NOVOTROITSKE, Ukraine — The front line moved south from Donetsk on Monday as pro-Russian separatists pushed toward Mariupol, a strategic coastal city on the Sea of Azov.
Shortly after 5 p.m., two covered military trucks heading south pulled up to a gas station along the main highway to Donetsk at the village of Novotroitske, 45 miles north of Mariupol. Four heavily armed men and one woman in camouflage jumped out and set up a roadblock, aiming automatic weapons at vehicles, forcing them to stop.
Mariupol has been bracing for an attack since pro-Russian separatists seized Novoazovsk to the east on the Russian border last week.
The roadblock was an example of how quickly the reality on the ground is changing. Even locals aren’t always sure who is in control along the front line.
“First I was in Sloviansk, then I’ll go to Mariupol and after that I’ll go to Kiev,” said one of the gunmen at the roadblock. He was a Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) soldier in Novotroitske, who identified himself as “Vologda,” which he said was the city in Russia where he’s from.
Vologda said he joined the fight for an “independent Donbass,” referring to the contested region where separatists and the Ukrainian army have fought for months.
“We are against oligarchs and against fascists,” he said.
Vologda’s presence was a stark example of how Russia is operating in its stealth invasion, or “incursion,” as NATO likes to call it. There is no blitzkrieg. Instead, it’s a piecemeal Russian and rebel offensive against an increasingly beleaguered Ukrainian military and its NATO supporters. And it’s widening. Russia has continued to deny involvement in Ukraine despite mounting evidence. Last week separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko claimed that Russian soldiers were volunteers on vacation.
The Ukrainian army had been steadily advancing on the battlefield in recent weeks, but the opening of a third front in the southeast has put them on the defensive. Separatists encircled Ukrainian troops in Ilovaisk who reportedly suffered heavy casualties while withdrawing and the separatists have pushed to retake territory they had lost.
Two of the male soldiers on the road to Mariupol wore the black, red, and blue insignia of the separatists, and the woman wore a patch resembling a U.S. Confederate flag without the stars as well as separatist insignia. Vologda said the other two soldiers were also Russians. A fourth soldier was too far away for his insignia to be seen.
Earlier Monday in Kiev, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez called for the U.S. to arm Ukraine and increase sanctions on Russia.
“Ukraine should be given defensive weapons so that it can ultimately defend itself from the Russian aggression that it is facing,” Menendez said. Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that Russia is the obstacle to peace, and called the conflict “an invasion by Russia into Ukraine with thousands of soldiers, columns of tanks, missiles and other heavy artillery equipment.”
“They have influenced the situation from the very beginning—it is their troops that have invaded here, it is their weaponry that has killed Ukrainian soldiers,” Menendez said.
Before the separatists arrived in Novotroitske, one man sitting outside a barely stocked roadside store said the war was just around the mountain in the distance to the north.
“We have no sleep,” said the man, who identified himself as Alexander. “Every day is peaceful but at night we can see explosions and hear bombs.”
He said he keeps his bags packed in case they need to go quickly.
Further south in the town of Volnovakha, an unusual quiet settled where the Ukrainian flag flew Monday. Sandbags surrounded gas pumps at the edge of town, in case of shelling.
Volnovakha Mayor Sergey Denchenko said through a secretary that he was unavailable to speak to reporters. Rumors flew around town that the local grocery store had closed and that banks were not working. Some shelves at the ATB grocery were bare—an employee said the company headquarters had stopped delivering goods—but shoppers were still walking out with bags of food.
In the center of town, residents hedged their bets.
“We hope we will not have war here,” said Alexander Ribakov, 29, a lawyer. He said it was possible to evacuate but his family didn’t want to. Asked which side he was on, he said, “Who will be here with weapons, these forces will have the majority support.”
He said the Donetsk People’s Republic flag flew for one or two days over a government building in June and no one asked who put it up, or who took it down.
At the Oschadbank, which people in line said was the only ATM with money, one man said, “It is a panic in the city, but we are used to it.”
South of Volnovakha, closer to Mariupol, Ukrainian national guards were setting up a new roadblock about an hour after separatists had entered Novotroitske. Told by a Ukrainian that the DNR were in Novotroitske, a guardsman said, “We know.”