NOVOPETRIVKA, Ukraine — Few jobs are less enviable these days than that of a mobilized Russian soldier deployed to Ukraine.
Since Vladimir Putin’s declaration of partial military mobilization on September 21, dozens of videos have surfaced showing the dire conditions in which conscripts for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are forced to serve. The recruits have been sleeping under the open skydice miserable food Y defective weaponsand its officers care about drinking instead of providing any type of training before they are sent to the front.
Yet others even further down the socioeconomic pecking order have been forced into service: the men of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, the Russian puppet states in eastern Ukraine whose male population was attacked en masse this summer. . Interviews with locals and documents recently recovered by the Military Times from abandoned Russian positions in the former frontline village of Novopetrivka, in southern Ukraine’s Mykolaiv Oblast, offer a glimpse into everyday existence.
Located 40 kilometers north of the city of Kherson, Novopetrivka sat at the heart of Russia’s defensive line on the right bank of the Dnipro River for more than six months. After Russian troops captured Kherson in the first days of the war in early March, the Ukrainian defenders repulsed their advance on the city of Mykolaiv. They quickly settled in Novopetrivka.
Military Times visited the village on November 12, just two days after it was liberated by Ukrainian forces. The signs of occupation were recent, notably a series of Zs, the symbol of the Russian campaign, spray-painted on tractors and other vehicles.
“[The Russians] he came on February 27 or 28,” said Viktor, a 50-year-old villager. “The columns passed through the town day and night, while attacking Mykolaiv. But then our guys beat them there. [at Mykolaiv], and they ran back here and dug in. There was a hard battle here – a tank was destroyed there, my house was hit by a shell – but [Ukrainian forces] I couldn’t get them out,” he says.
In these early days, the Russians were interested in trying to win over the local population. Viktor and others in Novopetrivka describe good treatment and genuine kindness soon after the occupation. But the mood quickly changed.
“[The Russians] I could see that we were not interested in their propaganda,” Viktor said. “They began to lose their temper, especially since they could no longer beat [Ukrainian forces] On the battlefield. By the summer, they were torturing people on a regular basis, most of them would just disappear,” he said.
There was also resentment between different sections of the Russian and pro-Russian forces stationed at Novopetrivka, with stark differences in living conditions leading to tension.
“The Russians [and Donetsk/Luhansk troops] they lived in the trenches, fighting for real,” says Viktor. “But in the village itself, Chechens and Buryats were staying in people’s houses, not fighting at all. They just went around town and robbed as they pleased and threatened anyone who tried to stop them, both locals and Russians. The Russians did not like them at all, ”he says.
The trenches themselves begin on the northern outskirts of Novopetrivka, a long series of positions arranged in two lines. Scattered throughout the trenches are the standard assortment of basic supplies: discarded food cans, dirty clothing, and packets of dubious-quality medicine. One article, however, offers a more insightful look at living conditions there: a military man’s half-full notebook left in one of the sleeping bunkers.
Much of the notebook’s content is mundane. Many pages list food rations or patrol times. But one contains a full description of the size and layout of the unit located there. “Second Rifle Company, 57 people,” reads the first line, revealing that it was an infantry unit without armored vehicles, probably made up of mobilized personnel or volunteers. The following lines say that there are 16 people per subunit, of which 27 are currently resting after their shift, doing maintenance tasks such as cleaning and repairs. There is also a grenade launcher platoon, of which five people are currently at combat stations and another nine doing tasks.
Other notebook pages provide further clues to the unit parked here. On one sheet, a series of phone numbers of other men in the unit are listed. They all start with the Russian international calling code +7, but the most interesting thing is the area code for each: 990. A quick search reveals that this area code was issued by two Russian telecommunications companies from May 2022 for the occupied regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhye. That these soldiers were using personal cell phones for military communications, and forced to write their comrades’ numbers on paper, is another indictment of the shortage of basic equipment these soldiers had.
Finally, the most interesting page captures the mood of the soldier who owned it. There’s a crude poem scrawled in Russian, lamenting the “civilians on their fancy motorcycles.” [back home]”, those who did not come to the war. “Fuck you, I fought hard”, the author repeats several times, who also says that he “did not get buckets of unearned medals”. The text itself has numerous spelling and grammatical errors, of the kind a Russian-speaking Ukrainian might make, strongly suggesting that the author is a native of the occupied Luhansk or Donetsk oblasts of eastern Ukraine. It is clear that he was not particularly pleased with the lot he found himself in, and that he had little love for those who were meanwhile enriching themselves in peaceful Moscow.
In the end, the sacrifices of the author and his companions were in vain, as they were forced to abandon their strongly defended positions. Viktor, the local, says the withdrawal was as shocking to the Russian military as it was to the residents of Novopetrivka.
“They were surprised,” says Viktor, when asked how the Russian and LNR/DNR troops in the village responded to the withdrawal. “They had been telling us, ‘Russia is here forever,’ and suddenly it’s the opposite,” he said. “But then, they never really knew what they were doing here in the first place. We are fighting for our land. They are just dying as Putin’s slaves.”