The average household in Ghana is paying two-thirds more than it did last year for diesel, flour and other necessities. In Egypt, wheat is so expensive that the government has fallen half a billion dollars short of its budget for a bread subsidy it provides to its citizens. And Sri Lanka, already struggling to control a political crisis, is running out of fuel, food and medical supplies.
A strong dollar is making the problems worse.
Compared with other currencies, the U.S. dollar is the strongest it has been in two decades. It is rising because the Federal Reserve has increased interest rates sharply to combat inflation and because America’s economic health is better than most. Together, these factors have attracted investors from all over the world. Sometimes they simply buy dollars, but even if investors buy other assets, like government bonds, they need dollars to do so — in each case pushing up the currency’s value.
That strength has become much of the world’s weakness. The dollar is the de facto currency for global trade, and its steep rise is squeezing dozens of lower-income nations, chiefly those that rely heavily on imports of food and oil and borrow in dollars to fund them.
But much of the damage is already behind us.
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“We are in a fragile situation,” Mr. El-Erian said. “Country after country is flashing amber, and some are already flashing red.”
Many lower-income countries were already struggling during the pandemic.
Roughly 22 million people in Ghana, or a third of its population, reported a decline in their income between April 2020 and May 2021, according to a survey from the World Bank and Unicef. Adults in almost half of the households with children surveyed said they were skipping a meal because they didn’t have enough money. Almost three-quarters said the prices of major food items had increased.
Then came Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war between two of the world’s largest exporters of food and energy led to a big surge in prices, especially for importers like Ghana. Consumer prices have gone up 30 percent for the year through June, according to data from the research firm Moody’s Analytics. For household essentials, annual inflation has reached 60 percent or more this year, the S&P data shows.
To illustrate this, consider the price of a barrel of oil in dollars versus the Ghanaian cedi. At the beginning of October last year, the price of oil stood at $78.52 per barrel, rising to nearly $130 per barrel in March before falling back to $87.96 at the beginning of this month, a one-year increase of 12 percent in dollar terms. Over the same period, the Ghanaian cedi has weakened over 40 percent against the dollar, meaning that the same barrel of oil that cost roughly 475 cedi a year ago now costs over 900 cedi, almost twice as much.
Adding to the problem are large state-funded subsidies, some taken on or increased through the pandemic, that are now weighing on government finances.
Ghana’s president cut fuel taxes in November 2021, losing roughly $22 million in projected revenue for the government — the latest available numbers.
In Egypt, spending on what the government refers to as “supply commodities,” almost all of which is wheat for its long-running bread subsidy, is expected to come in at around 7 percent of all government spending this year, 12 percent higher — or more than half a billion dollars — than the government budgeted.
As costs ballooned throughout the pandemic, governments took on more debt. Ghana’s public debt grew to nearly $60 billion from roughly $40 billion at the end of 2019, or to nearly 80 percent of its gross domestic product from around 63 percent, according to Moody’s.
It’s one of four countries listed by S&P, alongside Pakistan, Nigeria and Sri Lanka, where interest payments alone account for more than half of the government’s revenues.
“We can’t forget that this is happening on the back end of a once-in-a-century pandemic in which governments, to try and support families as best they could, did borrow more,” said Frank Gill, an analyst at S&P. “This is a shock following up on another shock.”
In May, Sri Lanka defaulted on its government debt for the first time in its history. Over the past month, the governments of Egypt, Pakistan and Ghana have all reached out to the International Monetary Fund for a bailout as they struggle to meet their debt financing needs, no longer able to turn to international investors for more money.
“I don’t think there is a lot of appetite to lend money to some of these countries,” said Brian Weinstein, co-head of credit trading at Bank of America. “They are incredibly vulnerable at the moment.”
That vulnerability is already reflected in the bond market.
In 2016, Ghana borrowed $1 billion for 10 years, paying an interest rate of just over 8 percent. As the country’s financial position has worsened and investors have backed away, the yield — indicative of what it would now cost Ghana to borrow money until 2026 — has risen to above 35 percent.
It’s an untenable cost of debt for a country in Ghana’s situation. And Ghana is not alone. For bonds that also mature in 2026, yields for Pakistan have reached almost 40 percent.
“We have concerns where any country has yields that calls into question their ability to refinance in public markets,” said Charles Cohen, deputy division chief of monetary and capital market departments at IMF.
