Proper names have been used in some cases to protect identity.
Piski, Popasna and Bakhmut, Ukraine – Crimea takes a long breath from his cigarette as he pulls a stool into a makeshift officer’s hill.
Sunlight pours through the door as soldiers walk past each other with bowls of homemade soup.
Outside, perched on a net of trenches, a young soldier named Igor peers through a periscope as dogs pass by.
The calm atmosphere hides a very real danger; just a few hundred meters away, Russian-backed separatist snipers were trained in this position.
“For Russian snipers, eastern Ukraine is like a training camp,” said Crimea, who uses a pseudonym.
After lunch he heads back to the trenches, remembering to stay under the high muddy walls; when he reaches a meadow, he signals to all to flee; today the sky is clear, which makes them easy targets.
In recent months, Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, raising fears that Moscow could launch an invasion. The United States has responded with a threat of economic sanctions and put 8,500 troops on high alert in Europe. In addition, NATO has strengthened its eastern borders with warships and warplanes.
Moscow denies planning an attack and accuses NATO of undermining the region’s security.
But Crimea and its allies cannot afford to be distracted by changes in political tensions; their work remains the same as in the last few years.
“There are no big changes; we do not see new attacks or invasions, “Crimea said. “There is always danger here.”
Alexander, a large soldier in winter camouflage, crouched in a hidden vantage point buried in the country on a hill. He looks through long binoculars; every few days he notices a separatist, but most days he will just look at the same frozen expanse.
In the distance sit the charred ruins of Donetsk International Airport, the sight of two brutal battles raging for more than three months, leaving hundreds dead.
To break the monotony of tactical trench warfare, many soldiers develop skills such as welding, plumbing, or cooking, creating a relatively convenient camp infrastructure.
Some of the rooms, usually owned by soldiers who have served the longest, are cozy, furnished with photographs, self-made cabinets and comfortable beds. Others are just a simple wooden surface with a few blankets.
Six-month rotations can be unbearable for soldiers with families.
Christina has served in the Army for four years and has two young children at home; “I can’t even talk about them right now,” she said, visibly emotional.
Behind a network of trenches in the charred chaotic ruins of a village destroyed by fighting in 2014-2015 is a temporary communication center.
Here, out of sight of snipers, bulletproof vests and helmets are removed, but there are still a few kilometers before the end of the red zone – an area closed to civilians.
It is hard to imagine that even the most stubborn resistance of these soldiers on the front line will be able to prevent a full-scale attack from Russia.
But Cemil Izmailov, commander of a mechanized infantry battalion in the 23rd Brigade, believes the Ukrainian army will resist the invasion due to additional layers of defense located in the surrounding area.
“It would be very difficult for them to break through,” he said confidently, “and we can also count on air defense.”
Crimea is also comforted by its belief that the United Kingdom and other countries will help Ukraine.
He pulls out his phone to show photos of a British officer embracing during joint training in 2021; I feel the support of the West.
A mannequin dressed as a soldier and carrying a scimitar sits sunk on the edge of the red zone, a grim reminder of the death and destruction brought about by the conflict in the area.
But outside in the villages and towns and the villages around the front line, everything seems remarkably calm.
In Bakhmut, a city in the Donetsk region, memories of the battles, which came within a few kilometers of its outskirts, remain ingrained in the local population.
Residents Olga, Alyana and Lubuf, three women in their 40s who describe themselves as entrepreneurs, remember the fear they felt when they heard the shelling, but are not convinced by the latest escalation of tensions.
“We saw Ukrainian soldiers, dirty and skinny begging for bread; crying on his knees because of what happened, “said Olga.
“We do not believe in this threat; we think it’s a political thing. “
Women’s priority now is to take care of their health, something they do today with cold water therapy at a local lake.
In Popasna, a village that has survived heavy fighting and brief occupation by Russian-backed separatists, locals at a funeral home view the current crisis as politically hot air.
“We know how the internet works!” Svetlana said with a flick of her wrist, adding that she had friends from the separatist side with whom she spoke via Skype
But many locals also talk about latent anxiety, which is kept away from coping mechanisms developed over the years near heavy shelling and sporadic shots.
The nine-year-old girl Carolina from Popasna vividly remembers the explosions that fell near her house a few years ago.
“I was sitting in the hallway crying in fear,” she said.
Her school teaches children what to do if Russia invades.
“We know how to leave completely, but never take clothes or bags that don’t belong to us if they are mine,” she said.
Her grandmother, Vera Grigorievna, describes how she is always worried about invasion, but has learned to create a “confident regime” that focuses on everyday life.
Grigorievna, her son and grandchildren have practiced what to do in case of an invasion. They know exactly what documents they will need and the best way to escape.
Snizhana Matkovskaya, a native of Crimea, was temporarily living in Popasna when the last war broke out and has since opened a restaurant that serves passing soldiers.
“I felt so sorry for the place that I stayed,” she said.
Recently, Matkovskaya attended sessions with a psychologist, which helped her see her situation as abstract. She – and the others involved – are now doing things step by step.
“If you live in such fear, you will get sick,” she said.