Dead or Alive? The Hunt for a Ukrainian Soldier Missing on a Chaotic Battlefield | Mint

Dead or Alive? The Hunt for a Ukrainian Soldier Missing on a Chaotic Battlefield

Ruslan Finchuk, who went missing near Kupyansk, in the Bakhmut area, in January. COURTESY OF LIIA KRAFT
Ruslan Finchuk, who went missing near Kupyansk, in the Bakhmut area, in January. COURTESY OF LIIA KRAFT

Summary

Ruslan Finchuk, a Ukrainian senior sergeant and experienced soldier, was last seen in enemy territory under machine gun fire. His unit told his wife he was missing, presumed dead.

KUPYANSK, Ukraine—For 48 hours in muddy trenches near this northeastern city, the Ukrainian troops had fought off waves of Russian infantry emerging from the tall grass, while artillery hammered everything around them.

They were exhausted, and officers had finally ordered them to return to base with the six Russians they had taken captive. At 3 a.m., two Ukrainian soldiers and their commander set off with the prisoners, walking through a shattered tree line toward the evacuation point.

Suddenly, several silhouettes appeared a few yards to the column’s left. Then the area exploded in gunshots. In the darkness, they had missed a turn and walked right up to a Russian trench.

The prisoners were killed in the melee. The two Ukrainian soldiers dragged themselves back to safety. No one knew what happened to their commander, Ruslan Finchuk.

“He just disappeared," said an officer in Finchuk’s battalion who goes by the call sign Yurist and watched a live feed of the firefight from a drone with night vision.

On the flat, bloodstained fields of the Ukrainian front, troops battle confusion as well as the enemy.

As the war approaches a third year, the “zero line" has remained largely static on the map, a bright red stripe that armored assaults have hardly been able to move. But up close, it becomes a gyre of splintered trees, blast craters and rotting bodies, where trenches and small bits of territory frequently change hands and neither side is sure exactly where the enemy is.

Deafened by explosions, often concussed and drunk with fatigue, even experienced soldiers can grow disoriented. They wrap colored tape around their helmets to differentiate “ours" from “theirs." Still, because many Ukrainians speak Russian with each other in the trenches, sometimes only an accent distinguishes a friendly voice from an enemy.

“On paper, every group has its own position," said one soldier who was part of the Kupyansk operation. “In reality, it’s chaos."

Finchuk had arrived in the trenches east of Kupyansk late on Monday, Oct. 16, with several dozen others. Their task was to help hold off Russian attempts to recapture the city, occupied at the start of the war then retaken by Ukraine last fall.

A 42-year-old veteran, Finchuk re-enlisted last year, leaving his wife and stepson behind in Kyiv as well as a job running a security company. He joined Artan, a new unit in Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, where he was quickly promoted to senior sergeant, and took the call sign Khokhol—a derogatory name Russians call Ukrainians—as a way to thumb his nose at Moscow.

Even as injuries piled up, Finchuk remained burly and fit. After he was shot in the leg during training, nurses repeatedly told him to stop jogging laps around the hospital with his stitches still in. He refused, eager to rebuild his strength and get back to the fight.

“He could stay in the headquarters, but he always prefers to be with his men," said a 27-year-old soldier, known as Nevsky, who served under Finchuk. “Unfortunately, people like this often die first."

Kupyansk was Finchuk’s first operation as a temporary company commander. At dawn on Tuesday, the Russian shelling began. Waves of tank and infantry assaults continued until dark.

On the first day, the Russians seized one of the Ukrainian trenches, turning the line into a patchwork of friendly positions and enemies. That night, an unknown man walked right up to Nevsky’s trench, apparently lost.

“I’m one of ours," the man said in a strong Russian accent, according to a 43-year-old Ukrainian soldier who was there. “We took him," the soldier said. A second Russian did the same a few hours later. Then a third.

By Wednesday, two of Finchuk’s men had been killed. More than a dozen others were injured or concussed and had been evacuated. Nevsky and a few others were pinned down in their trench, with Russians occupying positions on either side.

The Artan commanders put together a small rescue team.

“You’re not going with them," Yurist recalled telling Finchuk, who’d hardly slept for two days and was mixing up radio frequencies. “That’s not a request. That’s an order."

Finchuk went anyway. The team overran the Russians in the trench, taking several prisoners and clearing a path out.

Finchuk set off at the head of the column toward the evacuation point, with Nevsky near the back. As they passed a burned-out tank in the tree line, Nevsky thought, “Isn’t this the turn?"

Then, 10 yards to his left, he heard someone shout in Russian, “Stop. Who are you?"

Nevsky answered, “We’re escorting prisoners with Khokhol."

The name tipped them off, Nevsky said. The Russian responded, “Oh, you’re with Khokhol!" Then the shooting started.

For the next few minutes, Nevsky said, it was hard to tell what was happening. He saw Finchuk on one knee, firing his rifle, and heard him shouting to pull back. A Russian machine gun peppered the prisoners, who lay on the ground moaning.

Nevsky fired back at first, but as grenades landed around him, he retreated to the trench where they had started. The other Ukrainian made it back as well. Finchuk wasn’t answering his radio. He was missing.

The search began before sunrise on Thursday.

Drones scoured the tree line and surrounding fields, flying so low that two of them were shot down. There was no sign of Finchuk amid the carnage.

“Just along that one tree line, there were probably 100 bodies," Yurist said.

Yurist was close with Finchuk. They had started in Artan together as privates in the summer of 2022, fought side-by-side in the bloody battle for Bakhmut and worked out together during off days in Kyiv.

But as Thursday wore on, he began to lose hope that his friend could have made it out of the firefight with Russian machine guns.

“No one could survive that intensity of fire," he thought. “All signs suggested he was dead."

