There is little hope to be found among Ukrainian soldiers on the front line in the east of the country. They do not think the talks between Russia and the United States will change anything.
The only hope one of the soldiers expresses is that the talks in Geneva will not change anything, either in one direction or the other.
– I do not think these conversations will make it worse, says the 29-year-old soldier Mykhajlo.
Wearing a bulletproof vest and a military helmet, he walks through the ditches dug in the city of Avdiika, just north of the city of Donetsk, which Russian-friendly separatists have controlled since 2014.
In the same year, Russia annexed the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula, and ever since then, Ukrainian troops have been fighting to recapture the eastern parts of the country, Donetsk and Luhansk, without the situation having changed significantly.
More than 13,000 people have been killed, according to UN estimates, while 1.5 million people have been displaced, according to the US think tank Council on Foreign Relations.
Big political game
While Mykhajlo and his colleagues patrol the front line, there has been a major political game in recent weeks that has brought Ukraine to the top of the news. Diplomacy has been in high gear, and a wealth of experts have analyzed the situation and assessed whether there is a real danger of a Russian invasion of Ukraine or not.
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Russia denies that this is the plan, but by mobilizing around 100,000 Russian soldiers at the Ukrainian border, the country has nevertheless sent a disturbing message about what the country is capable of. Experts have no doubt that it is intended to act as a bargaining chip – or deterrent.
Before Christmas, Russia put forward a number of demands and proposals on how the country believes the conflict can be resolved, including what appears to be an absolute demand that Ukraine can never become a NATO member. The claim is firmly rejected both by Ukraine itself and Western countries. In any case, a Ukrainian NATO membership seems to be in the blue.
At the same time, the Russians asked for negotiations within a short time, and on Monday American and Russian diplomats met for talks in Geneva.
Expectations of what the meeting will lead to have been sharply reduced in advance on both the Russian and American sides, and at the front line it is no different.
– I doubt that anything will be different, says Mykhajlo and points out that previous negotiations have not ended the war.
The soldier’s hope is that it will not get worse, but at the same time he fears what President Vladimir Putin is up to – no matter what happens in Geneva.
– When it comes to Putin’s policy, it’s a different matter. It will not change. Guarantees of not joining NATO will never stop him as he wants to return to the Soviet Union in version 2.0, Mykhajlo believes.
More excited than in a long time
European politicians consider that relations with Russia are now more tense than they have been for decades. The demand from the West is that the Russians withdraw their forces from the Ukrainian border. The answer from Moscow is that the transfer of forces is only a routine deployment.
US President Joe Biden has warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine will have serious consequences. Among the measures being considered is excluding Russia from the global banking system, as the United States has ensured Iran is. It will have major economic consequences for the country and affect investments and trade with the outside world.
Another measure is to stop Russian gas exports to Europe through the newly built Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
– Teeth on the world
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Russia of fueling the conflict by promoting the demands now on the table in Geneva. He has also said that the talks will primarily revolve around Russia’s “aggression against Ukraine”.
The soldiers in Ukraine notice the escalation in their own way.
– The enemy constantly fires provocative shots, says the soldier Dmytro (29) and adds that the separatists use bombers and machine guns.
According to Mykhajlo, the separatists have moved military equipment to a far greater extent in recent months than before.
– We are ready. We can stop the enemy, he states.
Accused of breach of promise
Blinken has played the ball over to the Russians and said that it is they who decide whether the talks in Geneva will be successful. The two delegations are led by US Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, respectively.
In addition to demanding that NATO not allow more former Soviet states to join, Moscow wants the United States to promise not to establish new military bases in countries that were part of the Soviet Union. Russia has for years accused NATO of breaking a promise not to expand eastward, which was given when the Cold War was over.
– Because we know our enemy, I am 100 percent sure that the talks will not be to our advantage, Mykhajlo says.
– And even if they agree on something, the agreements with Russia are never worth the paper they see written on, the soldier believes.