SHYROKYNE VILLAGE, front line, Ukraine — After a heavy rain, water drips through the woven plastic fibers fastened to the earth ceiling in the caverns that form the front line between Ukraine forces and Russian-backed separatists. Mud pools below the wooden pallet walkways in the narrow, dark network of tunnels. This is where the soldiers live. And this is where they hunker down when the shelling starts after dark — and European peace monitors are out of sight.
For anyone who thinks the seven-year-old war with Russia is over, they need only spend time on the front line in eastern Ukraine. These positions are shelled two to three times a week. Soldiers die, casualties continue.
“Anybody would be scared. Only a stupid person wouldn’t,” Ukrainian army officer Oleh K. told the Washington Examiner through a translator in his underground living quarters.
A faint smell of earth and mold pervaded the room. He wore rubber boots to move quickly through the trenches. His rifle was hung close to his bed, a narrow mattress opposite the commander of his position. A short walk space separated the two bunks.
As Oleh spoke, he stared at a nearby radio and once picked up an old-fashioned metal telephone when its bell loudly rang. He listened for a moment and placed it back on the receiver resting on a wooden plank above a dimly lit desk.
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The heavy shelling a month ago was the result of enemy intelligence. The separatists, pro-Russian Ukrainians who believe they now control an independent Donetsk People’s Republic, noticed soldiers and vehicles grouped closely together.
They fired dozens of rockets.
The caliber was over 100 mm, a violation of the ceasefire. Violations happen all the time.
The shelling inflamed vehicles and caused second-degree burns on the faces and hands of five Ukrainian soldiers. Oleh, 26, had been living in the trenches for a month when it happened.
Oleh’s explanation for why Russia continues the war was matter-of-fact.
“They need to get to the sea,” he said.
In 2015, Russia shelled the industrial port city of Mariupol, some 20 miles east of the position, on the Sea of Azov. But enemy soldiers did not reach the city. In the intervening years, Russia has militarized the sea and built a bridge from mainland Russia to Crimea that blocks container ships from entering Ukraine’s port.
Still, keeping Crimea is costly to Russia, and Putin desires warm water access on the Mediterranean Sea.
That goal is obtainable through the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. This corner of southeastern Ukraine would strengthen Putin’s imperial aspirations.
“Just here temporarily”
The paved roads that crisscross the bright green pastures in this region once allowed farmers to reach the cities. Now, vehicle traffic is impeded by cement pyramids and buoys. What were once bus stops are now covered in camouflage netting, surrounded by sandbags and manned by armed soldiers.
The army will not reveal how many soldiers are on the front line or in each position. Likewise, soldiers do not reveal their surnames, and photographs showing the horizon are restricted, lest the enemy identify their position.
The days are pretty much the same: reequipping, fixing the trenches all day. They are dug by hand with shovels.
But there is also a quiet kind of camaraderie. Soldiers in groups of two and three stand on the shaded roadway smoking cigarettes, talking quietly, laughing.
Many Ukrainians were inspired by the “Revolution of Dignity” in February 2014 that ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in favor of a pro-Western leader.
Russia seized on the political vacuum, invading Crimea and eastern Ukraine with “little green men,” soldiers who wore no flag on their shoulders. Russia also empowered pro-Russian separatists to act as their proxy — a tactic that continues today.
Troves of Ukrainians volunteered to fight on the front line.
Not Oleh. His destiny was predetermined. He grew up in a military town in the Zhytomyr region of central Ukraine. His mother’s ancestors go back at least three generations of military service. On his father’s side, military service goes back as far as anyone remembers.
“Nothing is hard for me to get used to. I have known since childhood what military service is,” he said of living in the trenches. “I like to serve.”
The Minsk Protocol of September 2014 was a form of ceasefire signed by the representatives of Ukraine, the self-declared People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
It means Ukraine does not move closer to recovering these slivers of land in the east. It means a constant low-level conflict in which one side monitors and listens to the communications of the other. Shelling is exchanged and then calm for a few days — or not.
Oleh does not feel warmth or disapproval from the locals.
“I am just here temporarily. That is the attitude they have toward me,” he said. His mother and father wait for him at home.
And as to whether Ukraine will ever recover this occupied land and have peace, he does not know.
While Ukraine’s political leaders ask America for more military support and advanced weaponry to deter Russia from invading again, or escalating the current conflict, Oleh has mixed feelings.
“It’s good, of course, that they helped us when we needed it,” he said.
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“But my dream would be for us to produce the weapons ourselves,” he said. “When you get these weapons, then you become a slave to the country that provides them because then you need to buy the rockets for this weapon, the parts to fix it, the specialists to train you. I want Ukraine to be able to do this for itself.”