In Chonhar a blue and yellow flag marks the de facto border as Russian forces amass across a shimmering expanse of water
Peering through binoculars, Mykola Chekman pointed to the bridge connecting Ukraine to Russian-controlled Crimea. “It’s not the first time the peninsula has been occupied,” he observed. He added: “Crimea has seen a lot of war.”
Chekman – a Ukrainian army photographer – was standing on the castellated tower of what was once a tourist cafe. It is now a base for Ukrainian forces, facing off against their invisible Russian counterparts across a shimmering expanse of water and duck-filled lagoons.
The abandoned building is situated in the village of Chonhar in Ukraine’s southern Kherson province. A Ukrainian checkpoint with a blue and yellow flag marks the de facto border with what Moscow considers to be Russia, a ragged group of houses over the bridge.
In the east of the country, Russian-backed separatists regularly lob grenades and shoot at their Ukrainian adversaries. The Chonhar frontline, by contrast, is tranquil. A handful of civilians arrive in a white minivan and cross the last section on foot, rolling small cases.
Despite this apparent normality Kyiv is taking no chances. Soldiers stand guard in a network of trenches reinforced with wooden pallets. They peer at the enemy through letterbox-style positions, guns at the ready. For now, the only intruder is a ball of tumbleweed. A cold wind blows.
The cafe’s tower, reached via a perilous staircase, serves as an observation platform. It is topped with a decorative black finial featuring a Crimea map. On a ground floor wall someone has scrawled: “Putin is a prick”. Nearby, a BTR armoured personnel carrier sat hidden behind a fir tree.
“Vladimir Putin dreams of making a land corridor between Russian-occupied territories in the Donbas and Crimea. We won’t let him,” Ivan Arefiev – a military officer – said. He added: “We are ready for whatever happens, including an attack.”
There are few obvious signs of a Russian military presence. At night the soldiers say they can hear the roar of enemy tanks as they manoeuvre, concealed behind a small wood. But the stark fact is the Kremlin could advance from here at any time: from land, sea or air.
With 100,000 Russian troops now encamped on its borders, Ukraine is surrounded. In the south, Moscow’s armed forces may break out from Crimea and move north and then east along the coast, a flat 250km strip encompassing the Ukrainian ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol.
The strategic goal would be to link Crimea to the separatist mini-fiefdoms of Donetsk and Luhansk. Moscow effectively seized these territories in spring 2014, installing and arming local proxies and starting a conflict that has gone on ever since.
In the east, Russian tanks may advance across the border towards the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv and smash through the “line of contact” between the separatists and the Ukrainian army. In the west, Russian forces are stationed near to Odessa in Transnistria, a breakaway republic in the east of Moldova.
The most ominous developments, meanwhile, are playing out in the north. The Kremlin has moved troops, fighter jets and heavy weapons to Belarus, ahead of what it says are large-scale military exercises next month.
Tactical battalions from Russia’s far east have arrived, bringing with them Uragan self-propelled multiple rocket launchers and S-400 air missile defence systems. This formidable attack force is within striking distance of Kyiv and its pro-western government, 200km away.
So far talks between Russia and the west including a meeting on Friday between US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov have gone nowhere. Russia is demanding a cold war-style zone of influence in eastern Europe and the withdrawal from former Warsaw pact powers of Nato forces.
All of which has led the US and its allies to conclude an invasion is imminent – something Joe Biden this week acknowledged to be “likely”.
Experts in Kyiv say any Russian incursion would meet massive Ukrainian resistance. “There are currently enough Russian forces on the borders to launch a swift attack and inflict significant losses. But there are not enough forces to win,” Serhii Kuzan, chair of the Ukrainian Security and Cooperation Center, said.
Ukraine had 261,000 troops and 400,000 military veterans, as well as surface to air missiles and new antitank weapons delivered this week by the UK, he pointed out. It has mined the coast along the sea of Azov and installed anti-ship missiles. A Russian amphibious landing would incur huge losses, he said.
Amid this grim martial backdrop, Chonhar is for the moment a peaceful wildlife haven. No hunting is allowed. Its wetlands are home to growing numbers of ducks, hares, rabbits and pheasants, seen clattering amid reeds and tall yellow feather grass. “When I got here 5am I saw a fox,” Chekman said.
For locals, Russia’s 2014 Crimea takeover has been a disaster. Chonhar was once a stop on the railway line to Sevastopol, with thousands of holidaymakers crossing by car in high season every day. Next to the cafe is a crumbling Soviet gateway. One pillar remains, adorned with grapes.
“This place is now a tupik, a dead end,” Vyacheslav said, standing at what was once the village’s thriving roadside fish market. With no tourists, and little vehicle traffic of any kind, business was slack, he said.
Vyacheslav was selling silvery roach, large smoked white-fish and mullet, which he had caught himself. His neighbour Valery, a coffee seller, said times were better in the Soviet Union – an entity Putin seems determined to bring back. “You could buy kolbasa [sausage] for eight roubles,” Valery said.
A Russian land-grab of Kherson province would solve Crimea’s most pressing problem: a lack of water. A Soviet-built 400km long canal network used to connect the Dnipro river with the peninsula, supplying residents and irrigating fields. In 2014 Ukraine built a dam to stop its flow. In 2021 Crimea suffered severe drought.
Defending the canal is now a strategic priority for Ukraine. A single Ukrainian soldier was visible last week where the canal begins, outside the city of Khakova. He had a Kalashnikov and an alsatian dog. Snow had blanketed the frozen waterway and its picturesque willows.
At the Chonar crossing point soldiers sleep in a cosy barracks warmed by a log stove. They rejected Putin’s recent assertion that Ukraine and Russian are “one people”. “We are moving to Europe and Nato. Russia is stuck in the Soviet past,” Lt Petro Yanchenko said. Why was he fighting? “So my family can live in a free country,” he replied.
Yanchenko said Crimea and the part-Russian occupied Donbas region belonged to Ukraine. He added that Kyiv had unresolved territorial claims of its own. Russia’s southern Kuban area – just across from Crimea’s Kerch strait – was once home to Ukrainian Cossacks, he said. “It’s our territory,” he asserted.
The prospect of Crimea ever returning to Ukraine seems remote. But Chekman noted that the peninsula had changed hands on numerous occasions. Its bloody history is never far away. Chonhar has a needle-like memorial to Soviet dead from the second world war. On the Russia side is a monument to anti-aircraft gunners.
Nazi Germany swept through the village in the summer of 1941, killing some of its Jewish residents and occupying Crimea for two years. The Red army drove the Wehrmacht out and restored Ukraine as a USSR republic. Putin appears to regard Ukraine’s independence and statehood in 1991, and its western aspirations today, as a historic error.
But he may find bringing the country back under Moscow’s imperial grip is not easy as it seems. “Russia can’t do any more than threaten us,” Alex Lunyov – a sergeant in the marine corps – said. “This is our house, our home. Our grandfathers and ancestors are buried here. If the Russians come we will fight. We will kill them like cattle.”
Lunyov said the Ukrainian army was tougher, more professional and better trained than in 2014, when superior Russian forces inflicted heavy defeats in the east, including a massacre in the city of Ilovaisk. “Since then we have learned how to fight,” he pointed out, saying Ukraine had right on its side.
He grinned. And added with a twinkle: “A warrior’s armour is heavier than a collar of a slave.”