The Ukrainian sergeant slid the captured Russian rocket launcher into the center of a small room. He was pleased. The weapon was practically brand-new. It had been built in 2020, and its thermobaric warhead was deadly against troops and armored vehicles.
But the sergeant, nicknamed Zmei, had no plans to fire it at advancing Russian soldiers or at a tank trying to burst through his unit's front line in eastern Ukraine.
Instead, he was going to use it as a bargaining chip.
Within the 93rd Mechanized Brigade, Zmei was not just a lowly sergeant. He was the brigade's point man for a wartime bartering system among Ukrainian forces. Prevalent along the front line, the exchange operates like a kind of shadow economy, soldiers say, in which units acquire weapons or equipment and trade them for supplies they need urgently.
Most of the bartering involves items captured from Russian troops. Ukrainian soldiers refer to them as "trophies."
"Usually, the trades are done really fast," Zmei said last week during an interview in Ukraine's mineral-rich Donbas region, where the 93rd is now stationed. "Let's just call it a simplification of bureaucracy."
Despite the influx of Western weapons and equipment in recent months, the Ukrainian military still relies heavily on arms and vehicles captured from their better-equipped Russian foe for the matériel needed to wage war; much of Ukraine's aging Soviet-era arsenal is either destroyed, worn down or lacks ammunition.
That has left Ukrainian soldiers scrounging the battlefield for essentials as their own supply lines are strained. And the relatively small numbers of big-ticket foreign weapons, such as the U.S.-made M777 howitzer, are spread thinly on the sprawling 1,500-mile front.
"We have hopes for Kyiv," said Fedir, one of the brigade's supply sergeants and an understudy of Zmei, referring to military commanders in the capital. "But we rely on ourselves. We aren't trying to just sit and wait like idiots until Kyiv sends us something."
The 93rd currently only possesses old Soviet-era artillery pieces that have worn out barrels and are low on ammunition.
"I have to go and buy everything and trade things, and bring it all here,"a 28-year-old Ukrainian soldier who goes by the name of Michael said.
"So what's going on is a personal initiative," he said. "You're taking the risk, it's criminal. Nobody will thank you. It's a thankless job."