DONETSK PROVINCE, Ukraine — Red flames crackled in the golden wheat field, the target of Russian artillery just minutes earlier. Nearby, the commander of a Ukrainian frontline unit was finishing his lunch of pasta from a tin bowl. As more incoming shells exploded in the fields, his men took cover in their bunkers.
Life on the front lines in the eastern Donetsk region has seen little letup in recent weeks. Ukrainian soldiers serving there say they live under almost constant Russian artillery and aerial bombardment. The fields and hedgerows around them are charred and smoldering. Their days and nights are interspersed with the sharp bangs of outgoing Ukrainian artillery and the deeper, rumbling bursts of incoming fire.
“It’s tense,” said the commander, Samson, 55, who, like most members of the Ukrainian military, asked to be identified by only his code name in accord with military protocol. “There is daily mortar fire, airplanes, helicopters, ‘Grads.’ They have a lot of ammunition.” Grad, meaning hail, is the Russian acronym for a commonly used multiple rocket launcher system.
After beginning an offensive against Ukraine’s east in April, Russia made progress at a steady if grueling pace. But since seizing control of Luhansk Province two weeks ago, the Russians have lost some of that momentum. Ukrainian troops, forced to move to second- and third-line defensive positions, have mostly held their ground despite the onslaught of mortar shells and missiles.
Outnumbered and outgunned, the Ukrainians say the success or failure of their fight will depend on whether they receive more and better arms. But they say they are determined to try to hold every inch of what is still theirs in Donetsk Province, despite heavy losses, and dismissed the suggestion that they cede territory or give up the fight as ludicrous. They have the conviction of their cause, they said, while the Russians lack purpose.
“There is no choice,” Serhii, 44, a career soldier with one unit, said. “We are protecting our country.”
Dug in in the woods and villages, Ukrainian troops fought off a Russian attack in early July, knocking out a group of tanks in a battle in the farming village of Verkhnokamianske, according to several accounts. The blow stalled the Russian advance and brought a lull in places on the front lines, soldiers said. Military doctors said they saw a drop in casualties arriving from the front for several days last week after the battle.
Elsewhere, soldiers and officials recounted other successes. The Seversky Donetsk River and the swampy land to the north of the province remain a natural barrier. The deputy commander of a National Guard unit said his men prevented an attempted river crossing by Russian troops last week, destroying tanks and a pontoon bridge.
Another volunteer unit said they had stopped Russian tanks, which were already advancing south of the river, from also encroaching from the northwest.
Mark Landler contributed reporting from London and Kamila Hrabchuk from the Donetsk region.