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A Ukrainian soldier holding the barrel of a heavy machine gun stands in front of a seized Russian tank outside Kharkiv in February. Photo: Maks Levin.

Calm Between the Storms: Remarkable Photos From Ukraine’s Front Line

As they struggle to defend their country from one of the world’s most powerful armies, Ukrainian troops keep watch, cook food, laugh, and prepare for the next battle.
Max Daly
London, GB

War photojournalist Maks Levin has been on the front line shadowing Ukrainian soldiers ever since Russian forces invaded last month

He was with soldiers as they waited in the snow on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, to repel a Russian tank column that had crossed over the north east border from Belgorod on the 24th of February. 

Russia demanded the surrender of the Ukrainian army, but the Russian tank column was met with fierce resistance and the attack on Kharkiv was repelled. This was only the beginning of an onslaught which has now left the city devastated by Russian firepower, with many streets reduced to rubble and thousands of civilians fleeing for their lives from cities such as Kharkiv and Kyiv.

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On the front line, Levin has been capturing the spaces between the ongoing battles: troops armed with submachine guns and anti-tank missiles guarding airfields and roads; tank and artillery crews protecting the road between Kyiv and Zhytomyr, a city 150 km west of the capital, as they chat and eat together, preparing for the next encounter.

“There has been a lot of hard fighting, but they are also laughing, smiling and telling jokes to each other,” Levin told VICE World News from near Kyiv on Tuesday. “It’s like a game for them: Who can hit the Russian armour the most. That is all they desire and wish for.”

Asked what the mood was among the men, he replied: “These soldiers are full of inspiration. They want to protect their country from the Russians who came to our land. They are angry, they want to kill Russians. But also there is no choice, they have to stay and fight.”

Levin said the perception among the Ukrainian troops he has been with over the last fortnight is that their Russian counterparts appear to be much less motivated, and seem confused by Vladimir Putin’s reasons for going to war.

“They don’t know what they are doing on our land or why they came. They can see there is no Nazis or fascists here.” He said everywhere they go, Ukrainian troops have been helped by locals who bring them food and other supplies. 

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Levin, a Ukrainian himself, from Kyiv, has been photographing war in his homeland since the 2014 revolution and the war with Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east. While covering the Battle of Ilovaisk, which saw the slaughter of around 400 Ukrainian soldiers who had been promised a safe corridor out of the city, Levin was injured but managed to escape with three other reporters.

When asked how long he will stay capturing the day-to-day lives of Ukrainian soldiers on the front line, he said: “Me, I will stay on the front line as long as I am physically able. These soldiers are my friends.”

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Ukrainian soldiers outside Kharkiv in February.

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A Ukrainian soldier after a battle against Russian tanks outside Kharkiv in February.

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Ukrainian soldiers watching the road outside Kharkiv in February.

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Ukrainian soldiers on the outskirts of Vasylkiv air base dear Kyiv fry lard on the fire ready for breakfast. In the first few days they only had dry rations to eat.

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Ukrainian soldiers outside Vasylkiv air base light a fire using zinc from ammunition to heat water for tea.

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After a Russian attack on oil tanks at Vasylkiv air base, a Ukrainian soldier and a dog take watch.

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A Ukrainian tank crew take some fresh air on the road between Kviv and Zhytomyr in March.

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Artillery soldier carries shell casings as Ukrainioan soldiers guard the road between Kyiv and Zhytomyr.

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A soldier takes a break with a cigarette near Makarov on the road to Kyiv.

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Soldier teaching fellow recruits how to use a next generation light anti-tank weapon near Makarov in March.

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Ukrainian soldiers outside Kharkiv await the attack of a Russian tank column from Belgorod in February.