Near the frontline in eastern Ukraine, snipers and scepticism abound

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By Stefan Weichert; Emil Filtenborg
22-year-old Lieutenant Oleksiy
22-year-old Lieutenant Oleksiy   -   Copyright  Emil Filtenborg

Inside an old industrial complex in the city of Avdiivka, a few kilometres from the frontline in eastern Ukraine, the wreckage of trucks and discarded machinery litter the floor.

Signs on the way warn of the danger of snipers, and doors in the old factory hall are riddled with bullet holes from a war that has killed 14,000 people since 2014, according to the United Nations.

It broke out in 2014 after Moscow annexed Crimea and Russian-backed separatists declared two regions in eastern Ukraine -- Donetsk and Luhansk -- independent from Kyiv.

Separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces ever since, although the intensity has reduced in recent years amid attempts at finding a peace deal.

Avdiivka is quiet for now, but the US has warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is imminent. Moscow has repeatedly denied that allegation.

Lieutenant Oleksiy, 22, navigating his way through a slippery factory hall, told Euronews the situation was tense.

“Every day they open fire from enemy positions - sometimes it is aimed, sometimes not,” he said. “They're trying to catch us somewhere. Very often they show their presence here. They don't hide anything.”

He says the biggest problem in 2022 is snipers. Another soldier, setting up a periscope at an outpost, shows the Russian-backed separatist positions 70 metres away.

“We try to move as little as possible but they try to lure us. They will shoot somewhere in some direction and the sniper will sit and wait until we come out to fire back. Then they take a shot,” Oleksiy adds.

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UkraineEuronews

The soldiers here don’t believe that Russia will launch a new invasion of Ukraine despite the more than 100,000 Russian troops near the Ukrainian border with artillery, missiles, and aircraft. Russia has said in recent days that troops are returning to their garrisons, but NATO and the US say they have yet to see any evidence of this.

NATO has said that they will not send soldiers to Ukraine in case of a Russian invasion. Instead, Western countries have been warning of harsh sanctions such as the closure of the gas pipeline Nord Stream 2, personally targeted sanctions towards the Kremlin officials, and the possibility of disconnecting Russia from the Swift banking system.

'Absolutely united'

In recent days, there have been several meetings between the Western countries, trying to prepare sanctions. Among other things, after a visit to the US, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that Germany and the US are "absolutely united" in their response to Russia.

Earlier this week, French President Emmanuel Macron visited his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss a way forward to avoid war. Russia has been demanding security guarantees from the West such as stopping NATO enlargement, limiting military drills in Eastern Ukraine, and publicly stating that Ukraine will never become part of NATO.

The US has refused those demands.

Emil Filtenborg
The Ukrainian army positions here in the so-called ‘Industrial Zone’ were set up back in 2016. It used to be a buffer zone.Emil Filtenborg

The trenches are muddy, slippery, and deep. The soldiers are spread across several positions with the enemy nearby. The landscape is covered in either snow and ice or mud. The 44-year-old Sergeant Oleg stands in a post at the end of a long trench.

“The situation now is stable and calm,” says Oleg, who has heard the news about a potential new Russian invasion of Ukraine, “This news is not news to us. It does not affect us. Russia might attack, but we won't. My opinion is that Russia will not attack.”

“Our business is to stand here in positions, which is what I am doing. The rest, everything around, that is none of our business,” he said.

A few kilometres from the frontline, Olga Popova, 50, spends most of her day trying to help elderly people in Avdiivka including her mother.

“I have spent time in Russia before and I can tell you this,” Popova said, “No common people on this side of the border or in Russia wants this war. It is about politics.”

Popova said that she dreams of peace but knows that it might not be possible.

“Us, who are here, we have no influence.”

Emil Filtenborg
50-year-old Olga Popova in AvdiivkaEmil Filtenborg

One of the issues between Russia and Ukraine is the so-called Minsk II peace deal, signed in 2015, which halted much of the fighting in eastern Ukraine and aimed to set a roadmap for lasting peace.

But Russia and Ukraine have interpreted the deal differently. Minsk II says that there should be a vote in the separatist-held areas to decide their future, but while Ukraine wants to regain full control before such a vote, Russia says that they should be held as the situation is now.

“The war was so terrible back in 2015. I cannot think about it even starting again,” said Popova.

Walking outside among abandoned houses and factory buildings, Lieutenant Oleksiy said that he understands that many locals here simply just want peace. The situation for the people near the frontline has deteriorated as investment has stopped, factories have closed and jobs have been lost.

Many communities here are struggling with a lack of water and power cuts. Oleksiy said that he can understand that residents want peace but he doesn’t believe Ukraine can sacrifice too much to get it.

“We need to take back our territories. When Ukraine gets back its territories, then peace will come," he said. “When everything returns to the boundaries of 2013, then it will all be over.”

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