A report from the front line where Ukrainians and Russians still battle


HARI SREENIVASAN: Rex Tillerson has said that Ukraine is the single most difficult obstacle to establishing normal relations with Russia. And just a few weeks ago, the Trump administration decided to provide additional assistance to Ukraine in the form of lethal anti-tank missiles as they fight against Russian-backed separatists.

NewsHour Weekend Special correspondent Christopher Livesay traveled to Ukraine to see how that conflict continues to impact residents caught in the crossfire.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Kiev, the Capital of Ukraine, looks peaceful in the first winter snow. But just 500 miles southeast of here, a war has claimed 10,000 lives, including the soldiers memorialized on this wall. It's a conflict that has inflamed tensions between the US and Russia like nothing since the Cold War. Russia has portrayed it as a civil war, Ukrainian vs. Ukrainian. But at a Ukrainian military training camp about an hour from Kiev, soldiers we met had no doubt about who they were fighting.

STG MAXIM PARKHOMENKO: Against Russian aggressors, who are coming to our country. It's a fight against Russian terrorists, in my opinion.

LT COL YURI KALYTA: I believe that there would be no conflict if the Russian troops did not enter the territory of Ukraine.

AMBASSADOR YOVANOVITCH: Russia sees Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence. And I think Russia would like to ensure that Ukraine is not an independent actor.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Marie Yovanovitch is the US Ambassador to Ukraine. She says Ukraine has steadily been turning Westward…seeking closer ties with NATO and the European Union. Tension reached a boiling point when Ukraine's pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, turned his back on a Western trade pact in 2013, and pro-European protesters took to the Maidan, Kiev's main square. The protests were pro-European, anti-corruption and overwhelmingly peaceful. They braved months of cold and brutal police crackdowns that claimed dozens of lives. Eventually, after three months, President Yanukovych fled to Russia. The pro-European protesters had won.

AMBASSADOR YOVANOVITCH: I think the Russians were angry over this. And so the first move that we saw was the infamous little green men in Crimea, a part of Ukraine. Men arriving in uniforms, in green uniforms, but no identification. And they denied they were anything but a people from Crimea. And within a matter of days really Crimea was taken over by Russian forces. So when a part of Europe is attacked, that is not good for stability, it's not good for security, it's not, of Ukraine, but also more broadly of Europe, one of our best partners.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: The US and EU responded to the Russian occupation of Crimea with stiff sanctions. But the crisis in the south was followed shortly by another crisis in the east of Ukraine. In the region known as Donbass, Pro-Russian separatists took over entire towns declaring independence, further dividing Ukrainians from one another. But who were the separatists? According to Yuriy Boyko, a pro-Russian member of Parliament, they were simply local Ukrainians who felt threatened by the Maidan protests and the new pro-West government in Kiev.

YURIY BOYKO: People in the East of Ukraine didn't understand what is happening in Kiev. They saw the blood, they saw the shootings, they were frightened. They were speaking in Russian. They were closer to Russia.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: So the Russian-speaking people in eastern Ukraine…

YURIY BOYKO: They were afraid.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: They were afraid and they felt closer to Russia than to the country of Ukraine?

YURIY BOYKO: In this situation yes.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Is this a civil war or is Russia an aggressor?

YURIY BOYKO: It is a civil war with Russian support.

AMBASSADOR YOVANOVITCH: This not a civil war. I think that is part of a Russian disinformation campaign.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: So we know that Russia is operating in these areas.


CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: It's not Russian-speaking, pro-Russian forces who are Ukrainian. These are Russians operating in Eastern Ukraine.

AMBASSADOR YOVANOVITCH: The Russians are controlling both the civil administration as well as the fighting and they can turn it up and they can turn it down and we have seen that.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: There is a cease-fire in place but it's constantly being violated according to Alexander Hug who monitors the conflict for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: The OSCE has more than 600 monitors on both sides of the contact line documenting fighting like this: firing from howitzers, night-time attacks on the water system in Donetsk and mortar explosions in the town of Avdiivka.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: So at least as far as Ukraine is concerned this is no cold war.

ALEXANDER HUG: It is a very active war. We see on a daily basis thousands of ceasefire violations. And we continue to retrace the suffering of the civilian population that often live very closely or on on the contact line between positions.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Who is breaking the cease-fire. You're on the ground. What have you seen?

