NOVOTOSHKIVSKE, Ukraine – At 7:36PM on the 11th of January, Viktor Kucherenko was at his post in the Ukrainian army trenches, observing enemy positions a few dozen metres away, when a sniper’s bullet pierced his skull, killing him instantly.
Up until then, it had been a quiet day at the front line in Novotoshkivske, Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine. Ceasefire violations have petered out in recent weeks, as diplomatic talks to avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine stepped up.
“As usual, it began with machine-gun fire,” said Timur Stetskyi, Kucherenko’s commanding officer. “Their sniper worked under the cover of that automatic fire. He fatally shot Viktor.”
Viktor Kucherenko was killed at the front line earlier this month.
Stetskyi knows that soldiers aren’t supposed to show emotion in situations like this. “But for me personally, these losses are very hard.”
Kucherenko is one of the latest victims of the eight-year war between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in which more than 14,000 people have died. As Russian President Vladimir Putin amasses more than 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine and in Belarus, the prospect of more bloodshed looms large.
Deputy Commander Timur Stetskyi at the front line at Novotoshkivske, Luhansk. All photos: Devin Yuceil
In the Donbas, eastern Ukraine, both the Ukrainian army and the Russian-backed separatists are guilty of ceasefire violations, according to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
Stetskyi said his men are no longer carrying out a “crawling offensive,” and only fire when provoked. “We only use our weapons in response to enemy fire, to save the lives of our soldiers.”
Three days after Kucherenko was killed, in the village of Novolazarivka, 500 kilometres away, an entire community gathered to mourn his death in a small, blue, golden-domed church.
Stetskyi and other members of the 17th Mechanised Battalion were there to pay their respects too.
Even though Kucherenko was killed by a bullet to the head, it’s been possible to have the traditional open casket. A bandage concealed the bullet wound on his forehead.
Viktor Kucherenko's funeral in Novolazarivka, Mykolaiv.
Kucherenko was 28 years old when he died – the same age as Stetskyi when he started fighting in 2014. “Viktor was a responsible soldier, a good, outgoing person,” he said.
Viktor’s mother, Nadiya, said her son had tried to ease her fears about the dangers on the front line.
“[He’d say,] ‘Everything is fine here. We have a ceasefire. There’s no shooting. You know how careful I am.’”
After the service, army cadets carried the coffin in a procession of several hundred people across the muddy, frozen ground from the church to the village cemetery.
There, family and friends take turns to kiss and stroke Kucherenko’s face, before he’s finally laid to rest.
Viktor Kucherenko's mother, Nadiya.
Nadiya is proud he’s been given a prime plot, right in the centre of the graveyard.
She blames both the Russian and Ukrainian governments for her son’s death, but she also feels abandoned by the international community.
“I can't understand why it’s impossible to put an end to this. Why do our children have to die there?”
At first, Stetskyi wasn’t impressed with how Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president since 2019, was handling the conflict with Russia.
“When the new government came in, they had no understanding of why this war started, and why it is going on, and how to end it. There were attempts to make peace with the enemy. But this is not the kind of enemy you can make deals with.”
Stetskyi said that it felt like the Ukrainian side was making too many concessions. “That all had a negative impact on the military’s trust towards our political leadership.”
But now he thinks President Zelenskyy may have got the message that “[the Russians] only understand the language of power, like a playground bully.”
Diplomatic talks have been escalating in urgency, as the West responds to Russia’s demands that Ukraine never joins NATO, and that certain types of military equipment no longer be hosted in Eastern Europe.
But Stetskyi is convinced that President Putin isn’t going to be talked around. He believes that the only way to prevent a war is a change of regime in Russia.
Until then, he doesn’t believe a diplomatic solution is possible. He said that although he tries not to think about it, he’s ready for war. The Ukrainian army is much better equipped now than it was back in 2014. “We don’t have to worry about where we’ll get body armour or a helmet.”
But they are still lacking in equipment, especially anti-aircraft and anti-tank defences. He especially covets Javelin missiles, which the US has been providing to Ukraine. “We have them but we would like more of them, much more. It’s a weapon which scares the enemy a lot.”
More worrisome to Stetskyi is the lack of support from the local population in the east. “Locals may smile to your face, but they help and work for the other side. They pass on information, they help guide the gunfire.”
Stetskyi puts that down to the region’s historic links to Russia, which haven’t gone away since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
“People here think of the Russians as their brothers … They believe they are an inseparable part of the Russian people.” He would prefer to have worse equipment, and enjoy more support from the community. “That’s very important for a soldier.”
But if Russia does invade, Stetskyi says that locals would be well advised to leave quickly. “As we know, the Russian army never stops for civilians, in any conflict. Their lives are of no value to the enemy.”