The risk of a sovereign debt crisis in some emerging markets is “very, very high,” said Jesse Rogers, an economist at Moody’s Analytics. Mr. Rogers likened the current situation to the debt crises that crushed Latin America in the 1980s — the last time the Fed sought to quell soaring inflation.
Already this year, more than $80 billion has been withdrawn from mutual funds and exchange-traded funds — two popular types of investment products — that buy emerging market bonds, according to EPFR Global, a data provider. As investors sell, the United States is often the beneficiary, further strengthening the dollar.
“It’s by far the worst year for outflows the market has ever seen,” said Pramol Dhawan, head of emerging markets at Pimco.
Even citizens in some of these countries are trying to exchange their money for dollars, fearful of what’s to come and of further currency depreciation — yet inadvertently also contributing to it.
“For pockets of emerging markets, this is a really challenging backdrop and one of the most challenging backdrops we have faced for many years,” Mr. Dhawan said.
In a thickly forested park bordered by apartment blocks and a playground, a dozen workers were busy on a recent day with chain saws and axes, felling trees, cutting logs and chopping them into firewood to be stashed in concealed sheds around Lviv, the largest city in western Ukraine.
Ironworkers at a nearby forge are working overtime to produce wood-burning stoves to be stored in strategic locations. In municipal depots, room is being made to stockpile reserves of coal.
The activity in Lviv is being played out in towns and cities across Ukraine, part of a nationwide effort to amass emergency arsenals of backup fuel and critical provisions as Russia tightens its chokehold on energy supplies across Europe.
curtailed gas supplies to Europe last week, leading the European Union to announce that it will reduce imports of Russian gas so as not to be held hostage. Russia turned off the gas taps to Latvia on Saturday, after the government there announced additional military assistance for Ukraine, the latest in a string of European countries to do so.
Ukraine buys its natural gas from European neighbors, so the restriction of deliveries to Europe threatens its access to energy, too.
ordered to evacuate this past weekend after months of relentless Russian bombardment destroyed the infrastructure needed to deliver heat and electricity.
Our Coverage of the Russia-Ukraine War
“We understand that the Russians may continue targeting critical energy infrastructure before and during the winter,” said Oleksiy Chernyshov, Ukraine’s minister for communities and territories development, in an interview.
“They’ve demolished central heating stations in big cities, and physical devastation is still happening nationwide,” he said. “We are working to repair damage, but it doesn’t mean we won’t have more.”
Far from Ukraine’s embattled southeastern front, the campaign is being waged in forests and in steel forges, at gas storage sites and electrical stations, and even in basement boiler rooms, as the government mobilizes regions to activate a blueprint for amassing fuel and shelter.
disconnect Ukraine’s energy grid from Russia and Belarus and link it directly to the European Union’s. Last month, Ukraine began exporting small amounts of electricity to Romania, with hopes of eventually supplying European companies that have been hit by Russian natural gas cuts, a potential source of valuable income.
But Ukrainian officials say the ability to supply electricity at home, especially over the coming winter, when temperatures can fall far below freezing, is increasingly threatened as Russia intensifies a campaign of targeting the infrastructure that delivers energy.
Russian shelling has hit thermal power plants around the country and over 200 gas-fired boiler plants used for centralized heating. Around 5,000 kilometers of gas pipelines have been damaged, along with 3,800 gas distribution centers, according to an analysis by the Woodrow Wilson International Center’s Kennan Institute, a think tank focused on Russia.
Gas is especially critical for Ukraine because it is used to warm thousands of high-rise apartment complexes, schools, post offices and municipal buildings that rely on centralized heating systems.
largest gas reserves in Europe and has 11 billion cubic meters in storage. Andrii Zakrevskyi, head of the Ukrainian oil and gas association, said Monday that was enough to meet Ukraine’s needs before the war — but the level is roughly half what the government would like it to be.
racing to secure new energy sources, the pain circles back to Ukraine, which imports gas from Europe after halting direct imports from Russia after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Russia’s squeeze has pushed European gas futures prices to record levels, making imports more expensive at a time when the government in Kyiv is facing a budget crisis.
All of which has gotten the country mobilized in a hurry.
