Ukraine crisis: snipers Oksana and Stanislas Krasnova discuss life on the Donbass frontline
Oksana Krasnova smiles when I ask her if she likes her job as we chat on a simple white farmhouse surrounded by fields of bright yellow rapeseed and dense forests.
“Yes, of course,” she said.
The 27-year-old, with her neatly braided hair and ready smile, compares her work to meditation: “You lie down, you rest, you breathe, you look around, you listen.
If there is a chance and a need, I kill.
It seems happy. But then there’s another big gunshot. And Oksana explains the deadly aims of her task on the battlefields of eastern Ukraine: “If there is a chance and a need, I kill.”
Because she is a sniper. Oksana is among the elite Ukrainian fighters who must ignore the ferocity of Russian bombardment while hiding in bushes, trenches and woods to target enemy soldiers who may be hundreds of meters away.
Sitting quietly next to us is her husband Stanislaus, who is also a sniper and part of the same unit of the Ukrainian army which is fighting in the savage struggle for control of the Donbass region which has been described as “hell” by President Volodymyr Zelensky.
These specialized soldiers, trained to carry out covert missions deep into enemy terrain, are few in number, highly skilled and can strike fear with sudden strikes.
They play a key role in destroying Russian morale, gathering information and disrupting operations.
In Soviet military mythology, snipers were idolized as icons of courage in the fight against the Nazis.
Vasily Zaitsev, hailed for 225 casualties in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, was portrayed by Jude Law in the movie Enemy At The Gates.
Oksana and Stanislas, perched on their military unit’s makeshift beds here on the farm, play down any cinematic-style heroism.
But just outside there is a large hole in the ground, left by a huge Russian bomb that was dropped in an effort to destroy their tight-knit team. Neither will say how many people they killed or missions they accomplished in this hideous war.
“There are people who like to boast that they killed a lot of people, but in many cases it’s just not true, so I won’t talk about that,” Oksana says.
“When I look at a target, I think about my breathing, my calculations. You don’t need to think of your target as a person. You’re just doing your job, and you have to do your job well. You have to be relaxed, focused.
The couple met through mutual friends at a book launch shortly before joining pro-democracy protests that erupted across Ukraine nine years ago.
Both were injured in the ensuing crackdown by Russian-linked security forces. As Stanislaus, now 35, recovered in a Kyiv hospital from gunshot wounds to his legs, he had to watch from afar as his native Crimean region was seized by Vladimir Putin.
A childhood friend of Stanislas then became the first victim of this conflict.
“That’s when I knew this was a real war with real bloodshed – and the Russians were really out to kill,” he says.
“I hate the Russian government.”
When war broke out soon after in the Donbass, the former policeman – recovered from his injuries – joined the Ukrainian volunteer forces fighting the Putin-backed separatists.
He took part in one of the most brutal battles in Donetsk towards the end of 2014. Now Stanislaus has joined the armed forces after he and his wife suspended their doctoral studies in criminal law – as well as their work on human rights – to take up arms against Putin’s latest all-out attack.
Stanislaus, a sniper after training for several years as a teenager at a special school for potential Olympic athletes in Crimea, helped Oksana learn the skills of marksmanship.
“His sniper is brilliant and he trained me well,” she says. Stanislas explains that competitive shooting has been his hobby for many years.
It turns out that these skills came in handy during the war.
Sport shooting isn’t exactly like being a sniper, but it certainly helps a lot. I consider shooting as a kind of sport. I have to hit the target as close to the center as possible. That’s it.
“If there is an opportunity and you see the enemy’s infantry, you have to kill them. Sniper is a very effective profession.
Stanislas admits having succeeded in shooting over 700m in April, but adds modestly: “Shooting over 600m is a bit of a lottery. The main problem is the wind.
He shows me how they use mobile phone apps in the field to help calculate the trajectory of shots, providing details such as distance, humidity, temperature and wind speed – all of which can hugely affect the flight of a ball at long distance.
The pair do not go on a mission together since Stanislas has other roles, including that of field commander and firing rocket-propelled grenades.
As it stands, snipers are trained to operate on their own – to individually and covertly infiltrate areas, return sightings of enemy positions, and mount precision attacks against infantry.
Ruslan Shpakovych, the Ukrainian army’s main sniper instructor, says the country’s best snipers are proving more effective in combat than their Russian rivals, who are hampered by their lower quality equipment.
“The main objective of Ukrainian snipers is not just to shoot and hit, but to monitor and gather information. The good sniper is not only the soldier who kills a person, but the one who transmits information about the enemy position to his unit,” says Shpakovych.
Hundreds of corpses lie in the fields. No one picks them up so it stinks of rotten flesh.
Stanislas has just returned from a mission that took him less than 400 meters from enemy lines.
He says they often find themselves closer to the Russians now than at previous stages of the war in Kyiv and Kharkiv – although he could not see them in their trenches on his last rotation to the line of advanced front nearby.
He does, however, show me photographs of their position along a line of trees beside fields riddled with holes from the intense Russian bombardment which is causing heavy Ukrainian casualties.
“It seems the enemy doesn’t care about their loss of men, so they keep sending more and more people. Hundreds of corpses are lying in the fields. No one is picking them up so it reeks of rotten flesh he says.
We have five cats now, but after the victory we will have five children.
Later, as we walked along the trenches, Oksana explains to me how snipers climb on top and dig holes in which to lie down and wait for their prey, sometimes for many hours.
Although about one in five members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces is a woman, Oksana doesn’t mind being the only woman in this military unit.
“It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman – it is normal for Ukrainians to defend their country,” she says.
But once the war is over, Oksana says she and Stanislas plan to lay down their arms and resume a more typical life.
“We have five cats now, but after the win we will have five children.”
with Kate Baklitskaya