The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Life on Ukraine’s front line: Trenches, abandoned homes and fear of conflict without end

The sea view from a ruined hotel in Shyrokyne, Ukraine, in April. (Serhiy Morgunov/For The Washington Post)

BERDIANSKE, Ukraine — There are no jobs here. The sea is closed to fishing or swimming. Land mines dot the beaches and fields.

To even reach the village of Berdianske from the government-controlled side — less than a mile from the front line in a simmering war with pro-Russian separatists — there are three military checkpoints along a dirt track.

Worries spiked this spring that the seven-year-old conflict could take a perilous turn after Russia boosted military forces near Ukraine's border. Russia last month withdrew some troops, but the Kremlin had sent a message to the West about its influence in the region, including eastern Ukraine.

In places such as Berdianske, the recent spike in tensions also underscored an uneasy limbo: part of Ukraine but increasingly feeling Russia's presence and pressures. Among the Kremlin's apparent goals is greater control over the Sea of Azov, which is bordered by Russia and Ukraine but effectively under Moscow's grip.

Its narrow strait to the Black Sea — the only way in or out — is in Russia's hands on both shores after its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

In Berdianske, seven miles from the strategic port of Mariupol, houses once prized for their sea views are decked with faded "For Sale" signs. Other homes are in ruins or abandoned.

Tattered fishing lines hang from trees.

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At times, shots are fired from front-line trenches reminiscent of World War I battles. More than 20 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed this year, mainly by snipers, military officials say.

Katya, 15, jogs along paths that she knows are not mined to a ghost village on the front line, Shyrokyne, where she stayed during summer holiday camps as a small child.

“The uncertainty is frightening. If something starts here, what will happen to us? What do we do? Leave? Go where? We don’t know,” said Katya, who spoke on the condition of using only her first name for security reasons.

The village was shelled in 2014 and 2015. Mila, another Berdianske resident, recalled her 87-year-old mother crawling out of the kitchen during an attack, moments before the kitchen was hit and the ceiling crashed down. Mila was injured, leaving her without the use of one arm.

“It is quieter now, but we do not know what to expect next,” said Mila, who also gave only her first name out of security concerns. “We live in fear.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered no public promise of new security assistance after meeting with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky on May 6 in Kyiv. He called on Russia to “cease reckless and aggressive actions” and pledged support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.

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Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute, a center for Russia and Eurasian studies, said Russia’s military threat to Ukraine remains.

“The Russians called this a snap readiness exercise, which even on its face indicates they can resume their positions in full strength at any time,” he said.

He noted that Russia left behind considerable equipment allowing for rapid mobilization at any time. It also has significant forces in Crimea.

But the war with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine is not just about bullets.

Russian state television bombards the separatist regions with anti-Ukraine propaganda, drumming up false warnings that Kyiv is planning to attack the breakaway regions of Donbas and Luhansk. And Moscow has fast-tracked nearly 530,000 Russian passports to Ukrainians in the separatist regions since 2019. It recently threatened military intervention to “protect” the passport holders.

In Mariupol, Olimpiada Khadzhinova, 82, and her daughter Athena often hear gunfire and explosions outside the village of Tolokovka, about 10 miles away.

“Of course, it’s frightening, this uncertainty,” she said. “How can we defend ourselves?”

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In an address to both houses of Russia’s parliament last month, President Vladimir Putin threatened to retaliate harshly against any breach of Russia’s “red lines.”

Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Moscow’s main aim is preventing Ukraine from joining NATO.

“The way to achieve the basic objective is to make it clear to the West that a decision to include Ukraine into NATO would mean war before it is implemented,” he said.

The military buildup, Trenin added, “was a warning to Kyiv not to think about moving into Donbas and a message to Washington to keep an eye on its client in Kyiv lest it involves the United States in big trouble.”

On the front lines beyond Berdianske, Ukrainian soldiers fortified the trenches, digging, carting soil and cutting wood. A chain-saw buzzed. Shattered skeletal trees loomed overhead.

The rebel lines were 70 yards away.

Dixon reported from Moscow.

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