Swiatoslaw and Zoriana Bielinski recently stocked the cellar of their modest Lviv home with wood. The couple has purchased scores of batteries and several battery-operated lamps in case the lights go out, and they were preparing to buy gas bottles for cooking.
“We have to start thinking about this,” said Alicja Bielinska, Mr. Bielinski’s sister, who had helped the couple stock up. “Ultimately, we can survive without light and gas, but we won’t be able to survive if the invaders take over.”
Officials responsible for city planning have stockpiled on a much grander scale, collecting thousands of tons of wood and a large stash of coal in the last week alone. Mr. Sadovyi, Lviv’s mayor, said more supplies were on the way and has ordered thermostats to be lowered to 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit) when winter sets in.
On a recent day, Mr. Sadovyi buzzed around the city hall courtyard, greeting locals who had gathered for now-regular demonstrations on how to prepare for heat and electricity cuts — or worse. Two emergency workers showed residents how to put on a chemical suit in case of an attack: gas mask firmly in place, the suit sealed tight over the head.
Forges have shifted some production to put a priority on making tens of thousands wood-burning stoves, some emblazoned with the Ukrainian coat of arms. Town halls in over 200 cities are building stockpiles, along with tents that can house up to 50 people apiece in the event that multifamily apartment buildings are left without gas needed to heat them.
The tents can be moved quickly to sites without electricity or heat, providing emergency shelter and stoves for boiling water and cooking, said Mr. Chernyshov, the development minister.
“We hope we won’t have to use them,” said Iryna Dzhuryk, an administrative director in Lviv. “But this is an absolutely unusual situation. We are shocked by what we’re facing and worried about making sure we have enough to keep people warm.”
Nearby, sheds recently built to stock firewood have been camouflaged by locals. Additional wood is expected to arrive in the coming weeks, hewn from groves of trees inside the city and from the vast forests of western Ukraine.
One hour’s drive north of Lviv, in a dense wood streaked with yellow sunlight, forestry service workers labored to generate enough firewood to supply a beleaguered nation. On a recent weekday, they cut into a grove of weathered oak trees and trucked them to a sawmill, where a lumberyard half the size of a football field was stacked a meter high with freshly hewn logs.
Firewood sales have doubled from a year ago, and prices have nearly tripled as the country stocks up, said Yuriy Hromyak, vice director of the Lviv Regional Department of Forestry.
Even the forest isn’t sheltered from Russian attacks, he added. Ukrainian forces recently shot down a rocket fired from Belarus on a nearby oil storage facility. The tanks — which were empty — weren’t damaged, but the blast blew out all the windows in a wood storage warehouse and in parts of the sawmill.
“The Russians will do anything to try to destroy us,” he said. “But no one has managed to unite us as much as Putin has.”
Stefan Fritsche, who runs a centuries-old German brewery in Neuzelle, near the Polish border, has seen his natural gas bill jump a startling 400 percent over the past year. His electricity bill has increased 300 percent. And he’s paying more for barley than ever before.
But the soaring inflation for energy and grains in the wake of the Ukraine war is no match for the biggest challenge facing Mr. Fritsche’s brewery, Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle, and others like it across Germany: a severe shortage of beer bottles.
The problem is “unprecedented,” Mr. Fritsche said. “The price of bottles has exploded.”
The issue is not so much a lack of bottles. Germany’s roughly 1,500 breweries have up to four billion returnable glass bottles in circulation — about 48 for every man, woman and child.
recycling, it comes with one major problem: getting people to return their empties.
Dragging a crate — or several — of empty glass bottles back to a store can be a hassle, even if it means getting back the deposit fee. So people tend to let them stack up, in the basements of their homes or on the balconies of their apartments, biding their time until they are running out of either space or spare cash.
“It is deadly for small brewers,” Mr. Fritsche said. The brewery he runs sells 80 percent of its beer in bottles. (In 2003, a recycling law was expanded to focus on reducing waste in the beverage industry, meaning most beer sold for the domestic market is in returnable bottles, not cans.)
annual survey by Kirin, the Japanese brewer. (The United States ranked 17th.) But on the whole, Germans are cutting back. Since the Federal Statistics Office began keeping records in 1993 — a year after Mr. Fritsche’s family took over the brewery in Neuzelle — national consumption of beer has dropped nearly 24 percent, as people embrace a wider diversity of soft drinks.
