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‘We’ve been through this before’: Ukrainian city prepares for possible Russian invasion

Flanked by rebel fighters and Russian forces to the east and Russian ships to the south, Mariupol is a place where President Vladimir Putin’s forces could attack first or stage a provocation. We talk to residents and soldiers on the front line in this Ukrainian city.

On the front lines in southeastern Ukraine, soldiers patrol the trenches on alert for an attack by Russian-backed separatists or Russian forces. It’s been an active front line since 2015… …after Russian separatists seized control of parts of eastern Ukraine. Now the soldiers wonder if they will soon fight against the Russian military forces which have mobilized on the other side of the border. Fourteen miles from the front line is Mariupol, an industrial port city of about half a million people. In the event of an invasion, it could be the scene of large-scale battles. It bears the scars of separatist rocket fire, and residents are now preparing for an assault that Russia denies is coming. We reviewed satellite images and videos posted on social media that showed they may have reason to fear. Our findings map Russia’s military buildup on three sides of the Ukrainian border. To the north, Russia has moved heavy military equipment to the border. Some within striking distance of Ukraine’s capital, Kiev. And Russia has deployed fighter jets to Belarus. In the south, Russia moved more weapons and equipment to the Crimean peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014. In the east, in the Rostov-on-Don region, Satellite imagery shows a recent expansion of tents for housing at one of Russia’s largest military bases. Videos released by the Russian Defense Ministry also show live-fire drills. Nearby is the Sea of ​​Azov, which has shared waters. Russia has reinforced its naval presence here, and it could be the scene of a new attack or provocation, which has put the Ukrainian Sea Guard on edge. They often patrol these waters in sight of Russian ships, which outnumber Ukrainian ships four times. After years of conflict, some townspeople are ambivalent about the risk of escalation. Others prepare for the worst, even a municipal official. Mikhail Vershinin is a volunteer veteran who now heads the Donetsk Regional Patrol Police. But many residents of this town have ties to Russia and fear the consequences of Ukraine’s resistance to President Putin. Some, including soldiers, asked not to disclose their surnames for personal safety. Just east of Mariupol, the town of Shyrokyne is a stark reminder of the cost of war. Only a band of Ukrainian soldiers remains entrenched among the rubble. A village to the north, Zoya Kralya still takes care of her plot and her animals. She is one of the few remaining residents. Her daughter moved to Russia after the conflict started and she now lives alone. After years of fighting the separatists, Ukrainians here know what a Russian invasion could mean… …and how much could be lost.

Flanked by rebel fighters and Russian forces to the east and Russian ships to the south, Mariupol is a place where President Vladimir Putin’s forces could attack first or stage a provocation. We talk to residents and soldiers on the front line in this Ukrainian town.CreditCredit…Yousur Al-Hlou/The New York Times

MARIUPOL, UKRAINE — For residents of this industrial port city, located 22 kilometers from the front line of Russian-backed separatists, the threat of a Russian invasion is nothing new. After eight years of conflict, some townspeople are ambivalent about the risk of escalation. Others have already prepared emergency bags to evacuate.

“In 2014, when the fighting was happening right next to the city, we packed up these things and were ready to go,” said Roman Ameliakin, a Mariupol city councilman. “Back then, we didn’t have to. But we don’t know how it will go this time. We are preparing, just in case.

Flanked by rebel fighters in the Donbass region and Russian forces to the east, and Russian ships to the south, Mariupol is a place where President Vladimir V. Putin’s forces could attack first or stage a provocation to war.

“It is quite clear that in the opening phases of a conflict, Mariupol would be subject to an offensive operation by the Russian Eighth Army, the main support of the separatist forces in the Donbass,” said Michael Kofman of the Center for Naval Analyses, a federal agency. funded research group based in Arlington, Virginia.

No one knows if or how Russia will invade. In this video, we look at satellite images and videos posted on social media that show Ukrainians here may have reason to fear. Our findings describe Russia’s unprecedented military buildup on three sides of the Ukrainian border.

On the Sea of ​​Azov, Russian ships have blockaded the Kerch Strait since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and regularly approach within five nautical miles of Ukrainian shores, often within sight of Ukrainian maritime patrols.

“It happens all the time, and we are constantly preparing for it,” said Roman Varianitsyn, second captain of the Ukrainian Border Guard Service. “But we hope that the enemy, the Russian Federation, will not trigger open confrontation and armed aggression.”

On January 24, 2015, Grad rockets fired from separatist territory struck the eastern district of Mariupol, killing 29 civilians and injuring around 100 others. Having lived with the constant tension of war, many Mariupol residents fear the consequences of Ukraine’s resistance to Mr. Putin.

“It’s actually very scary. I go for a walk with my child and I think to myself, will I come back?” said Kateryna, a young mother shopping in the eastern district of Mariupol, who kept her surname hidden for the sake of public safety.

“I have family in Russia,” she said. “It would be better for us to resolve this conflict with Russia through diplomacy, to make concessions. Russia is strong. I believe Russia will win. And President Putin will get what he wants.

Just east of Mariupol, the seaside town of Shyrokyne is a stark reminder of the cost of war. Only a band of Ukrainian soldiers and volunteer battalions remain entrenched among the ruins. Soldiers there have fought hybrid trench warfare with Russian-backed rebels for years, blasting off with snipers, drones and mortars.

A 23-year-old commander who, for security reasons, gave only one name, Serhii, offered a grim scenario if Russia moved in with his army.

“If that happens,” he said, “it will be carnage.”

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