Amid concerns about a large Russian troop buildup on the Ukrainian border, frontline fighters in the Donbas downplay warnings from Kyiv and Western intelligence agencies that Moscow may be planning a major new offensive.
“I personally don’t believe in the danger of some great invasion. I think it’s just game-playing. It was the same situation in April and May this year. There were all these rumors of a possible attack. That was just so Russia could ensure completion of its Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. This time, it’s probably just Putin trying to exert pressure again. From what I’ve heard, the Kremlin is trying to get a guarantee that NATO will not spread to Ukraine and other countries of the Eastern Partnership, like Georgia and Moldova.
“The fighting here comes in waves. Last week was the heaviest shelling I’ve experienced in this position. The pro-Russian forces were using SPG-9 recoilless guns. Then, for several days, we had near silence. To be frank, I feel a little afraid when it’s quiet here because I start to think, ‘Maybe they do have some kind of a plan.’ Just a low level of shelling feels a bit more comfortable.
“The other side often uses tricky tactics. For example, the OSCE observers fly their drones nearly every day to check the military positions. They announce to both sides that they are sending up their drone to check the positions of each side so we know it’s coming, but then the pro-Russian forces send up their drone immediately behind the OSCE one to make their own observations, and we aren’t allowed to shoot in that direction.”
“The Russian Army isn’t prepared for war. They haven’t got field hospitals or fuel tankers ready, and they don’t have many soldiers or vehicles prepared. They would need 300,000 to 400,000 troops to attack; now they have just 100,000 massed. I think that would be the number needed for Kyiv alone. We have many layers of defense.
“If we don’t come here to the front now, we will die back in our houses later. There’s a Ukrainian saying: He who does not defend his family in peacetime will eat his children in times of trouble. It’s a reference to the Holodomor. If a Russian guy comes along and wants to drink some vodka and party, that’s fine. But if he comes to my home with weapons, I’ll kill him.
“Here the enemy is using sniper rifles and machine guns every day, and sometimes they use RPGs. Last week, they used 82mm mortars near here. This situation won’t change anytime soon. The Russian Federation isn’t ready for an attack, in my opinion. It’s just a message being sent because conflict is an extension of politics. Everything will be OK.”
Iryna (no age given)
“I think if an invasion happened right now, a lot of people would die. More than in 2014. There would be a lot of blood. It would be terrible.
“But, of course, most soldiers don’t believe an invasion is coming. The front line doesn’t feel any different now than before. Another reason they don’t buy these rumors is because there are a lot of lies in our country. Everyone in powerful positions lies. Our president promised to end the war within a week of coming to power. Now, two years on, here we are.
“I don’t think financial sanctions against Russia would change anything. It’s like these Minsk agreements. They don’t actually do much. People write something on paper, but in reality here at the front line the situation is the same. There are still heavy-caliber weapons being used. Maybe an invasion will come, but it will be some time from now.”
“All I know is that the people will stay and protect their land. The veterans who were on the front in 2014 when the war was starting have gone home, but if an invasion comes, they will return here to fight.
“In the early morning when you were sleeping in the house, two RPGs landed near here, but these things are normal. I can’t say there has been any strange activity recently. Sometimes from here you can hear enemy tanks firing up their engines. Tank motors have a very specific sound. They do it more often in the colder weather.
“I’ve had a lot of close calls. Once, I was sitting on top of an armored vehicle and I spotted an enemy tank. Then I watched its gun tracking our vehicle. I just put my lighter between my teeth, bit down, and I prayed to God. It didn’t fire.
“I don’t think sanctions will change anything. Russia is a rich country. The Ukrainian president and the deputies need to make serious decisions. One day I want to swim in a free Crimea.”
Editor’s Note: Several photos in this story were shot using a large-format FKD camera made in the Ukrainian S.S.R. in 1972. The camera gives the images an increased sense of depth and, in some cases, visual imperfections.