The soldiers live in dugout bunkers, and cook all their own meals. They dry their wet socks on clotheslines underground. Many of their weapons are remnants of the Soviet era, half a century old.

In the icy trenches of eastern Ukraine, where government troops are fighting Russian-backed separatists, one of the critical issues in the standoff between Russia and the West — should Ukraine be allowed to join NATO? — seems hardly pressing or even relevant: Little about the day-to-day activities of Ukrainian soldiers suggests the kind of sophisticated, contemporary military that distinguishes NATO members.

“You dig a hole, then you sleep in that damned hole,” said Pvt. Yuri Todorchuk, who is 53, summing up service in the Ukrainian army in the east. “Even younger men have sore backs” from all the digging, he said.

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President Vladimir Putin of Russia has massed about 130,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, stoking fears of an imminent invasion by an upgraded and lethal Russian fighting force. And he has insisted to the United States and Western Europe that Ukraine must never be allowed to join NATO, a demand the West has rejected.

But several days of observation at the front lines last week showed the grinding, relatively low-tech tactics of a Ukrainian army. Hard-pressed for soldiers, the military now admits enlisted men up to age 57 on three-year contracts. It has been reforming and re-arming but remains almost wholly focused on the manpower-intensive trench fighting in the east, a decidedly old-fashioned form of war.

The eight men in one small unit, Lima squad, part of a mechanized brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, arrived at their position in June and set about digging, soldiers said.

They burrowed out their underground homes — two sleeping quarters, each with four bunks; a subterranean kitchen; and a room for steam baths — and have lived in these cavelike spaces since.

Above ground, plastic sheeting claps in a freezing wind. With separatist trenches close by, in a tree line across a snowy field, the only truly safe place is underground.

Nothing about the unit suggests a connection to NATO other than the name, Lima, which is the NATO phonetic alphabet designation for the letter L. Under an overhaul as part of Ukraine’s aspiration to join the alliance, military units were renamed according to NATO standards.

The conflict is fought mostly with rifles, machine guns, rocket propelled grenades, mortars and artillery systems dating to the 1970s or earlier. U.S.-made, and more recently dispatched, British-made anti-tank missiles are intended mainly to repel a broad Russian attack, not for use on the front.

American Javelin anti-tank missiles were deployed only last fall to eastern Ukraine. Turkey has provided another of the country’s newer weapons, the Bayraktar TB2 armed drone, but the Ukrainian military has acknowledged using it only once in combat, last October.

Still, military analysts say the force is in far better shape than in 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and fomented the war in the east. The United States has provided $2.7 billion in military assistance in the years since. In recent weeks, it authorized Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to send U.S.-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, and Britain has provided guided anti-tank missiles.

And the Ukrainian army is battle hardened. About 400,000 Ukrainian soldiers, including about 13,000 women, have gone through rotations along the eastern front, providing a pool of veteran fighters.

But multiple rotations have also taken a heavy toll, soldiers in this position, who range in age from 25 to 59, said. Pvt. Volodymyr Murdza, 53, is halfway through his second three-year contract. His son is also serving in the war and his wife worries terribly, he said. “She calls and says, ‘I worry because you don’t call me,’” Murdza said. “And I say, ‘Dearest, sunshine, I call whenever I can.’”

The closeness of the lines is a continual source of unease, Murdza said. Just two days earlier, a soldier from another unit serving in a position 100 or so yards away was wounded from shrapnel from a mortar, after the Russian-backed separatists apparently ascertained its location.

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