After two years of fighting, every day continues to bring new casualties and many fear a new Russian-backed offensive
From the top of the nine-storey building in Avdiyivka, Sergei Veremeyenko and his men can see the separatist capital of Donetsk just a few miles away. Avdiyivka has been on the frontline between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces for the past two years and fighting has intensified recently in the “industrial zone” on the outskirts of town.
The war in east Ukraine rarely makes the headlines two years on, but every day brings new casualties. The situation is at its most tense since the end of large-scale fighting in February 2015. Russian claims to have foiled a “terror plot” in Crimea earlier this month, followed by strong rhetoric from the president, Vladimir Putin, led many in Kiev and the west to worry that a major new Russian-backed offensive could be imminent.
Avdiyivka is one of the first places where such a move would be visible. Clambering up a ladder to the roof, Veremeyenko pointed out what he said was the closest separatist position, just over a kilometre away. A few kilometres in the opposite direction are the twin towers of Donetsk airport, seized by separatist forces last January after an epic, bloody battle lasting several months.
Sergei Veremeyenko, left, looks out over separatist positions from the top of an apartment block in Avdiyivka. Photograph: Shaun Walker for the Guardian
Shortly the airport and other territory was seized by the separatists, backed by a contingent of regular Russian troops who the Kremlin denies were there, a peace deal was signed in Minsk. Full-scale fighting has stopped since then, but skirmishes continue on almost a daily basis. August has been the worst month for a long time.
The unarmed monitoring mission from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) logs hundreds of explosions a day. It is not full-blown war, but it is not much of a ceasefire, either.
Every day, one or two people are killed or injured on the Ukrainian side around Avdiyivka, according to Veremeyenko. The separatist side also reports frequent losses. On Thursday, when the Guardian visited the apartment block where Veremeyenko’s group are based, it was shaken by what the men believed to be mortar fire from separatist positions. They claim they have strict orders not to fire and only respond to attacks. The separatist side says the same.
“We noticed an intensification of activity in the last few days; they even drove up tanks to their forward positions, just so we could see them,” said Viktor Shotropa, who leads Veremeyenko’s group, which is part of the Kiev Regiment, initially a volunteer battalion that was later given official status as part of the Ukrainian interior ministry.
“But mainly I think they are just firing out of boredom. In order to actually seize more territory, they would need a full-blown invasion, with the full support of the Russian army,” he said.
Events over the past fortnight have put everyone on edge, however. Earlier this month, Russia said a soldier and a security services officer had died while detaining a Ukrainian terror cell that had planned attacks in Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia in February 2014.
Later, Russian television showed footage of a bruised Ukrainian and claimed he was working for Ukrainian military intelligence. “We obviously will not let such things slide by,” Putin said.
The Russian president accused Kiev of embracing “tactics of terror” and said there was little point in four-way negotiations between Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France, planned for the sidelines of the upcoming G20 summit in China. This led many to suspect that a new Russian offensive could be on the way, possibly with the aim of opening up a land bridge between Russia and Crimea.
Ukraine insisted the entire plot was fabricated by the Russians and the Russian reaction caused the president, Petro Poroshenko, to put his forces on high alert. Ukraine has not been immune to militaristic rhetoric: last week, the country celebrated 25 years of independence with a huge military parade in central Kiev that critics said differed little from the Soviet-style shows of force Kiev is trying to distance itself from.
After the initial panic over the Crimea incident, things have calmed down. “People were worried for a day or two but then they realised it didn’t seem to be the start of something major,” said one Ukrainian official.
The timing for a major Russian escalation seems wrong: with European unity on sanctions against Russia wavering, a Russian-backed offensive now would reignite anger in western capitals over Moscow’s behaviour.
Up to now, Russia has used a mixture of loosely directed volunteers, military advisers and occasional injections of regular troops at key moments, while denying it has ever had a major military presence in east Ukraine. But with Ukraine’s army improving over the past two years, a push for further territory would probably require a full-scale, overt Russian invasion that would irrevocably damage relations with the west.
For all the improvements, there is still a certain ad-hoc nature to the Ukrainian military effort. Veremeyenko said he was not officially signed up to the army and was technically registered as a mechanic, although he fights on the frontline.
The group operates from a number of apartments in a block that housed civilians until fighting started. Amid the weapons and other accoutrements of war, kitchen tiles featuring kiwis and watermelons are a reminder that this was once someone’s home. The nine-storey building was only finished in early 2014; now the residents from all but one floor have fled as almost every apartment has some kind of damage. In the courtyard, an elderly woman pleads with the soldiers to bring her some potatoes.
The OSCE has blamed both sides for the repeated ceasefire violations. At a briefing earlier this month, Alexander Hug, the deputy chief OSCE monitor, said a lack of trust hampered any lasting peace, because “without trust each side fears the vacuum will be filled by the other”.
He criticised both sides for barring access to the monitors. “We need access and, to be frank, that’s not happening. The sides prevent our monitors from accessing certain areas. The sides plant landmines and obstacles. The sides threaten and intimidate our unarmed civilian monitors.”
As the potential for renewed full-scale hostilities remains, it is the population of east Ukraine who suffer the most. At Mariinka, one of the few points where civilians can cross the frontline, snaking queues of people, including the elderly and young children, wait for permission to cross the makeshift border. On Thursday morning on the Ukrainian side, outgoing rounds of light artillery were audible, as well as the crackle of machine-gun fire.
The weary Ukrainian soldiers at the checkpoint and the beleaguered locals trying to cross the lines hardly paid attention; the war has become a way of life here over the past two years, and they were far more concerned about whether or not they would make it across the border. An elderly woman burst into tears as her pass to cross the line was not in the system and she was forced to turn back after many hours of waiting.
The checkpoint at Mariinka has gradually taken on the trappings of a real border, with passport booths and customs check, and is one of many signs that a political solution to the conflict seems further away than ever.
Moscow is keen for a settlement that would see much of the separatist infrastructure legalised, giving it de facto control over part of Ukraine without having to fund it. In Kiev, attitudes have hardened against any compromise with the “terrorists” in the east. Amid the deadlock, many in Kiev still worry about the possibility of Russia opting for full-scale war. “It doesn’t seem logical but then the things they do often don’t,” said the Ukrainian official.