“Sometimes, at night, they come at us with their tanks,” Batya said. “But we do not let them advance.”
The mood here on the rebel front lines is upbeat these days. Two weeks ago, Russian-backed rebels captured the airport in Donetsk, kicking off the fiercest round of combat in the region since last fall. Their commanders declared a four-month-old cease-fire defunct and vowed new attacks, which began almost immediately, including one in which a barrage of rockets struck a crowded market in a coastal town on the Sea of Azov, Mariupol, that left 31 dead.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine exploded nearly a year ago, after the government of President Viktor F. Yanukovych was toppled by pro-Western forces. Since then, more than 5,000 people have died as the separatists, backed by Russian money, strategic guidance, weapons and, NATO says, troops, have defeated all of Kiev’s efforts to bring them back into the fold.
Now, powered by what Western officials say was a fresh injection of Russian aid last month, the rebels feel they have the upper hand.
On Monday, the top commander, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, said that the rebels would answer Ukraine’s recent announcement that it would conscript more troops by organizing a voluntary mobilization of their own that, he vowed, would increase the size of the rebel army to as many as 100,000.
At the moment, the rebels are within reach of surrounding a contingent of hundreds of Ukrainian troops dug into the town of Debaltseve, a crucial rail hub. “We are on the move and they are trapped,” Batya said.
His fighters are deployed on the edge of the strategic city of Horlivka, not far from the only road still connecting Debaltseve — 23 miles to the east — with Ukrainian-controlled territory to the north. The road has come under regular fire in recent days and is sometimes impassable.
The grand house where Batya and his troops make their headquarters used to belong to a regional prosecutor. But he fled in the face of the separatist advance, so now the rebels are lords of the manor. The soaring, two-story entryway, wrapped in a grand wooden staircase, is now the company canteen, a pot of bubbling stew perfuming the air, boxes of medical supplies stacked in the corner.
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