AVDIIVKA, Ukraine — Headquarters for the 2nd Battalion of the 92nd Brigade of the Ukrainian army is in a pummelled building that once housed the district road repair agency. War has left the building in even worse shape than the roads. At the entrances, sandbags and tires are stacked in fortification. Logs reinforce the basement ceiling against the shelling.
In the command centre, 400 metres from the front line of a simmering conflict, troop locations are shown on one television. There are blue triangles for the Ukrainian military, red diamonds for the Russian-backed separatists. A second television shows surveillance from cameras placed along the firing zone.
On Thursday evening, a third television tracked Russians, but these happened to be members of the country’s national soccer team playing the opening match of the 2018 World Cup in Moscow.
A peculiar and fragile normalcy has returned to the mining and steel region of eastern Ukraine after four years of fighting that has taken roughly 10,300 lives and displaced about 1.5 million people. Low-grade skirmishes continue daily, and people are still dying, but the Ukrainian military and the separatists have reached a treaty-enforced standstill, like boxers in a clinch.
On Thursday, for the first half anyway, the usual thud of nighttime shelling remained largely silent as some Ukrainian commanders, troops and townspeople watched Russia cruise to a 5-0 victory over Saudi Arabia, sports briefly distracting from politics and war.
Oleg A., 40, the Ukrainian commander of the 2nd Battalion, who like many soldiers declined to give his full name, turned the television to soccer more out of obligation than curiosity. It was for the others, he said. He prefers Formula One auto racing.
“I don’t understand why 22 people run around with one ball,” he said.
A Diversion From War
Ukraine did not qualify for this year’s World Cup. Still, some soldiers said that they looked forward to watching the matches, if disruptions caused by a blocked Ukrainian television channel and slow local internet service could be resolved.
“It unloads your brain,” said a soldier who gave his name as Nikolai. “When you are in the trenches, you can watch a match and the way the ball is passed and you forget everything.”
Many international observers wondered before the World Cup whether fighting would escalate or calm down during the tournament. As the opener began, Oleg A., the battalion commander, led a New York Times reporter, photographer and translator along a three-kilometre excursion of Ukrainian combat positions near the front line, to see if any of his troops were watching.
Greying and brawny, garrulous and darkly funny in the way of soldiers, Oleg A. carried an AK-47. The fields and forest felt empty, hushed. The loudest sounds seemed to come from the trilling of birds.
“I don’t think there will be any shooting for two hours,” he said of the rebels. “Russia is playing. Everyone will be watching, 100 per cent.”
Near a bunker along a weed-strewn, defended highway, Oleg A. encountered four of his soldiers. Two were filling sandbags. One of them, Aleksandr I., 27, said, “We love football, but we don’t have the capacity to watch. The internet is too slow.”
Oleg A. laughed and said, “We will only hear it.”
He looked toward a rebel position just under two kilometres away. “If those guys will be shouting, everything will be fine,” he said.
At the next Ukrainian position, an Orthodox church along a dirt road in the forest, soccer was again absent. Same problem with the internet.
Water was offered from a well.
“It’s holy water,” one soldier said.
“No,” another said, “it’s beer.”
One of the soldiers, Maxsim S., is a 35-year-old lieutenant who also coaches soccer. Asked what he felt about the Russian team, he replied: “I’m not against and I’m not for. They are people. There is a division between people and the government.”
“You’re starting to worry me,” his commander cut in. “You sound like a philosopher.”
Six years ago, Ukraine played co-host to the last major international soccer tournament held in the region, when it shared the 2012 European championships with Poland.
The industrial city of Donetsk — only about five kilometres from the Ukrainian positions — hosted five matches, including a semifinal. The atmosphere was festive back then. Acrobats walked outside the stadium on stilts. Security personnel carried riot helmets in the crook of their arms, like baskets of flowers. A new airport opened for the tournament. The architectural tilt of Donbas Arena made it seem to lift off like a flying saucer.
But Donetsk is no longer controlled by the Ukrainian government. The city is rebel-held and the separatist area is known as the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic. The New York Times repeatedly requested permission to enter the rebel area during the World Cup, but was denied.
Fighting here began in 2014, after Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled the country and separatist movements broke out in two eastern Ukrainian provinces. (Russia also annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine that year.) The airport in Donetsk was shelled to a husk. Donbas Arena was wounded, less seriously, by shrapnel.
The stadium now sits empty. Its former occupant, the Ukrainian champion soccer team Shakhtar Donetsk, now plays its home matches over 300 kilometres away in Kharkiv.
Last month, after Shakhtar clinched its 11th title in the Ukrainian Premier League, Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, wrote in a congratulatory message on Facebook: “I have no doubt that the time will come and this renowned football club will return to its home stadium in the de-occupied Donetsk and will glorify the Ukrainian state with new successes, including in the Champions League.”
In most countries, soccer and politics are inextricably connected, like a ball to a foot. Ukraine’s national public television network declined to broadcast the World Cup this year, saying it would amount to Russian propaganda. The Ukrainian soccer federation did not grant credentials to the country’s journalists or request its quota of tickets. There were calls by some politicians to boycott the tournament.
