EVEN above the clatter of our pick-up truck as it speeds flat out on the rutted road, you can still hear the occasional dull crump of explosions. Incoming Russian shell fire and drone strikes are the immediate threat as our camouflaged olive drab vehicle hurtles towards the frontline near Pervomaiske on the outskirts of Donetsk city.

On either side of the road, the skeletal remains of buildings that once housed entire families flash by, smashed and charred from months of bombardment that have devastated this area in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.

The National: Driving at high speed to evade Russian shelling near Pervomaiske in the DonbasDriving at high speed to evade Russian shelling near Pervomaiske in the Donbas

Suddenly, lying before us slap bang in the middle of the road, sits a Ukrainian tank. Broken down or crippled by ­Russian fire it’s difficult at first to tell. Only as we narrowly manoeuvre our way past on the side of the road does it become clear that the tank has been hit.

Its engine section behind the turret is twisted and blackened from whatever Russian shell or drone-dropped explosive has impacted on its armour. The tank’s crew are nowhere to be seen most likely having abandoned it moments after it was struck.

The National: A destroyed Russian tank near SlovianskA destroyed Russian tank near Sloviansk

“That’s recently hit,” confirms ­Valentyn Ilchuk, the Ukrainian soldier driving our truck. “I would guess today, moreover, I would guess not too long ago. See over there, the incoming artillery,” Ilchuk says, pointing ahead through the windscreen as a few clouds of smoke rise to our right.

As our truck sidles past the ­immobilised tank and moves into more open and ­exposed ground I mention to Ilchuk how suddenly much more conscious I am of our increased vulnerability to the drones he refers to as the “eyes in the sky”.

“The good thing is that unlike the tank we’re not the primary target and we’re fast too,” Ilchuk offers by way of reassurance. “It’s already a force of habit when you exit from somewhere the first place you look at it is the sky … welcome to our lives,” he adds with a wry smile.

The National: Driving past destroyed Ukrainian military vehicles at high speed to evade Russian shelling near Pervomaiske in the DonbasDriving past destroyed Ukrainian military vehicles at high speed to evade Russian shelling near Pervomaiske in the Donbas

It is now almost a year since I first met 39-year-old Valentyn Ilchuk in the ­southern Ukrainian town of Mykolaiv. Back then when we talked at length he told of the day when his “entire life flashed before my eyes,” when he and his unit had an encounter with another tank, which on that occasion was an ­enemy one.

“I saw this Russian tank, maybe not even 60 metres away from me with its gun barrel facing straight towards us,” he says, explaining how the tank was out of sight of the main body of his own unit and the sole Ukrainian tank positioned nearby.

“As the enemy tank was rolling out from behind a corner, our tank took the first shot and he missed. I knew then that if the Russian fired back and hit our tank detonating the ammo, we would be concussed at the very least, wounded, or wiped out and killed.”

In the event, the Ukrainian tank crew managed to get the better of the ­approaching enemy armour landing a ­successful round on their Russian ­adversary. It was only days after Ilchuk ­recounted this story to me that the Ukrainian push towards the southern city of Kherson began of which he and his unit would become a part.

Since March this year, however, he has found himself here in the Donbas on Ukraine’s eastern front in its war against the Russian invaders.

The National: A sign at the entry into Donetsk oblast (province) which Moscow claims is now part of RussiaA sign at the entry into Donetsk oblast (province) which Moscow claims is now part of Russia

I ask what his war has been like since we last spoke, not least given that the Donbas is familiar territory to him. It was back as early as 2014 that Ilchuk first ­volunteered to come to the Donbas after the situation escalated into a war between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk republics.

“I mean, this is exactly the place, where I put my uniform on for the first time. I spent half a year fighting around here. So, when I came back here, you recognise ­everything,” he explains.

“But back in 2014, it seemed like hell to me. It seemed like a ridiculously huge, massive, scary war, but little did I know then that without rockets, aviation and fully fledged tank armada battles out in the fields, it wasn’t that hot,” he explains, comparing it with the all-out fighting that grips the regions today in places like Bakhmut, Pervonmaiske and ­Avdiivka. Much of Ilchuk’s duties here are not ­unlike what he was engaged with on the southern front when we last met.

As ­something of what he describes as a “military freelancer” afforded a degree of flexibility while still part of the ­Ukrainian Armed Forces brigade structure, his unit does a lot of reconnaissance work and has experienced drone operators and snipers in its ranks.

“Our strong suit, I suppose, is recon, aerial and foot recon. We’re tech-savvy. We do quite a bit of drone operations. Let’s put it this way: We do anything from, you know, doing recon with your basic DJI Mavic to flying strike drones,” he says.

“Given that the brigade was in heavy fighting for a very long time, they’ve been running, well, I wouldn’t say low, but let’s put it this way, human turnover has been significant,” he adds, clarifying how as an experienced frontline ­operator his main role “is trying to be helpful ­wherever I can”, in a unit with a “lot of new hands on deck”.

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As we continue our tour of the ­frontline, Ilchuk describes how things as have changed over the past months and how the fighting has intensified.

“It’s significantly safer to drive around here because there is now foliage on the trees, and we’re covered on both sides,” he tells me.

“Just about a month and a half ago where we just went out, we wouldn’t go because back then there was no tree ­cover and we would have been visible from both sides and the perfect target for an ATGM (anti-tank guided missile) crew,” he ­explains.

