YOUNG and old they had come to man the barricades. Mostly though they were teenagers, who at times appeared to be looking for a fight.

Ski masks pulled over their faces and wielding clubs or iron bars, they patrolled the fortified redoubts of tyres, barbed wire and sandbags surrounding the entrance to an 11-storey building towering above Pushkin Boulevard.

Up until a few days earlier this had been functioning as the Donetsk State Administration and City Hall building. Now though, according to the self-styled leader of those occupying the building, it was the headquarters of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk”.

“Russia come to us,” the words of a song blared out from loudspeakers set up on the building’s steps, part of an endless rendition of patriotic Russian songs broken only by the occasional impromptu speaker warning against the evils of the West.

Those were heady times back then in Donetsk in 2014, when predominantly Russian-speaking separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions rose up against the new pro-Western government in Ukraine, sparking a conflict that has now killed more than 10,300 people Even in those days, walking the streets of Donetsk was to be left in no doubt that much of the sentiment in the city had always been pro-Moscow, and reminders of the Communist past were never far away.

On the city’s wide tree-lined streets you might stumble, for example, upon a bust of “Iron” Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Bolshevik secret police. Not to be outdone, the man who appointed him, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, had a square that bears his name all to himself.

For those pro-Russian separatists then making their presence felt these were leaders who mattered and symbolised their bond to Moscow.

Their scorn, on the other hand, knew no bounds for those Ukrainian leaders in the country’s capital Kiev.

Entering the Donetsk City Hall building that day back in 2014 I recall pausing alongside a wall to look at a series of searing caricature posters the separatists had stuck up.

The posters were of then acting Ukrainian president Oleksandr Turchynov, presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko and US leader Barack Obama.

Almost instantly a young separatist in a black ski mask and carrying a baseball bat tapped me on the shoulder.

“F*** Turchynov, F*** Tymoshenko,” he announced, jabbing at the cartoon drawings with the bat and evidently grinning behind the mask he wore.

A few flights up in a packed room I was to meet Denis Pushilin, self-proclaimed leader of the People’s Republic of Donetsk, who was equally candid and uncompromising about where he stood politically.

“We do not want the USSR back, but we do not want someone telling us who are our friends and who are our enemies,” was how he summed up the separatists’ take on things at the time.

In the intervening four years since then, Pushilin’s position hasn’t changed, and if anything he and his People’s Republic of Donetsk are more bonded to Russia than ever.

Just a few weeks ago on November 11 in an uncompetitive election called after the previous leader of the Donetsk separatists was assassinated in August, Pushilin was elected the new head of the Donetsk breakaway republic as Moscow further cemented its control over eastern Ukraine.

Pushilin again wasted no time in reiterating its political direction of travel much as he did back in 2014 when I met him.

“A course towards the Russian Federation will be continued,” Pushilin told journalists during his first media appearance since the poll.

“This is not only cultural and social integration, but also economic,” he added. “We have already learned to live without Ukraine,” Pushilin insisted.

Just as Pushilin was endorsed in the election so too was fellow separatist 48-year-old Leonid Pasechnik, who like his Donetsk counterpart, was already acting leader in Luhansk.

While the Ukrainian government under President Petro Poroshenko along with the US, UK and other Western countries have condemned the elections as a sham, the Kremlin insisted the breakaway regions had “nothing left but to self-organise” after being “abandoned” by Ukraine.

The timing in all of this is of course very significant given that it allowed Moscow to have its “men” firmly in place and politically “reaffirmed” just in time before tensions between Russia and Ukraine again escalated dramatically to an unprecedented level over the past week.

As I write Ukraine is on a war footing. Last week the country instituted martial law in 10 regions to prevent what it described as a possible land invasion by Russia. The authorities in Kiev remember all too well that Russian soldiers were active in Crimea before the peninsula was annexed by Russia back in 2014.

So wary is the Ukrainian Government that it has now blocked Russian men aged between 16 and 60 from entering the country in a sweeping ban it says is aimed at preventing Moscow from forming “private” armies on its territory.

But just how dangerous is this escalation and is it any more serious than previous spikes in tension?

Certainly the recent clashes between Russian and Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch strait in the Sea of Azov is by far the most serious development since Moscow’s annexing of Crimea.

In the course of the latest action Moscow seized three Ukrainian vessels and 24 of those ships’ crew members remain in Russian prisons while a vital sea route to Ukraine is now under Russian control.

But these latest events are very significant in another way too.

For almost five years now, Russia has denied any involvement, claiming it was either “local rebels” or Russian citizen “volunteers” in unmarked uniforms helping their Ukrainian “brothers”, such as Denis Pushilin’s pro-separatist cadres in Donetsk and elsewhere.

Now, for the first time since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilisation through conflict in the east of Ukraine, the Russian leadership has openly acknowledged its own involvement in violent action.

