The issue of whether Russia will attack Ukraine is not hypothetical for Misha Novitskyi. The opponent is only 50 meters away, hidden behind a concrete slab. Russian sounds drift hauntingly across a cold wasteland of jagged trees and brush from time to time.
“You can see the smoke when they ignite their stoves,” Novitskyi, a senior lieutenant in the Ukrainian army, said from what is effectively Europe’s eastern front with Russia. “Every day, they shoot at us,” he claimed.
The confrontation between Kyiv and pro-Russian rebels has lasted over eight years. There are echoes of the First World War. Both sides are fighting along a fixed 250-mile “border,” or line of contact, that runs across Ukraine’s Donbas area.
There are muddy trenches, reinforced command posts, and shell-damaged structures. Novitskyi is defending a defunct textile mill. It is now a desolate ruin with no roof. Someone has scrawled a helpful reminder on a wall: “Fuck up and you die.
Everything is tranquil until it isn’t. On Thursday morning, Ukrainian troops were making their way to a neighboring frontline position overlooking Donetsk. The separatists are based at the airport’s wreckage, along what was once the runway. Three shots were fired: sniper rounds.
The troops accelerated their speed. A pheasant emerged from a yellow field delineated by red markings indicating the presence of mines and explosive ordnance. Metal cables link the brigade’s advanced post — an anthill-like embankment with bunkers and ladders – to the village headquarters nearby.
Much of the diplomacy over the last week is also evocative of a bygone era. Putin has made no secret of his disdain for Ukraine. In his opinion, it is sub-sovereign: less of a country, more of a permanent zone of Russian imperial power and authority.
Putin captured Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and deployed rebel proxies in Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk, both of which border Russia. What Putin wants to do next is worisomely uncertain.
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