Avdiivka, Ukraine – On the front lines of eastern Ukraine, where Kyiv’s army has been fighting a prolonged war with pro-Kremlin separatists, Ukrainian soldiers are doubtful that any Russia-U.S. talks will bring forward change.
Since 2014 — the year Russia annexed Crimea — Ukrainian soldiers have been battling rebels to take back control in two regions bordering Russia.
But recently, fears have mounted that Moscow, which amassed tens of thousands of troops on its side of the border, may launch an attack.
Clad in a bulletproof vest and army helmet, 29-year-old soldier Mykhailo walks through the trenches in the town of Avdiivka, just north of the separatist stronghold city of Donetsk.
“I doubt that anything will change,” Mykhailo says, explaining that previous negotiations had failed to end the war that has claimed more than 13,000 lives.
Russian and U.S. diplomats are meeting in Geneva for talks on Ukraine and security issues with President Vladimir Putin seeking guarantees that NATO will not expand eastward.
“I think that these talks won’t make things worse,” Mykhailo says, his rifle in hand.
“As for Putin’s policy, that’s another matter. It won’t change,” he says. “Guarantees of not joining NATO will never stop him, as he wants to return the Soviet Union in version 2.0.”
With tensions soaring between Moscow and Washington, the West has urged Russia to pull back its troops.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied it plans to invade and said the troop movement is part of routine deployment.
U.S. President Joe Biden has warned of severe consequences if Russia invades.
Measures under consideration reportedly include cutting off Moscow from the global banking system and cancelling Russia’s controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday accused Russia of “gaslighting” the world by making demands. He vowed the upcoming talks would focus on Moscow’s “aggression toward Ukraine.”
“The enemy is constantly firing provocative shots,” 29-year-old soldier Dmytro says.
The separatists use mortars and machine guns, he says.
Mykhailo notes that in recent months the separatist military equipment has been moving “on a much larger scale” than before.
“We are ready,” he adds. “We can hold back the enemy”.
Blinken said it was up to Russia whether the Geneva talks would be a success. The delegations are led by his deputy Wendy Sherman and Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov.
Ahead of the Geneva talks, Russia issued draft proposals aimed at curbing NATO expansion. Moscow demands that NATO must not admit new members and seeks to bar the United States from establishing new bases in ex-Soviet countries.
Russia accuses NATO of betraying their promise from the end of the Cold War of not expanding to the East.
After the Geneva talks, Russia on Wednesday will meet with all 30 members of the U.S.-led military alliance — the first such encounter since July 2019.
“Knowing our enemy, I am 100% certain that the talks will not be in our favor,” Mikhaylo says.
“And even if they do agree on something, agreements with Russia are never worth the paper they are written on,” he adds.
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