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A whisper away from the Russian border, Ukrainian troops wait for another assault on Sumy

By Daniel Boffey in Sumy,

Soldiers hold their positions in a network of trenches just 1,500m from the Russian border in Sumy. As both Russia and Ukraine prepare for spring offensives, soldiers in northern Ukraine say attacks are becoming more frequent. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

The enemy on the other side of the woods can be heard when the wind blows towards the deep Ukrainian trenches. Russian voices carry in the freezing cold air as do the growls of the tanks and the buzz of the kamikaze and reconnaissance drones.

But that is not all that comes over the pine trees to break the disarming silence in this barren part of the Ukrainian defence in Sumy, a north-eastern region that shares a 560km (350 miles) border with Russia.

“After January 7, the shelling became intense. For the last 10 days, the shelling has been happening almost every day,” says Lt Col Roman Tkach, 51. In what form have the attacks come? “The Russians fire from barrel artillery, mortar fire, the Grad rocket salvo fire system. Aviation is used. They shoot unguided air missiles from helicopters and drop bombs from airplanes,” says Tkach. “Two days ago they dropped a big bomb from a plane that took out a house. They seem to have endless missiles.”

Tkach is talking from a warren of trenches and machine gun posts in a position in south-east Sumy, 1,500 metres from the official Russian-Ukrainian border. His words are punctuated, now and again, by the gentle crump of the sound of artillery shelling somewhere further along the defensive line.

“It is only small now,” he says reassuringly. The Russians have been throwing everything over here, the soldiers say. Similar testimony can be heard from Ukrainian soldiers dug in across the region, where a quiet new year gave way to a noisy, dangerous and bewildering January.

On Sunday alone, four apartment blocks and 28 houses were hit by shells in the Sumy region, as well a hotel, an administrative building, a church, a gym, three shops, a cafe, a kindergarten and a post office. A total of 88 strikes were recorded in one day. Yet, it was nothing out of the ordinary for the past month.

A band of Russian saboteurs was caught last week trying to cross over the border for purposes unknown. They fled under fire. Two weeks ago, an assault helicopter fired seven rockets at targets just 800 metres from this position. “And rockets from a Grad system hit that hill over there,” says Artem Volynko, 25 a senior lieutenant in the state border guard, pointing to an entirely unpopulated and unremarkable elevation. But, why? “That’s in a Ukrainian national park – maybe they wanted it to burn?”

It’s a theory, if perhaps not one of the stronger ones.
Lt Col Roman Tkach (left), Volodymyr Zhylchenko (centre) and Artem Volynko, (right) talk near a network of trenches just 1,500 metres from the Russian border. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

There is a lot of theorising going on in the Ukrainian military about this sudden and disconcerting rise in activity. Because, if truth be told, much of the shelling appears to be entirely random and chaotic. A blizzard of fire here, a barrage there. Pot shots and drones dropping little bundles of explosives bother the defensive lines from morning to night. But soldiers aren’t being killed in significant numbers. Few pieces of military hardware are being put out of action. It is arguably a waste of munitions.

There is one explanation, of course. The Russians were pushed out of the country by Ukrainian forces in March last year after the debacle of the 24 February assault on the north. Could they be seeking to soften up Sumy’s defences for another crack? Oleksiy Danilov, chair of Ukraine’s national security and defence council, which is coordinating the country’s response to the invasion, said this week that Russia was preparing for “maximum escalation, gathering all possible forces” for a potential rerun of the 24 February from north, south and east.

Volynko was on the frontline when they came the first time. He was manning a checkpoint with 10 others in the village of Velyka Pysarivka, not far from these trenches, and previously best known for being the site of the murder 36 of its residents during the Nazi occupation in 1941.
A soldier keeps an eye on Russian positions. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

“The Russians started hitting our checkpoint with small arms but we couldn’t see them in the dark, it was chaotic fire,” he recalls. “They also used under barrel grenade launchers.” They were ordered to retreat to reserve positions but Volynko was given the task of then going forward again to an observation point to do reconnaissance as the defenders sought to get a grip on the size of the invasion.

“There was so much Russian military equipment that the smoke from their exhaust fumes obscured our view of the checkpoint. Because of the big cloud of smoke, I couldn’t even see our checkpoint.”
Artem Volynko, 25, carries a weapon near the frontline. Photograph: Ed Ram/The Guardian

It was the start of a four-day battle in which the Russians came close to the nearest city, Okhtyrka, but they were ultimately pushed back, leaving a mess of destroyed villages. Having seen what weaponry the Russians had last time, Volynko is sceptical about the suggestion that a similar assault could be imminent.

There is activity over the other side but it appears to be defensive, he suggests. “The Russians can theoretically go on the offensive in this direction, But we carry out constant aerial reconnaissance here. And we see how they constantly build engineering fortifications on the territory of the Belgorod region in Russia. They put up anti-tank barriers and dig anti-tank ditches. And for us it is strange.”

Tkach has an alternative take: Sumy is taking a hammering to convince Ukraine’s general staff that they cannot afford to move forces over to Donetsk – and particularly the city of Bakhmut – to relieve the Ukrainian efforts there. Zelenskiy has recently admitted that the situation there is “very tough” with Russia claiming significant gains in recent days.

“The amount of military equipment that we see now on the territory of Russia near us does not pose a threat to a major invasion,” Tkach said. “Perhaps they want as many Ukrainian military personnel as possible to remain in these positions and not transferred to other hotspots.”

That leaves Kyiv with a quandary. Those troops fighting in Donetsk report that they do not have enough artillery, they are losing grip on their defensive positions in the face of a Russian assault that looks to destroy all ahead of it, before sending in the infantry to clean up. Should Zelenskiy’s generals start moving their pieces? It is a question beyond the pay grade of those in Sumy’s trenches. Instead, it is time to batten down the hatches and hope that they can continue to weather what comes next from over the way.

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