NOVOLUHANSK, Ukraine —
At the first bang of the artillery shell, the soldiers scattered. Some sprinted inside a dilapidated tractor repair depot nearby. Mikhail, a 25-year-old Ukrainian soldier, crouched beside a wall. He paused for a moment, waiting for the thud of another shell to subside before he raced to a bunker, leaped down the stairs and slammed a heavy metal door shut behind him.
“It happened again,” he said, wrenching off his helmet and panting with an adrenaline-fueled mix of fear and exertion. Sitting at a desk with a phone to his ear was 20-year-old Sasha, a baby-faced soldier who flinched at the sound of the rounds smacking into the ground.
It was the second fusillade of the day, fired with the waning sun just before 4 p.m. by Russian-backed separatists, an enemy unseen but close enough to have upended life in this small industrial village a few hundred yards from the line that divides eastern Ukraine’s disputed Donbas region.
For years, this is what observers have called a frozen war: a grinding stalemate punctuated by exchanges of fire and an occasional casualty adding to the death toll of 14,000, with tens of thousands more wounded, since the conflict began in 2014.
The events of the last few days have radically changed that long-sustained calculus.
With more than 150,000 Russian troops and an arsenal of advanced warplanes, tanks, anti-missile platforms and battleships arrayed in a noose around Ukraine’s borders, President Biden is convinced that Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to invade and is only awaiting an excuse to strike.
The fear is that he will invent a reason, or provoke one, in Novoluhansk, its bigger-sister town Svitlodarsk or another spot along the 279-mile front in the east, turning what has become a wearisome pas de deux of barrage and counter-barrage into a hair-trigger exercise, primed to spark an all-out Russian invasion of its neighbor to the west.
Lately, there has been no shortage of attacks, said Brig. Gen. Mikhail Drapatiy, Ukrainian deputy commander of the Joint Force Operation. He estimated Saturday that what until three days earlier had been about five or six shellings a day had surged to more than 60 daily. One in the early morning Saturday killed a Ukrainian captain, he said.
“Every position of our military unit was struck in the last 24 hours,” Drapatiy said.
He walked to the lot outside the depot and stopped at a crater gouged out of asphalt by a shell that had hit before noon Saturday. That attack, he said, had injured a soldier. His hand would probably have to be amputated.
Standing a few miles back before a shrapnel-riddled house on the eastern edge of Svitlodarsk was Col. Oleksandr Zenevich, the burly commander of the Ukrainian army’s 30th Battalion. It fell to him and those under his command to monitor infractions of the cease-fire in the area.
“150-millimeter shells, 120 millimeter, grenade launchers, at all ranges — we’ve registered a lot of breaches over the last three days,” he said, referring to the caliber of weapons used, most of which have been forbidden by the terms of the cease-fire put in place — and often disregarded — since 2015. “This is an exceptional situation.”
Zenevich said Ukrainian forces fire back when there is a real danger to their personnel or civilians, but only toward areas where there are no civilians. He blamed the separatists for firing from residential areas.
By Saturday night, the Ukrainian army registered 98 violations — a whopping 788 projectiles launched by the separatists across the contact line, killing two soldiers and wounding four others.
Accompanying that escalation was a call to arms by the secessionists on the other side of the contact line. On Friday, Denis Pushilin, the self-proclaimed head of the breakaway republic of Donetsk and his counterpart in Luhansk, Leonid Pasechnik, called for mass evacuation of women, children and the elderly. On Saturday, they ordered men of fighting age to remain and face what they claimed to be an impending all-out Ukrainian government onslaught to retake the Donbas region seized by separatists — with Russian assistance — eight years ago.
“Today I signed a decree on general mobilization,”Pushilin said in a video address. Men aged 18 to 55 were restricted from leaving the two enclaves. ”I appeal to all the men of the republic, who are able to hold weapons in their hands, to stand up for their families, their children, wives, mothers. Together we will achieve the coveted victory that we all need.”
Moscow insists that the residents of the conflict-ridden areas of Donetsk are ethnic Russians facing genocide at the hands of right-wing nationalists infiltrating Ukraine’s government, an assertion roundly denied by Kyiv as well as international monitoring groups.
Ukrainian and Western officials have also dismissed the allegation that the Ukrainian army has plans to invade the separatist-held parts of the Donbas region or Crimea, which Russia annexed wholesale in 2014.
“It defies logic to believe that the Ukrainians would choose this moment, with well over 150,000 troops arrayed on its borders, to escalate a years-long conflict,” Biden said in a speech Saturday. He accused Russian state media of making “phony allegations of a genocide taking place in the Donbas.”
It was a message echoed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in an impassioned address Saturday at the Munich Security Conference in Germany.
“We’re not panicking. We’re very consistent that we are not responding to any provocations,” he said.
That restraint seemed evident Saturday near the front line. Accompanying a group of journalists in Svitlodarsk, Davyd Arakhamia, a parliamentarian and member of Zelensky’s party, said the Russian-installed separatists were “trying to create the impression that the Ukrainian army is attacking those territories.”
“Ukraine is not going forward. Ukraine is staying on its borders,” he said.
Despite the rise in hostilities, there was no call for evacuations of areas near the contact line, said Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrski. Donning fatigues and speaking to journalists in the city of Kramatorsk, an hour’s drive northwest of Novoluhansk, he said: “People have become accustomed to this. They won’t leave so easily.”
If anyone needed to test that assertion, Svitlodarsk seemed like a good place to do so. The town once had some 12,000 inhabitants, many of them attracted by the work centered around the Vuhlehirska power station, a coal-fueled plant built in Soviet times that still supplied electricity to the area — this despite being struck by artillery that the Ukrainian government said came from separatist territory.
“Those who had the ability to leave, they did. If you have children and can go somewhere, you wouldn’t want them to live in this situation,” Brig. Gen. Drapatiy said.
There are fewer people now, perhaps only a few thousand. Though one could still see a wisp of black coming out of the plant’s smoke stack, the fighting had led many to flee the areas closer to the contact line. What remains are the rusting husks of a brutalist, industrial cityscape gone to seed.
The roads from beyond Novoluhansk to the contact line are so churned from ordinance that no driver dare motor on them for fear of having to slow down and risk getting hit by a separatist shell or sniper bullet.
Yet despite the uptick in violence, some residents of the village came out to enjoy the last rays of the day’s sun, walking down Kvartal Druzhba — it passes for a main thoroughfare in Novoluhansk — past nearly-empty playgrounds and storefronts with sandbags arranged before them.
Standing at the counter of one of the shops was Ina, a petite woman in her 30s who had once lived in Donetsk city. When the warfare started, she moved here. It had been a relatively quiet life, she said, but it seemed now the war was following her.
“It’s never been this bad in the shelling,” she said.
Minutes later, she closed her general store, hurrying down the road to get to her home. She lowered her head against the winds of the February winter night while the booms of shells reverberated through the streets.