On Ukraine front line, soldiers fear Zelensky will give ground to Russia

A Ukrainian serviceman is seen at a position on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists in an industrial zone near the town of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine, on Nov 28, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

AVDIIVKA (AFP) - A volley of gunfire breaks the silence of a foggy day on the front line in Ukraine, but no one really pays attention.

More than the shots, it's the possibility that President Volodymyr Zelensky will be making concessions to Russia that has soldiers here worried.

"Pulling us out would be like pissing on the graves of our boys," says Mykola, a 41-year-old private in the trenches near the city of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine.

"They gave up their lives so we could be here."

Mr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin will be meeting in Paris on Monday (Dec 9) for their first face-to-face talks since the Ukrainian comedian-turned-president took office in May.

The meeting, mediated by the French and German leaders, aims to revive efforts to resolve Kiev's five-year conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

On duty in his trench, surrounded by an apocalyptic landscape of workshops and homes torn apart by bullet and mortar fire, Mykola leaves no doubt about his opinion on the talks.

"This won't bring anything good," says Mykola, a thin and bearded five-year veteran of the conflict who goes by the nom de guerre "Hacker".

He says Ukraine "is in a weak position" going into the talks, and many here agree with him.

Many in Ukraine have warned Mr Zelensky against giving ground in the talks, which the president says will focus on agreeing a ceasefire and a prisoner exchange.

After the withdrawal of some frontline forces in recent weeks, opponents fear Mr Zelensky will be convinced to accept a general pullback along the more than 400km front line.

Avdiivka is only 6km north of Donetsk - the capital of one of two breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine - and was the scene of fierce fighting in 2017.

Serving in an industrial zone on its outskirts, 24-year-old sergeant Faina says she feels "anxious" about Monday's talks.

"Zelensky is a political novice, he could be easily influenced," she says, her long black braids and perfect manicure in stark contrast to her military fatigues.

"I'm afraid that we could lose territory retaken since the start of the war."

Mykola says he has no trust in France and Germany to look out for Ukraine.

"They will put pressure on Zelensky", because Russia is more important to their economies, he says. "Europe has always cared only about its well-being."

In Avdiivka itself - a town of about 20,000 that has been heavily damaged by the war - teacher Maryna Marchenko disagrees with the soldiers.

Madam Marchenko, 75, is well-known in Ukraine after Australian mural artist Guido van Helten painted her face on a nine-storey apartment building in Avdiivka.

"Their brothers gave their lives, and what? They want to give more lives?" says the teacher of Ukrainian, whose husband was wounded during bombing and whose apartment was destroyed by mortar fire.

"I want this to end like a bad dream... Everyone is so exhausted here," she says, calling for "mutual concessions" and convinced that Mr Zelensky has "enough brains" not to make the wrong decisions.

Her principal Lyudmyla Silina, whose school corridors are covered with posters and patriotic drawings made by the students, is less ready for compromise.

"We need peace to be restored on our terms," she says, with the withdrawal of Russian forces that Kiev and the West say are supporting the separatists, and Ukraine regaining full control of its borders.

Others are simply disillusioned, like Mr Oleksiy Bobyr, a top manager at the coke factory that is the area's main employer.

"I hear shots every night," Mr Bobyr says. "Who can guarantee that no one will shell my building or my factory?"

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