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
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.