But Ukrainians are passionate about soccer, and there is no comparable international sporting event between mid-June and mid-July. Two other Ukrainian channels decided to broadcast the matches, and some 6,000 Ukrainian fans purchased tickets to attend games in Russia.
Still, Andriy Pavelko, president of the Ukrainian soccer federation, said that he would follow the matches only on Italian or British television. “We must have some moral restrictions,” he told reporters.
Yuri Zapisotsky, general secretary of the soccer federation, said in a statement that any broadcasts of the World Cup by Ukrainian channels would be considered collaboration “with the country-aggressor,” meaning Russia.
Eastern Ukraine, though, is far from politics in the distant capital of Kiev. Many people in this region have cultural or familial ties to Russia. In Avdiivka, there appears to be little, if any, stigma in rooting for the Russian national team.
“It’s only football,” Inna Koslova, 50, a resident, said as she walked home from a convenience store. “We don’t divide people here.”
The town has a population estimated between 20,000 and 34,000. Life is a jarring mix of the routine and the disrupted. Children and soldiers play soccer at the local stadium, ignoring jagged shrapnel in the grass.
Artyom A., the leader of a unit affiliated with an ultranationalist Ukrainian volunteer battalion known as the Right Sector, picked up a piece of spiky metal and said, “Don’t worry, it won’t explode.”
There are two smaller soccer fields, with artificial turf, where children and adults play in late afternoons in the centre of town. Like others strolling in the evening and sitting on park benches, they ignore the sound of mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and tubelike, anti-tank weapons known as SPGs that ritualistically begin to boom like fireworks in the distance.
“It’s not heavy shelling,” said Dima Belous, 13. “You get used to it.”
The last heavy fighting here occurred in February 2017, evidenced by the punch-drunk apartment blocks with their pockmarked facades at the city’s edge. Along Yasinovatskyi Lane, leading to the 2nd Battalion headquarters, most everyone has left behind their battered homes, their cherry and apricot trees and even some of their pets. “Looking for a cat,” says a sign spray-painted on a wall.
The home of Nina and Evgeni Kovalyova is typical on this street: shrapnel holes in the metal gate, plastic covering the windows, replacement tin on the shelled roof, no gas for heat in the winter, only well water to drink.
The couple, both pensioners, left for a time when the fighting began, but returned to protect their belongings, to renew their sense of place. “Where to go?” Nina Kovalyova, 64, said. “How to move?”
In a way, she feels lucky. She took visitors to a neighbor’s empty house across the street, saying looters had stolen nearly everything there, “even the spoons and forks.”
She would like to watch the World Cup, she said, if the available Ukrainian television channel is unblocked. But she especially misses traveling to Donbas Arena with her daughter, granddaughter and son-in-law to watch Shakhtar Donetsk.
“Everything is good when it is close to home,” Kovalyova said. “When it flees, it’s not the same.”
Fireworks in Two Cities
Up the road, Oleg A. returned to 2nd Battalion headquarters at halftime of the World Cup opener, ferried in a combat ambulance. The driver, Capt. Valentin Kocherzhuk, 56, said he expected shooting from the rebels whether Russia won or lost.
“It’s better to hope for 0-0,” he said.
At headquarters, the score was relayed. Russia was already ahead 2-0.
The match was being shown on a Russian television channel. Capt. Dima Shvets, 29, sat in a lounge chair the colour of camouflage. He seemed to be the biggest soccer fan at headquarters and said he would love to attend a World Cup.
Even in Russia?
“I’d rather go to Brazil,” he said.
Others chose not to watch. It was a matter of principle, said Lt. Alexei J, who is 34. He pointed to his arm and lifted his olive drab T-shirt to show his scars, including a thick pink line along his abdomen.
“All of my 100 shards are telling me not to watch football,” he said.
Lt. Dmitry Yarovoy, 28, the battalion chief of staff, also did not plan to watch. Games seemed too frivolous when enemy soldiers faced one another only 40 or 50 metres apart. “We are not in the right place and the right time to watch football,” he said.
He spent much of the second half in front of a television, observing surveillance cameras along the front line. The Ukrainians had received small-arms fire from the rebels during the first half, he said. Now a sniper and eight or nine other separatists had moved beneath a bridge about a kilometre away.
Russia went ahead 3-0, but Oleg paid little attention. He had eaten a bowl of cold soup and removed his boots. In his sandals, he peered at his laptop and ordered a strike of 73-millimetre SPG projectiles to push the rebels back. The artillery kicked up plumes of dust and smoke.
“Our night games,” Shvets said.
The rebels responded with 82-millimetre mortar fire. Oleg glanced at the match and said, “I’d like to put a big shell in the centre of the field.” He sensed that he had gone too far. Quickly, he added, “That’s a joke.”
Russia went ahead by 4-0, then 5-0. The Ukrainians lobbed 120-millimetre mortar fire. Oleg motioned his hands, explaining that one side played a card, then the other side raised the bet.
“Football is finished,” Shvets said. “Now we start poker.”