ZOLOTE, Ukraine — One played with puppies, a Kalashnikov rifle around her neck. Others honed their shooting at a dummy affixed with Vladimir Putin’s face. Some were simply taking a nap.
In the snow-covered trenches near the village of Zolote in eastern Ukraine, the soldiers were bored but on guard.
For the best part of the last eight years, they have been fighting pro-Russian separatists at the border of the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic.”
Their opponents are separatists supported by Russia since 2014, when Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea and backed breakaway forces in Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk. The violence has killed some 14,000 people since then, according to the United Nations.
Conflict is nothing new to them, and there is little sign of the panic engulfing the West about Russia amassing more than 100,000 troops and building up military hardware on Ukraine’s borders.
“We know they have a bigger army, but we are well prepared,” one of the soldiers, Serhiy Holovnya, told NBC News. “We’ve been preparing for this war for eight years.”
Holovnya, 27, added that he was not intimidated by the Russian military.
Mykhailo Hural, who looks a lot older than his 56 years and has been given the nickname “grandpa” by his colleagues, echoed his sentiments.
“I was born in Ukraine and I will die in Ukraine,” he said. “I will fight with my bare hands for my motherland even if they have more people.”
Their calm is in sharp contrast to the frantic diplomatic scramble by the U.S. and its European allies, who have warned for weeks that a Russian invasion could be imminent.
Moscow denies it’s planning to attack the former Soviet state, but in a series of bold security demands, the Kremlin has urged NATO to deny membership to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet countries and to roll back its military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe.
Putin, Russia’s president, said Tuesday that the U.S. and NATO had ignored these demands and accused them of using Ukraine as “a tool” in its efforts to contain Russia and lure it into war.
The following day, President Joe Biden approved the deployment of around 3,000 U.S. troops to Romania and Poland.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his government have repeatedly called for calm and tried to downplay the threat of invasion.
On Tuesday, Zelenskyy signed a decree to increase the size of Ukraine’s armed forces by 100,000 troops over three years and raise soldiers’ salaries — not because a war is imminent, he said, but to start Ukraine’s transition to a professional army. There are currently around 250,000 people in Ukraine’s armed forces, which are vastly outnumbered and outgunned by Russia’s.
In Zolote there is no active fighting, but the odd flare-up keeps the soldiers alert.
Holovnya said he did not expect an invasion right away, “but we have to be prepared because we don’t know what they are planning to do.”
Matt Bradley reported from Zolote, Mo Abbas from Severodonetsk and Yuliya Talmazan from London.