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In the far east of Ukraine, the Kiev army is bracing for all eventualities as Russia is accused of deploying tens of thousands of troops near its border.
“Our task is that they do not go further,” said Taras Mykytseï, a soldier stationed in the trenches in eastern Ukraine. Fearing a Russian invasion, Ukrainian soldiers prepare to face it.
Under the gray April sky, birdsong can be heard, giving a certain illusion of tranquility that does not fool anyone, while clashes with pro-Russian separatists are almost daily on the front line, with their share of victims.
This week, “a soldier was killed, two others wounded in our battalion”, tells AFP Yuri, a 43-year-old bearded man, posted on the Ukrainian positions in the village of Zaïtsevé, about thirty kilometers from Donetsk, one of the strongholds of the separatists.
In question, the explosion of a POM-2 antipersonnel mine, supplied by Russia to the separatists, assures the soldier, which affected the soldiers stationed near a crossing point.
“The largest number of casualties are caused by snipers,” said Vladyslav, another 28-year-old soldier, however.
The separatists are trying “to inflict maximum losses on the Ukrainian forces to provoke a response,” said the deputy commander of the Kiev military operation in the east, Viktor Ganushchak, who also accuses the adversary of using civilian infrastructure as cover.
Resurgence of violence
Ukrainian forces have been battling pro-Russian rebels in the east of the country since 2014, in a war that has left more than 13,000 dead. After months of relative calm, violence has increased dramatically since the start of the year, as Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops at the border for what it describes as “military exercises”.
According to Kiev, around 30 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed on the front lines since the start of the year, compared to 50 for the whole of 2020. The rebels have reported at least 20 dead in their ranks since January.
For weeks, Kiev has said it fears an outright Russian invasion, and accuses the Kremlin of seeking, with the separatists, to provoke a casus belli which would justify such a military intervention.
Moscow has so far been content, according to Kiev and the West, to financially and militarily support the separatists while still denying any presence of its forces on the front.
Blowing hot and cold for the past two weeks, Russia has ensured that it does not “threaten anyone” while accusing Kiev of “provocations”, against the backdrop of heightened tensions with the United States.
“We have to rely on our own strength”
Russia is “massing” its troops and “nobody knows its intentions,” said Taras Mykytseï. “Our task is not to allow a breakthrough by the enemy”, or at least “to inflict maximum losses on them until the reinforcements arrive,” he said, before adding: “I think that we will get there.”
While the government hopes for Western support beyond words, or even integrate NATO, its soldiers prefer to rely only on themselves.
For Alik, the help of the “allies” – NATO and Washington – is welcome, but the war is above all the business of the Ukrainians. “This is our land, our Ukraine, we must defend our country,” he said.
“We have to rely on our own forces. Which foreign country will wish to send its soldiers to die?” Said Yuri, a sergeant stationed near the village of Shchatsia, in the Louhansk region, another stronghold of the separatists.