Luke Harding in Avdiyivka, with pictures by Volodymyr Yurchenko
10 Dec 2021
For Misha Novitskyi, the question of whether Russia will invade Ukraine is not theoretical. The enemy is just 50 metres away behind a concrete slab. From time to time Russian voices float eerily across a wintry no man’s land of ragged trees and scrub.
“When they light their stoves you can see the smoke,” Novitskyi – a senior lieutenant in the Ukrainian army – said, speaking from what is in effect Europe’s eastern front with Russia. He added: “Every day they shoot at us.”
The conflict between Kyiv and pro-Russian separatists has gone on for nearly eight long years. There are first world war echoes. Both sides face off along a fixed 250-mile “border”, or line of contact, which snakes across Ukraine’s Donbas region.Advertisementhttps://bb32ba9fd6ebb91f1dce421669038659.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
There are muddy trenches, fortified command posts and buildings smashed up by shell fire. Novitskyi defends a former textiles factory. It is now a ghostly and roofless ruin. On a wall someone has scrawled a helpful reminder: “Fuck up and you die.”
All is quiet until it isn’t. On Thursday morning Ukrainian soldiers were making their way towards a nearby frontline position overlooking the city of Donetsk. The separatists are based at its wrecked airport, along what was once the runway. Three shots rang out: sniper rounds.
The soldiers quickened their pace. A pheasant rose from a yellow field marked out with red signs warning of mines and unexploded ordnance. Old-fashioned metal wires connect the brigade’s forward post – an ant-hill-like embankment with bunkers and ladders – to its nearby village HQ.
Much of the diplomacy of the past week is reminiscent of a bygone age, too. Vladimir Putin has made no secret of his contempt for Ukraine. It is, in his view, sub-sovereign: less of a country, more an enduring zone of Russian imperial influence and control.
In 2014 Putin seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and installed separatist proxies in Donetsk and neighbouring Luhansk, adjoining Russia. What Putin intends next is worryingly unclear.
The signs are ominous. This autumn Moscow has amassed troops and heavy weapons right across Ukraine’s borders. Satellite images showing about 175,000 Russian soldiers have spooked the US and its allies. It remains unclear whether this is a negotiating tactic or buildup to invasion.
On Tuesday Joe Biden spoke to Putin for two hours via video link. The US president reaffirmed his commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity. But he refused to offer Putin what he wants: a cast-iron guarantee that Kyiv will never join Nato.
Biden on Thursday briefed Ukraine’s comedian turned president Volodymyr Zelenskiy on his talks with his Russian counterpart. Eastern European nations are concerned. They fear the US is preparing to “accommodate” the Kremlin’s apparent security concerns – thereby rewarding Moscow for solving a problem it created.
Why Putin has chosen this moment to escalate tensions is a mystery. One theory is that he realises Ukraine is moving inexorably away from Moscow’s orbit. For his part, Novitskyi rejected Putin’s recent assertion made in an essay that Ukraine and Russia are “a single people”.
Novitskyi said: “Russia is stuck in the Soviet past. Ukraine is travelling in another direction, towards the west and Europe. We are an independent nation.
“Russia and Ukraine are not one people but black and white, yin and yang.”
Earlier this week Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, toured the frontline where Novitskyi is based, at an industrial area in the city of Avdiyivka. A little way to the south is Donetsk, under rebel control since 2014.
Reznikov predicts there will be a bloody massacre, should Moscow attack, with both sides taking huge casualties. For now, nobody knows whether Putin’s tanks will advance here, across a landscape of vast black fields, belching chimney stacks and Orthodox churches adorned with glinting gold cupolas.
The existing conflict might seem retro in nature, but this is very much a 21st-century war. “We have better weapons than in the past,” Lt Alexander Tymoshuk pointed out, standing in a trench corridor fixed up with netting and reinforced with metal plates.
In the first world war, reconnaissance involved sending out groups of men. Now surveillance cameras could detect any movement or intrusion, Tymoshuk noted. Ukraine recently used for the first time a Turkish-made drone to blow up a Russian-made howitzer.