As the Ukrainian political analyst and activist Taras Berezovets highlighted the other day: “It’s the first time that the Russian military has attacked Ukrainian armed forces under Russian flags. It’s not little green men anymore. It’s an open act of aggression.”

All of this, of course, has opened a dangerous new front in which Ukraine knows it cannot possibly prevail against Russia on its own.

These recent episodes have once again put a spotlight on a vexing question that has dogged Ukraine’s efforts to break out of Moscow’s orbit since its 2014 revolution – just how far is the West willing to go to help against Russian aggression?

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Acutely conscious of this, Ukraine’s President Poroshenko (above) wasted no time in asking for Western support last week and urging Nato to deploy warships Accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of wanting “the old Russian empire back”, Poroshenko said: “The only language he understands is the unity of the Western world.”

Poroshenko warned: “Crimea, Donbass, the whole country, as Russian tsar, as he sees himself, his empire cannot function without Ukraine. He sees us as his colony.”

But despite Poroshenko’s protestations, there is virtually no chance that Nato, a military alliance that Ukraine is not a member of, would send naval vessels to the area.

“It would be perceived as a threat not only by the Russians but also by some of the Nato members,” Oleksiy Melnyk, co-director of Razumkov Centre, a foreign relations think-tank in Kiev, told journalists last week.

As Melnyk also pointed out, when seen from Russia’s perspective, Nato’s presence in the Black Sea is already considered a red flag by Moscow.

Analysts highlight the fact too that it’s important to remember that the battlefield in this confrontation is as much in Kiev as it is in the Sea of Azov or on the frontlines of eastern Ukraine.

For the Kremlin remains determined to undermine Poroshenko’s efforts to be re-elected in Ukrainian elections scheduled in a few months time – on March 31 next year.

Currently Poroshenko’s approval rating is in single digits and his opponents accuse him of an ineffective response to Russian aggression.

Indeed, Ukrainian public opinion remains divided about whether Poroshenko’s insistence on martial law is nothing more than a politically and militarily expedient move, with the president simply looking for a way to get an upper hand in the coming elections.

Whatever the reasoning behind such moves, what is not in dispute is that the mostly hidden war in eastern Ukraine drags on far removed from the headlines but bloody nonetheless. That war has brought a humanitarian crisis most acute in those areas seized by pro-Russian separatists that I first visited back in 2014.

According to the United Nations 1.2 million people in need live on the Ukrainian Government side of the lines, while 2.2 million are on the separatist side.

People like Anna Dmitriienko, a 72-year-old woman I met in the badly damaged frontline town of Stanitsa Luhanska some years ago.

From the centre of Stanitsa Luhanska the last Ukrainian Government checkpoint and emplacements at that time sat only 800 yards away from a buffer of no-man’s land between the opposing side’s positions. Anna told me of how she was at home when rockets rained down on her neighbourhood.

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Anna Dmitriienko in the frontline town of Stanitsa Luhanska. Photograph: David Pratt

“I lost consciousness and was bleeding badly,” she explained, showing me around her yard and outhouse that was flattened.

Even then a huge crater sat in the middle of the ruined building, and Anna pointed out the grey metal remains of the casing from one of the Grad missiles that landed as part of the barrage. The conditions under which people in frontline communities live are appalling.

“I spent all my pension paying for electricity and getting my yard cleared up so I can continue to live here,” she said, still limping heavily from the excruciatingly painful shrapnel wounds to her legs.

As prices soar because of the war people like Anna, already among some of the poorest Ukrainians, are struggling to survive.

It’s estimated that some 900,000 people are struggling to eat as this conflict between government forces and Russia-backed rebels drags on for a fifth year.

Almost four in 10 people living on the frontlines are affected by shelling every day, despite a ceasefire implemented back in 2015.

The UN and Red Cross continue to work in the “uncontrolled areas,” but most other Western humanitarian agencies have limited or no access.

The same self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic that I first visited in 2014 has since accused Doctors Without Borders of “espionage” and kicked it out along with nine other international aid groups in 2015.

The same Denis Pushilin too that I met back in 2014 just these past weeks admitted that there was a “very difficult humanitarian situation”. But he told journalists that “those who want to work in circumvention of our rules can’t work here”.

All of which poses an enormous humanitarian challenge, as winter sets in where the average temperature in Donetsk in January and February is –4C but drops much lower outside the city, “Winter is like the enemy in this country with so much destruction on both sides,” Tasha Rumley, head of the Red Cross office in Donetsk was quoted recently by the Daily Telegraph as saying.

“With the interruption of coal and gas it’s a really big concern.”

Thinking back to those days in 2014 when I first met Denis Pushilin I can still recall his anger over the Ukrainian revolution and its support from the West.

“Thanks to the western Europeans and the world, the Russian bear has been awoken and we have suffered under Kiev’s political ambitions for 25 years and we can do it no more,” Pushilin insisted then.

In the intervening four years eastern Ukraine has played a heavy price for the separatist ambitions he and his supporters espouse and fight for. And it looks set to continue to do so for some time to come.