MARIUPOL, Ukraine—Oleksandr was the last Ukrainian soldier entering the snow-caked trenches on a journey to the front lines of war. The Ukrainian troops and I trudged at five-meter intervals, a distance close enough so the men could communicate but far enough to minimize casualties if we were shelled by Russian-backed forces trying to take over eastern Ukraine. The five-foot deep trenches carved into the ground reminded me of photos from the front lines of World War I.
The temperature hovered around freezing after a burst of warm air invaded the biting Ukrainian winter. To a soldier, a few degrees can mean the difference between calm and conflict. “It is fighting weather,” Oleksandr told me, who like other Ukrainian soldiers asked to go by nicknames to protect their identity. Russian-backed internet trolls have targeted Ukrainian troops’ families with propaganda.
Shyrokyne, some 20 kilometers from Mariupol, used to be a resort town nestled on the Sea of Azov that housed some 1,400 people before war began in 2014. No more. “It is like a post-apocalyptic movie set,” said Oleksandr, who spoke in a machine-gun quick cadence.
On the other side of the trenches were the front lines of Ukraine’s war. Our destination was important because it doubles as the flashpoint of a proxy war between Russia and the United States. Evidence of this international influence was easy to find.
“Fuck Putin” was spray-painted on an abandoned building in Shyrokyne, a message for the Russian-backed separatists who once held the town.
Moscow has spearheaded the war in eastern Ukraine by sending troops, intelligence officers and supplies to fight the Ukrainian government and carve out territory.
On the other side, the United States and NATO countries bolster the Ukrainians.
Many, if not all, of the Ukrainian troops like Oleksandr with whom I marched received military training from the U.S., the U.K., Canada and other NATO countries. The United States is providing $200 million in 2019 for military support to Ukraine. And the Trump administration delivered a Javelin anti-tank missile system to Ukraine in 2018, support that President Barack Obama was unwilling to offer.
But in recent weeks there are signs of a shifting balance among these powers. Russia is continuing its military push in Ukraine while U.S. support is waning.
The Trump administration announced in December 2018 that it wanted to drop sanctions on companies tied to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, which where levelled in part because of Moscow’s aggression in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
The month before, Russian ships fired on three Ukrainian naval vessels and arrested 24 sailors traveling from Odessa to Mariupol. The clash follows the opening of a Russian-built bridge over the Kerch Strait that has acted as a choke-point for any ship entering the Sea of Azov that services eastern Ukraine.
In Washington, Pentagon and U.S. officials told me they are frustrated by an absence of White House strategy to deal with Russian actions in Ukraine. In particular, they note the failure to prevent Putin’s aggression in the Kerch Strait and the lack of sanctions in the aftermath of the incident.
Asked to address this issue, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders falls back on the administration’s boilerplate. “President Trump has repeatedly made clear he does not and will not tolerate Russian malign activity,” she said in a statement. “He has taken decisive and strong actions against Russia to defend American interests and hold Russia accountable for its behavior, including significant sanctions.”
The Russian embassy in Washington D.C. did not respond to a request for an interview or comment.
As I weaved through the trenches with Oleksandr and the pack of Ukrainian soldiers, a puppy joined our quest. The gangling black lab’s oversized paws scampered among the soldiers’ legs. It blatantly ignored the five-meter rule. We exited the trenches to a maze of crumbling buildings at the front line.
Ukraine wants to join NATO for protection, and the soldiers spoke admiringly of the support they have received already from the alliance. Oleksandr and Ukrainian troops proudly showed me a Pentagon-supplied Humvee they use as an ambulance. It sported a gaping cavity from a 12.7 mm machine gun bullet that pierced the ambulance’s red cross medical sign.
Among U.S. officials I talked with, however, there are real reservations about talks that might bring Ukraine into NATO. The concern is that such a move would be too provocative.
In 2014 Putin annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and underwrote the rebellions here in eastern Ukraine as retaliation and deterrence for Kiev’s moves toward integration with Europe. Moreover, NATO’s charter casts doubt on the ability of a country to join the alliance with an ongoing territorial dispute.
In Kiev, I asked Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for E.U. and NATO integration, about American concern that Ukrainian membership in the alliance would provoke Putin. She was not deterred. Russia “only understands the language of power and unity,” said Klympush-Tsintsadze, a staunch supporter of more financial sanctions on Russia.
“Russia’s end target is not Ukraine, it is the West,” she argued.
If the Ukrainian military lose their position in Shyrokyne, Russian-backed separatists will be able to lob shells into the city of Mariupol. It would be an inflection point in Ukraine’s war because of Mariupol’s strategic importance.
Mariupol is bordered on one end by the Sea of Azov, which is dotted with chunks of ice in midwinter. I watched a group of Ukrainian men celebrate the day that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by stripping to their underwear near the hulking commercial port and run into the January sea. Vodka was waiting at the end of their polar dip.
After traversing Mariupol’s winding hills and slipping through the industrial city center, I watched an endless plume of clouds churn out from the city’s towering metal plant. Both the commercial shipping port and the metal factory, ugly as they may be, are engines of life in eastern Ukraine. And they are sputtering now because of Russia’s bridge across the Kerch Strait, which opened last year. Large cargo ships cannot service Mariupol because the bridge was built too low, and the last major metal factory in eastern Ukraine has reduced production as a result.
Ukrainian military officials told me the effects of Putin’s siege on Mariupol could end up being more significant than the artillery fire exchanged in Shyrokyne, and the partial naval blockade already is draining the morale of local residents.
Exiting the trenches in Shyrokyne and now at the front lines, the puppy meandered around the cluster of collapsing buildings. I ventured with Oleksandr and other soldiers inside a blasted brick home fitted with pillboxes facing the Russian separatists. The Ukrainian soldiers wore white camouflage coats with faint grey streaks that blended in with the surrounding snow.
One soldier showed me how to view the no-man’s-land safely. He sprang up on a step, craned his neck through the opening in the pillbox, and jumped back down. It was graceful. l jolted up to get a view.
No-man’s-land in the American and Russian proxy war in eastern Ukraine consists of fallow fields that are golden in color and motionless. Bullets have whizzed across the undulating landscape in both directions for four years, but on my visit the guns were silent, and the soldiers were grateful for this temporary relief.
When we left the pillboxes, Oleksandr and the other soldiers took me to their underground bunker for tea. The puppy remained somewhere outside in its home of wasted streets, camouflaged soldiers, and cracking bullets.
The underground bunker was dark, damp, and smelled of kerosene. Tattered drawings from Ukrainian schoolchildren wishing safety and pledging support were peeling from the concrete wall. I asked the troops what message they wanted to send lawmakers and officials in Washington, D.C.
"We are soldiers,” Oleksandr responded. “We don’t get involved in politics.”