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Geopolitics

Defenders Of Kyiv: Ukraine Troops Use Trench Warfare To Turn The Tide

In the initial days of the war, the 18-kilometer convoy of Russian tanks became a symbol of Putin's attempt at a blitzkrieg. But now, the Russians have been stopped, and the Ukrainian forces are digging trenches to strengthen their position. Scenes from the daily struggle.

Defenders Of Kyiv: Ukraine Troops Use Trench Warfare To Turn The Tide

In a trench shelter in eastern Ukraine in January 2022

Francesco Semprini

KYIV — The sense of smell can serve as a way to orient yourself on the front line, to understand where the fighting is taking place. Its intensity grows as you get closer to the front line, it penetrates the nostrils and slips into the throat, anesthetizing until you end up getting used to it.

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The sense of smell alerts you when you approach a grey zone, where everything is moving, like the front line a few dozen kilometers to the northeast of Kyiv..


It is one of the first places the Russians penetrated after the rapid invasion of February 24, but it is also one of the places where the Ukrainian forces proved their resilience. You can get there by driving along provincial roads dotted with remains of missiles and bombs, alternated with dirt paths, as columns of smoke caused by a recent explosion rises from an industrial shed.

Bridges are a symbol of the resistance against Russia

"It's better to get out of the way, the Russians can see us," explains Yuri, with his imposing physique, white beard and camouflage uniform with the Ukrainian flag and skull. He is the commander of the outpost who, after days of courtship, has given his consent for us to reach where few have access.

Beyond a certain point we proceed on foot, lining up on the side of the road that goes through abandoned farms. The space is open, we are exposed. The soldiers find their coordinates using advanced checkpoints made of sandbags and truck tires.

The risk is to end up in the crosshairs of Vladimir Putin's artillery. You have to be quick and careful before you get to the destroyed bridge — the symbol of the bloody battle with which Kyiv's army repelled Moscow's war machine.

In an indication of the success of the Ukrainian forces around Kyiv, Reuters reports that the Russian Defense Ministry said a first phase of its operation was winding down and it would now focus on the Donbas region bordering Russia. The news may mean that Moscow is renouncing Putin's ambitions to occupy the Ukrainian capital.

Still there are no signs on the ground of the invading troops pulling out. "The Russians are on that side, their first positions are about three kilometers away," Yuri tells us, pointing to the thick vegetation from which the thunder of cannons rises.

The bridge, broken in half, provides an accurate account of the battle that took place days before, when the Russians tried to attack with infantry. The Ukrainian response was persistent and ultimately effective. The bridge is now littered with mines. On one side lies a box with unused molotov cocktails, which volunteers used to fight against the invader.

Bridges are the symbol of the war against the Russians. In Kyiv there are many of them, such as the one in the western suburb of Irpin that has become a cemetery of cars.

Then there is the bridge in Chernihiv, 130 kilometers north of the capital, bombed because it is crucial for humanitarian aid and evacuations. The town, where a few days ago ten civilians were killed by Russian artillery while lining up for bread, now appears isolated, empty, slaughtered.

People cross a destroyed bridge as they evacuate the city of Irpin

Mykhaylo Palinchak/SOPA Images via ZUMA

Graveyard of Putin's armies

"Here are the corpses," says a soldier watching over the bridge pointing to the steppe-like clearing bordering the road.

They are the remains of Putin's army, two recently manufactured BMP-3 tracked vehicles. They are charred skeletons, confirming that the lethal weapons sent by the West to fortify Volodymyr Zelensky's forces have indeed arrived.

"We need hundreds of them," he tells us, "and this expanse will turn into the graveyard of the Russian army. The turret of one of the tanks has flown a few feet away, the tailgate splattered at the edge of the clearing, the interior is a pile of melted scrap metal.

We will wait for them here.

Of the soldiers, seven in each unit, no trace, just personal effects scattered around the corpses. There is a green spotted camouflage uniform, a sleeping bag, T-shirts, first aid kits and a couple of ribbons, one with the words "Russian Armed Forces" and another with a name: "Maslov", a non-commissioned officer.

Dead or captured? The Ukrainians say nothing.

Among the equipment abandoned in the field are more gas masks, still a warning that comes just as Irpin Mayor Oleksandr Markushin accuses Russia of having used white phosphorus bombs in his town and in neighboring Hostomel, in violation of the Geneva Convention.

The march continues toward a cover zone where the Ukrainian military are digging trenches. In case of a new Russian push with greater firepower, the Ukrainian defense will start from below, turning the clash into a positional confrontation, like in World War I.

"We will wait for them here," says Kim, a soldier from Kyiv. His eyes go back to the radio, he signals for us to clear the trench: "The Russians are going to bomb," he says pointing to a group of farms.

The march stops, the vehicles start up again in search of cover, behind us we hear thunder again, the acrid smell of cannons show us the road, it's time to retreat.

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