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A gripping story of survival: Jonathan Djanogly reviews 'Ukraine: Enemy in the Woods'

Medic: Nalalia | Image by: BBC / Hoyo Films Ltd / Jamie Roberts

3 min read

This shocking film exposes the realities of modern forest combat whilst starkly revealing Ukraine’s urgent need for military support

This gripping documentary portrays the seven-week rotation of a 100-man company of the Ukraine Berlingo Battalion, defending 500m of Kupyansk forest – and also a railway line, which must be held to stop the Russian enemy advancing towards Kharkiv.

This film does not pretend to explain the overall war. Rather it is one of the most vivid, shocking and personal expositions of the realities of combat that one could find. 

And not just any combat, but specifically intense forest combat. A strange mix of old school trenches and defensive bunkers, mortars and artillery – and modern technology, particularly drones. 

Somehow, weak human flesh needs to accommodate and survive amongst all these hazards. So this is a story of survival, sustained through teamwork and maintaining morale.

The company’s ability to stay sharp and cohesive, despite almost 50 per cent casualties, is impressive. “If we relax there will be tragedy,” says the commander, because “the enemy never stops”.

drone operators
Drone operators: Victor and Denis | Image by: BBC/Hoyo Films Ltd/Jamie Roberts

Forests can be dark and eerie places, let alone when every step could lead to death. There is a pagan spirit to the forest, which is contrasted with the company’s tradition of saying Christian prayers before they venture into the dark woods for battle. 

Once in the forest, the terror of hidden enemy and their drones is constant. The drones will follow and hunt troops like animals.

There is little that is glamorous or glorious about this film. War is snow, mud, cover and eventual injury or death.

There is little that is glamorous or glorious about this film

The soldiers do their best to comprehend their casualties. The medic (actually a vet) said that she coped by imagining that the dead had been transferred to other units. A pile of dead friends’ equipment, post-combat chain-smoking and numerous distant dead eyes seem to point towards future mental health issues to be managed. 

But emotions escape when soldiers discuss the enemy (who they dehumanise as “Orcs”). Frightening footage of enemy troops being finished off at close range, threats issued to prisoners of war and many words of hatred pervade.

Sviatohirsk: Damaged church | Image by: BBC/Hoyo Films Ltd/Jamie Roberts

And yet there are signs of humanity, towards their own wounded and sometimes towards the enemy. As the medic put it: “We are not like them – we don’t have to lose our humanity.”

This is compared to the Russian tactics of sending in endless attacks – and the subsequent huge cost in terms of fatalities: “When we kill 1,000, then they just send another 1,000.”

The core political message must be that without adequate artillery support, combat rotations and manpower replenishment, Ukraine is going to have a very tough time ahead as its unrelieved troops tire. 


If I have one criticism, it would be that there was a concentration on a handful of young teenage volunteers; thus hiding the reality of Ukraine having the oldest conscripted army in the world (average age 43).

What is offered is a stunning account of 99 very brave and dedicated men and one woman, offering their lives to defend 500 meters of dirt. 

I can’t recommend it enough. 

Jonathan Djanogly is Conservative MP for Huntingdon and vice-chair of the Ukraine APPG

Ukraine: Enemy in the Woods
Directed by: Jamie Roberts
Broadcaster: BBC iPlayer

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