Winter shivers. Snow smothers the ground. A collection of tents, slowly collapsing, forms an army camp distinguished only by several sagging Ukrainian flags: splashes of blue and yellow amid a canvas of almost unrelenting white. It’s winter 2014, on the battlefields of eastern Ukraine, and I am in the forests outside the occupied cities with the Ukrainian army as it faces off against “separatists” backed by Russian forces.
The growl of shelling is constant; sandbags are piled high, rigid with ice. The only warmth comes from the iron heater in the centre of my tent, which is pitched between a broken-down truck and a couple of vans. Sasha, my Ukrainian army liaison, sits drinking tea. I ask him how long he thinks this will last. He looks around. He cocks an ear to the low throb of artillery. “Maybe a long time,” he replies. “But we won’t surrender.”
Seven years on, Russia is massing troops on Ukraine’s border once again. Some 110,000 soldiers have moved in — the largest military build-up there since 2014 — and they have all the logistical support required to support an invasion; field hospitals have already been set up. On Saturday, Moscow sent two warships through the Bosphorus; it reportedly plans to send more from its Caspian and Baltic fleets to bolster its presence in the Black Sea. Russia is flexing its military muscles – very publicly.
This winter’s snow in the trenches dug deep along the frontlines has melted into a brownish sludge. But the gunmetal skies remain; the tangles of barbed wire. In 2014, as we approached the frontlines, we switched off our phones while soldiers traded their digital watches for analogue ones — anything that could alert Russian artillery to our location was jettisoned. Today the skies hum with a greater menace: drones.
Seven years ago, I was on the ground as separatists stormed municipal buildings in major cities across the east. In Donetsk and Luhansk, those same heavily armed “protestors” went on to declare independence from Ukraine and the birth of the autonomous People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (DNR and LNR).
I call my old fixer, Anton, who guided me through subsequent trips to the east. He tells me was on the border near the city of Kharkiv last week, at the international transit point to Russia. When I was there years ago, it was pretty much just a field. Now a large fence snakes across the border, manned with anti-tank defences and sensors. The border guards even gave him a tour. “It’s heavily prepared for a Russian invasion,” he told me.
Tensions, though, appeared to have cooled somewhat after US President Joe Biden’s offer last week to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin in a third country. “As soon as this happened things calmed down,” he says. “It looks like Putin has achieved his goal, which was to attract Biden’s attention.” But, he tells me, the wider situation in the east is now heating up: “There’s an uptick in ceasefire violations, including mortars and artillery — mostly anti-tank rockets used to attack Ukraine.”
The uneasy peace between Russia and Ukraine is mediated by the ceasefire agreed in Minsk between the two countries in 2015. Since then, in the best traditions of the type of “frozen conflicts” it favours, Moscow has been able to escalate and de-escalate the situation at will. This disputed borderland, like the other pro-Russian separatist enclaves of Transnistria and South Ossetia in Moldova and Georgia respectively, provides Moscow with leverage to pressure recalcitrant governments. Indeed, as Anton so pithily puts it: “Russia can make trouble for Ukraine whenever it wants. Someone in Moscow just makes a call to the separatist leaders — and the bullets start flying.”
In the meantime, the east is becoming ever more isolated. Anton, whose parents still live in separatist controlled territory, tells me that the authorities have used Covid as an excuse to block crossing points with Ukraine. And they force people to get local “passports”.
“You can’t do things like register property without local DNR and LNR passports now,” he says. “On New Year’s Eve, the Covid curfew was lifted only for people with these passports. If you showed up to watch fireworks with a Ukraine passport you’d be arrested. Now, a local passport gives you more ‘civil rights’, and it streamlines the process for getting a Russian passport: first you get the local one, then the Russian one.”
So is the east lost to Ukraine? Anton sighs. “Look,” he replies. “It’s been seven years since Russia took it over. That’s a long time — it’s 30 percent of a generation. Someone born in 2014 is now a first-grade pupil, who has never lived under an independent Ukraine. Seven years of Russian propaganda pumped into the area on TV and radio. It will have an effect.”
If history is any guide, I suspect he is right. Ukraine has always been fought with tweets as much as troops. As I wrote in my last book, our post-truth age was, to a certain degree, born in Ukraine — that laboratory of Russian disinformation techniques that would come to the attention of the wider West with the 2016 US Presidential elections. It’s not just the physical battlefield that is warming. As the border swells with Russian tanks, Russian lies swell online.
Seven years ago, the Ukraine conflict began with a lie: that millions of people across the country’s east wanted to splinter and join Russia, and that the Kyiv government forces were committing atrocities in response. On 12 July 2014, a news report on Russia’s state-owned Channel One reported that Ukrainian soldiers had crucified a child in the eastern town of Sloviansk.
The crucifixion of an innocent; it’s the West’s oldest morality tale. I remember talking to people in the occupied east and listening to them tell me the story over and over again. The hate it inspired was palpable. The story was, of course, nonsense. But it worked.
And it is a tactic that continues to be deployed today. Just a few weeks ago, Russian media reported that an unmanned Ukrainian drone had killed a five-year-old boy named Vladik in a village in eastern Ukraine. The pro-Kremlin newspaper denounced the perpetrators as “Ukrainian beasts”.
Again, hate filled the Russian language spaces. Again, it was palpable. But again, it was nonsense. Through sources on the ground in Ukraine, I have access to closed Telegram groups in occupied Donbass, including one that contains neighbours who were discussing the event. It was, they reported, common knowledge that the boy’s grandfather was known to collect “souvenirs” from the war, and that the boy had died playing with explosives he had found in a shed at his grandparents’ house.
Yet not everything on the border is the same as seven years ago. Looking at the footage, there is an obvious difference. The Ukrainian soldiers, the equipment, the heavy armour — they all look far more professional.
“There have been tremendous changes,” confirms Hanna Shelest, the director of Security Programmes at the Foreign Policy Council of Ukrainian Prism. “The army is ready to fight. First is the psychological aspect: in the beginning it was hard for Ukrainians to comprehend the idea of Russia as an enemy against which the homeland had to be defended. It was a cognitive dissonance. Now we have a new generation trained for it. There are many officers who have fought in the east for years and who had to leave Crimea – for them: it’s personal.”
“Second: the capabilities. We are much better. We have battalions trained to NATO certified standards, new equipment, and US and UK and Canadian training commissions.” You need only look at today’s crop of Ukrainian soldiers to see that she’s right. They march in step and dart across trenches that strafe the frontlines.
Seven years on, the war continues. And seven years on, I see the truth of what Sasha told me that winter in 2014: Russia may keep on attacking, but Ukraine will not surrender.