Paradoxically, those serving on the Ukrainian frontline say they are unworried by the threat of invasion. They claim Kyiv’s army is stronger, more experienced and better equipped than it was eight years ago, when it crumpled under superior Russian firepower.
According to Vitaly Barabash, Avdiyivka’s mayor, Russia would soon find itself embroiled in a partisan war, were it to grab more territory. He estimated about 300,000 military veterans would pick up weapons – in contrast to 2014, when some of the patriotic volunteers who fought and died were IT workers from Kyiv.
Too much blood had already been spilled on the front, he said, and on the Maidan, the central square in Kyiv where in 2014 anti-government protesters ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych. He added: “We won’t go back to Russia. Nobody wants to be Putin’s slave.”
As Biden prepares to hold further talks with Moscow, including over Nato, people continue to die. Since September, 16 members of the Ukrainian forces have been killed, including a 22-year-old private shot dead last week. Most are killed by snipers or IEDs. Others are wounded.
“It’s really hard to take casualties. Some strings in me are broken. I’ve become more cynical,” Lt Ivan Skuratovsky said, showing off his basement living quarters. Two cats dozed on his bed. The base has a small library and mess room, its wooden pillars decorated with drawings sent by Ukrainian schoolchildren.
The civilian cost of this unresolved conflict with Russia has been enormous. The villages directly in range of hostile fire are mostly abandoned, though a few elderly residents refuse to leave. The frontline runs through Timiryazev Street, named after a Russian botanist.
The street’s once-pleasant dachas are all wrecks. The gardens survive. In summer the soldiers gather walnuts, as they thread their way past on patrol. They also look after the dogs left behind when their owners left in a hurry, never to come back. In the absence of humans nature has flourished, with the odd blue tit and many crows.
Since the war began, Avdiyivka’s character has changed. According to Mariia Lepilova, a former teacher, the younger generation is more pro-Ukrainian. Donbas was once mostly Russian-speaking. There had been a switch to the Ukrainian language in schools and shops, she said. Children learn Ukrainian in class from the age of six or seven.
Lepilova said she was forced to leave the town in the winter of 2014, when shelling made living there impossible. “There was no power. Our house was hit. My 10-year-old daughter was very afraid. Almost everyone left,” she said. Fighting broke out again in 2017. Since then much of the population has come back, with flats rebuilt and new investment.
Like many in the town she has relatives living in Donetsk, a pro-Russian enclave known as the DNR or Donetsk People’s Republic. She can no longer visit them but speaks on the phone. “We avoid politics and talk about our kids,” she said. “People can get used to anything,” she added.Advertisementnull
Previously, residents of Avdiyivka visited Donetsk to go to restaurants or the cinema, or to support the city’s famous football team, FC Shakhtar Donetsk, which played in the Donbas Arena. The nearest McDonald’s is now 190 miles away in the city of Kharkiv.
Lepilova said she missed the cultural life in the big city and its museum, especially its collection of Dutch paintings and Greek sculpture. “It’s the city of my youth,” she said. Moscow’s attempt to claim the region for itself had pushed people towards embracing a Ukrainian identity, she added.
Back on the airport frontline there was more sniper fire. The local brigade commander, Maj Sergei Kozachok, said his men were ready for anything the Russian side might throw at them. The separatists were constantly fortifying their positions, he said, with no visible increase in activity this week.
Kozachok said his soldiers obeyed the Minsk ceasefire agreement, signed by Kyiv in 2015 under intense Russian pressure. It forbids the use of heavy weapons. Recent tensions have brought the treaty to the brink of collapse. The Ukrainian side did not fire back, he claimed, despite repeated “provocations”.
What would his message to Putin be, in the unlikely event they were to meet face to face? Kozachok thought for a moment and smiled. He answered: “I would punch him on the ear.”
Full article with excellent photos and video, can be seen here :