Many buildings in the town of Novoluganske, in eastern Ukraine, have been abandoned for years. The wooden boards on the doors and windows are rotted by weather, and nearby factories are rusted and shuttered.
You would never know that violent incidents in the region have increased by more than 1,000% in the past three days.
But we weren’t there long on Saturday before heavy fire crashed into town and the soldiers hosting our tour of the war zone swiftly herded our group of more than a dozen journalists back onto a bus. Some colleagues in another part of town ducked into the inner rooms of a military warehouse while our bus sped away.
Just outside of town, Mariana Bezugla, a Ministry of Defense staffer and member of parliament, said it was artillery fire, a type forbidden by international agreements.
“We want diplomacy,” she said from the front passenger seat. “Ukraine wants a diplomatic solution.”
After some time, we parked the bus behind a wall. Soldiers told us to stay inside even though we were wearing heavy security gear. The bombing continued but further away.
The trip we were on with the Ukrainian military had been planned only the night before, but it was clear from behind the wall that this part of the journey was coming to a halt.
It was also clear why the authorities took such pains to bring us to the region. They wanted to show the swelling population of international journalists in Ukraine what was happening on the ground and make sure we all knew how they felt about it.
“Ukraine is ready to fight until the last soldiers,” said David Arakhamia, a leader of the party of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. “Our intention is only … to protect our army and our civilians in our country, of course.”
As we trudged across the tarmac later that evening to board a military flight out of the war zone, a journalist repeatedly asked a slightly confused soldier to tell us how close we were to the “contact line” in Novoluganske.
Eventually, we understood why he was confused by the question.
“That village is on the contact line,” he said.
The contact line separates land controlled by the Ukrainian government and land technically in Ukraine that is controlled by groups usually referred to as “Russian-backed separatists.” These separatists are the forces who have openly and directly engaged in combat with Ukraine since 2014, not Russia.
The separatists refer to themselves as defenders of independent, if unrecognized, countries, and they are often also called “rebels” by supporters and “terrorists” by their enemies.
In the past three days, there have been attacks along all of the roughly 400-kilometer contact line, according to Ukrainian Joint Forces Commander Oleksandr Pavliuk, with 98 incidents of “cease-fire violations” on Saturday alone that left two dead, many injured and homes, water systems and other infrastructure damaged.
But, Pavliuk insisted, Ukraine has maintained its territorial integrity and its will to fight.
“The armed forces of Ukraine are in full control of (the) situation,” he said. “And we will defend the independence of our country until the very end.”
NATO in the news
This uptick in violence may come as no surprise to the average news reader, who has been seeing warnings of escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine for months, including the buildup of Russian troops and military equipment along its border with Ukraine.
Russia has repeatedly demanded a guarantee that Ukraine would never be permitted to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a military alliance originally designed to foil Soviet expansion. NATO has repeatedly denied this demand, while at the same time refusing Ukraine’s entrance into the alliance.
As Russian troops moved to the border over the past few months, diplomats have tried and, so far, failed to untangle this mess. Russia says it has removed some of what the U.S. says are 150,000 troops from the border and will continue to do so, but many other leaders, including Pavliuk, say this is not true.
“As of today,” he said, about an hour before we headed back to the relative safety of Kyiv, “the overall number of Russian troops surrounding the Ukrainian border has not changed.”