Walk around Rivne, a town of a quarter-million people in western Ukraine, a four-hour drive from Kiev, and you could easily get the impression that things are going far better than the country’s official statistics indicate they should be. To a certain extent this is not surprising: economists calculate that between 40 and 50 percent of Ukraine’s economy is off the books, because so much of it is cash-based and it is easy to evade taxes. But a closer look at Rivne tells another story. Along with lots of new houses, one sees fancy new SUVs driven by beefy, shaven-headed men who are accompanied by glamorous high-heeled girls—one of many indications of the extent to which the town has been taken over by organized crime.
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.
In recent years, the traditional right has had to move rightward to stop its voters going over to Marine Le Pen. Watching Le Pen and former prime minister François Fillon on television, watching Fillon address a rally of five thousand people in Nice in the final days before the first-round election, and talking to ordinary people who said they were likely to vote for either of these two candidates, I often felt like I was listening to a French version of the Brexit and Trump campaigns, with many of the same fears about foreigners and globalization eroding the livelihoods of citizens.
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.