'Every Single Person Is Intimately Connected to This War': Jack Crosbie on His Return to Ukraine
'It is very different from what it was like three months ago.'
A few months ago, our own Jack Crosbie went to Ukraine. He was there when Russian forces rolled into the country, and lived through the first terrifying weeks following the invasion. Now, Crosbie has returned to Ukraine to report on what life is like for its people as the war, which recently passed the 100-day mark, enters a new, more grinding phase—and as the eyes of the world increasingly turn elsewhere.
I caught up with Cros on Monday, just after he had traveled across Ukraine from the capital, Kyiv, to the eastern city of Kramatorsk. We talked about why he went back, how things in Ukraine have changed since the outbreak of the war, and what might be coming next.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Hi Cros, how are you?
I'm all right. I'm a little bit tired. I drove for like 10 hours today.
That sounds like a long day. Where are you?
I am in Kramatorsk. That's a city in eastern Ukraine.
And where were you coming from?
Is this your first time out of the capital since you got there?
Yeah. I spent most of the first week trying to do the logistics for this trip that I was doing. I had to find a car rental that would allow me to take the car into the actual war zone, and then [find] a fixer to come with me, and [figure out] what stories I was going to do when I was down here. Things change every day here, so it's hard to keep contiguous story ideas together.
How was the journey from Kyiv to Kramatorsk?
It's a long drive. Parts of it are absolutely gorgeous, rural European views like— [interrupted] sorry about that, I'm back. My fixer was just outside with a bunch of French guys and apparently now the French guys have commissioned him to go on some mission across the city to drop their friend off or something. We're like an hour past curfew, which for journalists, we're allowed to break curfew if you have the military accreditation, but it's still not a great idea.
The curfew is what, 8? What time is it there?
It is just under 10. The curfew is 9 here.
Everybody has to be in their house?
Indoors. Nobody on the streets.
How do they enforce that curfew? Will you encounter soldiers or whatever?
I don't 100 percent know because I haven't been out past curfew really. I was out like five minutes past curfew in Kyiv last night—the curfew in Kyiv is 11—but even then, we passed a couple of patrols on the streets. I'm sure in Kramatorsk it's going to be super noticeable that you're out past curfew. But my fixer [is] language fluent. And I don't think the French guys have a native Russian speaker with them. So he can talk them through it.
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So this is one of the places where people mostly speak Russian rather than Ukrainian?
Yes. Although it's funny now, even a lot of the checkpoint guards are deliberately speaking Ukrainian when they walk up to you and not Russian. There's been a couple of stories about language schools cropping up for Ukrainians who are native Russian speakers to become more fluent in Ukrainian. There's a lot of Russian-speaking Ukrainians that are now trying to speak more Ukrainian than Russian because they don't want to be speaking the language of the invader.
How much of that is sort of renewed patriotism, and how much of it is safety? Or is it a combination of the two?
I would say it's probably like 90% renewed patriotism. Russian is still an accepted and spoken language everywhere in this country. If you're way out in western Ukraine, and you just walk up to someone and start speaking Russian to them, they'll just be like, oh, no, don't say hello in Russian, say hello in Ukrainian. But everyone still speaks Russian. I think people in the West try to tie the language directly to people's cultural sympathies and feelings of nationalism. And in my experience, at least, it's really not that. The feelings of nationalism are usually extremely personal. I've met native Russian speakers that are wildly pro-Ukrainian. They just happen to speak Russian. Someone's choice of language can be a political statement, but it isn't necessarily a political statement.
So how long has it been since you were first in Ukraine [this year]?
A little less than three months.
I know that you've been wanting to go back, but what made you decide to go back now?
It was a couple of things. A, it was timing. I'm getting married in October. And, you know, there's a lot to do with that. I also really wanted to get back out here as soon as possible because you can see the news cycle dying on this. You can just watch it dying. And part of that is due to the immense tragedies in the United States. We're in the middle of another extremely intense mass shooting news cycle, which is justified and warranted. But the news priorities are shifting, and they're shifting away from Ukraine.