Lockdowns surrounding the coronavirus over the past two years also contributed to the trend, as bars remained closed and sporting and cultural events were canceled.
The difficult environment makes management of the breweries all the more important. Mr. Fritsche said he had relied for decades on a combination of tradition and creativity.
A willingness to push the boundaries and think around the corner is essential to surviving in a tougher business environment, he said. For example, the brewery has a bottle of its signature product, Schwarzer Abt, or Black Abbot, that has been blessed by Pope Francis. The bottle is now dipped into each fresh batch of Schwarzer Abt.
What helps, too, is taking a long view of the history that comes with running a business founded in 1589, the events that it has witnessed and withstood over time.
“Nazis, Communists, government takeovers — in the past, we’ve had just about everything here,” Mr. Fritsche said. “And we have survived it all. We will get through this as well.”
The transportation secretary said Monday that the safety of flights operated by U.S. airlines over Belarus should be reviewed after the Eastern European country forced a commercial flight to land in order to seize a dissident on board.
“That’s exactly what needs to be assessed right now,” the secretary, Pete Buttigieg, told CNN. “We, in terms of the international bodies we’re part of and as an administration with the F.A.A., are looking at that because the main reason my department exists is safety.”
The comments came after the authoritarian leader of Belarus dispatched a fighter jet on Sunday to intercept a Ryanair plane carrying the journalist Roman Protasevich. The plane was forced to land in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, where Mr. Protasevich was arrested.
The secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, condemned the forced diversion, saying it was a “shocking act” that “endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens.” And Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, an Irish-based low-cost carrier, called the operation a “state -sponsored hijacking.”
called the re-routing to Minsk “utterly unacceptable,” adding that “any violation of international air transport rules must bear consequences.”
Though not a major European hub, Minsk is served by multiple international airlines, including Lufthansa, KLM, Turkish Airlines and Air France. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines offer flights to Minsk through their partnerships with those European airlines as well as through Belavia, the Belarusian national carrier.
Belarus sits between Poland and Russia and also has borders with Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia, putting it in the path of some flights to and from major European airports.
Airlines are often forced to adjust operations in response to major disruptions, geopolitical and otherwise. This month, for example, several U.S. airlines canceled flights to and from Israel as a conflict there escalated. Some carriers also adjusted procedures, including adding fueling stops, after the hacking of a fuel pipeline company that serves airports on the East Coast of the United States.
In 2014, nearly 300 people were killed when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, where hostilities were raging, on its way to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam. Western governments blamed the Russian government and Russian-backed rebels fighting the Ukrainian government, while Moscow denied involvement. The Netherlands sued Russia in the European Court of Human Rights last year in an effort to secure evidence that would be useful to families of the victims.
From 2017 until this year, Qatar Airways was forced to avoid airspace over Saudi Arabia and several neighboring countries after they imposed an air, land and sea embargo against Qatar. In some cases, that meant flying longer routes around the Arabian Peninsula. The neighbors accused Qatar of supporting terrorism. Qatar has denied those accusations.
The movement to isolate Belarus will have little effect on U.S. passenger airlines, which rarely fly over the country, according to Flightradar24. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken condemned the forced landing of the Ryanair flight, calling it a “shocking act” that “endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens.” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the safety of U.S. flights over Belarus should be assessed.
But cargo carriers could be affected. On Sunday, for example, more than a dozen flights operated by U.S. airlines flew over Belarus, according to Flightradar24, including five by FedEx, four by UPS and two by Atlas Air.
In a statement, UPS said that its network remained unaffected, but that it was “evaluating other flight route options that will provide for the safety of our crews and aircraft, as well as maintain service for our customers” in case it had to make changes. FedEx said it was “closely monitoring the issue.”
The International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations and the European Cockpit Association said in a statement that aviation authorities should investigate what had happened and “take swift measures” to prevent similar disruptions. They described Sunday’s episode as a “hazard to the safety of passengers and crew.”
MOSCOW — He warned ominously of “red lines” in Russia’s security that, if crossed, would bring a powerful “asymmetric” response. He reminded Western leaders once again of the fearsomeness of his country’s modernized nuclear arsenal. And he boasted of Russia’s moral superiority over the West.
