Bags packed, Ukrainians at frontline brace for Russian invasion
AVDIIVKA, Ukraine — Only a fraction of the apartments in Anna Velichko’s shell-scarred high-rise are fit for habitation after years of a war in Ukraine that could turn yet more brutal should Russia invade.
The 39-year-old lives in one of them up on the ninth floor.
From her rickety perch overlooking the frontline of eastern Europe’s festering conflict, Velichko has a clear view of Donetsk and the Russian-backed rebels who take regular shots at the residents of her town of Avdiivka.
“Right now, they are shooting as hard as they did back in 2015,” Velichko says, referring to the second year of Ukraine’s eastern separatist conflict, when dozens were dying every day.
The official toll now, while disputed, is still small, with one civilian and two Ukrainian soldiers confirmed by Kyiv to have been killed in the past week.
But Velichko’s fury at both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s Western-backed leader Volodymyr Zelensky is huge.
“I want to slap Putin and Zelensky,” she says as fears of an all-out war between Russia and Ukraine rise by the day, if not the hour.
“I want them to finally sit down and agree to end this war,” she says.
Ready to run
Defying the threat of Western sanctions, Putin on Monday recognized the independence of Ukraine’s two separatist regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.
What remains unclear is what this recognition will entail.
The big fear in government-held territory along Ukraine’s front is that it will lead to the arrival of Russian troops, who would be formally asked to protect the pro-Moscow leadership and their territory.
The key unanswered question is whether Putin’s recognition extends only to rebel-held areas, or the broader pre-war administrative regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, which include Kyiv-controlled lands.
The separatists control only the eastern parts of Donetsk and Lugansk, where they created their own “people’s republics” in 2014.
Initial indications from Moscow officials was that this is the area that Putin was referring to in his recognition.
But a Kremlin recognition of the entire region could set the stage for a direct clash between Russian and Ukrainian troops along the current frontline, which includes towns such as Avdiivka.
Local residents are bracing for the worst.
Pensioner Tetyana Polishchuk has held on to her flat through some of the fiercest months of war. But now she is packing her emergency evacuation bag, ready to run.
“They’ve started firing a lot more,” the 67-year-old says. “Because of the possible Russian invasion, I even packed my bags. I put them by there by the door, to be ready.”
Still, others said Putin’s formal recognition on Monday simply confirmed the realities on the ground.
Russia has already tried unilaterally to redraw Ukraine’s border, annexing the Crimea peninsula in 2014 in a step that was never recognized by the West.
Yevgen Vasylenko, 30, said he was more worried about the fighting than who was in formal control of areas that had slipped out from under the government’s control eight years ago.
“I would rather not relive what happened in 2014, 2015 and 2016,” said Vasylenko. “Those were not pleasant times.”
Yevgen Tsyganok also was more worried about his personal safety.
“Sometimes, a very large shell or something like that shoots by and you feel it with your whole body,” says the 27-year-old.
“But we can’t run from here because my parents are there on the other side, in Donetsk,” he said. “They can’t go anywhere and I feel like I can’t either. This is our land.”