NOVOLUHANSKE, Ukraine -- Just a couple of hours before Russia’s president moved to redraw Ukraine’s borders again, artillery shells blew out the upstairs windows of Maria Artyomova’s home, ripped a hole in the roof of a two-story building housing a grocery and small apartments -- and killed her neighbor, Roman, as he worked in a tin-roof shed 20 meters from her front gate.
“We just want it to stop. That’s all,” said Artyomova, a 75-year-old retired village secretary and schoolteacher who was in her kitchen giving her diabetic husband an insulin injection when the shelling started -- the worst in at least five years.
The eight-year war in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, where Novoluhanske is located, entered a dangerous new phase with Vladimir Putin’s February 21 announcement that Moscow would recognize the independence claims of the Russia-backed separatists who hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.
Putin also prepared to send Russian troops into the regions -- officially, this time; until now Moscow has denied dispatching forces to the Donbas despite ample evidence of their involvement in a war that has killed more than 13,200 people.
And on February 22, he said Russia recognizes the separatists’ claims to the two provinces in their entirety, deepening concerns that Russian could soon roll into towns like Novoluhanske, on the government-held side of the “line of control.”
Putin’s announcement and the bellicose speech that preceded it also added to fears that Russia, which has massed what U.S. officials say are up to 190,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders, in Russian-controlled Crimea, and in the Donbas, could launch a large-scale invasion at any time.
It followed days of increasing gunfire and artillery shelling along the jagged, meandering line of control.
For many in Kyiv and the West, Putin’s words and actions sounded like a declaration of war against Ukraine. For Artyomova, and for others who have tried to maintain a semblance of normalcy in their lives in the Donbas, Russia’s recognition of the separatists’ claims was just the latest in a litany of distant political insults -- a barrage of bad news whose relevance is often outweighed by the more immediate concerns of daily life.
“Of course, we want Russia and Ukraine to get along together,” she said as the dull thud of artillery fire echoed from the front line about seven kilometers away.
Would Putin’s announcement change anything? “I don’t know,” she said. “Will there be tanks? I don’t know. All I know is the shelling, it was frightening, so unbelievably frightening.”
'We're Getting A Bit Nervous'
In the yard next door, where the neighbor, Roman, was killed, Raisa Andriyonova, 74, swept glass shards and metal scraps into a neat pile with a straw broom as workers arrived to put plywood on the shattered windows of surrounding buildings.
Andriyonova said she expected nothing good to come out of the latest development.
Anything that stops this madness; that’s a good thing,” she said, adding: “I don’t think that [Putin] really knows what he’s doing. He’s old already.”
A few blocks to the south, on Novoluhanske’s outskirts, an abandoned farm-equipment warehouse has been repurposed into a forward post for a mechanized infantry unit opposite a series of separatist positions. For that reason, the neighborhood regularly witnesses heavy shelling.
The company’s commander, Anatoliy, who’s been deployed to this position for about seven months, said the mortar fire has gotten noticeably heavier in recent days. Asked if anything had changed in the 18 hours since Putin’s announcement, he shrugged.
“Well, no,” he said, “In fact, it was a little tense before the announcement.” There had been mortar fire in the past -- “It's just that it's never targeted civilians here.”
A day earlier, in Zaytseve, a village about five kilometers to the west, on the northern outskirts of the separatist-held town of Horlikva, the mood in the bombed-out brick structures, warrens of mud trenches and sand-bagged sniper positions of а company of airborne assault troops was fairly positive.
“The weather's good, less mud now, the guys are in good spirits," said a private named Oleksiy, who like the other soldiers, provided only his first name, under military rules. "But yeah, we're getting a bit nervous.”
“They either want to scare us or make us respond,” said another private, Andriy. “But we don’t react to their provocations because they are using an innocent civilian population as a human shield. If we responded, we might hit them. If they want to scare us, we would have been scared a long time ago.”
He was wary of Moscow’s intentions, saying: “Putin is not the man to make concessions. He won’t hold to any of his words. You can’t trust him.”
Accessing the position means walking through the deeply rutted dirt roads of the village, where most of the houses are now abandoned and collapsing into piles of brick and rubble. A handful of residents remained, including Oleksandr, a 59-year-old retired miner who lives on his pension and the income from a smattering of farm animals, and gave only his first name.
Two days earlier, at least seven mortar shells or rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), fell in a neighboring courtyard, something he said hadn’t happened in a long time, since at least 2018. His bigger complaint was the electricity had gone off again.
“There’s no electricity now, and no one is doing anything about it. Us locals had walked around, to try to find the problem, but that’s it,” he said. “No one is coming to help,” he said.
Asked about the possibility of Russian troops pushing past the line of control, or into Zaytseve even, he replied: “How could I know about the Russian troops if I don’t even have any electricity? Why would I even think about Russian troops?”
Four doors down, another retired miner who gave his name as Ihor, 60, said that, when the RPGs hit overnight, his neighbor was partially trapped, until Ihor went to check on him, heard him crying for help, and pulled the damaged door open. The neighbor was unharmed but frightened to the point that he’s moved in with relatives elsewhere.
Ihor also complained about not having electricity -- “It happens all the time, and no one does anything about it” -- but said he couldn’t move away, even if Russian tanks rolled in.
“Where would I go? This is all I have,” he said, gesturing toward the two-story brick structure with taped plastic-sheeting windows and small flock of chickens scratching in the yard.
Asked about Putin’s statements, he drew a parallel with those of the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s government in Kyiv: political decisions that are made far away from the daily grind of village life.
“I’m a simple man. They decide what do on their own. Why would they want to bother with us?” he said.