Yet even as President Vladimir V. Putin lashed out at foreign enemies real or perceived in a state-of-the-nation speech on Wednesday, tens of thousands of Russians defied a heavy police presence to pour into the streets to challenge his rule. In Moscow, some gathered across the street from the Kremlin to chant, “Go Away!”
It was a snapshot of Russia in the third decade of Mr. Putin’s rule: a leader facing an increasingly angry and desperate opposition but firmly in power with his country’s vast resources and huge security apparatus at his disposal.
an enormous troop buildup on Russia’s border with Ukraine and has gone toe to toe with President Biden, who issued a new round of sanctions last week, undeterred by Mr. Putin’s saber rattling in Ukraine.
Mr. Putin portrayed Russia as harried by Western nations for years with hypocritical criticism and sanctions. Punishing Russia, he said, has become a “new sport” in the West, and he was running thin on patience.
While he pledged on Wednesday that he still wanted “good relations with all participants of international society,” he said that if Russia is forced to defend its interests from any security threats its response would be “fast and tough.”
the prison treatment of the prominent opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny seemed to be mushrooming into something more.
Thousands were arrested at those protests this winter, which came after Mr. Navalny’s return to Russia from Germany, where he had been treated for a poisoning with a chemical weapon.
Riot police officers were out in force on Wednesday. While it appeared that they sought to avoid scenes of brutality that could cast a shadow over Mr. Putin’s speech, the police did detain nearly 1,500 demonstrators nationwide.
Protesters stood on the sidewalks across the street from the exhibition hall next to the Kremlin where Mr. Putin had spoken a few hours earlier. They chanted “Go away!” — referring to Mr. Putin; and “Release him!” — referring to Mr. Navalny.
“I didn’t come out concretely because of Aleksei Navalny, I came out more for myself,” said Svetlana Kosatkina, a 64-year-old real estate agent. “I can’t stand this whole situation of lawlessness and just total humiliation.”
a hunger strike and said by his lawyer to be near death, Mr. Navalny this week wrote in a letter to his allies that he had grown so thin he resembled a “skeleton walking, swaying in his cell.”
Police detained dozens of opposition activists earlier on Wednesday, including Mr. Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, and a top lieutenant in his political organization, Lyubov Sobol. To curb turnout at protests, universities compelled students to sit for unscheduled exams, TV Rain, an independent news station, reported on Tuesday.
Mr. Putin’s speech was closely watched for hints of his intentions in Ukraine, after massing the largest military force on the border since the outset of Kyiv’s war with Russian-backed separatists seven years ago.
highest per capita in the world.
“Solar Winds” hacking of government agencies and corporations, various disinformation efforts and earlier military interventions in Ukraine.
Mr. Putin’s allies had also erupted in fury when President Biden in an interview last month agreed with a characterization of Mr. Putin as a “killer.” In Wednesday’s speech, Mr. Putin lingered on a grievance that has not gained much traction outside Russian state news media: an accusation that the C.I.A. had been plotting an assassination of its own, targeting President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the leader of Belarus, a Russian ally.
Over the weekend, Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service, arrested two men who it said had coordinated with American and Polish intelligence agencies to plot the murder of Mr. Lukashenko. This, Mr. Putin said, “crossed all the boundaries.”
In Mr. Putin’s telling, Russia, far from pursuing a militaristic policy, has been the victim of a Western scheme to contain and hobble the country. “They attack Russia here and there without any reason,” Mr. Putin said. He cited Rudyard Kipling’s novel “Jungle Book” with a comparison of the United States to Shere Khan, a villainous tiger, nipping at Russia.
And Mr. Putin lingered on descriptions of Russia’s modernized arsenal of atomic weapons. These include a hypersonic cruise missile, called the Dagger, and a nuclear torpedo, called the Poseidon. The torpedo, Russian officials have said, is designed to set off a radioactive tsunami.
The foreign policy message was a stark warning, said Andrei A. Klimov, deputy chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Russian Senate.
“We aren’t joking any longer,” Mr. Klimov said. ““We won’t every day tell our opponents they will be punished. But when it comes, they will understand.”
Anton Troianovski contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine and Ivan Nechepurenko from Moscow.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Wednesday delivered an annual address replete with threats against the West but, despite intense tensions with Ukraine, stopped short of announcing new military or foreign policy moves.
