It feels more like the early 20th century than a modern-day conflict, with tired, nervous soldiers reaching out for their rifles as they reach open terrain and search the area for movement through no man’s land.
You know snipers, likely trained by Russians, say Ukrainian officials are looking for a chance to shoot. More than 20 of their comrades were shot this year.
It’s eerily calm, with the occasional shot in the distance shaking the calm and keeping everyone busy.
This area near Mariupol is a risky place for a country’s president, but that doesn’t stop Zelensky from giving CNN unprecedented access to his journey to the front lines, where he insists on taking the front line positions.
“When I visit a military base, the guys at the front will hear about it and think I’ve forgotten about them,” Zelensky said for two days in exclusive comments on CNN. “You need to know that you have political support.”
Zelensky, who wears a camouflage jacket and helmet, has to sprint across the open area with his security guards to reach the trench cover.
New boiling point in the long distance
Amid mounting tensions with the United States and its Western allies, Russian forces were rediscovered en route across the border, raising concerns that the war might be rekindled.
A cellphone video has emerged of Russian tank pillars heading towards the Ukrainian border. Tanks and artillery pieces were transported by rail. An accumulation has also been reported in the Crimea.
In Moscow, according to the Kremlin, troop movements within Russia, part of a planned military exercise, are not a threat.
But at the front, the Ukrainian president told CNN that a Russian invasion was a very real possibility his country is preparing for.
“Of course. We know, from 2014 we know that it can be any day,” he said.
“They are ready, but we are also ready because we are on our land and our territory,” he told CNN.
Lieutenant General Ruslan Khomchak, commander in chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, told CNN that an estimated 50,000 Russian troops have now gathered across the Russian border and in the Crimea. In addition, there are at least 35,000 Russia-backed separatists in rebel-held areas of Ukraine, he said.
Even before the number of troops commanding Moscow on Ukraine’s doorstep rose worryingly, Zelensky urged the United States to sell weapons such as anti-tank missiles from the spear. These weapons have now been delivered, most famously in a telephone conversation with then President Donald Trump.
Stagger into the future
From the air, above the muddy trenches, the seemingly endless flatness of eastern Ukraine is interrupted by battered cities and the rusty industrial hollows of Soviet-era factories that made this war-torn region the economic backbone of Ukraine.
Military helicopters, deafening old MI-8s, first developed during the Soviet era and painted in unnaturally vivid combat camouflage, fly fast and low over the landscape to avoid ground fires. Every few minutes they stumble upstairs to jump trees or power lines, and then quickly plunge back into the ground.
On board the aging presidential helicopter, which retains a degree of worn comfort, Zelensky shouts over the noise of the engine that the US is a “good friend” of Ukraine, but that President Biden “must do more” to deter Russia and Russia help to end this conflict.
More weapons, more money to fight and, above all, more support for joining NATO, the western military alliance in which an attack on one member obliges everyone to react, he said.
“If you [the US] When they see Ukraine in NATO, they have to say it directly and do it. No words, “Zelensky told CNN.
The chances of this are slim, however, as it is feared that a rapprochement of Ukraine with NATO membership could provoke Moscow and possibly spark a larger conflict.
“Maybe you are right,” replies Zelensky.
“But what’s going on now? What are we doing here? What are our people doing here? They are fighting.”
At the front, Zelensky observed a minute’s silence for the fallen.
With or without NATO, this is his country’s reality. Ukraine is at war.
CNN’s Zahra Ullah and Jasmine Wright contributed to this story.