The Russian position was marked with the blue flag of Moscow’s elite airborne units but the fabric looked almost translucent through the Ukrainian sniper’s scope.
The flag, atop a Russian-occupied building in southern Ukraine, was just over a mile away. If a Russian soldier appeared, it would take roughly four seconds for the sniper’s large-caliber bullet to reach the man’s chest.
“They move around in the morning and in the evening,” said Bart, the leader of the four-man sniper team.
They had arrived in darkness after navigating pitch-black roads, crammed into a pickup truck with its lights off. With hurried steps on broken glass, they set up their rifles at their position, known as a “hide.”
Bart relaxed, stretching his arms out behind his 20-pound rifle, concealed among the rubble of a half-destroyed building. It was dawn and it was going to be a long day.
If Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been defined as a grueling artillery war bolstered by tanks, drones and cruise missiles, then the role of the sniper, unseen and lethal, occupies an often-overlooked part of the battlefield.
Overshadowed by high-tech killing tools and the blunt power of howitzers and mortars, Ukraine’s snipers are part of a more rudimentary force: the infantry. There are comparatively few, but they are no less essential than they were more than a century ago, when a World War I marksman could terrorize a hundred men with a single shot.
But modern technology, especially the proliferation of small drones that serve as lethal observation tools above the front lines, has made sniping from concealed positions far more difficult. That has forced Ukrainian snipers to change tactics or risk a quick death.
A team from The New York Times spent a week embedded with a Ukrainian sniper team in the country’s south. We read reports on snipers’ missions, and interviewed snipers, instructors and trainees across Ukraine to understand this behind-the-scenes war waged by a cadre of well-trained shooters.
Roughly 400 miles from where Bart’s team waited, Volodymyr, 54, an infantryman with 19th Separate Rifle Battalion, was preparing for his first day of sniper instruction at a rifle range.
In front of him were paper targets plastered with an array of bull’s-eyes. There are few official Ukrainian sniper schools, and much of the instruction comes from ad hoc classrooms, private training and volunteers scattered around the country.
Some snipers have complained that the focus on assaulting trenches, a necessary tactic to reclaim territory, has made sniper training less of a priority among some commanders.
“It is a personal desire of me and my comrades to become snipers,” said Volodymyr. “I need to develop basic skills, because at the front there will be no time for this.”
Snipers interviewed for this article asked to be identified by only their call signs or first names, to protect their identities.
The number of snipers in Ukraine’s military is not publicly known but instructors estimate there are a few thousand, separated into two main categories. The majority are known as marksmen, capable of shooting people at around 300 yards. They are often in the trenches, supporting their comrades.
The second category are the scout snipers, known among the snipers as “long-range shooters.” These are the few infantrymen who can shoot accurately from a mile away and beyond, able to read the wind, temperature and barometric pressure (with help from a spotter) before slightly depressing the trigger.
On a recent September day, Volodymyr’s instructor was teaching him just that: how to pull the trigger.
“The trigger should be pulled straight down the barrel channel,” the instructor said. “If you pull it to one side, you will miss the target. If you pull it downward, you will provoke a jerk, which will also affect the aim of the shot.”
Volodymyr listened intently, easing himself behind the .338 caliber rifle arrayed in front of him.
“Many people are afraid to become snipers because there is a perception that snipers are one of the enemy’s priority targets,” he said.
“At around 2400 our sniper at position 2 observed an enemy machine-gun nest,” read the report. It was written after a sniper mission that took place near the eastern city of Bakhmut earlier this year.
“Our sniper engaged the enemy machine-gun position,” the report continued, “resulting in two confirmed enemy” killed in action, “and one possible enemy” killed.
In military circles snipers are called a “force multiplier,” meaning they can have an outsized impact on the battlefield.
But pulling the trigger comes at a cost, especially in the age of drones and thermal sights, which ensure that no matter how well snipers are camouflaged, their body heat is likely to expose them (absent hard-to-acquire anti-thermal apparel). The dust, smoke and sometimes the flash discharged by a large caliber round as it exits the barrel at more than 2,700 feet per second can also be seen easily.
That means that not just any Russian soldier who appears in the cross hairs is a good candidate for a kill. The potential reward has to outweigh the risk. So the likelihood of taking a shot increases if that soldier is a “priority target” like a machine-gunner, an officer or an anti-tank guided missile crew member.
Or more important: Russian snipers.
“They have some fine guys, efficient ones,” said Marik, a Ukrainian sniper with an infantry battalion called the Da Vinci Wolves. “A few, but there are some. I think that one should never underestimate an enemy.”
His team had managed to kill a group of them earlier in the war, he said, not with their rifles, but with artillery to ensure none escaped. The Russians try to do the same when they spot Ukrainian snipers.
“We probably saw them purely by chance,” he said.
A well-trained sniper team makes its presence known on the front line by harassing and killing until it withdraws — or is discovered and either suppressed or eliminated. It’s often a delicate dance for snipers as they pick their positions and choose either to fire or observe.
Killing another human with a high-powered rifle and scope is a calculated and occasionally intimate experience, unlike the up-close, frantic carnage of trench battles. Especially at long range, snipers often have to wait hours, using weather apps, ballistic calculators and notebooks to set their sights before they pull the trigger.
The bullets, specific to lethal long-range shooting, and their casings are often assembled by the snipers themselves — known as “handloading” — to ensure they are weighed perfectly for the task. High-end sniper ammunition is difficult to acquire given the many calibers used by Ukrainian forces, so volunteers often buy it privately, as well as sniper rifles, to help supply the ranks.
And unlike Western troops dealing with the moral complexity of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where insurgents blended in seamlessly with local populations, Ukrainian snipers, defending their country from invasion, see a clear imperative for pulling the trigger.
“I think of people on the other side — they might not want to be here, but they are here,” said Raptor, another sniper on Bart’s team. “It is unnatural to kill someone but that’s our job.”
Indeed, kills are currency for snipers, who are often competing for resources with drone units and others on the battlefield. That’s one reason that Bart’s sniper team uses a powerful camera to record their shots.
“We have a saying: no video, no kill,” said the commander of Bart’s team.
But snipers do far more than shoot people at long range. In reality, killing an adversary is often the final step in a long list of other priorities, such as scouting, protecting assaulting units and locating targets for artillery.
At around two in the afternoon, the wind changed. It was no longer coming from the left, but instead blowing directly in front of the team’s position, spurring quick adjustment on their rifles.
Around this time a dreaded “FPV” drone — a cheap racing drone strapped with explosives — appeared in the skies, and three mortar rounds landed nearby. But no Russian soldiers appeared, just the incoming and outgoing artillery rounds that rattled doors in their frames and pushed the snipers into the building’s interior. The gusts howled through the wreckage, blowing the camouflage netting that helped conceal their positions.
Toward dusk as the ground cooled and the setting sun shone into the windows of the Russian building, the team spotted something in the back of a distant room. Was it a machine-gun position or something else?
With no clear answer there was little reason to shoot. They’d state that in the report when they returned and a unit would send an exploding drone.
Slowly, in that period between early evening and darkness, the team packed their bags and zipped up their rifles. They darted to the truck and drove away, the skeletons of the destroyed homes along the road now illuminated by the light of the rising moon.
Yurii Shyvala contributed reporting.