AVDIIVKA, Ukraine – Machine gun fire broke the silence just after 8 p.m. when Captain Denis Branitskii was halfway through the evening patrol. The gunfire came in sporadic bursts and was nearby, fired by Russian-backed separatists whose positions were obscured in the dark. It wasn’t until the flash of a rocket-propelled grenade illuminated the freshly fallen snow that Captain Branitskii interrupted his stride, stopping briefly to take cover before continuing.
“It happens every night,” said Captain Branitskii, a chin-length company commander of the Ukrainian Army’s 25th Airborne Brigade, positioned along the front lines in eastern Ukraine. âSometimes it’s a lot heavier, sometimes it’s like tonight. Tonight everything is going well.
This is what war has been like for years, a slow and bloody struggle that ensued after the two sides fought to a standstill over territory seized by Russian-backed forces in 2014. Now Ukrainian and Western officials say something more worrying may be building.
In recent weeks, they have warned that Russia is erecting the architecture for significant military action, perhaps even a full-fledged invasion. US intelligence officials have estimated that Moscow has plans for a military offensive involving around 175,000 troops that should begin as early as next year. Recent satellite photos show an accumulation of equipment, including tanks and artillery.
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin countered that it was the Ukrainians and their American and Western European backers who started a war, citing what he called threats to Russia’s security, including drills. ‘NATO in the Black Sea.
Amid mounting anxiety, Mr. Putin and President Biden will speak via video conference on Tuesday. The White House said Mr. Biden would “reaffirm US support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Mr. Putin has made his position clear. âWe are not the ones threatening anyone,â he said last week, âand we blame this, given the reality on the ground, or as we say shift the blame from the sick person towards the healthy person, one, is at the very least irresponsible.
For fighters dug in an anthill of muddy trenches on both sides of the conflict in Ukraine, talking about a new war can seem confusing. For them, the old never ended. A 2015 ceasefire between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed forces in two separatist enclaves ended the most serious hostilities in a conflict that has left more than 13,000 dead. But it did not bring peace.
What is called the “line of contact” separating the two camps regularly crackles with gunfire punctuated by a few bursts of artillery. A handful of Ukrainian soldiers are killed each month, mostly by sniper fire. There were seven in September, two in October and six in November. Last week, a 22-year-old soldier named Valeriy Herovkin was the first killed in December.
Frontline soldiers have so far said they have seen little evidence of an escalation beyond this largely slow war of attrition. Compared to the vicious fighting that preceded it, it is a public holiday, several soldiers said.
But after eight years in the trenches, one wearily accepts that the status quo cannot last forever, that the Russian army, which surpasses its own in power and wealth, will likely come sooner or later. If that time is now near, they said, so be it.
“I went to college and my head is fucked up, so I fully recognize the danger of the Russian military, and no one can guarantee that Putin or anyone else will not suddenly say : âForward! Ivan Skuratovsky, a stoic 30-year-old father of two who has been fighting since the war began in 2014 to face this threat.
“Are we afraid of an open offensive? he added. “I just don’t see that in people.”
The soldiers are in any case on high alert, aware that in this period of explosive tensions, a bullet or a mortar shell can be enough to trigger a serious escalation. Even when they shoot them, they have strict orders not to respond unless absolutely necessary.
The night I joined Captain Branitskii on patrol, the forces under his command only responded once. “Just to let them know we’re here,” said Captain Branitskii. The grenade launcher hit from a Ukrainian soldier silenced machine gun fire from the other side, but only briefly.
âIt really annoys the soldiers that we are not allowed to respond,â Lt. Skuratovsky said.
As of August, the 25th Airborne Brigade has been stationed in an area on the outskirts of the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka known as Promzona, a base built in the skeletal remains of a tire factory. The site of heavy fighting at the start of the war, the factory complex is now eerily silent, save for the rush of the wind through the bullet holes and the slamming of loose metal sheets.
It adjoins a neighborhood of cottages, most of which have just burned shells now. The houses were abandoned quickly and a long time ago. Children’s toys can be seen strewn around some of the yards, and the offspring of abandoned pets roam the overgrown gardens.
Snipers are a constant threat, and the walls of frontline positions are displayed with photos of the horrific injuries sustained by those who have let their guard down.
Seen through a hand-held periscope, the landscape on the other side appears post-apocalyptic with blown-up houses amid groves of twisted, leafless walnut trees. Only an occasional puff of smoke from a wood-burning stove reveals the location of the separatists.
Although the fighters on the other side were only a few tens of meters away in some places, the Ukrainian soldiers confessed that they did not know more about them. The aversion to their enemy is severe even though they were once citizens of a united country. “These are the lowest strata of society who could not find their way into any other profession,” said Lt. Tatyana Zaritskaya, a former kindergarten teacher who joined the war effort in 2014.
Another company commander, Oleksandr Timoshchuk, studied his opponents from his perch in a corner of a factory building about 50 yards from where they are positioned. He said three or four times a month, probably around payday, “they start the disco,” get drunk and potty his position.
Understanding the escalating tensions over Ukraine
A separatist “gets drunk, probably goes out to relieve himself, throws a grenade and comes home,” he said.
The Ukrainian army has made significant progress since 2014, when it nearly disintegrated in the face of a blitz by Russian forces to seize the territory, first by annexing the Crimean peninsula, then by instigating a capture. of separatist control in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Ukrainian troops have since fought alongside NATO forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and have trained with US military advisers.
If an all-out attack does occur, Ukrainian forces are more prepared to deal with it than ever before, said General Oleksandr Pavlyuk, Operation Commander of the Joint Forces Fighting the Separatists. But even that, he admitted, will not be enough to push back the Russian military without significant help from Western countries, especially the United States.
Some military analysts have said that in the face of a full invasion by far superior forces, Ukraine will manage an organized retreat at best. General Pavlyuk cited the many Ukrainian citizens with military experience and suggested that the conflict could develop into something akin to an insurgency, with the Ukrainians fighting the Russians block by block and house by house.
But the war would have a disastrous toll.
“It is a beast that has tasted blood,” General Pavlyuk said. âBelieve me, the losses are going to be horrendous on both sides – thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. On their side and on ours.
For those on the front lines charged with paying attention, there is a subtle but palpable change in the air even if it goes unnoticed by regular soldiers.
“In the last month or month and a half, everything has become more frequent,” said a masked and helmeted military intelligence commander who would give his name only to Ilya. âBombings are more frequent, both by artillery and small arms. Drones have started to fly more often and while previously they weren’t dropping bombs, now they have devised a system to do so.
âIt’s full activation. “
Ilya’s team had turned the interior of a bombed-out apartment into an observation post on the front lines near the town of Marinka, 56 kilometers from Avdiivka. Part of the wall is still decorated with the pink wallpaper from the previous owner, but the living room window has been blown out and is now reinforced with sandbags and covered with a green netting. This advantage gives Ilya and his team an expansive view of their opponent’s positions.
Everything was calm. Or that’s what it seemed.
“Don’t lean too far, there might be a sniper,” Ilya warned. âJust two days ago a guy got shot and didn’t make it. “