ALEXANDER HUG: We know that both sides don't adhere to the cease fire. Both sides maintain positions too close to one another. And both sides do keep heavy weapons in areas where they have agreed these weapons, tanks, mortars, artillery, multiple launch-rocket systems, should not be. One example of an area where we see fighting.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: We decided to go to Avdiivka to see the front line ourselves. Our trip began with a 6-hour train ride southeast from Kiev, to the town of Sloviansk. In the early days of the war, this road from the train station was dubbed "sniper alley." It was one of the first towns to be taken by rebels in 2014.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Right behind me is a mental facility that they occupied and used to launch mortar attacks on the Ukrainian forces out there in the distance about where the woods are.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Caught in the middle, villagers like 59-year-old Yuriy, a car mechanic whose house was destroyed by shelling. Although he has Russian roots, his children fled to Russia for safety, he stayed behind to rebuild the family home.

YURIY: How can I feel Russian? I am Ukrainian!

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Eventually the Ukrainian army bombed the mental hospital and retook the town …moving the contact line about 60 miles south to our destination…Avdiivka. To get there we needed to cross checkpoints we weren't allowed to film. We started out early in the morning on roads pockmarked by shelling. The Donbass region of Ukraine is rich in natural resources and farmland but many fields are off limits because of the possibility of landmines. Avdiivka is in the so-called "grey zone." We're told it's safe during daylight hours. Most of the shelling happens at night. After more than three years of fighting people have grown used to it. We found this woman selling handmade items by the side of the road.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Knitting calms her nerves she tells us. Water, heat and electricity are sporadic, with infrastructure constantly being damaged in the fighting and needing repair. Suffering the most are smaller villages like Kamianka just outside Avdiivka. 78-year-old Valentina Shmatok has lived here her whole life. She points to the front. There, there she says just across the highway. There was shelling just last night she says. Farhana Javid, a psychologist with the International Red Cross, has been visiting this village weekly. She points out a root cellar where more than a dozen of the villagers are forced to take cover on a regular basis.

FARHANA JAVID: Can you imagine this is the place they live.

CHRIS LIVESAY: They sleep in here?

FARHANA JAVID: They don't sleep. Basically they bring their small stools. And they just sit here. There is no place to sleep here. It's cold. It's stinky. There is no electricity. And they've gone through hell, because many of their children are in different parts of the world so they are not able to meet them. They are not able to speak to them and also they lie to them telling them they are fine, they're alright because they don't want to get them worried.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: We ask Valentina how the Red Cross has helped her.

VALENTINA SHMATOK: They bring us different things and talk to us. That's the only outlet for us. We never have rest here.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: The fighting is at a stalemate that's injured or killed more than 400 civilians last year alone. Both sides have called for UN peacekeepers and talks are scheduled for later this month. But there is a risk this conflict will escalate.The US is upping the ante, announcing last month it will allow the sale of lethal anti-tank weapons to Ukrainian forces like those training near Kiev. Russia sees this as another provocation. Meanwhile, some say Russia's strategy has backfired. You see the signs everywhere. EU flags. Anti-Putin paraphernalia. On this monument in Kiev, the People's Friendship Arch built by Soviets in the early 1980s, the Russian writing has been defaced and replaced by the words 'Glory to Ukraine.' Nadia Vivchar is a student originally from western Ukraine, now living in Kiev.

CHRIS LIVESAY: The conflict in Crimea and then in Eastern Ukraine, has that united the country?

NADIA VIVCHAR: It has united the people, actually. So before this conflict actually started I really didn't feel that much patriotic feelings toward Ukraine and now with all of these events and my friends going to the eastern part to fight. It makes people unite. It makes us unite not against somebody but to protect ourselves.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY: Svitlana Zalishchuk agrees. One of the original pro-European protesters she's a member a member of Parliament now and says Ukrainians are unified like never before.

SVITLANA ZALISHCHUK: People think that western Ukraine chose the west and eastern Ukraine chose Russia. This is not true. 70% of our soldiers who went voluntarily to fight, they are Russian speaking people. You can speak Russian. You can have relatives in Russia. But it was a choice not of the language or nationality. It was the choice of the future. And we are a country that has for sure a democratic future.

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A report from the front line where Ukrainians and Russians still battle first appeared on the PBS NewsHour website.

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