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Ukrainian officials are increasingly worried that Russia is trying to manipulate European and U.S. energy markets, The Wall Street Journal reported last week. Some suspect that Russian President Vladimir Putin is using his country’s vast natural gas supply as a geopolitical weapon to destabilize Ukraine, a leading transit country for Russian energy supply to Europe, just as the European winter season approaches.

With the crisis over Russian political intervention in Ukraine showing no signs of abating, experts and officials in the east of the country are warning of a potentially explosive scenario that could lead to a Russian takeover of the region. The fear is that the Kremlin will send in its troops to create a pretext for an invasion in order to protect ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. Then it will use the crisis to justify permanent military bases in the country, and ultimately a land-grab.

AVDYEVKA, Ukraine – Arthur put his head down as he ran to the bottom of a trench last week, hoping to escape sniper fire from Russian-backed separatists less than 900 yards away.

He has been here for five months as a soldier in the Ukrainian armed forces – much longer in the trenches.

The rules of the fight are simple.

If they attack us with fire, we fire back. And so it goes on, Vladimirovich says, on his bracelet is Ukraine or death with a skull and crossed bones. I don’t see this war ending any time soon, he said.

Artur Vladimirovich was stationed in Avdeyevka for five months.

Seven years ago, pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions declared independence with the support and armament of Moscow, which also seized the Crimean Peninsula.

Since then, ceasefires have been signed and broken and more than 14,000 people have died. Russia has moved troops in and out of the border area, most recently this month. Peace talks have stalled, the Russian president is in his final days.

Vladimir Putin

and its Ukrainian counterpart,

Vladimir Zelensky,

have expressed their willingness to meet, but do not agree on time and place.

Instead, Vladimirovich and his colleagues find themselves in a tense zone as the only active armed conflict in Europe intensifies and the United States and its allies threaten to move in with them as Russia expands its influence in the region and Ukraine seeks new alliances with the West.

This is the first step in the return to Soviet Union 2.0, the European Union said.

Petro Poroshenko,

President of Ukraine until 2019, in an interview. That’s why there are all these attacks, all these military attacks. All this just to renew the Russian Empire.

There is no room for a win-win solution, said Vladimir Frolov, a former senior Russian diplomat. Someone has to lose.

Ukrainian officials and security analysts say the recent buildup of Russian troops near the border was intended to pressure Zelensky and warn him against joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. They said it was also meant to test the Biden administration’s support for Ukraine, which Russia has long considered part of its historic sphere of influence.

Soldiers walk past buildings heavily damaged by the prolonged conflict.

Ukrainian soldier in a former coal mine, the walls of which are covered with bullet holes.

In Kiev, some officials say a lasting peace is not achievable in the short term.

The conflict with Russia will continue for the next 10 to 15 years. They will not leave us alone, said Oleksiy Arestovych, a national security adviser in Zelensky’s government.

According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors the standoff, about 9,000 ceasefire violations were recorded in April, up from 3,000 at the beginning of the year. Ukraine claims that more than 30 of its soldiers have already been killed this year. Military analysts estimate that there are currently 30,000 troops on each side of the front line in Ukraine.

Western officials estimate that Russia separately sent about 100,000 troops to the border with Ukraine last month in an exercise that Moscow says was a response to NATO activities near Russia’s borders, including the Black Sea. Russia said the exercise was over and that it would withdraw some of its troops, but Zelensky warned Ukrainian troops on Tuesday to remain vigilant.

The fact that troops have been withdrawn does not mean the army should not prepare for their eventual return, he said during a visit to Ukrainian positions near Crimea.

Ukraine’s short-term goal is to defuse fighting on the front lines near Adviyevka and other positions that have come under heavy shelling in recent weeks. Talks on long-term peace are underway, although a previous meeting between Zelensky and Putin in 2019, brokered by France and Germany, failed to produce a lasting result and both sides have since hardened their positions.

Ivan Balastrov sells brooms in Zaitsevo, less than 15 km from the front line.

In recent years, Moscow has issued more than 600,000 Russian passports to residents of the separatist-controlled areas, whose total area is about the size of the state of Connecticut. A Ukrainian intelligence officer said Russia had also begun sending more military trainers and equipment to the separatists in recent months, an allegation Moscow denies.

Zelensky, a former television comedian who was elected on a promise to bring peace to the region, has called for greater US involvement in the peace process and accelerated membership in NATO.

It has also taken steps to limit the influence of pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine, including

Viktor Medvedchuk,

a close friend of Mr Putin, after which three of his television channels were closed down and his assets frozen. Kiev refuses to grant the separatists more autonomy, fearing that doing so would give Russia a permanent bridgehead in Ukraine and jeopardize its chances of joining NATO.

Ruslan Ivanovich, a Ukrainian soldier, says he misses his family, but someone has to guard the front lines.

When he was elected, Zelenski had no practical political experience. And at first it didn’t work with Putin, because Putin is profiting from the war, Arestovich said. The days of rose-colored glasses are now over. Zelensky is under no illusions.

Along the front lines, people have become accustomed to the ebb and flow of conflict. Many are skeptical about the prospects for peace.

Ivan Balastrov, who sells brooms for $1 on the side of the road in Zaitseve, a rugged village less than 15 km from the front lines, says he is used to the sounds of shelling.

There’s always some tension here. We want peace, of course, because we are all brothers, Balastrov said. But who can bring peace? Joe Biden, can you bring peace?

Ukrainian soldiers say they feel the same way.

Tatyana Grigorievna, a military cook, says she often hears shellfire while preparing food.

Vladimir Vladimirovich, who has been in the army since 2007, said staying in the trenches had become so familiar that it was boring to be at home. A typical deployment here can last eight months, and while most troops are professional soldiers, some are conscripted.

His colleague, Ruslan Ivanovich, says the conflict is now older than his 5-year-old daughter. I miss my family, but someone has to look out for them, he said, pointing to the enemy lines.

The soldiers live in the former coal mine Butovka, which covers a large area. At one time, 1,500 people worked in this coal-rich area. Now it’s a war relic covered in bullet holes. The remains of the steel frames are rotting. The area is littered with landmines.

When I make porridge or borscht, I often hear a rustling sound, says Tatyana Grigorievna, the farm manager, pointing to the makeshift kitchen and a small pantry where eggs, pickles and canned meat are kept.

Back in the trenches outside the mine, Mr. Ivanovich lights a cigarette and taps his rifle.

I hope the war will end one day, he said. But I can’t think about the world when I’m being shot at.

A car has been burned near Avdiivka.

Write to Georgi Kantchev at [email protected]

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