The shape of this conflict is entering a [different] phase. We are entering the bloody, protracted drawn-out struggle part of this, which is, which is is not something that any news audience has ever really wanted to hear about. We didn't want to hear about the bloody protracted struggle in Iraq. We didn't want to hear about it in Afghanistan, and we don't want to hear about it in Ukraine. People love [following] an invasion. It doesn't matter who's doing it or why they're doing it, but someone invades someone, and everyone's gonna watch it and have very strong opinions about it. People don't like to think about the full gravity of war. That initial excitement and panic and fervor and intense attention dies down and then what you end up with is just thousands and thousands and thousands more people dying and in misery. So we are entering that part of the conflict.
I think I would have felt bad about my coverage of this issue and about what I wanted my work here to do if I had just sort of covered that initial [phase]. It feels exploitative to me. I want to do some kind of work that is able to encapsulate the reality that people here are going to face now. It is very different from what it was like three months ago.
Are you sensing that difference on the ground, in terms of how it feels to be there and what people are telling you?
I think there's a couple of really big divides. Obviously, there's a big divide between people in the rest of the world who are starting to lose interest in this and Ukrainians who are still very much invested in it. But there's also divides amongst Ukrainians as well, not ideologically, but just in how they're living. I spent 5 or 6 days in Kyiv. The city is still pretty empty, it's not normal per se, but bars and cafes are full every day. There's people at the majority of tables. The clothing shops are open. Barbershops are open—I got a haircut. But that reality is very different from the one that people in the part of the country that I'm in right now are experiencing. I think as the violence in Ukraine gets more—I don't know if I want to say localized, because the frontline is still enormous. But there isn't that direct push for Kyiv anymore, so Kyiv has very much been able to get back to some semblance of normal life in ways that this part of the country really has not. [Interrupted] OK, interesting. [My fixer] just got back and he was just like, there's a bunch of shooting in the street. AK-47s maybe one kilometer away. That's weird. [Ed. note: Cros reports that he talked to some cops on Tuesday morning who told him this might have been someone shooting at a drone.]
How intense is the fighting overall where you are?
Apparently maybe more intense than I thought. But no, I mean, Kramatorsk itself is, like, I think there were a couple of rocket attacks here. I don't want to get too deep into the gun weeds or whatever. Kramatorsk is not really in direct range, or effective range really, of the artillery systems. There's not regular shelling that is close to us. We're very much back from the frontlines.
You just went all the way across the country. And now you're in this completely different theater of the war. Does it feel totally different from Kyiv, like this is where the center of the war is?
I don't know about the center of the war. But Kramatorsk is like a ghost town. There's nobody on the streets. There's like one restaurant that's open. We showed up and it was only journalists and military guys eating in there. We [got] into town at around 5 p.m. and saw, driving through the entire city, maybe 20 pedestrians on the street, like a handful of people walking dogs and a few old people. You were very conscious that you were in a very different environment [from Kyiv].
We struck up a conversation with a soldier who was waiting in line for his barbecue at the barbecue place earlier. He was actually really interesting because he volunteered at the beginning of the war. But he told us that he's from Kramatorsk itself. So he was like— [Cros is informed that some of the guys outside think they can see a plane flying around.]
So, obviously, if you have to go at any point—
The likelihood of the first bomb of an airstrike campaign falling directly on the place where I am is very low. So it's fine. It's probably fine. Anyway, what was I saying?
You were talking about this person you met at the restaurant.
Yeah. So in terms of talking to civilians—he was a soldier, but also sort of a civilian, because he volunteered in March, and he is from Kramatorsk. So he was saying that he [lives] in an apartment building that has 36 different flats. And of those, 31 of them evacuated. So there's only five families or groups of tenants living in his building right now. As far as finding [other] people, we're just going to go to places that we know they're going to be. I want to get quotes from people at a main bus station in the city who are coming back into the city, which is a sort of important aspect of one of the stories that I'm trying to report out right now. A lot of people are being evacuated from the city, but others are coming back into the city because they can't afford to live as internally displaced people anymore. I'm interested to hear their points of view.
