In a roadside cafe a few dozen kilometres from the border between Russia and rebel-held areas in Ukraine, some Russian soldiers were eating as they rested, the smell of frying in the air.
“Thank you, we’ll come back,” said one of them as he got up after finishing his cheburek — a type of fried turnover filled with meat and onion.
Another soldier knocked at the door of a small room where an AFP team sat working — the only civilian customers seen on Wednesday at the cafe.
“Do you want to buy some dry rations?” he asked.
On a screen above showing music videos, some soldiers could be seen running in a muddy field. But it was just a video of the 1980s British rock classic “In the Army Now” by Status Quo.
Outside in the village, soldiers were everywhere — some wearing camouflage hats, others in army-issue grey synthetic fur hats.
They smoked in the parking lot, drank their coffee or kept busy working on the military vehicles on flatbed train wagons parked in railway sidings stretching for hundreds of metres.
The wagons carried rocket launchers, artillery pieces and fuel tanks.
On the road leading to the border, empty heavy military trucks and a convoy of military green-coloured vehicles crossed paths.
Russia’s Rostov region, which borders the self-proclaimed separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, was silent and shrouded in heavy fog on Wednesday — a Russian public holiday celebrating the military.
After being crossed in recent days by thousands of refugees leaving the separatist statelets one way and military convoys heading the other way, the region is now in a mood of tense anticipation.
Russia has massed some 150,000 soldiers on Ukraine’s borders, according to Western estimates.
It has said it is prepared to send in troops, ostensibly to protect Donetsk and Lugansk after recognising their independence this week, raising fears of an all-out war with Ukraine.
The separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has dragged on since 2014, has already claimed more than 14,000 lives.
‘Afraid to go back’
A group of middle-aged men passed the time playing football.
Valery Belik, a 52-year-old retired policeman wearing a cap reading “No Fear”, was in goal.
“Of course, we are all worried for the People’s Republic of Donetsk, for Lugansk.
“It’s a shame for people who are suffering the terror of a war that Ukrainian authorities have unleashed,” he said, echoing the Kremlin message of Russia coming to the aid of the separatists against supposed Ukrainian aggression.
On the way to the border, a bus was parked on the side of the road.
“I went to pick up my Russian passport,” said Grigory, a 35-year-old mechanic from Shakhtarsk, located in one of the rebel regions.
“I am a bit afraid to go back, we hear shooting and explosions,” he said. “But my family is there. I won’t leave. My work, my whole life are there.”
Nearer to the border, the streets empty out.
‘Everything is so frightening’
In the last village before the border, Valentina Druzhinenko, a 75-year-old pensioner, sat on a bench with her neighbour.
She had mixed feelings about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move to recognise the independence of the separatists this week.
“I understand the consequences, they will be terrible,” she said. “Our grandchildren will not be able to handle them.
“But if Vladimir Putin did it, it means it was necessary. I respect and love him.”
“How can we not be afraid? Who can not be afraid? I myself was born during the war.”
“We don’t even watch the news. Everything is so frightening.”