Shelling continues on the outskirts of Mariupol, in southeast Ukraine, as Russia-backed rebels have gradually advanced from the northeast on the strategic port city. Ukrainian troops posted at checkpoints say they are prepared to defend the city, but could use more support. While in the city center, joint patrols and “anti-violator” drills are conducted to prepare to deal with any potential civil unrest.
Ukrainian forces in military fatigues point Kalashnikov rifles at a group of masked men kneeling on the ground in front of the shuttered remains of Mariupol's City Council building. It was attacked and set on fire in May when Ukrainian forces took back the city from Russia-backed rebels after weeks of occupation.
The simulated perpetrators are quickly walked at gunpoint to a waiting military van parked near armored personnel carriers with mounted machine guns.
Suddenly, a Ukrainian TV reporter lunges her microphone at a masked captive and asks him, “How does it feel to be a separatist?” The media covering the training drill, and even the armed men participating, let off a simultaneous giggle.
The exercise is no laughing matter for the head of public relations for Ukraine's military forces in Mariupol, Colonel Yuri Piskun.
"This event is not just for scaring people, but for training to keep the city calm and safe," he said.
Locals tell VOA the security situation in the city has deteriorated since the rebels launched attacks from the east to try to re-take the Black Sea port.
Piskun says the police in Mariupol are doing a lot of work, and the new head of police for the Donetsk region has increased their numbers.
"They had four patrols and now they have six and from tomorrow they should have nine. They are joint patrols with representatives of the military forces of Ukraine, the interior ministry, and vigilante groups from the self-defense forces of Mariupol," he said.
Those forces have been fighting for months to hold off rebels on the outskirts of the city where shelling and gunfire are heard daily.
Northeast of Mariupol, a village next to a checkpoint is completely abandoned and looks like a wild west ghost town. A VOA reporter in September traveled several kilometers further down the road. But as heavy shelling booms in the distance, a Ukrainian soldier says rebel tanks, which he calls “Russian tanks,” are now just two hills over.
Ukrainian and Western officials say fresh Russian weapons and soldiers crossed the border this month in what could be preparations for an attack. Moscow has always denied supplying the rebels and says Russian soldiers in Ukraine are volunteers.
But a press officer for Ukraine's “Anti-Terrorism Operation” in Mariupol, Dmitry Gorbunov, remains optimistic.
"They are strengthening their forces every day. If the rebels decide to attack, he says, they will be less and less successful," he said. "The Ukrainian forces have rotations of their troops and there are new ones on the way. They have all kinds of troops here, including representatives of elite forces, regulars, navy, and engineering."
An 18-year-old Ukrainian private, who asks to be called by his military nick-name “Lama”, is the only soldier from Mariupol stationed at a second-line checkpoint. He acknowledges they have problems with locals supporting rebels who oppose the pro-Western government in Kyiv.
He says he never thought when he celebrated his 18th birthday he would get a flak jacket as a present. He thought he would graduate from a technical school and enter the University. Now, he says, he has to stand here because there are really very few of them.
At a checkpoint east of the city troops are better equipped, nearby fields are zigzagged with fresh trenches, and video taping is not allowed. Traffic that two months ago flowed to and from rebel-held territory has been stopped.
A Ukrainian soldier tells VOA a barrier blocking the road was set up after a car bomb exploded at the checkpoint and killed several people.
Despite a shaky cease-fire agreed to in September, many expect the rebels to try to take Mariupol. It is the only sea port for exporting raw materials produced in territory they control in Ukraine's east. It would also further expand a land bridge from Russia to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula the Kremlin annexed from Ukraine in March.
Hundreds of thousands of people have fled fighting in the east to more peaceful parts of Ukraine or across the border into Russia. More than 4,000 have been killed since clashes broke out in April when armed rebels seized government buildings and declared independent republics.