The National: A transporter ferries a Ukrainian tank towards the frontline – IziumA transporter ferries a Ukrainian tank towards the frontline – Izium

As speculation grows over an imminent Ukrainian counteroffensive, many of the frontlines in the east have seen an uptick in fighting, something Ilchuk confirms.

“Right here we have had about a week to 10 days of comparative quiet but then it’s picked up with ridiculous strength just a couple of days ago,” he says as we drive past the decimated village of Netailove.

“Weirdly enough, there’s still civilians living here that is one of our pain points because we cannot force them to leave,” Ilchuk says as we pass through a landscape of such destruction and danger it’s hard to imagine anyone choosing to stay.

Drones are one of his unit’s ­specialisms and are ubiquitous to both sides in this war as I was reminded shortly after we pulled up near one of the positions they manned.

No sooner had we arrived than the buzzing sound overhead instantly has everyone looking warily skywards. The small drone is visible a few hundred feet off the ground and there is momentary uncertainty as to whether it is friendly or hostile – Ukrainian or Russian.

“Most probably it’s ours and some idiots practising training flights without warning the neighbours,” he says only half-jokingly looking upwards at the suspicious drone.

“Usually in situations like that, it’s a free fucking game and we can down it. I mean, the drone in the air is anything from three to five thousand dollars, they are extremely valuable, but you have to realise that they’re usable by both parties.

The National: Military vehicles run the gauntlet of Russian shelling and drone strikes on the road to Pervomaiske near Donetsk city in the DonbasMilitary vehicles run the gauntlet of Russian shelling and drone strikes on the road to Pervomaiske near Donetsk city in the Donbas

And it’s better to down a drone of some idiot that decided to be careless enough not to warn anybody around than have a Russian Grad missile strike,” Ilchuk tells me, as the pop, pop sound of small arms fire erupts around us and some of his comrades decide to deal with the ­menacing drone their own way.

I put it to him that speculation right now about the coming Ukrainian ­counteroffensive is almost overwhelming and asked whether he equally felt it was palpable and a push imminent.

“It’s definitely imminent. You know, I speak to my friends in different parts of the frontlines and there are definitely signs of us getting prepared for ­something major. Moreover, the movement of ­personnel and armour has intensified all around the line. So, everybody has their own guesses, right? But nobody knows where we’re going to strike,” he says.

That vast movement of personnel and armour that Ilchuk refers to was something I too had noticed while journeying across the north and east of the country last week from Kharkiv near the Russian border down through Donetsk Oblast.

Civilians too know an escalation in the fighting is coming and those who have previously experienced the worst of it or were under Russian occupation ­before ­being liberated fear fresh violence and destruction.

Before the Russians came to the city of Izyum, Olesya Bilyaga was a ­choreographer teaching children different kinds of dance in schools and at the local House of Culture centre where I met her.

The National: Olesya Bilyaga who lived with other civilians for seven months under Russian occupation in IziumOlesya Bilyaga who lived with other civilians for seven months under Russian occupation in Izium

She has lived in Izium for three ­decades ever since she was 10 years old, and I asked her what it was like when the ­Russians came in March of last year.

“I remember that my brother came and said ‘Russians’. We have a street that used to be called Chekhov, now it has been ­renamed and we peered out from our yard, and we saw an armoured ­personnel carrier and Russian soldiers with ­machine guns walking in front of it,” Bilyaga ­recalls of that day.

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“At that time there was still mobile connection, and I immediately found the phone number of the hotline, where we should call if we saw Russian invaders,” she continues, saying that initially after arriving the Russian troops hid in the ­forest but would later occupy local homes and buildings.

It was in one of these same forests around Izium that in September of 2022, when the city was liberated by Ukrainian forces after seven months of occupation, several mass graves were discovered containing the bodies of 440 men, women and children some of whom Olesya Bilyaga knew as friends.

The National: A sign warns of uncleared landmines in the forest where mass graves were discovered outside IziumA sign warns of uncleared landmines in the forest where mass graves were discovered outside Izium

‘I knew the family of Lena Stolpokova Zhikhoreva who became involved with our dance team. They all died in the house. I thought they had left when the Russians came,” Bilyaga recalls.

“When I found out, it was very difficult. You see, when children come to me, they become my children. I have a child who is my own but every child who came to my team becomes my adopted child and it is very difficult when you know three ­children from the family and they die – it is very difficult,” she explains, ­recalling the family’s fate and momentarily breaking into tears at the memory.

The National: Signs of excavated mass graves in forest outside IziumSigns of excavated mass graves in forest outside Izium

Before leaving, I ask what she thinks the future holds for Ukraine now and whether she’ll dance again.

“I believe and know that our land will be reborn and my place in the House of Culture will be revived as well, or I will be able to work in another place,” she tells me, wiping away the tears.

“Children come, children want to come because this is psychotherapy for them,” she says of the dance sessions she holds at the House of Culture whose ­windows ­remain boarded up or taped as a ­precaution against renewed Russian ­shelling and missile strikes.

“We dance with them, and they already want to perform, they want a concert. Well, the concert is now impossible to do because of the war, it is impossible to gather. But I believe that everything will be fine. Everything will be fine with me and my team,” she assures me, a smile ­finally breaking out across her face.