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Damage from a reported shelling of a kindergarten in the settlement of Stanytsia Luhanska, Ukraine.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

The children of the Fairy Tale Kindergarten had just finished having breakfast when the sounds of war came again to this frontline town in Eastern Ukraine.

Eight years into the war between the Ukrainian army and the Russian-backed separatists that control large swaths of this coal-producing region, the 24 children and their teachers knew what to do. They gathered in a central hallway that is the closest thing to a shelter in their kindergarten less than five kilometres from the frontline.

Minutes later, an artillery round struck the sports room, scattering soccer balls and skipping ropes, even as it failed to explode on impact. A second shell, perhaps a mortar round, landed amid the climbing equipment in the playground outside. Impact marks suggest the ordnance was fired from somewhere south of Stanytsia Luhanska – almost certainly from the territory controlled by the militia of the unrecognized Luhansk People’s Republic.

The swift action by the staff at Fairy Tale Kindergarten likely saved lives. It may also have – for another day at least – prevented the low-level conflict in the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine from erupting into a larger war between Russia and Ukraine

With what the U.S. says is 150,000 troops massed on three sides of Ukraine, Ukrainian troops have been under strict orders in recent months not to retaliate to attacks from across the separatist lines, out of fears that a small incident could be used to justify a full-scale Russian invasion. But a mass-casualty incident at a kindergarten might have been very difficult for Ukrainian forces to avoid responding to.

Natalia Slesareva stands among debris after the reported shelling.ANTON SKYBA/The Globe and Mail

Natalia Slesareva, who works as cleaning staff at the kindergarten, said a “nightmare” was avoided because the children were not in the sports hall when it was hit. “We got used to hearing shooting nearby, but this is the first time they hit our building,” said the 54-year-old.

She said the impact had been close enough that she still had a headache and hearing loss almost 12 hours later. “Of course, we were panicking and afraid. … The gym was hit only a few minutes before children were supposed to enter it. It could have turned into an awful tragedy.”

Yulia Semenenko, a 33-year-old teacher, said: “It was terrible, even though the kids were very calm when it was happening. The kids who understood that war was happening were in shock.”

Lieutenant-General Alexander Pavliuk, commander of the Ukrainian military in Donbas, told reporters that there were 49 incidents of separatist fire along the frontline on Thursday, including 39 artillery attacks.

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That makes it one of the worst days of fighting the region has seen so far this year. Lt.-Gen. Pavliuk said a vocational school in the village of Vrubivka was also struck, injuring three civilians. In total, eight civilians and two Ukrainian soldiers were injured on Thursday.

“Everything is done to provoke the armed forces of Ukraine into returning fire so they can blame us for genocide against the people of Donbas,” Lt.-Gen. Pavliuk said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statement that Ukrainian forces were engaged in a “genocide” against residents of this predominantly Russian-speaking region of Ukraine.

The genocide claim is not supported by neutral observers. The United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine told The Globe and Mail in a statement Thursday that while it has documented violations of international law “by all sides of the conflict” over the past eight years, it “has not seen wide-scale violations that threaten the lives and safety of individuals from ethnic minority groups.”

Some 14,000 people have been killed since pro-Russian fighters seized control of part of the Donbas region in 2014, shortly after Russian troops seized and annexed Crimea, another region of Ukraine. The Kremlin’s aggressive moves followed a pro-Western revolution in Kyiv, which Mr. Putin has always regarded as an illegal coup.

Lt.-Gen. Pavliuk said his troops delivered only a “limited response” to Thursday’s shellings, but were ready to defend the country in the event of a larger Russian attack. The Russian-backed “occupiers” in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions had a force of about 30,000, he said, adding that he did not detect any change in the posture of the separatist militia in recent days.

The Ukrainian military arranged the visit to Stanytsia Luhanska, a town of 12,000 people, for The Globe and other international media.

Ukrainian soldiers outside a kindergarten damaged by shelling in the town of Stanytsia Luhanska, Ukraine.LYNSEY ADDARIO/The New York Times News Service

U.S. President Joe Biden warned on Thursday that there was a “very high” risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine in the next “several days.” The British Ministry of Defence published a map outlining what it called “President Putin’s Possible Axis of Invasion,” with nine red arrows representing Russian forces attacking Ukraine from the east, north and south.

Western officials have repeatedly warned that they believe Mr. Putin is looking for an excuse to launch a military operation that his forces have already planned and prepared.

Russia’s military, meanwhile, said on Thursday that it was continuing to withdraw some forces from around Ukraine, as military exercises came to a close. Kremlin-controlled media said it was Ukraine that was escalating its attacks in the Donbas region, forcing the separatist forces to return fire.

On Tuesday, Russia’s parliament passed a resolution calling on Mr. Putin to recognize the independence of the separatist Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” that were established by Russian-backed fighters in 2018.

Doing so could allow the “separatist” leaders – who have acknowledged in the past that they take their orders from Moscow – to formally call on Russia to intervene in their war against the Ukrainian state.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, on a Thursday visit to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, said that if Mr. Putin recognized the Luhansk and Donetsk republics it “would represent a further attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, signal an end to the Minsk process and demonstrate a Russian decision to choose a path of confrontation over dialogue.”

After a short break during the afternoon, the sounds of artillery were audible again as night fell in Stanytsia Luhanska. Olga Grigoryevna, 57, night maintenance worker at Kindergarten No. 21, was just beginning her shift.

Ms. Grigoryevna said she had no choice but to work, despite the evident danger. She needed the money, she said, to pay for grocery and heating bills.

“You can’t escape your fate,” she said as the thuds of artillery grew louder, and Ukrainian soldiers shouted for media to evacuate. A few hours later, one of the shells knocked out the town’s electricity.

With reporting by Anton Skyba

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