Russia’s response will be “asymmetric, fast and tough” if it is forced to defend its interests, Mr. Putin said, pointing to what he claimed were Western efforts at regime change in neighboring Belarus as another threat to Russia’s security.
He pledged that Russia “wants to have good relations with all participants of international society,” even as he noted that Russia’s modernized nuclear weapons systems were at the ready.
“The organizers of any provocations threatening the fundamental interests of our security will regret their deeds more than they have regretted anything in a long time,” Mr. Putin told a hall of governors and members of Parliament. “I hope no one gets the idea to cross the so-called red line with Russia — and we will be the ones to decide where it runs in every concrete case.”
that could be prepared to move into neighboring Ukraine.
In Washington, the Biden administration reacted mildly to Mr. Putin’s tough words.
“We don’t take anything President Putin says personally,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said when asked for a response. “We have tough skin.”
Asked if the sharpened rhetoric from Mr. Putin would affect the prospects for a possible meeting with President Biden later this year, Ms. Psaki said discussions were ongoing. “Obviously,” she said, “it requires all parties having an agreement that we’re going to have a meeting and we issued that invitation.”
MARIUPOL, Ukraine — There are the booms that echo again, and parents know to tell their children they are only fireworks. There are the drones the separatists started flying behind the lines at night, dropping land mines. There are the fresh trenches the Ukrainians can see their enemy digging, the increase in sniper fire pinning them inside their own.
But perhaps the starkest evidence that the seven-year-old war in Ukraine may be entering a new phase is what Capt. Mykola Levytskyi coast guard unit saw cruising in the Azov Sea just outside the port city of Mariupol last week: a flotilla of Russian amphibious assault ships.
Since the start of the war in 2014, Russia has used the pretext of a separatist conflict to pressure Ukraine after its Westward-looking revolution, supplying arms and men to Kremlin-backed rebels in the country’s east while denying it was a party to the fight.
Few Western analysts believe the Kremlin is planning an invasion of eastern Ukraine, given the likely backlash at home and abroad. But with a large-scale Russian troop buildup on land and sea on Ukraine’s doorstep, the view is spreading among officials and wide swathes of the Ukrainian public that Moscow is signaling more bluntly than ever before that it is prepared to openly enter the conflict.
“These ships are, concretely, a threat from the Russian state,” Captain Levytskyi said over the whir of his speedboat’s engines as it plied the Azov Sea, after pointing out a Russian patrol boat stationed six miles offshore. “It is a much more serious threat.”
Many Ukrainian military officials and volunteer fighters say that they still find it unlikely that Russia will openly invade Ukraine, and that they do not see evidence of an imminent offensive among the gathered Russian forces. But they speculate over other possibilities, including Russia’s possible recognition or annexation of the separatist-held territories in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainians are awaiting President Vladimir V. Putin’s annual state-of-the-nation address to Russia on Wednesday, an affair often rife with geopolitical signaling, for clues about what comes next.
“I feel confused, I feel tension,” Oleksandr Tkachenko, Ukraine’s culture and information policy minister, said in an interview.
Mr. Tkachenko listed some invasion scenarios: a three-pronged Russian attack from north, south and east; an assault from separatist-held territory; and an attempt to capture a Dnieper River water supply for Crimea.
Russia, for its part, has done little to hide its buildup, insisting that it has been massing troops in response to heightened military activity in the region by NATO and Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials deny any plans to escalate the war, but there is no question that President Volodymyr Zelensky has taken a harder line against Russia in recent months.
Mr. Zelensky has closed pro-Russian TV channels and imposed sanctions against Mr. Putin’s closest ally in Ukraine. He has also declared more openly than before his desire to have Ukraine join NATO, a remote possibility that the Kremlin nevertheless regards as a dire threat to Russia’s security.
Interviews with frontline units across a 150-mile swath of eastern Ukraine in recent days underscored the fast-rising tensions in Europe’s only active armed conflict. Officials and volunteers acknowledge apprehension over Russia’s troop movements, and civilians feel numb and hopeless after seven years of war. At least 28 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in fighting this year, the military says.
“We live in sadness,” said Anna Dikareva, a 48-year-old postal service worker in the frontline industrial town of Avdiivka, where people scarcely flinch when shells explode in the distance. “I don’t want war, but we won’t solve this in a peaceful way, either.”
