Behind the frontline near Kreminna, a strategically located Russian-controlled city in eastern Ukraine, Kyiv’s troops say they are facing a tough enemy.
“We fight them every day, in any weather. We attack in the direction of Kreminna, but they are not easy to defeat,” said a 24-year-old Ukrainian soldier who goes by the call sign “Kulak” or “Fist.”
“They are good, they are tough,” he told Agence France-Presse in Yampil, a village some 30 kilometers (18 miles) west of Kreminna and recaptured by Ukrainian forces in late September.
The city in the eastern Luhansk region — which Moscow claimed to have annexed along with three other Ukrainian regions — has been the scene of intense fighting in recent days.
“We had some successes on the Ukrainian side, but nothing huge. The enemy is not giving up,” Kulak said with a smile.
For the past few days, the region’s governor, Serhiy Gaidai, has been posting encouraging — if slightly contradictory — messages on social media.
On Thursday, he wrote that Ukraine’s troops advanced 2.5 kilometers in the direction of Kreminna in a week.
A day earlier, he said Russians had sent reinforcements to the area, while adding that the city could be retaken early next year.
According to the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW), Russian forces “appear to be preparing for a decisive effort” in the Luhansk region.
‘Get it over with’
Yampil looks like a hive of wartime activity.
Military vehicles crisscross the main street of this largely destroyed village. There are nearly as many soldiers as there are civilians.
In a field behind several half-abandoned houses, soldiers are busy keeping two tanks — nicknamed Natalya and Salvador — in fighting shape. The tanks were captured during the Russian army’s retreat.
“If we liberate Kreminna, we will cut off the Russians’ supply route in Rubizhne, Severodonetsk and Lysychansk,” said one of the soldiers, Vlad, referring to other occupied towns in the region.
“We don’t want the situation to be put on ice. We want to push them back, get it over with,” said Vlad, who hails from Kyiv.
‘Nowhere better than home’
Although Yampil was liberated by Ukrainian forces during a sweeping counteroffensive in the fall, it is still within reach of Russian artillery.
A few kilometers up north, battles are raging in the village of Torske, and the shelling has intensified in recent days.
“It’s more or less fine. It would be better if it weren’t for these deafening noises,” said Olga, a 69-year-old retired teacher, declining to give her last name.
Every day, she meets with other residents of Yampil outside the only operating store.
The convenience store is both a collection point for humanitarian aid and a place to gather for a chat.
Despite the cold, they sit around a table in front of the store, talking and arguing as military vehicles drive by.
“We come here to talk; it’s our living room,” Olga said, smiling while a woman sitting next to her lamented the power cuts and lack of aid in the village.
“They don’t care about us!” she said.
Humanitarian aid dominates conversations here.
Not far away, an 84-year-old woman wearing a blue head scarf bursts into tears as she points to the people gathered round the table.
“When help arrives, they take everything, they don’t share anything. Why?” she asked tearfully, standing in front of her heavily damaged home.
But local official Yulia Rybalko insists that “nobody is starving” in Yampil.
She said she organizes the distribution of food, clothing and firewood delivered by NGOs.
Only some 600 civilians remain in the village that used to have a population of 2,500 people before Russia invaded on February 24.
But according to Olga, the former math teacher, many of those who leave choose to eventually return.
“Nowhere is better than home,” she said.