Patrolling a trench separating Kiev’s army from pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine, a young Ukrainian soldier says he is prepared for a Russian invasion.
“The enemy will not pass,” says 27-year-old Oleksandr.
Ukraine’s war with pro-Russia separatists has dragged on since 2014, when they seized the Donetsk and Lugansk regions shortly after Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula.
The conflict has simmered in recent years but over the past few weeks fears have mounted that Russia could launch a large-scale attack.
Oleksandr was one of several soldiers who spoke to AFP from December 11-12 in the town of Avdiivka near the separatist frontline. All said they were ready to defend Ukraine against a Russian invasion.
“If they try to break through our defence lines, then I think the enemy’s losses will be 10 times greater,” Oleksandr said.
US President Joe Biden has warned his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin of “sanctions like he’s never seen” should Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border launch an attack.
Oleksandr welcomed high-level talks on the conflict, after Putin and Biden held a virtual two-hour summit focused on Ukraine last week.
“Diplomatic negotiations are always good,” he said.
“If they can lead to a peaceful solution to this conflict without us losing territory, then I am always for them.”
But he was sceptical that would be the outcome, saying Putin “only understands the language of weapons”.
This is our land
Other soldiers in Avdiivka, who were using a chainsaw to cut wood on a recent afternoon to burn against the winter cold, warned against talking to the Russian leader.
“He does not deserve to be believed,” said 53-year-old soldier Oleksandr Kukhartchyk, who called Putin a “killer”.
The soldiers warned against any concession to Russia and insisted that separatist-held regions of Donetsk and Lugansk and said Moscow-annexed Crimea should be returned to Ukrainian control.
“This is our land!” Kukhartchyk said.
The military men said they had not registered a recent escalation of fighting on the ground.
Mykhailo, a 25-year-old soldier, said there had not been major shooting in the area where he serves but there were “provocations every day”.
Kiev and its Western allies accuse the Kremlin of supporting the separatists – claims Moscow denies – in a conflict that has claimed over 13,000 lives.
Russia has massed around 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine. The West has for weeks accused it of planning an invasion.
Putin has denied the plans, blaming NATO for a rise in tensions.
The intensity of the fighting in Ukraine dropped significantly after the so-called Minsk peace agreements were signed in February 2018, but outbreaks of violence have continued.
The conflict has seen 64 Ukrainian soldiers killed since the start of the year, while the separatists have reported about 40 deaths.