As Ukraine's war grinds on, soldiers are outgunned and injuries are rising Ukraine's soldiers have held off a full-scale Russian invasion. But rising casualties are taking a toll — and the lackluster welcome soldiers received from some fellow citizens has hurt their morale.

As Ukraine's war grinds on, soldiers are outgunned and injuries are rising

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Against all odds, Ukraine's army has managed to hold off a full-scale Russian invasion, but now they face a protracted war while outgunned and outmanned by Russia. NPR's Emily Feng spent time with the soldiers who fought a key battle in Ukraine's east.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The battle for control over the eastern Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk and its sister city Lysychansk was intensely bloody. I met some of the surviving Ukrainian soldiers at their base near the eastern city of Dnipro two days after they'd come off a brutal three-month stint in Sievierodonetsk. It ended only after Ukraine's army withdrew. One of the soldiers is Oleg. He is 21 tense and has no time for small talk.

OLEG: (Through interpreter) The firing was dense. Their only tactics revolved around artillery shelling. The Russians have so much ammunition, they could afford to shell continuously, and we didn't have enough ammunition to suppress their fire.

FENG: When Russia invaded in February, his military academy let Oleg graduate early so he could enlist. Now he's responsible for the lives of more than 260 infantry soldiers at the very front lines of the war. We're only using people's first names in this piece so they cannot be located or identified in case of Russian attack.

OLEG: (Through interpreter) Of course, I'm afraid of death. But I am a military commander. If I show fear, my deputies will be scared as well. I must be a lion leading my deer.

FENG: The experience of Oleg and others we met gives us a glimpse into what a protracted war with Russia could look like. Dedication to protecting their country is extremely strong. But as the war drags on, the battalions are increasingly staffed by exhausted soldiers, plagued by a constant shortage of military experience, artillery and ammunition.

SASHA: (Through interpreter) Russia uses the same weapons as us. It's just they have more of it. If I set 100 mines a day, they set say, 500. In terms of manpower, they have six men for every one soldier we have.

FENG: This is Sasha, the head of a mortar unit. His men spent three months living in underground dugouts and basements, running through forests outside the city on eight-hour shifts, packing artillery with new shells. Like all the soldiers we spoke to, Sasha praised the American and European weapons they'd received. The problem was there just wasn't enough. Though recently Ukraine says it's hit about a dozen Russian ammunition depots using U.S.-provided heavy weapons.

SASHA: (Through interpreter) The specter of war stays with us. Here, we miss the boom, boom, boom of war. It's too silent. On the front, silence means the enemy is loading their weapons and about to kill you.

FENG: Oleg and Sasha's entire brigade is comprised of volunteers who enlisted in March. Some had military training from decades before, but most were fresh recruits fired up by patriotism. At most, they got three weeks of training before shipping out.

OLEKSANDRR: (Through interpreter) You ask me about training, so let me answer this way. I enlisted on March 22, and by April 4, I was in Sievierodonetsk.

FENG: That's Oleksandrr, another soldier. He was a former solar panel installer. He's already lived through eight years of war, starting in 2014 when Russian-backed separatists seized territory in Ukraine's east next to his home. But nothing prepared him for the front. And now he's worried young volunteers are being shipped out without adequate training. It also means, long term, Ukraine's military will struggle to accumulate experience.

OLEKSANDRR: (Through interpreter) The young soldiers are like a sponge. They absorb everything, but they need time to be cultivated. A commander may need 30 years experience, but they're 20-year-old boys who are giving their lives even though they haven't even seen life yet.

FENG: Giving their lives to Ukrainian citizens who are not always grateful. Before this war, Ukraine was deeply split with many people in the east, including Sievierodonetsk, openly pro-Russian. And what surprised Oleg, the head of the infantry battalion, was the lackluster welcome they received along the front lines from their fellow countrymen.

OLEG: (Through interpreter) They looked at us as if we were aliens from another planet.

FENG: He says he saw videos on Russian social media with Ukrainian residents he'd met in Sievierodonetsk. He'd given food to some of them. But in the videos, they're welcoming the invading Russian soldiers.

OLEG: (Through interpreter) When we see on social media how they greet the enemy with open arms, it leaves a stain on our souls.

FENG: Oleg's company will get less than two weeks' rest before they're back at the front lines fighting again. And the casualties of this war are mounting. That human toll is evident in this hospital we visit.

OLEKSANDER: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: The head of surgery at this hospital in Kryvyi Rih, Dr. Oleksander, says he has treated 900 front-line soldiers since the start of the war, but those were the ones who survived long enough to be brought to the hospital.

OLEKSANDER: (Through interpreter) I've treated soldiers before. But with the expansion of the battlefield and the use of deadlier weapons, the concentration of serious wounds has increased.

FENG: Ukraine will not say exactly how many military casualties there have been, but Ukraine's President Zelenskyy says as many as 100 to 200 soldiers are dying a day. One of the lucky survivors is Yarislav, a former Muay Thai instructor. In late June, a mortar exploded inside the roadside dugout Yarislav was in. He still has flashbacks of the bits of skin and limbs that plaster the concrete walls. Some of the bits were his. At one point, his heart stopped, and he's been told he'll need six months for his shattered leg and abdominal punctures to heal.

YARISLAV: (Through interpreter) Recovery is hard, especially when I remember the pain and fear I saw in my comrades as they were screaming in that dugout. There was a lot of blood. I now have nightmares at night. The fear is ever present.

FENG: Thirty-three-year-old Kostyantyn remembers everything after a Russian missile hit a tank he was standing next to in June.

KOSTYANTYN: (Through interpreter) I was awake even when they started cutting off the remnants of my clothes from me. I even remember how the rocket looked as it flew towards us.

FENG: Kostyantyn's ginger beard is still blackened from his burns. His left forearm tattoo of a grove of bamboo trees is nearly flayed beyond recognition.

KOSTYANTYN: (Through interpreter) I went blind and was thrown like a sack of potatoes by the blast. Pain coursed through my body. I could feel my right arm was wounded. I tried to put on a tourniquet, but I was so tired and I thought, just let me die. But then I thought, no. I've survived so much.

FENG: He survived. But his doctor clinically lists how he painstakingly put Kostyantyn's body back together, including a month of skin grafts using pig skin.

UNIDENTIFIED DOCTOR: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Like some other soldiers in his regiment, Kostyantyn spent most of his adult life fighting. He was a former IT engineer, but he enlisted in 2014 when Russian-backed separatists took control of his home city in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region. And he's optimistic he'll get better soon and rejoin the fight.

KOSTYANTYN: (Through interpreter) We have to fight back against Russia or else Russia will simply find new targets.

FENG: But later, in private, Kostyantyn's doctor tells us quietly that his right ear and eye will never regain function. He hasn't had the heart to tell the soldier. It means Kostyantyn is no longer fit for military service, despite the fact that the Ukrainian military desperately needs more men like him because it is burning through them at a perilous rate. Emily Feng, NPR News, Dnipro, Ukraine.

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