Alert in Ukraine as Russian forces mass at the border

MARIUPOL, UKRAINE – There are booms that resonate again and parents can tell their children that they are just fireworks. There are the drones with which the separatists began to fly behind the lines at night and dropped mines. There are the fresh ditches that the Ukrainians can see as their enemy digs, the rise of the sniper’s fire sweeping them into theirs.

But perhaps the strongest evidence that the seven-year war in Ukraine could enter a new phase is what Captain Mikola Levytskyi’s Coast Guard unit saw cruising the Azov Sea, just outside the port city of Mariupol last week: Russian flotilla amphibian attack ships.

Since the beginning of the war in 2014, Russia has been putting pressure on Ukraine under the pretext of a separatist conflict after its westward revolution, supplying arms and people to the country’s eastern Kremlin-backed rebels while denying any involvement.

Few Western analysts believe the Kremlin is planning an invasion of eastern Ukraine given the expected downturn at home and abroad. But with Ukraine’s large-scale Russian team-building on land and at sea on the verge of Ukraine, there is a widespread view among officials and the Ukrainian public that Moscow is more blunt than ever ready to enter the conflict openly.

“These ships pose a specific threat to the Russian state,” Captain Levytskyi said as the motorboat’s engines swirled as he sailed the Sea of ​​Azov after pointing to a Russian patrol boat six miles from shore. – It’s a much more serious threat.

Many Ukrainian military officials and volunteer fighters say they still consider it unlikely that Russia will openly invade Ukraine and that they see no evidence of an impending offensive among the assembled Russian forces. But they speculate on other options, including the possible recognition or annexation of Russia in areas owned by separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainians are awaiting President Vladimir Putin’s annual nation-state speech in Russia on Wednesday, which is often a matter full of geopolitical signals, and will get clues about what follows.

“I feel confused, I feel tension,” said Alexander Tkachenko, Ukraine’s Minister of Culture and Information Policy, in an interview.

Mr Tkachenko listed some invasion scenarios: a three-pronged Russian attack from the north, south and east; attack on the territory owned by the separatists; and an attempt to intercept the water supply of the Dnieper River in Crimea.

Russia, for its part, has done little to hide the recovery, insisting on mobilizing troops in response to increased military activity by NATO and Ukraine in the region.

Ukrainian officials deny their plans to escalate the war, but there is no question that President Volodymyr Zelensky has taken a tougher line against Russia in recent months.

Mr Zelensky shut down pro-Russian television channels and imposed sanctions on Putin’s closest Ukrainian ally. He also spoke more openly than before about Ukraine joining NATO. This is a distant possibility that the Kremlin nevertheless sees as a serious threat to Russia’s security.

In recent days, interviews with frontline units in the 150-mile region of eastern Ukraine have underscored the rapidly growing tensions over Europe’s only active armed conflict. Officials and volunteers acknowledge the fear of Russian troop movements, and civilians feel numb and hopeless after seven years of war. This year, at least 28 Ukrainian soldiers have died in the fighting, the military says.

“We live in sadness,” said Anna Dikareva, a 48-year-old postal employee in the industrial city of Avdiivka, where people are barely alarmed when shells explode in the distance. “I don’t want a war, but we won’t resolve it peacefully.”

There was a ceasefire for most of last year.

Mr. Zelensky, a television comedian elected in 2019 on the promise of ending the war, held step-by-step talks with the Kremlin to alleviate the hardships of frontal residents and find a way out of the conflict that killed more than 13,000 people. people. However, it is unacceptable for Kiev to stick to Russia’s policies, which essentially give a say in the future of eastern Ukraine.

“The hope that Zelensky had to resolve this issue did not happen,” said Mr Tkachenko, a long-term staff member of the Minister of Information and the President.

Instead, the fighting picked up again.

Along the roughly 250-mile front, the labyrinths of ditches and fortifications of Ukrainians are now so well-founded that in a tunnel near Avdiivka, soldiers put up multicolored Christmas lights to toss up the darkness. The city is located only a few miles north of the city of Donetsk, the main base of the separatists.

Soldiers in their hillside fighting position, looking at the growing separatist position of T-shaped trees, described the voices of separatist drones that they believed were carrying land mines dropped about a mile behind the line. Since December and January, they said the snipers ’fire had increased from the other side and they could see the trenchers digging new trenches.

Above the skull, the following inscription reads on their shoulder patches: “Ukraine or death.

“The enemy has been activated recently,” said one of the 58-year-old soldiers, nicknamed a “professor” who said he would not give his full name for security reasons.

In Avdiivka, a volunteer unit of the Ukrainian ultranationalist Right Sector keeps a domestic wolf in a cage in front of the commander’s office. Commander Dmytro Kotsyubaylo – named Guerre Da Vinci – jokes that the warriors are feeding the bones of Russian-speaking children, a reference to the tropics of Russian state media about the evil of Ukrainian nationalists.

Both sides accused each other of violating the ceasefire, but Mr Kotsyubaylo said that, unfortunately, his fighters could only shoot in response to attacks by the separatist side.

On a video screen above his desk, Mr Kotsyubaylo presented high-resolution drone footage depicting quidian violence just 400 miles from the European Union’s borders. In one order, the two mortar circles of his unit explode around the separatist trenches; naked man shows up, sprinting. In another, an explosion can be seen according to his position as a separatist sniper; the clearing smoke reveals a body covered with yellow powder.

Asked what to expect for the next event, Mr Kotsyubaylo replied: ‘full war’.

Mr Kotsyubaylo said he believed Russian troop movements north and south of the separatist area were an act aimed at pulling Ukrainian forces off the front line. He said he expects Russia to launch a more offensive using separatist proxies in the self-nominated Donetsk and Lugansk “People’s Republics,” allowing Mr Putin to continue to claim that the war is an internal Ukrainian affair.

“If Russia wanted to do it in secret, I would do it in secret,” Mr Kotsyubaylo said of the mass troops. “They will do everything we can to see them and show how good Putin is.”

According to the peace plan negotiated in Minsk in Belarus in 2015, heavy weapons from both sides should be placed well behind the front line.

Ukrainian artillery is now stationed in places like a Soviet-era tractor track in an on-the-road village reached by treacherous dirt roads, an hour’s drive from Mariupol. Colonel Andrii Shubin, the base commander, said he was ready to send his artillery weapons and radar trucks to deploy American weapons to the front as soon as the order was received.

Ukrainian officials say they are not relocating in response to the Russian structure and that current team movements are normal rotations.

On Monday, dozens of tanks and armored vehicles could be seen in motion in the southwestern part of the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, controlled by the government. Soldiers relaxed on cribs at a village train station under graffiti that obsessively referred to Mr. Putin.

Around the region, from Mariupol’s fashionable waterfront to Avdiivka’s cracked-scarred street, many residents said they were so exhausted in the war that they didn’t even want to consider the possibility of fighting again.

Lena Pisarenko, a 45-year-old Russian teacher in Avdiivka, said she never stopped having an emergency water supply in her pots and bottles at hand in all her apartments and balconies. During the shooting at the height of the war, he created a ritual to calm his children: playing board games and drinking tea while three candles burned three times. Then it was time to go to bed.

Another woman passing by, 41-year-old Olga Volvach, said she paid little attention to the recent increase in projectiles.

“The insulation of our balcony door sounds good,” he said.

Maria Varenikova contributed to the accounts of Mariupol in Ukraine.