‘Cuckoo’ comes from a proud tradition of Ukrainian snipers —  and Putin is sending poorly trained men into her crosshairs

George Grylls

January 2, 2024

The Times


From her stakeout a kilometre away, the Ukrainian sniper trained her rifle on the gap blasted through the colliery’s concrete perimeter, waiting for the Russians to reappear. The 47th Brigade markswoman had fired ten .338 calibre bullets at the wall behind which five men were sheltering. One had collapsed, apparently injured, before rousing himself and limping towards cover, minus his gun. The Russian raiding party, part of a wider assault on Avdiivka, was in disarray. In spring the foliage disrupted the sniper’s line of sight; in summer the variations in temperature deceived her heat-seeking scope; in autumn the wind blew too briskly.

But the advent of the colder months — when the trees offered little protection bar the occasional clump of mistletoe, and human bodies flashed a telltale orange in her crosshairs — meant that conditions were now in her favour, especially since the Russians seemed intent on sending poorly trained men out into no man’s land. Known as Cuckoo because of her habit of perching high above the battlefield, the sniper knew the four remaining infantrymen would have to try to run across the gap to reach the safety of a nearby copse. All she had to do was wait.

The Ukrainian team of three, comprising Cuckoo, Jackson, her commander and spotter, and a second sniper with whom she alternated night shifts, had been waiting 48 hours. Now the appearance of a helmet and a torso, a presentable target, required a moment of calm. It was a breezy day. Unfortunately for the Russian soldier, Cuckoo, 32, a photographer in Kyiv before the war, had her calculations just right.

A bullet travelling 300 metres can ­require as much as 60cm of adjustment. “When I am taking a picture, I’m waiting for the moment when a subject expresses an emotion. When I’m working as a sniper, I’m just waiting for the right moment to shoot,” she said. She pulled the trigger on her customised calibre rifle, its barrel spray-painted matte grey. “It’s not like the movies. There was no fountain of blood,” she said. “I saw him fall down. Then he stopped moving.”

The others, having seen their comrade killed, seemed paralysed by fear. Ukrainian infantrymen were dispatched, accompanied by a Bradley fighting vehicle, and easily killed them — another example of the value added by a sniper in the battlefield through the terror they inspire.

According to US intelligence, Russia has sacrificed 13,000 men in an attempt to pincer Avdiivka, the coal-mining town outside Donetsk at the centre of recent fighting. Cuckoo has been tasked with defending Stepove, one of the ­villages to the north that is resisting the town’s encirclement.

Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive failed to shift the front lines of the war towards the Sea of Azov, as was hoped, and President Putin is eager to present another victory to the Russian public before the rubber stamp elections in March. He is not lacking in manpower. Ukrainian troops have dug in around Avdiivka and are using the defenders’ advantage to inflict as many casualties as they can on the waves of enemy soldiers. Valerii Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s top general, has suggested withdrawal from Avdiivka if the casualties become too heavy. But until then he is determined to inflict maximum pain.

Cuckoo finds the task of defending the village much easier than it was working with offensive troops around Robotyne in the summer. But the Russians keep coming, including unarmed men walking out on apparent suicide missions, carrying plastic bags to ferry water and food to their comrades.

These strange characters are given nicknames by the Ukrainians such as “Gandalf”, a bearded man with a staff whom they watched wander aimlessly towards the Ukrainian positions one day. The bag-carriers are duly picked off, but others emerge to retrieve the cargo from the corpses and walk on.

Last month the US army welcomed the first active-duty female sniper into its ranks. Ukraine, by contrast, has a long history of female sharpshooters and Cuckoo is far from the only one deployed against Russia. She said that, after the medics, sniper was the position with the most equal representation between the sexes in the Ukrainian army.

The Soviet Union relied on female snipers to defend the motherland during the Second World War, the most famous of whom was Lyudmila Pavlichenko, a Ukrainian known as “Lady Death”.

Given her nickname by the American press on a propaganda tour of the US where reporters asked whether she wore make-up to battle, Pavlichenko notched up 309 kills during the sieges of Odesa and Sevastopol, making her one of the most deadly snipers in history. “We mowed down Hitlerites like ripe grain,” she said.

Cuckoo, a diminutive figure whose movements are always crisp and deliberate, has a similar mindset. “To be a good sniper, you need to have stamina,” she said. “Women are more patient than men. We don’t feel the urge to get up and start running around shooting people. We wait for the enemy to come to us.”

Unlike during the urban battles such as Stalingrad, Ukrainian snipers rarely engage in duels with their opposite numbers, preferring to call in artillery strikes rather than challenge the Lobaev-wielding Russians to a gunfight. Two Ukrainian soldiers were killed in Avdiivka last week by Russian snipers when they went for a smoke.

Cuckoo is an admirer of Pavlichenko but is reluctant to have the same nickname bestowed upon her, and she scoffs at some of the taller tales she has heard of heroic snipers taking out the eye of a squirrel from two kilometres away.

She prefers the sober accounts of Chris Kyle, the American sniper whose tragic story was told in an Oscar-winning movie directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper. “There’s less bravado. It’s more about his life,” she said.

Putin can draw on a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ex-convicts and conscripts from Siberia in an attempt to capture Avdiivka, but Ukraine is running out of soldiers.

Cuckoo was recently ordered to serve in the regular infantry despite her skills as a sniper, honed over seven years in the Ukrainian army. The last time she was given leave to visit her family in Kyiv was in August.

Shortly before Christmas a tank shell exploded near Cuckoo’s position, leaving her severely concussed. Drone pilots and artillery gunners were among the other specialists acting as infantrymen who were also injured.

Zaluzhny has publicly called for a further mobilisation of troops, a source of tension with President Zelensky who claims the army is demanding 500,000 more personnel at a cost of $13 billion.

A draft law would lower the conscription age in Ukraine from 27 to 25. Rustem Umerov, the defence minister, has denied that Ukrainians overseas will be called up to fight. There are also concerns that the Russians are outgunning the Ukrainians, who need western countries to increase the delivery of key ammunition. Jackson, 44, said the Russians facing them had increased their firing rate from 100 mortar shells a day to 500. “We have plenty of shells, but the Russians always have more.”

Cuckoo, for her part, says she could improve on her kill rate if she had .375 CT bullets, increasing her range to 2km. The squinting sharpshooters are affectionately known by the regular infantry as the “one-eye brigade”. Last year one of them, Vyacheslav Kovalskiy, 58, a former businessman, claimed to have killed a Russian soldier at a distance of 3.8km, a world record. Cuckoo has notched two kills from a distance of 1.3km, two from 1km, and three from 600m. “Sometimes you see something in the bushes moving, you shoot and it stops moving. But we don’t count those ones,” she said. Her heavy rifle is transported around the battlefield already assembled, meaning she only has to set up her bipod and attach the silencer. “It’s much more interesting than being in the infantry because you need to use your brain,” she said. “You make a plan, you find a position. Then the hunting begins.”