MARIUPOL, UKRAINE —
Despite the ongoing cease-fire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack.
The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it.
On the hills overlooking the sea of Azov, soldiers of the Ukrainian army are digging in.
These trenches, bunkers and fighting positions are part of a network of defenses around Mariupol, a city that many fear is the next target in eastern Ukraine’s pro-Russian rebellion. Despite a cease-fire that began on February 15th, soldiers here are expecting the worst.
“I do not believe in the cease-fire, because no one is obeying the rules of the Minsk negotiations," said Troyeshina, a volunteer fighter with Donbass Battalion. "The level of shelling has gone down, but the fighting continues. That is why I think an attack is coming. If it continues like this, it is going to happen.”
Without either capturing or encircling this city, pro-Russian forces will not have a land bridge to recently annexed Crimea, the strategically vital peninsula that gives the Russian Navy access to the Mediterranean.
The rebels have already claimed Mariupol as their own, but Ukrainian forces said they will not leave without a fight.
"The rebels are all saying that Mariupol is an important strategic place, politically important, too," said Sobol, a commander with the 37th Tank Battalion. "But considering our forces and troops, it will be difficult, very difficult for them. Everyone is ready.”
Any possible fight for Mariupol would indeed be terrible. Civilians have already abandoned the areas east of the the city, and Fyodor, a civilian, said despite the cease-fire a shell had recently landed in his garden.
“A shell from the sea or from Shyrokyne landed here, and there was an explosion. Three or four more exploded over there," said Fyodor. "There were more, but they landed in the sea."
Mariupol’s airport is now a makeshift military base, and serves as a rest area for volunteer fighters coming in off the front line. Many are filthy and exhausted after days in the freezing trenches.
France has said Russia will face further sanctions if Mariupol is attacked, but few here believe that is a credible deterrent. With so much still to gain for both sides in this conflict, the cease-fire seems little more that an opportunity to regroup before the weather improves.