The Specter Facing Ukraine

Tim Judah
A rebel soldier guarding the ruins of the Savur-Mogila Memorial, September 6, 2014. The memorial, which commemorated the Soviet capture of a strategic hill near Snizhne in ­eastern Ukraine, was destroyed in fighting between Ukrainian and rebel forces in August 2014. According to Tim Judah, ‘journalists are told not to take pictures that show the faces of rebel fighters.’ For more of his photographs from eastern Ukraine, see the NYRgallery blog,

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. The main thing was that Ukrainian forces were on the offensive and winning back territory. They had had “considerable success” in retaking the rebel stronghold of Sloviansk on July 5; but now, stuck at the gates of rebel-held Donetsk and not wanting to turn it into “a Stalingrad,” the government, he said, “was realizing the limits of its current strategy.” Neither of us knew just how right he was.

When I left his office I called a Ukrainian army contact who wanted a journalist reporting for an American publication to come and see what his men were doing in the east. The next day he sent me a terse text message. It said: “Security situation is critical now. I cannot host you this week. Sorry.” It was August 27 and the time was exactly 1:00 PM.

I rang him up to try to persuade him to change his mind. Sounding stressed, he said he could not talk just then. A few weeks later everything became clear. He was in Ilovaysk in eastern Ukraine. On August 26 things had looked fine. The next day Ukrainian forces were surrounded and routed. He just managed to escape with his life but many did not. This defeat, here and elsewhere, meant that Ukraine had again turned into a different country. On September 5, President Petro Poroshenko authorized the signing of a cease-fire agreement in Minsk with rebel forces, which in reality meant with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. Yuriy Lutsenko, Poroshenko’s adviser, explained how it had come to this: “I saw refrigerated lorries with fragments of bodies.” They were the remains of Ukrainian government soldiers coming from the east.

Since then the cease-fire has proved perplexing. In most parts of the east the guns fell silent, but in Donetsk, fighting continued for the airport. The Ukrainians were inside it firing out, and rebel forces were outside firing in. Every few days the Russian media reported that the airport had fallen, but at least by mid-September it had not. Civilians who lived in the district nearby continued to die, but much of the rest of Donetsk, from which perhaps half the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.