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Troops on the front line of Ukraine's battle with Russian-backed rebels wonder if it's about to get much worse

Ukraine's frontline trenches
In the trenches with Ukrainian troops bracing for a potential Russian invasion 03:24

Eastern Ukraine — Amid mounting fear that Russia was on the brink of a full-scale invasion, CBS News senior foreign correspondent Holly Williams and her team were near the front lines on Tuesday of the conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels that has simmered for almost eight years. They witnessed heavy artillery fire.

Suspected Russian military vehicles were spotted in the two breakaway regions of Ukraine that President Vladimir Putin recognized as independent on Monday — a move that has drawn fierce international condemnation and is expected to bring a round of new international sanctions against Moscow.

Ukraine has accused Putin of trying to revive the Soviet Union, and the country's president is asking for more international help urgently. But as Williams reported, the war in the breakaway regions of Ukraine's eastern Donbas area has been underway since 2014.

Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine - vector map
A map shows the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine. Getty/iStockphoto

As Williams and her team travelled to the front line by truck with Ukrainian soldiers, they were ordered abruptly into a bunker — told to get underground because a local commander had apparently deemed it too dangerous for a front line visit at that moment.

When they did make it into the trenches, they found a literal quagmire: The Ukrainian forces said the snow melted early this year, leaving deep mud that they said might slow a Russian invasion down, but it wouldn't stop it.

"Normally it's heavy shelling, 24 hours," Private Valeri Kashkarov told CBS News. He was a businessman before he signed up, and before that, he was an exchange student in Dallas.

He said he and his fellow troops didn't know why Putin would invade.

"We are on our own land, soldiers of this country, protecting our country," he told Williams. "I don't know what's in the head of Vladimir Putin."

Putin orders forces into Ukraine breakaway regions 03:59

Ukraine has been fighting the war against the Russian-backed separatists in the country's eastern Donbas area since 2014, but the last week has seen a new eruption of violence. 

U.S. officials say Moscow is arming the separatists, who Ukraine accuses of targeting civilian areas — including the village of Novognativka, where residents seem shell-shocked.

"We're on the brink of nervous breakdowns," resident Ekaterina Evseeva said. "There's nowhere to run."

Back in the trenches, Sergeant Fedenyak Lubomir told Williams that Ukraine needs protection from the air, and America should help.

Satellite images show Russian military movement near Ukraine border 02:45

The U.S. has ruled out sending combat troops to Ukraine but has sent the country nearly $3 billion in military assistance in recent years.

The question, said Williams, is whether the escalation on the front lines of the existing war is really the beginning of another Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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