The faces and stories behind Ukraine's first line of defence

ITV News' John Ray reports on the faces and stories behind Ukraine's first line of defence

This is an odd kind of hybrid war.

In part, a slog through World War One-era trenches, fought by infantrymen with weapons that haven’t changed much in decades.

And in part with modern armaments designed to strike with devastating accuracy far behind those front line positions.

Broadly speaking, Ukraine has plenty of the former, and not enough of the latter.

And it’s the latter that is likely to prove decisive.

Near the town of Vuhledar, one possible jumping off point for a spring offensive, we join Ukraine’s 68 Brigade.

Here the country’s first line of defence is 52-year-old Roman, with his trusty Browning machine gun, mounted on a parapet facing the Russian positions 800 metres away.

"F16s, and other jet fighters, armoured vehicles, tanks, and so on… that’s what we need to move ahead," he tells us.

It’s a familiar refrain we hear from every soldier we meet; from trench to tank to command post.

Ukrainian tanks fire at Russian troops. Credit: ITV

This week has seen President Volodymyr Zelenskyy win a promise of long-range attack drones from the UK and saw the establishment of a coalition of powers dedicated to providing F16s.

If western officials play up the readiness of Ukraine’s forces, they play down what success in the counter attack will look like.

Russia has spent the winter preparing its defences and, even if its soldiers are as tired and demoralised as reported, no-one expects Ukraine’s army to march straight to Mariupol.

Instead, we’re told by those western officials, the important measure will be the "cognitive effect on the Kremlin", to show Russia it cannot just sit back and win by default.

There is no doubt Ukraine has more - and more modern - weaponry than it did six months ago.

Victor Panasko, a soldier killed in Bakhmut, trying to evacuate his besieged unit. Credit: ITV

Far less certain is whether it’s enough to give Ukraine a decisive edge – and whether it matches the resolve of those men in the trenches and tanks.

In one of the most moving episodes that I have witnessed in this war, we attended the funeral of Victor Panasko, a soldier killed in Bakhmut trying to evacuate his besieged unit.

He is buried among many freshly dug graves and his comrades are there among the mourners. After the service they have to summon the courage to return to the same battle.

"He was the perfect man, but it’s war and he’s dead and that’s all," says veteran Oleksandr Kharkovets."We understand this. We don’t have a choice. It’s my job and I will do my job to the end."

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