On the front line, Ukrainian and Russian troops are just a few kilometres apart – Copyright AFP Dimitar DILKOFF
The blaze in a football field-length storage building had been burning at least a day — but there are no firefighters in Temyrivka because everyone has evacuated, leaving the black smoke to rise unhindered.
This one of a string of southeastern Ukrainian villages in no-man’s land near the town of Pokrovska, where the two sides are just a few kilometres apart — so close that Ukrainian troops with binoculars can see the Russians digging at their positions.
The deep thump of artillery exchanges comes on top of the odd rocket salvo, yet Ukrainian soldiers told AFP during a visit Wednesday that there was almost no face-to-face fighting.
As the focus of Russia’s invasion has moved to Ukraine’s east, there is a steady build-up of tension, with lower-intensity but explosive strikes in some areas while fighting increases in others.
“As for now, they never come on foot, only artillery,” said soldier Dmytro Sirenko, 40, as he peered in the Russians’ direction across a broad, green expanse of farms, fields and the occasional house.
“We have time to entrench ourselves, hide and wait for the possible advance of the enemy,” he said, a rifle in one hand as he stood in a recently dug foxhole.
Because of the threat of a Russian armoured vehicle assault, anti-tank rockets are positioned in many foxholes and bunkers at one Ukrainian outpost flanked by fields of bright yellow flowers used in the nation’s vegetable oil industry.
Near the front lines, more than an hour’s drive east of the government-held city of Zaporizhzhia, the civilian population drops to almost nothing the closer you get to the shelling.
In Temyrivka, AFP met only two civilians. They said they had already left the area but had come back to collect some things from their home.
Then they quickly drove away from the splintered roofs and steadily burning storage building.
– Calm before the storm? –
Russia’s campaign to take Ukraine by force, despite unprecedented international sanctions, has dropped into a lower gear and become an effort to chip away steadily at the embattled nation’s defences in the east.
“The Russians can’t be everywhere at the same time. They try to grab small pieces (of the front) — one here, one there,” explained Sirenko.
“If nobody’s in the way, then they advance.”
In southern Ukraine, Russian forces have taken over a strip of territory stretching from the besieged port city of Mariupol to Kherson, the region just north of Crimea.
The frontline area visited by AFP includes large expanses of farmland with tractors in the fields working in places further from the shelling, while some stretches of land closer to the fighting were untilled.
In March, Ukraine officials warned the invasion could be disastrous for the nation’s harvest, which is crucial to global food supplies.
Several regions, especially the fertile lands around Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Odessa in the south, are at risk because of the violence.
Yet for the troops spending hours watching across the fields for an attack, there are risks even more urgent than Ukraine’s farm production.
With Russia days away from its May 9 commemoration of victory over the Nazis in 1945, experts have predicted President Vladimir Putin may try to declare a win in Ukraine, and troops told AFP they were watching for an offensive.
“Now it’s too calm,” said a soldier called Eugene, who did not give his surname.
“There had been a lot of ruckus around here. And now it’s calm… like before the storm, as they say,” he added.