‘Help is needed’: Low hopes on Russia-Ukraine border for diplomatic breakthrough


Army trucks and armoured vehicles crunch through the snow and ice-covered roads of eastern Ukraine – through towns and villages still populated by people holding out, despite the frontlines a short distance away, and the constant rumble of explosions and crackle of machine guns.  

It’s easy to forget this conflict has been going since 2014. It’s now just part of life for those who have stayed behind.

But the scars of the fighting litter the landscape, destroyed and abandoned homes are everywhere.

These towns and villages are sometimes completely abandoned, but the ones that are not are very quiet.

We’re in the town of Krymske, in Luhansk region, and apart from the movement of soldiers most of the streets are empty. The conflict and COVID-19 are a double whammy to life here.

The odd person can be seen walking with their shopping, but most stay inside if they’re able to do so.

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A sign warns of mines in the town near the border with Russia
A sign warns of mines in the town near the border with Russia
Trenches in this part of eastern Ukraine serve as overwatch positions to keep an eye on the movements of Russian-backed separatists

Some may come to the door to natter with neighbours. We spotted Olga Mihaylovna doing exactly that.

A spritely 72-year-old, she shouted over to us, asking where we were from.

“I’m going to be on television in Britain?” she asked, incredulous, then cackled with laughter.

Olga’s extended family left town as the fighting intensified in the early years of the conflict.

Her sister’s house, next door to hers, was destroyed.

A shelled property in Krymske
A shelled property in Krymske

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Explained: How Russian troops are assembled around Ukraine

She’s scared but said she isn’t leaving – her husband is very unwell from the “stress of the situation”.

“It’s terrible. War is war. What can I say? If they shoot grads [rockets] for the whole week, what do you think that is like for us?”

The defensive trenches in this part of eastern Ukraine are essentially overwatch positions to keep an eye on the movements of Russian-backed separatists – and more importantly any invasion by the Russian army.

Conditions in the trenches here in Krymske are miserable and dangerous. The soldiers say in recent weeks there’s been more activity and more firing from the other side, especially at night.

Peering through his camouflaged viewing hatch, Artur Vlasov explained that the separatists are never far away.

“We can see their movements because it’s a short distance… They walk, they rotate. In Russian military uniform, well, in the same green uniform.”

There’s a real sense that this freezing frontline is frozen – waiting for some sort of breakthrough that could relieve the tension.

Most of the streets are empty except for the movement of soldiers
Most of the streets are empty except for the movement of soldiers

As diplomatic moves and meetings among leaders take place both in Ukraine and abroad, the fact is the two sides are stuck between the battle lines already drawn.

For the soldiers who fight here, and people who live here, there’s nothing to suggest this will change.

We stopped at a checkpoint to ask the soldier on duty if he’d be willing to speak us.

Our local producer Azad Safarov introduced me by name, and the soldier replied: “I know him, we met in Afghanistan in 2008, you were there, right?”

Then he turned to Azad and explained I was filming with his unit back then at a military base.

To be honest I’ve met hundreds of soldiers through the years, and when they’re in their uniforms it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between them.

Vladymir Zhmat says Ukraine needs help and isn't impressed with any of the diplomatic manoeuvres around the world
Vladymir Zhmat says Ukraine needs help

Vladymir Zhmat was happy to chat – but he isn’t particularly impressed with any of the diplomatic manoeuvres taking place around the world, including here in Ukraine.

“I don’t expect anything special from this meeting. I am here at the checkpoint now and I will stay here. Nothing will change for me.” I asked him what they need.

“I am just a soldier and I only follow orders. It is difficult for me to say what kind of help is needed, and how much.

“But help is needed, that is for sure.”

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