Today, the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson was liberated by the armed forces of Ukraine. Kherson was the only administrative center seized by Russia in the February 24 invasion and hastily annexed to the Russian Federation through a fraudulent process. This short story is dedicated to all Ukrainian fighters.

 

Hanna (callsign Vedma) is a 32-year-old sniper in the Ukrainian Army. Her unit is an assault infantry regiment currently deployed southwest of the town of Svatove, in the Luhansk Oblast of Ukraine. The Russian line is almost visible to the naked eye and the enemy is well dug in. Aerial reconnaissance shows the jagged shape of the Russian trenches forming the final defensive line before the outskirts of Svatove.

Despite their fortified position, the Russians are beginning to cave in all along the front in north-western Luhansk, under the impact of a well-timed Ukrainian offensive that swept eastward through the key towns of Izyum and Lyman in the neighboring Kharkiv Oblast. Intercepted radio traffic reveals that some enemy units are hastily retreating in the middle of the night, while others are left to their own devices after their officers just piled into staff cars and fled the frontline.

In the moonless night, Hanna has crawled to a well-concealed position slightly higher than the enemy trenches and is slowly getting ready for business. She wears several layers of technical clothing against the October chill and carries a thermos flask of hot tea. She’ll watch over the enemy line until the early morning and retire to her unit’s HQ before dawn. A blacked-out Toyota pickup will rendezvous with her on the far side of the woods she silently crossed to get here and deliver her and a two more fellow snipers back to their lodgings.

Her sniper’s rifle is a Ukrainian-made Zbroyar Z-10, a brand-new weapon that fires the standard 7.52 NATO cartridge. Lying under a light camouflage net, both the weapon and the sniper are completely invisible to the enemy.

Vedma (which is Ukrainian for witch) methodically scans the Russian line, the Z-10’s butt nestled in her shoulder and the suppressed barrel resting on its bipod. The thermal imaging sight set atop the barrel shows her a blurred black band of frosty no-man’s land leading to the uneven outline of the trenches some 300 meters away. Beyond that she sees the fuzzy backdrop of a gray treeline and a slightly paler sky above.

After over an hour of uneventful scanning, two white blobs suddenly show in her sights, betraying the presence of at least two living bodies. Hanna calmly registers their sudden appearance and tries to make sense of their movements. They seem to be hunched over something or someone which they struggle to tug away from their dugout. The object of their exertions, however, does not return the heat signature that a wounded comrade would. Is that a dead body they’re dragging or maybe an ammo crate? Hanna invests a split second to process this as her index finger tightens on the trigger, the crosshairs steady on the left Russian’s center mass.

No matter what (or whom) they’re dragging—she concludes—they are all legit targets.

Three rapid shots ring out and shatter the silence of the night.

Now the thermal sights no longer return a target. The white blobs have dropped behind the raised far edges of the trench and can no longer be seen.

Hanna expertly gathers all her gear and scuttles to another position, but the rest of her shift will be uneventful. During her bumpy ride back to HQ she still puzzles over her earlier action but finds no answer.

The next morning, a reconnaissance drone solves the riddle. Following Vedma’s directions, the drone operator slowly flies the bird over the section of the Russian trenches the sniper was observing during the night and now hovers vertically above a bizarre sight.

Two dead Russian soldiers are sprawled on the ground and between them lies a dazzling white box, the washing machine they had looted in Svatove, its glass door facing the sky like a monocled eye—with a neat bullet hole almost dead center.

The drone operator, a skinny 20-year-old with a fuzzy reddish beard, looks at Hanna in awe and mumbles: “No more heavy-duty cycles for these two mobiks*.”

 

(*) “Mobik” is Ukrainian slang for any Russian mobilized soldier.