The Russian Fronts

      rsz_fm_therussiafronts_v3.jpg
      The Russian Fronts

      If you listen to much of the media, the Russian threat is all about election tampering. But Russia is engaged in a shooting war with Ukraine and the Trump administration is upping the U-S engagement, in a high stakes replay of Cold War politics. For the last four years, there's been fighting along Ukraine's eastern border with Russia. Today, Russian-backed and equipped separatists control a large area and several cities. To see the real and present danger, we traveled to the trenches of eastern Ukraine to the "Russian Front".

      Weaving our way through a freshly bombed-out neighborhood in eastern Ukraine, we're told to move quickly and stay low.

      Lt. Col. Dida: They have mounted their fire position there. They observe.

      Scott: Enemy positions right there?

      And after a few minutes, we push forward into the trenches and seemingly, backward in time. These snow-covered sandbags and wood plank walkways are reminiscent of World War 2, even World War 1. But this is no history tour. It is the frontline of a highly active combat zone.

      Lt. Col. Dida: It is very dangerous. They have snipers here.

      Because just feet away, he says, are Russian-backed rebels in another trench. We have to be quiet. You can see that there are some soldiers positioned behind me in this particular trench. They've got little foxholes along the way, gunner positions that we've passed as well. We're going to keep moving up as close to the frontline as we can. Even as we interview this father and son duo defending this part of the line, more gunfire breaks out.

      Scott: So we just heard a series of shots not 100 yards away perhaps. We got down a little bit but they say they're not terribly worried because they've become so used to it, it happens all the time. It was a series of four or five shots, five minutes ago there were four our five other shots.

      This is life in the forgotten war. Ever since Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula, essentially taking over that portion of eastern Ukraine in 2014, their reach, has grown significantly. Separatists, and Russian-backed forces, now, taking large swaths of the highly valuable Donbass region known for its coal and metal production. Towns are sometimes cut in half, one side still controlled by Ukraine, the other, by rebels and their Russia backers. This grandmother is looking after three children yet refuses to leave.

      Over the last four years, according to the United Nations, 10,000 people. civilian and military, have been killed in the fighting. More than 4 million have been affected by the conflict. In this tug of war over territory, Ukraine says it it's unable to recover areas lost and unwilling to cede any more. Democracy, and much more, is at stake.

      Lt. Simon: If there was no Ukraine, and was no conflict, they've got such conflict on their borders.

      Scott: So you're saying, in some respects, you're the front line between Russia and the rest of Europe?

      Lt. Simon: We are the frontline. It is true. If we lose here, you lose Europe. All of it.

      Lieutenant Colonel Serhiy Sobko is a military hero. Awarded Ukraine's highest medal. His exploits have saved lives but he's also seen many lost.

      Scott: Some people have written that the reason you can't be so offensive, you can't be so aggressive, is because in some respects, you're outgunned, you're outmanned.

      Lt. Col. Sobko: We must understand that the desire of soldiers to fight, it's very good for their morale. But from the other side, we also understand that it doesn't matter how many troops and we can move into offensive, Russia will move even more troops than we do.

      Frustrating, he says, at such close range. During our two days at the front, the Ukrainian military says five of their soldiers were killed, five others were wounded.

      Lt. Col. Sobko: We have a position at least 50 meters from the enemy.

      Scott: You can actually hear each other talk sometimes?

      Lt. Col. Sobko: When we are located very close to them like I said, we can hear also them. And of course, it's difficult for personnel because they always in stressful condition. Also, when we located too close to the enemy, engagements also become more often than other part of the operation.

      So often, in fact, the number of cease-fire violations according to the international monitoring group, the OSCE, topped 400,000 last year.

      Pres. Vladimir Putin: There is no Russian army on the territory of Donbass but there are certain militia formations that are self-sufficient and ready to repel any large-scale actions against Donbass.

      Scott: So what do you think when you hear statements like that from Vladimir Putin, from Russia, saying "we're not doing this"

      Col. Nozdrachov Oleksiy: Well, the military response will be bullshit but the talking politically correct, this is a part of the war. The information component is number one component in 21st Century warfare.

      Just as important having help from the U.S.

      Sen. Lindsey Graham: Your fight is our fight. All of us will go back to Washington and we will push the case against Russia.

      Promises from Senator Lindsey Graham on a 2016 visit, now becoming a reality.

      Sen. Rob Portman: It's too late but it's coming. For years now, some of us have been saying that this situation requires the United States to step-up and do more.

      Senator Rob Portman of Ohio is co-founder of the Ukraine caucus on Capitol Hill.

      Sen. Rob Portman: And specifically to provide the kind of assistance they need, which is the ability to push back against the Russians with their larger and more sophisticated equipment. And so I have promoted this idea of lethal aid. Not just, aid.

      Scott: Not just defensive aid?

      Sen. Rob Portman: Not just defensive aid but the ability to defend themselves. And I don't think that's too much to ask.

      To see some of that American assistance, we travel in heavily armored vehicles to another part of the frontline. We're driving right now through what's called the ATO, the Anti-Terrorist Operation zone. It's a massive area, about 250 miles north to south, 30 to 40 miles wide. The Ukrainian government says three and a half to four million of its people right now are living in this area that's either being fought over or is under partial Russian control. At this makeshift base in an old factory: American hardware. These troops proudly show us Humvees and an American radar system used to identify enemy artillery.

      But until more American help and heavy weapons arrive, Lieutenant Colonel Sobko will keep encouraging his troops to stay positive and hold the line.

      Scott: Are you confident that Ukraine will come out with a victory?

      Lt. Col. Sobko: With all my heart I believe in this end state. Yes.

      So how long could this go on? US special envoy, Kurt Volker, tells us Russia has not shown a willingness to end the conflict. In fact, the tension between Washington and Moscow is growing. On the issue of increasing arms to Ukraine, Russian officials have stated the U.S. decision will cause new bloodshed.