I tried to hit Ukrainian snipers I met before the invasion. A message came back: “It’s war here.

Smile Platoon lived up to its name, gathering around the kitchen table to watch video of a recent murder. The snipers laughed, saying the recent operation was in the same location they had previously killed Russian-backed separatists.

“Are they stupid? we asked in amused amazement. “Are they immortal?” bellowed another, gazing at the handiwork of Dancer, the call sign of a sniper whose ballet training in a past life helped silence his footsteps. One of the soldiers pressed play, and the video started again.

My colleague and I visited the house of the platoon team in the days before the Russian invasion, when the platoon was busy terrorizing separatist fighters outside Donetsk, working on a front line that n no longer exists. As the conflict escalates into an all-out war across the country, the platoon has died out except for a message.

“It’s war here. Those f–kers attacked us,” Serhiy Varakin, the sniper platoon commander of the 58th Independent Motorized Infantry Brigade, said in a text last Friday to my colleague. , also named Serhiy. “What else can I say?”

My colleague Serhiy tried several times to speak with the commander and I hope to hear that they are well since the invasion. Their lack of response is understandable given their secret work and new reality – they’re not interested in telling us what they’re up to.

But before that, the Smile Platoon team house was a warm and inviting place for two strangers, where salo and tea flowed all day and night.

Natalia, a platoon scout, counted the days on her bronze-painted fingers until her Facebook ban for creating a second account was lifted. Vitaliy’s florist wife dutifully took over her husband’s work at home, watering their vast expanse of potted plants in his absence. And a sniper with the call sign Medik finally got his care package from the United States: a Weatherby .338 rifle and advanced optics that surpass what his own army supplies.

The big bang of Ukrainian sniper units came after the 2014 invasion, when the muddy tangle of trench warfare in the east forced commanders to dump sniper manuals Soviets, to catch up with modern technology and to kill more accurately from further away.

Their growing skill and professionalism, backed by Western forces, has thrown a pendulum back at their opponents, who often wield superior rifles and surveillance systems, snipers in the platoon said. They even absorb characteristics of American military culture from the soldiers who helped advise them. Black Rifle Coffee Co. mugs litter the living quarters, and at any given time, a few snipers crowd around a smartphone, watching videos of gun influencers on Instagram.

Ukrainian snipers are an elite group distinct from regular troops, they hasten to tell you.

I met many like them, first during my time in Iraq as an Army infantryman and later when I became friends with ex-Marine snipers who served in Afghanistan. They talk about ballistics and drift with monastic devotion to their craft and relish the thought of psychologically tormenting their enemies. Seeing their enemies’ heads separate in their glasses is not a traumatic danger, they explain. It’s a perk of the job.

Gathered around the dining table as a soldier cut vegetables to put in a pot of simmering borscht, I asked why they were called Smile Platoon.

“Because we can see their faces,” Natalia said. “And we are happy to kill them.”

But they also described a Ukrainian defense establishment and industry mired in a Soviet-style bureaucracy that doesn’t understand what they do or how to equip them properly, down to the ammunition they use and the guns they handle.

In a profession where milliseconds and millimeters matter, the consequences can be disastrous.

Ruslan Shpakovych, a sniper instructor and adviser to units inside and outside the military, said the problems plaguing the community are interrelated, starting with funding shortfalls that prohibit expensive items, like high-end monitoring and control devices. Instead, Shpakovych said, snipers rely on Frankenstein reconnaissance systems assembled with digital cameras and monitors that don’t allow them to see as far or as well as their field-range counterparts. battle.

Another problem is the type of ammunition issued to them. It’s designed for hunting, but when it hits body armor it tends to crease on impact, he explained during a visit to the team’s home. Its trajectory is also marred by minor disturbances.

“I recently visited the guys in Kharkiv,” Shpakovych said, speaking of the major city in northeastern Ukraine which days later was bombarded with Russian missiles and artillery. “They were shooting through the branches. And they were lucky that the branches didn’t deflect bullets – a softball can be deflected by a branch.

The solution, he said, was to use steel-core ammunition, designed to pierce armor and heavy enough to maintain its trajectory. But factories in Ukraine do not produce such ammunition, he said, and there have been years-long delays in overhauling the factory.

There is also no indigenous production of the sniper rifles they need most. Ukrainian manufacturers make a .308 caliber sniper rifle, but they don’t produce a military version of the .338 rifle, said Shpakovych, which snipers say is a good fit for most of their work and reliable for hitting targets a mile away. .

The supply problem has forced snipers to buy their own rifles with their own money or obtain them through donations from non-profit organizations, such as Come Back Alive, where Shpakovych works as an instructor. It also created complications, he said, when Ukrainian restrictions on importing weapons through non-military channels sometimes slowed.

Medik, who uses a call sign derived from his medical training, said it took about three weeks to receive a rifle and advanced optics he purchased in the United States. It cost him over $6,000, even after Shpakovych helped him get a discount. The ad hoc reality of gun buying has created a dizzying mix of different guns, calibers and barrels, many of which are cheap American models that wear out too quickly. Everything has to match, Shpakovych said.

As security aid continues to flow to Ukraine, it’s unclear whether anyone in the United States is responsive to the needs of the soldiers closest to combat. The United States provided more than $1 billion in security aid to Ukraine over the past year, but the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and the Pentagon would not discuss any of these specific issues.

“The United States will provide defensive assistance to help Ukraine deal with the armored, airborne and other threats it currently faces,” said Army Lt. Col. César Santiago, Pentagon spokesman. He did not address questions about the status of the most important aid for the platoon, including the delivery of Barrett MRAD rifles, which become the standard issue for US snipers.

“We’ve been promised them for a long time,” Shpakovych said.

Varakin, the commander, was cautious in his assessment of supply challenges. He praised the Department of Defense and current military leaders, saying they are the first senior officials to understand the utility of snipers on the battlefield. But his ability to get the right resources, including vehicles, sometimes frustrated him.

“Although our army is getting javelins, we snipers are not getting enough supplies,” he said. “Even if the usefulness of our work becomes more evident.”

Varakin has three rules for his snipers: abstinence from alcohol, dedication to service above all else, and the will to do everything to achieve high performance.

The latest leaves Smile Platoon with lighter pockets each month. Sitting around the dining table, the snipers dig into smoked smelt and endlessly scour gunsmith websites, looking for the next gun to buy with a few months’ salary.

Perhaps the weapon they were counting on would arrive in time for the invasion a few days later. Maybe not.

Medik envisioned how their world would change when that moment came, and the Russians floods the battlefield. It would provide something only a sniper might think of: a promising opportunity to hone his craft.

“We’ll just have more work,” he said. “I hope we have enough balls.”

Serhiy Morgunov contributed reporting.

Colleen D. Ervin