Russia. If we were to lose, it would be up to you to fight,” they repeat from the trenches.

They ask above all for ammunition and drones. “Our battalion loses an average of four drones a day. They are vital for us, especially now that the Russians have improved their jamming techniques which interfere with our air control systems,” they explain. “We are soldiers, and I don’t want to talk about politics.

But I consider draft evaders, especially those who illegally flee abroad, as traitors. They need to be pursued and, if possible, convinced to do their duty. It is absolutely essential to ensure a replacement for those on the front lines. There are men here who have been fighting since the very first days of the invasion,” says 39-year-old Sergeant Petro Torkjanski.

He, as well as the dozen soldiers around him, avoid openly criticizing Zelensky. But their sympathy for Zaluzhny is evident: “He’s a true fighter, he understands our needs. He insisted on asking for half a million new recruits and he knows his stuff,” they say. The topic is on everyone’s minds.

It seems that on Monday Zelensky proposed to Zaluzhny a role as a military advisor, considering replacing him with either the current head of intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, or with the commander of the ground forces, Olexsandr Syrsky. But it seems that Zaluzhny dug in his heels, while the two declined, or at least took their time. Zelensky’s reasons are well known: the failure of the military counteroffensive last summer created uncertainty, American allies had advised against too much stubbornness in resisting Bakhmut, losing men and equipment. A total change at the top of the armed forces could help today.

Furthermore, civil society seems reluctant to accept a too draconian draft law. However, if Zaluzhny were to enter politics, he could openly challenge Zelensky. “Since our significant victories in the autumn of two years ago, when we also liberated Kharkiv from the Russian siege and advanced into the Donbass, the front line here has remained essentially static. But the price has been very high.

If I think about the large group of friends with whom I volunteered in April 2022, I realize that less than 20 percent of us are left to fight: many have died, including 8 of my best comrades, others are wounded or ill, and many are hospitalized for post-traumatic stress,” says 30-year-old Lieutenant Vitaly Crimea (his code name). He agrees on the need for mass conscription, but he shares the new version of the law put forward in the last few hours, which is more moderate than the one originally proposed by Zaluzhny. He explains: “The new recruits must already have a basic training and show the willingness to fight, no one can be forced.” *Corriere della Sera is also on Whatsapp.

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February 2, 2024 (last update February 2, 2024 | 22:32)

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