As the world questions whether Russia could invade Ukraine, war breaks out in the part of the country that Kremlin-backed forces have already occupied.
A front line on Ukrainian soil, more than 260 miles long, separates the territory held by the Kiev government from that controlled by the so-called “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk
Although even Russia has not officially recognized these small breakaway states – located in eastern Ukraine next to the Russian border – Moscow funds, arms, and controls them effectively, and has distributed half a million of Russian passports to their residents.
According to US intelligence, Russia has now amassed up to 175,000 troops near its border with Ukraine. Russian state media are spreading belligerent rhetoric. On Tuesday, Joe Biden threatened severe sanctions against Moscow if those forces crossed the border. But in the trenches near Avdiivka, a government-held town just north of Donetsk, little has changed.
“The front line is not moving,” said Denys, Ukrainian army captain, as he waded through the mud, “but it is not a frozen conflict. Every day there is gunfire.
A ceasefire agreement signed in Minsk in 2015 only reduced the intensity of the fighting. For a proper settlement of the conflict, Russia wants Ukraine to offer the occupied areas broad autonomy, with a veto over foreign policy, blocking Ukraine’s progress towards integration with the EU and the United States. NATO.
The former industrial area of Avdiivka bears the scars of seven years of intense fighting. Ukrainian forces occupy a series of bombed-out factory buildings here – in some places the enemy is literally right on the other side of the wall.
Pieces of machinery and piping, riddled with holes, hang precariously from the ceilings and creak ominously. The areas between the buildings are strewn with scorched car wrecks, twisted into grotesque shapes by the explosions.
But while the soldiers here say the enemy’s tactics are highly unpredictable, they find the idea of a full-scale Russian invasion far-fetched.
“No one here believes it. They would suffer too much loss – sending body bags home. They don’t need that, ”said Myhailo, a lieutenant. (As a rule, Ukrainian soldiers do not give their last name, as many of them have relatives living in the occupied areas).
Perhaps such combat rhetoric is to be expected on the front line, where troops must maintain morale. However, Mariia Zolkina, a military analyst at a Kiev-based think tank, argues that, in fact, an invasion, rather than just threateningly moving troops, would not serve the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Besides the losses on the ground, she said, Mr Putin would almost certainly face stiff sanctions from the West, which would likely refuse to certify the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and rush to arm Ukraine – exactly what the Russian president wants to avoid.
Ukrainian experts believe that Russia is more likely to increase pressure on Ukraine through escalating fighting, but on a smaller scale, without sending regular troops.
If whatever happens, this is still roughly plausibly the work of Moscow’s “separatist” puppets, then it would not cross a “red line” and result in stronger action on the part of the Russian Federation. West, Zolkina adds – although the crisis may still be very serious for Ukraine and has put pressure on its president Volodymyr Zelensky to offer concessions.
Others in Kiev feel less secure. Volodymyr Yermolenko, Ukrainian writer and philosopher, stressed that an invasion would not necessarily take the form of ground troops suffering heavy casualties as they attempt to cross Ukrainian trenches. “These could be air strikes that quickly eliminate some key strategic targets.”
Once again, residents of the Ukrainian capital are checking the location of the bomb shelters in their buildings.
In Donbass itself, locals are weary of war, but even more so of rumors of a possible major escalation, which seem to occur every few months.
In downtown Avdiivka, just five kilometers from the apocalyptic landscape of the industrial zone, workers are repairing the sidewalk. People here tend to view the Ukrainian government with suspicion, but they are not fans of Mr Putin’s Russia – let alone separatist “republics” either. Most passers-by simply said that they had not watched the news.
Over coffee in Toretsk, another frontline town, community activist Andriy Grudkin calmly and convincingly explained all the reasons he believed Russia would not launch a full-scale invasion. But when asked if he had packed a suitcase to get away quickly if so, he quickly replied, “Yes, of course. “