DONETSK, Ukraine -- One month after protesters toppled Ukraine’s pro-Moscow government, this country’s rural eastern border is the site of a Cold War-style standoff.
Ukrainians have dug a trench along their side of the border with Russia that's supposed to stop Russian troops and tanks from advancing into Eastern Ukraine. A local official, worried the border was unprotected, paid for the trench with his own money.
But the trench, which is just a few feet wide and has several sizable gaps, is unlikely to stop, or even slow, a Russian advance.
U.S. military officials told NBC's Jim Miklaszewski that as many as 20,000 Russian troops have amassed along the Ukrainian border. Officials say many of them come from elite units, backed by heavy armor and attack helicopters.
"I denounce the aggression against my country."
On the Ukrainian side of the border, near the the village of Andriivka, around 200 Ukrainian paratroopers dug foxholes using shovels in a muddy field and put up a handful of canvas tents. Their families brought them food in plastic bags.
The soldiers aren’t universally welcomed. On a cold afternoon this week, a handful of burly men shouted at the soldiers, saying the border region should be absorbed into Russia, like Crimea.
They stood nose-to-nose with members of a pro-Ukraine volunteer group, who’d also come to the base to bring food and sleeping bags to the paratroopers. The troops watched as the groups argued noisily, but did not intervene.
One pro-Ukraine volunteer told NBC News he wanted to ensure that military vehicles were able to move freely, without being blocked by pro-Russian militias who now regularly harass Ukrainian troops in the east.
"I denounce the aggression against my country," the volunteer, Aleksander Romanyuk, a local city lawmaker, said.
North of the city of Donetsk, a pro-Russian militia recently surrounded the gates of a Ukrainian military storage facility, blocking trucks from delivering ammunition to Kiev.
Fireworks in Moscow
The standoff on the border is part of a broader tug-of-war for Ukraine.
On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin formalized Russia’s annexation of Crimea. It marked the first time Moscow has expanded its borders since World War II. Moscow's sky erupted in fireworks.
The move triggered another round of stark warnings and financial sanctions. The European Union joined Washington in freezing the assets of several of Putin’s closest advisers.
ANTON PEDKO / EPA
People celebrate as they wave Russian national flags while watching fireworks next to the monument of Russian naval admiral Pavel Nakhimov, in downtown of Sevastopol, Ukraine, on March 21.
Kiev is strongly behind the sanctions and is hoping that the leadership -- and not the trench –- can prevent any Russian tanks from streaming across the border.
In Brussels on Friday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk signed an association agreement with the EU.
Four months earlier, Ukraine’s then President Viktor Yanukovich rejected the deal, preferring to maintain close ties to Moscow. The rejection triggered protests that ultimately led to Yanukovich’s downfall.
First published March 21 2014, 3:38 PM
Richard Engel is widely regarded as one of America's leading foreign correspondents for his coverage of wars, revolutions and political transitions around the world over the last 15 years. Most recently, he was recognized for his outstanding reporting on the 2011 revolution in Egypt, the conflict in Libya and unrest throughout the Arab world.
... Expand Bio
Engel was named chief foreign correspondent of NBC News in April 2008. His reports appear on all platforms of NBC News, including "Nightly News with Brian Williams," "TODAY," "Meet the Press," "Dateline," MSNBC, and NBCNews.com.
Engel, one of the only western journalists to cover the entire war in Iraq, joined NBC News in May 2003. He previously worked as a freelance journalist for ABC News, most notably during the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq. He remained in Baghdad as NBC's primary Iraq correspondent until his appointment as senior Middle East correspondent and Beirut bureau chief in May 2006. Engel also covered the war between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 from Beirut and southern Lebanon.
Prior to working for ABC News, Engel served as the Middle East correspondent for "The World," a joint production of BBC World Service, Public Radio International (PRI) and WGBH-Boston radio from 2001-2003. He has also written for USA Today, Reuters, AFP and Jane's Defense Weekly, a British publication in which he authored the magazine's in-depth profiles of Egypt, Yemen and al-Qaida.
Engel's work has received numerous awards, including seven News & Documentary Emmy Awards. In 2011, he was honored with the Daniel Pearl Award, the David Bloom Award and the Overseas Press Club Award in recognition of his coverage of the war in Afghanistan. In 2010, Engel received a Gracie Award for his work on "Unlikely Refugees," a "Nightly News" story about Afghan women who are treated as criminals for attempting to leave abusive marriages. Engel was honored in 2009 with the George Foster Peabody Award, an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Society of Professional Journalism Award for "Tip of the Spear," a series of reports from Afghanistan that focused attention on the hardships and dangers faced by American soldiers. Engel also received the 2008 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and the Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism, the first ever given to a broadcast journalist, for his report "War Zone Diary." The one-hour documentary, compiled from Engel's personal video journal, gave a rare and intimate account of the everyday realties of covering the war in Iraq. In 2006, Engel received the Edward R. Murrow Award for his report "Baghdad E.R.," the first ever to win in the category "Feature - Hard News."
Engel has lived in the Middle East since graduating from Stanford University in 1996 with a B.A. in international relations. He speaks and reads fluent Arabic, which he learned while living in Cairo. Engel has also traveled extensively in the Middle East and can comfortably transition between several Arabic dialects spoken across the Arab world. He is also fluent in Italian and Spanish. He is the author of two books, "A Fist in the Hornet's Nest" and "War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq," which chronicle his experiences covering the Iraq war.