In eastern Ukraine, trench warfare continues against a backdrop of fears of invasion



With his hoarse voice as a smoker, the middle-aged Ukrainian soldier urged a visitor to hurry up a stretch of muddy trench through an open clearing.

Gesturing east, he noticed that the snipers were hiding just a few hundred yards away.

“We have to run until we get under cover,” he said.

At the forefront of Ukraine’s long-running conflict with Russian-backed separatists, smells, sights and sounds are reminiscent in many ways of the trench warfare that took place in Western Europe more than a century ago during the First World War. World Cup. serve as an ominous precursor to what could have erupted in the continent’s first major land war in decades.

Although the world’s attention is facing high-risk diplomacy aimed at preventing a new Russian incursion, this forceful confrontation in eastern Ukraine has remained almost out of sight for years. , except for tired fighters and a handful of unfortunate civilians who have nowhere else to go. to go.

“It’s an experience I wouldn’t wish for my worst enemy,” said Sofia Anatolyevna, one of eight residents who remain in the “red zone,” a heavily militarized zone that includes the ruined village of Pisky. At 83, she is partially blind, with no relatives to help her, and no means to relocate. His son died in previous fights.

A building with broken windows.

The village of Pisky was destroyed during the fighting in 2014-15. It is located in the “red zone”, an area where no civilians are allowed, except for the eight villagers who decided to stay.

(Nils Adler / For The Times)

Sofia Anatoljevna is one of the eight villagers still living in Pisky.

Sofia Anatoljevna is one of the eight villagers still living in Pisky. He lost his son in the fight.

(Nils Adler / For The Times)

The fierce fighting that erupted eight years ago between Russian representatives and Ukrainian forces in two separatist states was, at least in part, eclipsed at the time by the capture and subsequent annexation of the Crimean peninsula, some 320 miles to the east. southwest, by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

That brazen prey provoked Western disapproval and harsh sanctions, but the strategic Black Sea peninsula remains firmly in Russian hands, and Putin – who sees the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 as one of the greatest catastrophes in history – has reiterated its insistence that Ukraine, an independent country of more than 40 million people, is inextricably linked to Russia.

For weeks now, the Russian leader has indicated that he may be willing to uproot another part of Ukraine. More than 100,000 Russian soldiers, with tanks and artillery, are concentrated near the borders of Ukraine, and the Kremlin has rejected both threats and calls from Western interlocutors.

The last of them arrived on Friday in Geneva, while U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Russian Secretary of State Sergei Lavrov met for 90 minutes with no outward signs of progress.

Moscow renewed its demand that NATO pledge that Ukraine will never become a member of the alliance; Blinken told Lavrov that he expected written responses from the United States to Russia’s proposals next week.

But public assessments of both U.S. and European officials have been bleak.

“My guess is that I think it will move,” President Biden said this week. when asked if Putin was likely to send troops despite US and European votes with serious but unspecified consequences in the event of an invasion.

Along the “line of contact” between the separatist forces of Ukraine and Russia in eastern Ukraine, the diplomatic maneuver may seem like an abstraction compared to the harsh realities of daily existence.

In Pisky, the rows of collapsed concrete apartment blocks and collapsed houses are witnessing a chaotic battle during 2014 and 2015, before a tenuous ceasefire settled.

But the struggle never stopped, a story not reconciled in a frozen landscape.

“There are no major changes here, there is always a danger for us,” said the 46-year-old Ukrainian soldier who was navigating the muddy trench, whose name was not allowed to be published by the rules of the army. Soldiers who have been identified in the news accounts have been found and their families attacked and threatened by online trolls.

On a sunny, cool morning this week, Snow covered the ground and slid inside the net meandering through narrow trenches. The Ukrainian defensive line runs along the length of the de facto border of the Donbass, the colloquial name of the Donets Basin, a mining and industrial region.

Ukrainian forces dug trenches by hand with shovels, often working under cover of darkness. Corrugated steel sheets cover the earthen walls of the ditch, but the roots and branches sink into large gaps. The wooden planks form an improvised path, but it moves dangerously underfoot with changing weather conditions: rain and snow, frost and frost.

Ukrainian troops are well aware of the harsh conditions dating back to the battles of a bygone era. The Canadian coaches they visited, they said, were amazed at what they saw, having never experienced trench warfare.

Every few hundred meters there are observation points where Ukrainian soldiers can see the movements of enemies through binoculars or periscopes. Unpredictability is stressful; sometimes there is fire coming in for days on end, followed by a week of silence.

These periods of calm are considered the most dangerous times, say the soldiers, because it is very easy to lower your guard. In the summer, under the cover of the long grass, separatist fighters can reach less than 50 meters from the trenches.

Frontline fatalities, from snipers and occasional bombings, are common. The non-commissioned officer showing a journalist had 29 comrades-in-arms he knew personally who had died in combat since 2014. He himself suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2015, when a shell fell near him, and passed two months in the hospital.

Data from monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, have recorded 80,000 explosions in separatist regions since 2018, when monitoring began. In all, the conflict has claimed more than 14,000 lives.

Frontline deprivations sometimes produce a strange but tender domesticity. An army couple named Nika and Alexander, who met five years ago, live together in a makeshift bunker. Her room is warm and well-lit with a comfortable bed.

He is 47 years old and she is 50; Nika says her field existence has been seen as a normal life.

Above his bunker house is a dining room and levers for other troops. Soldiers cook homemade food and play with adopted dogs, some of them descendants of abandoned pets whose owners fled.

Ukrainian soldiers walk through the destroyed village of Pisky.

Ukrainian soldiers walk through the destroyed village of Pisky.

(Nils Adler / For The Times)

In the trenches, there is little illusion about the strength of this defense force in the face of a large-scale invasion by the Russian army, much more powerful, if it occurs. But Ukrainian officials say the image of the battlefield is different from what it was in 2014.

Cmdr. Dzhemil Izmailov, who leads a mechanized infantry battalion in Ukraine, said the Russian army would face stiff resistance on the Donbas front, citing multiple lines of defense.

“We’re ready,” he said.

Putin observers have long said that betting on Ukraine has repercussions far beyond the region. Fiona Hill, author and former Russian affairs officer on the U.S. National Security Council, said Moscow’s measures posed a threat to the entire postwar order.

“If Russia can do that to Ukraine, what can prevent countries from doing that to their neighbors?” he told “Newsnight”, a BBC news program. “This is exactly what we fought two world wars: we had a whole system in place that we were supposed to resist … This is really one of those game changes at the international level.”

Special correspondent Adler reported from Avdiivka and the staff writer for the Times King of Washington.

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