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Eastern Ukraine’s front lines are snow-covered, and the big guns are mostly silent. Snipers, on the other hand, are nestled in this winter white wasteland as they wait Russia’s next move.

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Ukrainian troops who fail to stay low in their trenches reminiscent of World War One risk being shot in the head.

Since 2014, when separatists backed by Moscow seized parts of the Donbas region, the conflict has been stalled. At least 13,000 people, both combatants, and civilians, have been killed. Now, Western leaders are predicting something far worse: a full-fledged Russian invasion of Ukraine. If it comes, the eastern front would be a good place to start, with pro-Russian insurgents leading the way.

Maria was attempting to remain calm in the face of all of this. The talkative and slight 26-year-old Ukrainian soldier was in her trench, armed with a Kalashnikov and a perfect manicure. She is a member of the 56th infantry brigade of Ukraine. (The army requested that we only use her first name in order to avoid trolling on social media.)

“I try not to get too involved in politics and don’t watch TV,” Maria explained. “But we are prepared. We’ve had a lot of practice. I understand that it will not be like a training exercise and that it will be difficult for everyone. But our morale is high, and we’re not backing down.”

Maria is surrounded by brothers. Two of them were members of Ukraine’s national guard. Her youngest brother, a tank gunner, will soon be deployed to the front lines. Her retired parents are caring for her four-year-old son at home.

“It was very difficult to leave him,” she admitted. “But I’ve wanted to join the army since I was six years old. I never imagined I’d end up on the front lines, but I’m glad I did.” Nearby, one of her comrades was chopping wood with an axe. The cold, like the separatists a kilometer away, is a constant threat.

Maria made her way through a maze of tunnels to her home away from home, a berth beneath the ground. The mud walls were covered in brightly colored children’s drawings. “These are from various schools as a thank you,” she explained. “It contributes to our morale.”

Maria’s war is about her homeland’s future, but there may be far more at stake than Ukraine’s fate. Russia is establishing front lines in a new Cold War. The future shape of Nato and the established security order in Europe are now at stake.

US President Joe Biden has warned that there is a “distinct possibility” that Russia will invade in February and “change the world.” Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has invoked the horrors of Chechnya and Bosnia. However, what you hear from some Ukrainians contradicts the rising international concern.

“I don’t think the Russians will come,” said a social worker in the east who asked not to be identified. “I believe what my eyes and ears tell me. It’s actually quieter now than it was last month. This is merely a battle of information.” Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, frequently repeats the phrase “nothing to see here.”

However, some people in this room are terrified. “My heart pounds every time I hear a noise,” said Ludmilla Momot, a 64-year-old great grandmother with a gold-tipped front tooth. Momot is well aware of what Moscow and its allies are capable of. Her 30-year home in the village of Nevilske was destroyed by separatist shelling last November. She returned to Nevilske, which was now deserted, to show us the wreckage.

“This is a wound that will last the rest of my life,” she sobbed, her gaze drawn to the gaping hole where her front door once stood. “In my nightgown, I had to crawl out of the rubble. My feet were covered in blood. How much longer can we suffer in this war, now in its eighth year?”

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I asked the retired milkmaid if she had anything to say to President Putin. “Make peace,” she instructed. “Come to an agreement. You are all mature, educated individuals. Make peace so that people can live freely, free of tears and pain.”

The Russian leader’s end game in the modern version of war and peace is unknown. Has he amassed a force of 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border in order to force concessions from NATO – i.e., the United States – or to seize another portion of the country?

A limited incursion, with forces, only sent into Eastern Ukraine, is one possible scenario. The Kremlin would almost certainly try to portray them as “peacekeepers” who protect Russian passport holders. Hundreds of thousands of passports have been issued in the separatist-held territory by Moscow.

Ukrainian troops insist that if the Russians arrive, it will be more difficult than annexing the Crimean peninsula in 2014. “This time, we’re better prepared,” said Alyona, a soldier stationed in the East. “I don’t think the Russians will invade. They want to instill fear and then use it as a bargaining chip “She stated.

Even if there is no ground invasion – which Moscow insists will not happen – the damage has already been done. The international outpouring of concern about an impending invasion is destabilizing this vast Western-looking country.

Without firing a shot, President Putin has already won a victory by weakening the neighboring state he desires and forcing the international community to rely on his every word.

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