Standing by a makeshift stove at the bottom of a freezing cold ditch, the Ukrainian troops enjoyed a short tea break.
Suddenly there was a loud hiss and a crack like a Russian artillery shells passed over them and exploded in a field behind them.
The soldiers barely flinched, hardened by months of war. Instead, their goal was to stay warm.
One of them even continued to calmly cut into a plastic bottle.
The water inside had frozen as temperatures on the front line dipped below freezing.
Peeling off the plastic, he dipped the giant bottle-shaped ice cube into a saucepan to melt it.
Then came a second round, this one much closer, hitting a road above them with a punishing crash.
“It was too close,” said a fellow soldier, before taking a sip of tea from a pewter mug.
A Sky News team also in the big ditch had touched down at the sound of the first explosion and were then led to better cover after the second – along with the troops.
This is the daily reality of Ukrainian soldiers who occupy defensive positions in trenches near the town of Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region, in the east of the country. Ukraine.
Russian forces appear determined to attempt to take the city after suffering humiliating defeats in other parts of the country.
This made the Battle of Bakhmut one of the fiercest of the war – described as a “meat grinder” due to the scale of the casualties.
One soldier, a company commander who asked to be called by his first name Maks, swore that the Russians would never succeed.
“They will throw away more meat and we will destroy it,” he said. “They’ll launch rockets, but we’ll hide them and then destroy them. They don’t stand a chance.”
On a Monday trip that was cut short by the artillery attack, Maks and other members of a battalion from King Danylo’s Ukrainian 24th Brigade showed Sky News a line of trenches they were digging in as part of efforts to help defend Bakhmut.
It’s hard work even without the threat of enemy fire, as soldiers also have to battle the elements.
Armed with a shovel, a soldier named Serhii cut pieces of earth by digging a square trench.
“We are on our land, we have to defend our land,” he said, his breath freezing. “It’s hard but it’s necessary.”
The signs of winter were everywhere – a frost-covered backpack and bedding; white spots on hard earth; and a green woolen hat with a frosted cover, hanging from the bare branch of a tree.
These soldiers have to fight, eat and sleep in the cold – but they know the Russians have to endure the same, many with worse protective clothing.
Temperatures will likely even drop to minus 30 in January and February.
Analysts said both sides could seek to slow down or even suspend fighting when conditions get too tough. But the Ukrainians say they will continue because they have no other choice.
“We will fight – how can we stop?” said Orest, the battalion commander.
The fights will take place at “reduced tempo for months”
Ukrainian armed forces have lost up to 13,000 soldiers since the Russian invasion
Ukrainian and Western officials say Wagner, Russia’s private military company, sent large numbers of mercenaries – including convicted felons released on the condition that they fight – to launch wave after wave of assaults on Ukrainian positions in Bakhmut.
Conventional Russian forces, withdrawn from the southern city of Kherson in the face of a Ukrainian counteroffensive last month, have also been added to the fight in recent days, increasing pressure on Ukrainian lines.
When asked if the Russians would take the town, Orest replied, “No…we’ll stop them.”
But Ukrainian troops are also paying a heavy price.
The commander showed us where Russian shells for the past two days had crashed into a field near where his men had dug, killing one of his soldiers.
This is meant to be a defensive line, slightly set back from the front line action.
Orest said he had lost a total of seven soldiers over the past month, mostly carrying out assaults against Russian positions. He said the nearest Russian point is just over a mile away.
The change in season means there are no more leaves on the trees, providing superior cover for drones, sent to scout targets for artillery to strike – a new peril for both sides.
There is a constant threat of incoming fire – as we found out later during the tea break.
This artillery attack lasted nearly half an hour.
Every time a shell hit, the ground shook – a terrifying experience, even where we had been able to take cover.
Yet this deadly danger is something soldiers have become almost immune to.
After a while, the commander said he was sure to leave.
We climbed a bank of the ditch to our vehicle and sped off. As for the troops, they stayed put, entrenched for the winter war.