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In the Donbas, Russia's vast numbers of troops weigh heavily on Ukraine's defenders

Frank Langfitt/NPR
Max, 33, a Ukrainian sniper, poses in the backyard of the reconnaissance team's safe house in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk. He's holding a "trophy" — an antitank missile taken off Russian soldiers.

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine — Max, a Ukrainian sniper, is oiling his rifle in the early morning sunlight, listening to AC/DC's "Shook Me All Night Long" on his cellphone.

The night before, Max and a reconnaissance team were operating in enemy territory where they cleared a trench of six Russian troops that a fellow soldier had killed with a machine gun.

Andriy, the team leader, lays out the contents of the dead men's green backpacks on the ground, outside the Ukrainian team's safe house in the country's eastern Donbas region.

There are two magazines for an AK-47, several grenades and a thin pink strip of rubber — a cheap tourniquet.

"They were really young, really, really young," says Andriy, referring to the dead soldiers, "none older than 25 years old. They have been provided with nothing."

The Russian and Ukrainian armies have burned through many of their best soldiers in the past year of war. Both sides now rely heavily on conscripts. Andriy says the problem is that Russia has far more troops than Ukraine, and even young, inexperienced men like the ones killed last night pose a challenge simply by virtue of their numbers.

"The Russian mobilizational reserve is pretty much infinite," says Andriy, "which means that they have the luxury to make mistakes. They can lose a brigade or they can lose a platoon, and some of those people are going to survive and they can share experience with the new conscripts."

NPR is only using the soldiers' first names because of the sensitive nature of their work.

Ukrainian troops say Russian tactics rely on deception and sacrifice

In November, the Pentagon estimated both sides had lost more than 100,000 troops each to death and injury since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. (Neither side has divulged recent tallies of their war dead.) Even so, Andriy says the math is on Moscow's side. Russia's population is about four times Ukraine's, based on a Ukrainian government estimate.

Andriy says the dead Russians were likely convicts working with the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary company. The U.S. estimates the group has some 50,000 soldiers operating in Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts.

Andriy says they wore Ukrainian-style uniforms, produced in Russia. He explains how they use the uniforms to their advantage.

"They approach our positions, saying, 'No, don't shoot! We are your people.' This is how they try to get close to us," Andriy says. "Our soldiers start to think, 'OK, it's our camouflage, so maybe it is our people.' "

"Until the last moment — in the case last night — [the Ukrainian troops] didn't know whether they killed their own — or Russians."

How does Andriy know this wasn't a case of friendly fire? He says they found the men's radios and phones, which were from Russia.

From their safe house in eastern Ukraine, the team tries to make sense of their enemy

Max, Andriy and their teammates share a private house they commandeered. It is a mix of cozy domesticity and modern weaponry common near the front lines.

Max sleeps on a sofa with a stuffed bunny for a pillow. On the floor sits a 50-caliber sniper rifle with a giant scope.

Andriy, 30, is the more cerebral of the two. He studied history of the Middle Ages at university in the western city of Lviv.

Max, 33, is a self-described soccer "hooligan" and farmer — he grew onions and basil — in southern Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region.

"This subculture of football hooligans, it's a small army," says Max, who wears a military olive-green hoodie. He has a tattoo of a fanged bat on the back of his right hand and a snake on his left. "I have a feeling that my whole life, it was preparing me for this war."

Max — and Andriy, who used to make dentures for a living — joined the army for patriotic reasons after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014.

Over coffee at the kitchen table, Andriy speaks more about the Wagner convicts Ukraine is fighting.

"They've been told you either sit in the prison or you'll get your freedom in the battlefield," he says. "They are now just used as meat. They push them in waves and waves and waves."

Max says the Russians sometimes also use new conscripts to draw Ukrainian fire to reveal their positions.

"They push them forward under the threat of being shot," Max says. The conscripts "just go until they stumble into the enemy. Then the Russians see where we are and say, 'Let's drop artillery there.' "

The Russian conscripts aren't well-motivated, but Andriy says the Ukrainian army has motivational problems of its own.

"Most of the people that were ready to take guns and fight, they came in the first two months and those people are coming to an end," says Andriy.

He means that they are mostly dead. He says the quality of the new soldiers is much lower.

"Some of them, they don't know how to hold a rifle," Andriy says.

Even those that do are sometimes reluctant to use it. Max recalls a time in the Ukrainian city of Soledar -- about 40 miles east of here — where his team prepared an ambush. A soldier led a group of Russian troops through town unaware that Max's team was lying in wait about 150 feet away.

"He looked like he was walking at the front of a parade," recalls Max, incredulous. "Then some of our guys did something stupid. They shouted at him, 'Stop!' "

Max says not every soldier is willing to kill and, because so many Ukrainians are Christian, they wait until the last moment to fire their weapons.

"The funniest thing is: After I finished off the Russian soldier with four shots to his chest and he fell down, all of our guys started to shoot," Max recalls.

Looking forward, the team feels little optimism

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy continues to vow to push Russian soldiers entirely out of Ukrainian lands, but the view from the front line is more measured.

Andriy says the best-case scenario is a frozen conflict. Max has a worst-case scenario: Russia takes the eastern half of Ukraine.

After NPR first interviewed Max in January, he was injured in a firefight, taking shrapnel to his legs, arm and elsewhere.

"It was cowboy-style shooting," Max recalls in a voice memo he recorded from his hospital bed. "We started to think what to do next when shrapnel from a grenade hit my butt.

"Then they started to hit us with multiple-grenade launchers from both sides. I crawled into the trench and they bandaged my butt. But since I was the leader of the group, I couldn't let the guys simply die. So, I took a rifle and I started firing back."

This is the first time Max has been wounded since he began fighting the Russians nearly nine years ago. He says he doesn't know how long it will take him to recover.

Producer Ross Pelekh and NPR London producer Morgan Ayre contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.