That night, when there was still no sign of Finchuk, he reached out to a Russian commander on the other side of the line, offering three Russian prisoners plus 10 bodies in exchange for Finchuk’s body and two others. He sent a photo of Finchuk, to make sure they recognized him, and proposed a time and a place to meet for the exchange.

The Russian commander refused.

“He wasn’t interested in his own living men," Yurist said. Russia’s defense ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment about the proposed exchange.

Artan’s commanders decided it was time to tell Finchuk’s family.

Liia Kraft, Finchuk’s wife, hadn’t heard from him since Monday night, before he headed into the trenches. For the first two days, she had texted with Finchuk’s friends from Artan, who’d told her that he was fine. On Thursday, they hardly answered her and said nothing about Finchuk.

At 10:25 a.m. on Friday, she was doing her best to fend off panic when two of Finchuk’s closest friends from the military rang her doorbell.

Finchuk was missing and presumed dead, they told her. He was last seen in enemy territory, with a machine gun firing toward him.

Kraft and Finchuk had started dating when they were teenagers. She had been devastated when they broke up, but she eventually moved to Kyiv, got married and had a son. Finchuk had a daughter.

In 2018, as both their marriages were dissolving, she got a call from Finchuk. Over the next year, they began to talk again, at first occasionally, then—while he was working security on a ship in the Indian Ocean—12 hours a day on the phone.

He moved into her house within days of getting back to Ukraine. She went to work for his security company. He called her “Sunshine," stopped taking trips overseas and acted as a father to her son, Timofey, helping him with math homework and joining him at karate lessons.

After she got the news, Kraft went to pick Timofey up from school.

“Ruslan is gone," she told him. “They’re still looking for his body."

Timofey, 14, cursed in front of her for the first time. “No! It can’t be true!" he said. “The f—rs, I hate them." After they got home, she found him curled up on the couch, using one of Finchuk’s green military sweatshirts as a pillow.

That night, Kraft texted Finchuk’s phone. “You prepared me for all scenarios," she wrote. “You didn’t leave instructions for how I could live without you."

As she texted, Finchuk was lying in a field near where his men had lost sight of him, trying to summon the strength to keep crawling.

During the firefight early Thursday morning, he ran from the tree line into the adjoining field, hoping to draw fire away from his men. A grenade landed nearby, knocking him unconscious. He woke around 7 a.m. on Thursday, with blood caked to his face, unable to hear from his right ear.

He saw two options: He could surrender, or he could try to find his way back to a Ukrainian position. He didn’t want to hand himself over to the Russians.

Taking stock of his equipment, he saw his radio was gone—dropped at some point during the fight. He stripped off his body armor and helmet and kept only his rifle, two magazines and a small cloth with an embroidery of Jesus on it. He had found it earlier this year in Bakhmut after an artillery strike destroyed the building he was in but somehow left him—and the cloth—unharmed.

The problem was, Finchuk wasn’t sure which way to go.

He knew the Russians controlled the tree line he had fled the night before, but not where the Ukrainian positions were. On all sides of the field, he saw the same decimated tree lines, with branches ripped down by artillery fire.

He spotted a surveillance drone not far off. Hoping it was Ukrainian, he began waving to it. The drone acknowledged him by tilting back and forth.

Finchuk tried to ask which direction he should go, pointing one way then the other.

The drone began to fly toward the Russians. He made an obscene gesture toward it, then began to crawl the other direction, trying to keep his head below the foot-high grass.

As he moved, he heard the Russian assault continuing around him—vehicles zipping through the field, infantrymen shouting, artillery crashing down. He took cover in a ditch, blanketing himself with leaves, and waited until nightfall. Then he began to move again.

He would crawl just 20 yards at a time, then stop, hoping the slow pace would make drones less likely to catch sight of him. Bullets sometimes whizzed past. One thudded into the dirt just a few feet in front of him.

He moved past mines, through blast craters, and around dozens of bodies with rats nibbling at them. Once, as he lay still, a mouse began to bite his hand, mistaking him for another corpse.

By Saturday morning, after two days without food or water, Finchuk was delirious, covered in mud and completely disoriented.

As he lay on his back, listening to the artillery fire, he began talking to his wife.

“Liia, help me get my bearings," he said. “Where should I go?"

He heard two outgoing shots. Looking up, he recognized the weapon: It was a guided antitank missile. The Russians frequently used them. The Ukrainians didn’t have any in the area.

He reasoned that the missiles must have targeted a Ukrainian position, and began to crawl in that direction.

By midday, he had reached a cemetery at the edge of a destroyed village. Down the block, he heard voices but couldn’t tell if they were Ukrainian or Russian. In either case, he needed water.

He found the basement where the voices were coming from and stood outside, cleaning the mud from his rifle, so it wouldn’t jam.

As he moved toward the top of the stairs, gun raised, he heard someone curse in Ukrainian.

He put the rifle down, raised his hands, and shouted, “I’m one of ours."

News of Finchuk’s return whipped through Artan. Nevsky was sitting at the base when a photo of Finchuk with Artan’s deputy commander suddenly landed in the unit’s group chat.

Nevsky leapt up from the bed and ran into the hall, hollering with joy. So many friends had been killed since the war began, he said, that he had built up an emotional armor to make the losses bearable. For a moment, the armor dropped.

“I’ve gone through all this s—," he said. “That moment was a reminder that I’m still alive. I’m still a person."

Kraft was at home when she got a screenshot from the group chat. A moment later, the doorbell rang again: It was one of the same men who’d shown up the day before. He thrust a phone at her.

“Are you alive?" she said.

Finchuk, speaking slowly and slurring his words, answered, “Sunshine, I’m sorry I took so long crawling to you."

Write to Ian Lovett at ian.lovett@wsj.com

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