When you were in Kyiv, was there a main thing that people there were telling you about what the last three months have been like for them?
I didn't get any kind of overarching theme from talking to people about that. It's more so just that—before this most recent invasion, you could speak to people in Ukraine, and many of them would know someone who's in the military. A lot of them might even know someone who's in the military that died, like in Donbas. But a lot of people were relatively insulated from the war. It wasn't something at the forefront of their mind at all times. And I think now, every single person is intimately connected to this war. The guy who cut my hair, I was asking him, where are your parents? And he's like, “my mom lives down in [the] Kherson region, and she's under occupation right now.” And I [asked], did you try and get her out? He [said], “Yeah, I tried to convince her to leave, and she just kind of got mad at me and just stayed there. But she's a hairdresser, too. And now she has no one's hair to cut.” And it's just a huge amount of people, they just have to live with that. Everyone has stories like that.
You were mentioning earlier that you can feel the attention on Ukraine fading from outside the country. Is that playing out in terms of the number of journalists you see around you? Does it feel like you have this story slightly more to yourself than you did a few months ago?
No, no, the opposite. Journalistic saturation is always two to three months behind editorial priorities. It seems like a rule of foreign correspondence [that] the peak of when everyone will get there will be behind the ball. There's tons of journalists here and they're still covering it but you can just see the airtime that it's getting on the major U.S. networks at this point now, which [has] drastically declined. I think it's going to continue to fall off for everyone across the board.
One of the things that I've been wondering [and] worrying about is that it really does feel like there's no way out of this thing any time soon. Neither side has much of an incentive to move in any way that would bring the war to an end. What does it feel like to you?
The dynamic is relatively clear here. Any Ukrainian you ask will be furious if you mention whatever the Macron line was, like, “Don't humiliate Putin, we need to give him an offramp,” which, intellectually, maybe I sort of understand. Like I'm not sure if Russia is going to come to the table for any kind of negotiated settlement unless it feels like it can declare some kind of victory or whatever. But at the same time, agreeing to anything like that is completely politically not feasible inside Ukraine. There's zero will. I think it's been proven repeatedly at this point that if Russia has the capabilities to act aggressively against Ukraine, it is going to, so there isn't going to be a ceasefire. Which is a horrible place to be, and it means that basically, the only likely outcome is a continuation of incredibly bloody violence.
So obviously, it's impossible to know how long this will last. But what's your sense of how long this nightmare is going to go on?
I don't really know. The answer to this question depends on a couple of variables that we don't have super clear projections on, which is essentially how strong Russia's military actually still is. I think the common wisdom is, yes, they have royally stepped on a bajillion different rakes, but they have a whole bunch more left in the tank. So what does that mean? Months, definitely. Years? Probably. I can see Ukrainians maybe agreeing to some kind of negotiated ceasefire settlement if they push the Russians all the way back to the 2014 lines. Maybe there'll be an opportunity for some kind of ceasefire there. I don't know if they're going to be able to do that. And I don't know even if [they did push Russia back] if there would be political will for it. It's unclear. But it is pretty clear that the lightning-fast phase has come to an end. There will not be any more lightning-fast Russian invasions.
So you're there for another week or so. You're headed further into the most intense fighting, correct?
No, I'm not throwing myself into the frontline. I'm basing myself out of Kramatorsk, which is adjacent to areas that are experiencing direct fighting. But I'm not doing frontline stuff.
Okay, good. You're doing safer things. That's always nice to hear from my perspective. Do you think this is going to be your last trip to Ukraine this year, or do you think you're going to go back at some point?
I don't want to make definitive promises, but I am reasonably confident this will be my last trip this year, barring a major change in the shape of the story.
How does that feel?
I don't know. Ask me in a week.
This blog is part of our interview series, Discourses. To read all of our interviews, click here.