The call came around noon on Wednesday. There had been “chemical poisoning” after an explosion and patients had to be picked up.
Fears of a Russian chemical weapons attack have haunted Ukraine almost since the start of the war, and as volunteer medics in Sloviansk donned the aging gas masks and plastic coveralls that were their only protection, they wondered if this was it.
They set out anyway, accustomed to personal risk after weeks of driving through shelling to patch up the wounded men and women on one of the most intensely-fought parts of the front line.
“We got a call that there was a tan cloud after the impact and yellowish white flakes in the air like snow. The soldiers immediately developed respiratory problems,” said Vit, a paramedic who only asked for his nickname, which refers to his peacetime role as mayor of a small town. He feared he would be captured and tortured by Russian troops only a few miles away.
The ambulance team listened to the warning and then went to fetch the suffocating soldiers. Like the troops they support, they replenish limited, outdated equipment with courage and determination.
After dropping off their patient, who had convulsed in the ambulance, they were told that the gas was not from chemical weapons, but from a chemical factory that had been hit by Russian munitions.
But when the fear of a particular horror is put on hold, the other horrors of this war draw closer to this city in Donbas, less than 20 miles behind the front line.
“You can win a battle and the next day there will be more troops that will be sent back to the same place,” said Vlad, a veteran who volunteered to fight again after the February invasion and now a patient at a Sloviansk clinic. He asked not to give his last name because his family was in areas occupied by Russian troops and he feared they could retaliate. His cheek trembled when he spoke of his children, and his struggle was both personal and patriotic.
This corner of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions is one of the few areas where Moscow’s military is still consistently gaining ground, even as their advance has been snail’s pace and recent attempts to bridge a strategically important river have ended in defeat.
Ukraine followed its victory in Kiev by pushing back Russian artillery from firing range of the country’s second largest city, Kharkiv. A senior general said this week that Moscow’s forces have been on the defensive on several other key fronts, including along the Black Sea coast, and that ministers have begun talks about an offensive to regain lost territory in 2014.
But on the rolling steppe here, the geography denies the Ukrainian military some advantages that allowed its troops to humiliate Moscow’s troops around the capital. Soldiers rarely get close enough to fight face to face or deploy the Western anti-tank missiles that helped them save Kiev. Instead, their artillery guns face vast open fields, dug in with mazes of trenches that could have come from the last century, pounding each other with grenades as fighter jets scream overhead now and then.
Many Russian guns are firing further than the ones the Ukrainian military had at the start of the war, so while they wait for longer-range western weapons – like the M777 howitzers sent out by the US and just starting to arrive at the front – they have to live under constant bombardment.
“The positions where the Ukrainian army resides are being bombarded every day with artillery, missiles and by air, so it gets to the point where there’s nothing to hold on to at these points, that’s part of the problem.” said Serhiy. Haidai, the head of the military administration of the Luhansk region.
“We are fighting off the tank attacks, but we have no way of countering the artillery. That is why we unfortunately have to withdraw. We’ve been holding on for three months and the Russians couldn’t get through this small area. I hope that the Ukrainian army will still maintain these positions and – with the weapons we are waiting for – can even counterattack.”
After the humiliation of defeat near Kiev, Vladimir Putin instead doubled down on the battle for the eastern Donbas region, where proxy forces held ground for eight years in 2014, claiming Kiev ‘independence’ was a pretext for a wider invasion.
The relentless bombardment they unleashed to achieve this goal is evidenced by the type and extent of injuries treated at the Sloviansk clinic, said Svitlana Druzenko, a pediatric trauma specialist and director of the fully voluntary Priogov Mobile Hospital, which treated the victims. of chemical poisoning. †
She spent the first month of the war evacuating the wounded from the nearby front lines in the capital. “In Kiev and the Kiev region, we have not seen such a large amount of wounded soldiers as here,” she said. “Here we also see much more serious injuries: torn arms and legs, or we have to do an amputation, and we get a lot of head trauma. The main injuries here are from explosions. We also saw more gunshot wounds near Kiev.”
Every day they collect victims at the front, or civilians from bombed houses, stabilize them and send them to safer hospitals. They know they are being targeted because the Ukrainian government says more than 500 health centers have been affected.
Their ambulances have been shelled – they are raising money for armored vehicles – they have been followed by Russian jets and the cities where they are stationed have been hit repeatedly.
Some of the Western weapons that Ukraine hopes will change the course of the war have arrived on the battlefield, including M777 guns, stingers and more anti-tank Javelins, Haidai said.
The head of a national guard helping to protect medics this week showed the remains of a Russian Orlan drone that he sent to Kiev for analysis. His fighters had shot down the plane, which costs about $100,000, with a US stinger missile, he said.
The influx of weapons still wasn’t enough, Haidai said, but he hoped the shipments would accelerate and he took heart from the Ukrainian military’s continued ability to outsmart Russia when artillery failed to hold the troops back.
In the past week, Russia had twice attempted to build a pontoon bridge to carry tanks and weapons for the siege of Severodonetsk. It was bombed the first time by Ukraine, which led to a great loss of weapons and lives, and then Russian engineers started again in the same place.
“What’s interesting about this bridge is the Russian tactics: they built it, tried to transfer the weapons, we have them, and they built it again and we have them again,” he said. “It shows that they are trying to win, not with military intelligence, but with sheer numbers.”