For much of last year, a cease-fire held.
Mr. Zelensky, a television comedian elected in 2019 on a promise to end the war, negotiated with the Kremlin for step-by-step compromises to ease the hardships of frontline residents and look for ways out of a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people. But Russia’s insistence on policies that would essentially give it a say in eastern Ukraine’s future was unacceptable to Kyiv.
“The hope that Zelensky had to solve this issue, it didn’t happen,” said Mr. Tkachenko, the information minister and a longtime associate of the president.
Instead, the fighting has picked up again.
The Ukrainians’ labyrinths of trenches and fortifications along the roughly 250-mile front is by now so well established that in one tunnel near Avdiivka, the soldiers put up multicolored Christmas lights to spruce up the darkness. The town lies just a few miles north of the city of Donetsk, the separatists’ main stronghold.
At their hillside battle position, overlooking a separatist position in a T-shaped growth of trees, the soldiers described the sound of separatist drones they said carried land mines dropped about a mile behind the line. Since December and January, they said, sniper fire from the other side increased, and they could see the separatists digging new trenches.
The lettering above the skull on their shoulder patches read: “Ukraine or death.”
“The enemy has activated lately,” said one 58-year-old soldier, nicknamed “the professor,” who said he would not give his full name for security reasons.
In Avdiivka, a volunteer unit of Ukraine’s ultranationalist Right Sector keeps a pet wolf in a cage outside the commander’s office. The commander, Dmytro Kotsyubaylo — his nom de guerre is Da Vinci — jokes that the fighters feed it the bones of Russian-speaking children, a reference to Russian state media tropes about the evils of Ukrainian nationalists.
Both sides have accused each other of increasing numbers of cease-fire violations, but Mr. Kotsyubaylo said that — to his regret — his fighters were allowed to fire only in response to attacks from the separatist side.
On the video screen above his desk, Mr. Kotsyubaylo showed high-definition drone footage depicting the quotidian violence taking place just 400 miles from the European Union’s borders. In one sequence, two of his unit’s mortar rounds explode around separatist trenches; a naked man emerges, sprinting. In another, an explosion is seen at what he said was a separatist sniper position; the clearing smoke reveals a body coated with yellow dust.
Asked what he expects to happen next, Mr. Kotsyubaylo responded: “full-scale war.”
Mr. Kotsyubaylo said he believed Russia’s troop movements north and south of separatist-held territory were a ruse meant to draw Ukrainian forces away from the front line. He said he expected Russia instead to launch an offensive using its separatist proxies in the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” allowing Mr. Putin to continue to claim that the war is an internal Ukrainian affair.
“If Russia wanted to do it in secret, they would do it in secret,” Mr. Kotsyubaylo said of the massing troops. “They’re doing everything they can for us to see them, and to show us how cool Putin is.”
Under the peace plan negotiated in Minsk, Belarus, in 2015, both sides’ heavy weaponry is required to be positioned well behind the front line.
Ukraine’s artillery is now stationed in places like a Soviet-era tractor yard in an out-of-the-way village reached by treacherous dirt roads an hour’s drive from Mariupol. Col. Andrii Shubin, the base commander, said he was ready to send his artillery guns and his American-provided weapon-locating radar trucks to the front as soon as the order came.
Ukrainian officials say that they are not repositioning troops in response to the Russian buildup, and that any current troop movements are normal rotations.
On Monday, dozens of tanks and armored vehicles could be seen on the move in the southwest of the government-controlled area of eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region. Soldiers relaxed on cots at a village train station under graffiti that used an obscenity to refer to Mr. Putin.
Around the region, from Mariupol’s fashionable waterfront to the shrapnel-scarred streets of Avdiivka, many residents said they were so exhausted from the war that they did not even want to consider the possibility that the fighting will flare up again.
Lena Pisarenko, a 45-year-old Russian teacher in Avdiivka, said she had never stopped keeping an emergency supply of water on hand in pots and bottles all over her apartment and her balcony. During the shelling at the height of the war, she created a ritual to keep her children calm: They would play board games and drink tea while three candles burn down three times. Then it was time for bed.
Another woman passing by, Olga Volvach, 41, said she was paying little mind to the recent escalation in shelling.
“Our balcony door isolates sound well,” she said.
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Mariupol, Ukraine.