By Georgi Kantchev

April 28, 2021

The Wall Street Journal


AVDIIVKA, Ukraine—Arthur Volodymyrovych ducked his head down as he walked along the bottom of a trench last week, hoping to avoid sniper fire from Russia-backed separatists positioned less than 900 feet away.


He has been stationed here as a soldier with Ukraine’s armed forces for five months—the trenches for far longer.


The rules of engagement are simple.


“When they attack us with fire, we respond with fire. And so it goes on,” said Mr. Volodymyrovych, whose unit’s sleeve patch reads, “Ukraine or Death,” emblazoned over a skull. “I don’t see an end to this war soon,” he said.


Seven years ago, pro-Russia separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine declared their independence, backed and armed by Moscow, which also seized the Crimean peninsula.


Since then, cease-fires have been signed and broken and more than 14,000 people killed. Russia has moved its forces in and out of the border region, most recently this month. Peace talks have sputtered; in recent days, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky,  have signaled a willingness to meet but haven’t agreed on where or when.


Instead, Mr. Volodymyrovych and his colleagues find themselves on edge as Europe’s only active armed conflict intensifies, threatening to draw in the U.S. and its allies, as Russia expands its influence across the region while Ukraine tries to build new alliances with the West.


“This is the first stage of a return to a Soviet Union 2.0,” said Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president until 2019, in an interview. “That’s why there is all of this aggression, all of these military attacks. All of these things are only to renew the Russian empire.”


“There is no room for a win-win solution,” said Vladimir Frolov, a former senior Russian diplomat. “Somebody has to lose.”


Ukrainian officials and security analysts say Russia’s recent troop buildup near the border was aimed at pressuring Mr. Zelensky and warning him off his objective of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It was also designed to test the Biden administration’s support for Ukraine, which Russia has long regarded as part of its historic sphere of influence, they say.


In Kyiv, some officials say a lasting peace is out of reach in the near term. “The conflict with Russia will continue in the next 10 to 15 years. They will not leave us alone,” said Oleksiy Arestovych, a national security adviser to the Zelensky administration.


According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors the standoff, there have been nearly 9,000 cease-fire breaches so far in April, compared with around 3,000 a month earlier this year. Ukraine says more than 30 of its soldiers have been killed so far this year. Military analysts estimate there are now 30,000 troops lined up on each side along the front line in Ukraine.


Western officials estimate that Russia had separately deployed some 100,000 troops to its border with Ukraine in the past month in what Moscow said were drills in response to NATO activity near Russia’s borders, including in the Black Sea. Russia has said the drills are now over and it would withdraw some of its troops, but Mr. Zelensky on Tuesday warned Ukrainian forces to stay on guard.


“The fact that troops are being withdrawn does not mean that the army shouldn’t be ready for their possible return,” he said while visiting Ukrainian positions near Crimea.


Ukraine’s short-term objective is to de-escalate the fighting along the front line near Adviivka and other posts that have come under intense fire in recent weeks. Talks on long-term peace are continuing, though a previous meeting between Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Putin, brokered by France and Germany in 2019, failed to yield a lasting result, and since then both sides have hardened their positions.


Moscow in recent years has issued over 600,000 Russian passports to residents of the separatist-controlled areas, which together are around the same size as Connecticut. A Ukrainian intelligence official said Russia has also begun sending more military instructors and hardware to the separatists in recent months, a charge that Moscow denies.


Mr. Zelensky, a former television comedian who was elected on a pledge to bring peace to the region, has called for more active U.S. involvement in the peace process and a fast track to joining NATO.


He has also moved to curb the influence of pro-Russia politicians in Ukraine, including Viktor Medvedchuk, a close friend of Mr. Putin’s who has seen three of his television stations closed and his assets frozen.


Ruslan Ivanovych, a Ukrainian soldier, says he misses his family but someone has to watch the front line.

Kyiv wants to revise a 2015 peace agreement that foresaw Ukraine giving more autonomy to the rebel regions, fearing it would provide Russia a permanent beachhead in Ukraine and scuttle its chances of acceding to NATO.


Underscoring the gulf between Kyiv and Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday that Russia wouldn’t accept Mr. Zelensky’s efforts to change the deal.


When he was elected, “Zelensky had no practical political experience. And initially he failed with Putin, because Putin benefits from the war,” Mr. Arestovych said. “Now the rose-colored-glasses period is over. Zelensky has no illusions anymore.”


Along the front line, residents have become inured to the ebbs and flows of the conflict. Many are skeptical about the prospects for peace.


Ivan Balastrov, who sells $1 broomsticks on the side of a pothole-lined road in Zaitseve, a hardscrabble village less than 10 miles from the front line, says he has gotten used to the sound of shelling.


“Tension always hangs over us here. We want peace of course,” Mr. Balastrov said. “But who can bring peace? Joe Biden, can you bring peace?”


Ukrainian soldiers say they feel the same way.


Mr. Volodymyrovych, who has served in the army since 2007, said that being in the trenches has become such a habit that “it’s boring to be home.” A typical tour here can last eight months and while most troops are professional soldiers, some are conscripts.


His colleague, Ruslan Ivanovych, says the conflict is now older than his 5-year-old daughter. “I miss my family but someone has to watch out for them,” he said, pointing to the opposing lines.


The soldiers live in what was once the sprawling coal mine of Butovka. It once employed 1,500 people in this coal-rich region. Now it is a war relic, pockmarked with bullet holes. The remains of its steel frameworks are rotting. Land mines litter the terrain.


“While I cook porridge or borscht soup, I often hear the shelling,” operations manager Tetiana Hryhoriivna said, as she showed off a makeshift kitchen and a small pantry containing eggs, pickles and canned meats.


Back in the trenches outside the mine, Mr. Ivanovych lighted a cigarette and tapped on his rifle.


“I’m hoping the war will end one day,” he said. “But I can’t think of peace while I’m being shot at.