NOVOTOSHKIVSKE, Ukraine — Artillery shells slammed into a circle of frontline towns in eastern Ukraine on Friday, blowing out windows, hitting schools, homes and military positions — and raising fears that escalating here is only the prelude to direct Russian military action.
“I have a little baby,” said Nadya Lapygina, a resident of Staryi Aidar, one of dozens of towns hit by artillery and mortar fire on the northern border of the breakaway region on Friday. “You have no idea how scary it is to hide it from the shelling.”
They huddled under the stairs of their home and emerged unscathed from two volleys on Thursday morning and Friday afternoon, Ms Lapygina said. Fighting between government soldiers and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine began on Thursday and has not stopped, with dozens of towns and villages on the government-controlled side being shelled, authorities said and help groups.
Ukrainian military officials and the defense minister confirmed the resumption of shelling, saying Russian-backed separatists fired 84 times with heavy weapons on Thursday and Friday.
Eastern Ukraine, impoverished, remote and locked in a bitter eight-year war, looks increasingly like a flashpoint that could trigger a wider conflict. That fear was only heightened by a video message from Russian separatists on Friday that warned without evidence of an impending Ukrainian military offensive and urged residents of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic to evacuate to Russia.
The video was denounced by Kiev as a baseless provocation.
Western governments issued near-daily warnings of the risks of a Russian invasion, after the Kremlin massed troops near Ukraine’s borders and demanded sweeping security concessions from NATO and the United States, which have been widely rejected. Russian officials say they have no intention of invading but have not slowed the mustering of what Western officials say is up to 190,000 troops around Ukraine’s borders.
US officials said they were closely monitoring the violence in eastern Ukraine, fearing that Russia could use the escalation and the danger it poses to ethnic Russians and other civilians as excuse to invade.
Russian officials present a radically different view of the fighting in the east. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov said on Friday that Moscow was concerned about “a sharp increase in shelling in eastern Ukraine”, which he blamed on Ukrainian forces.
“The Kyiv regime has been violating its responsibilities for several years,” he said. “Every time we agree on new measures to help enforce a ceasefire, Kiev sabotages them.”
In eastern Ukraine, cold rain fell on lingering patches of snow and few people ventured into the streets of villages along the northern edge of the contact line that separates the two sides on Friday. .
Explosions sounded from time to time, as the fighters exchanged gunfire. “It makes you think maybe it’s time to run,” said Tatyana Neiman, a nurse and single mother from the village of Vrubivka, inspecting the blown windows of her house after a shell landed nearby.
Luckily, it hit while she was on shift and her 10-year-old son Bogdan was quarantined with Covid at a friend’s house. “I’m all alone,” she said. “I raise him myself. And now he’s scared.
A total of 12 houses in the village were damaged by the shelling on Friday morning, said Proliska, a local non-governmental group affiliated with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which has been providing aid to affected families throughout the war. daytime.
A few doors away, Valentina Melnichenko, 72, a retired warehouse clerk, was watching television on Friday morning when a shell landed in her backyard, wiping out a small brick outbuilding. Her husband, who died a few years ago, built it, she said. “Now it’s destroyed,” she said, tears in her eyes.
Impact craters, about a meter deep and surrounded by sheaves of black earth on the snow, pockmarked courtyards and a schoolyard.
Explosions tore branches from trees and shattered windows.
Olena Yaryna, principal of the town’s school, said the shell hit the playground around 10.30am, smashing some windows but causing little other damage. She and the teachers herded the children into the hallways, away from the windows, and made them lie flat on the floor.
“That’s how we experienced it,” Ms Yarnya said. “I absolutely don’t understand why they bombed us.” She added: “The children were very scared and the parents even more so.”
Fighting in eastern Ukraine is not unusual, with periodic outbreaks throughout the war years. Still, locals say the recent increase is the worst in two years since a tentative and oft-violated ceasefire came into effect.
Understanding the escalation of tensions over Ukraine
And it comes amid an escalation that has seen Russia announce major military exercises over the weekend that will include the launch of ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as a test of its strategic nuclear forces – land-based launchers, bombers and warships used to deliver nuclear weapons — and naval exercises in the Black Sea.
The Defense Ministry said the drills were planned in advance and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov denied they were aimed at increasing tensions.
But they come at a critical moment in the deadlock over Ukraine.
“People are scared,” said Vera Voitenko, 62, a Red Cross volunteer in the village of Novotoshkivske, about a mile from the front line. She said people would leave if they could, “but who is waiting for us, and where?”
The deputy director of the school in this village, Natalia Dotsenko, said she was awakened by an artillery barrage early Thursday morning. Although occasional explosions are commonplace near the front, she said sustained fire was different, adding: “We understand that something dangerous is happening.”
But she said there was nothing more they could do to prepare for the onslaught, should it come. The children had been trained: three siren rings meant a fire and that they had to leave the building; a long siren means incoming artillery fire and they must hurry to the basement bomb shelter.
Older children are encouraged to grab first graders and kindergartners under the armpits and carry them into the basement. During artillery drills and several instances of live incoming artillery, the students performed well, Ms. Dotsenko said.
Her face was pinched with concern as she described the exercise, and she nervously clutched her hands. “You can’t explain fear with words,” she said.
In the streets, muddy streams flowed between potholes. Many two- and three-story brick buildings bore the scars of earlier artillery strikes.
Friday morning, as artillery fire echoed through the city, Sofia Sakhibgarayeva, 55, a housekeeper wearing a red hat, leopard-print coat and purple mittens, walked in the middle of the deserted street, saying she was going shopping.
“It’s nerve wracking,” she admitted, but said she didn’t want to succumb to the worry. “Look at my mittens,” she said. “Don’t you find them pretty?
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine.