As winter turns to spring, soldiers on both sides of the front line are anything but tired of the war. Spirits are high and demoralization and exhaustion have not yet set in. Both sides are better organized than before and their commanders are trying to second-guess where the other will attack when the cease-fire breaks down completely, as they all assume it will soon. If and when it does, there are three main possible outcomes.
When I returned to Ukraine at the end of August I went to see a senior diplomat in Kiev. He told me that things had changed so fast since I had been there in the spring that Ukraine was already “a different country” from the one it had been then.
Inside Ukraine, driving north from the Sea of Azov, an appendage of the Black Sea, along rutted country roads that snake parallel to the Russian border, we saw abandoned Ukrainian military encampments and the twisted remains of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and other vehicles. The Ukrainian cell phone signal died and our phones picked up the Russian one. Wherever we met rebel soldiers, they joked and chatted. They were relaxed.
On May 29 the bodies of more than thirty men killed fighting Ukrainians on the outskirts of Donetsk were loaded into a truck and sent home to Russia. The truck, on which a red cross had been hastily painted and which normally delivers chilled food, said on the side: “Fresh produce, to serve you better.” Four days earlier Petro Poroshenko had been elected president of Ukraine by a crushing margin. Both events marked the beginning of a new chapter in the story of the battle for Ukraine.
The recent verdicts in The Hague, regarding the Balkan wars of the 1990s, have coincided with a series of stunning new films about the same time and region. Books and films about the wars of the 1990s may not be able to change politics but, as the UN’s tribunal winds down its work, they remind us how these legacies remain very much alive.
In mid-February a second Ukrainian ceasefire came into effect. The fighting has not stopped, though it has been much reduced. Few people think it will last. The morale of soldiers on both sides is high. Civilians who remain in the areas where there is fighting have been emerging from their shelters and trying to resume some sort of normal life, though some still live underground. A huge proportion of the people who live in these areas have left. I took the following photos while reporting for The New York Review of Books from the region last month.
In general terms, most Ukrainians, are more united than ever and many say that Vladimir Putin and the war have done more to strengthen Ukrainian patriotism than anything since independence in 1991. But it is impossible to ignore that the conflict is by now not only a matter of aggression by Russia but also a civil war in the east.
In eastern Ukraine, civilians are suffering, as they do in all wars, but in this one, older people are suffering the most. Even when peace returns to Pervomaysk, it will have to contend with a fresh layer of bitterness. As in war-ravaged parts of the Balkans, buildings can be rebuilt, but if there is no work and no reason to return, then places like this will dwindle and die.