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What Comes Next For Ukraine
The uncertainty is crushing for ordinary Ukrainians.
The first time I went to Ukraine in order to cover a war and embark on a new career as a journalist focusing on foreign conflict and crises, it was pretty easy.
The conflict had fairly set rules, parameters, and boundaries. You could take a train from Kyiv to the city of Kramatorsk, in the eastern Donetsk oblast, and from there hire a driver who could take you either to villages near the front lines or, at least in mid-2015, through the front lines and into Donetsk, the crown jewel of Russia's separatist proxy forces in the region. I did all of those things, mostly staying in an apartment in Kyiv while taking weekend or week-long trips out to the front line, as well as spending a six-week stint living in Donetsk itself, on the separatist side of the contact line.
The violence and uncertainty of the early, chaotic days of the war were largely over: the story myself and other journalists found ourselves covering was the slow transition of Ukraine's bloody war with Russian proxies into yet another frozen conflict over disputed land. It had precedent: South Ossetia, Transnistria, Nagorno Karabakh. After a while, editors got bored, and the assignments in Ukraine dried up, as the majority of foreign journalism's transient population of correspondents moved on to cover the Mediterranean refugee crisis and then the war with ISIS.
In Ukraine, people were still dying, often daily. They were largely soldiers or civilians left behind in the grey areas between the front lines or just on either side of them. Sometimes farmers lost arms or legs when their plows hit an unexploded shell, fired hours or days or months before by one side or the other. But that was within the rules, the arbitrary guidelines for violence that both parties agreed upon and sort-of abided by for more than seven years.
Now, there are no rules. What happens next in Ukraine? I have no idea. Anyone who says they do is lying to you. The U.S. government has intelligence assessments that are probably accurate in many ways, but that they've also been lying about whenever it serves them. The Russian government doesn't even pretend to have a concept of truth or transparency and so anything they say can be basically rejected out of hand, and anyway I suspect most of them don't really know what's going on either. The realities of the situation in Ukraine have realistically not changed a whole lot in the week and change that I have been here: Russia has a massive army on three borders with Ukraine and has given several indications that they want to use it. They are officially or unofficially occupying a significant region of the country through their proxy forces in the semi-autonomous Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic. At basically any point, they could decide to seize or destroy some or all of the country at will.
In short, this is all very stressful, and I don't even live here. I'm just here to cover a war, like I was the first time, with the lofty goal of hopefully in some tiny way emphasizing how bad war is for everyone involved. That sounds intensely stupid when you write it out, but it's the truth.
But unlike prior phases of the conflict in Ukraine—and unlike many wars which eventually settle into consistent front lines—this one could rip apart millions of lives almost instantly on a scale that I cannot personally conceive of, because there are so many ways it could play out and so many ways it could go wrong and very, very few ways that it could go right for people who live here and just want to go to work and maybe get some ice cream at the store on the way home. In Ukraine, they sell ice cream in big plastic wrapped tubes, like sausage or ground beef from Costco, and I want to buy one and open up the top and just squeeze it into my mouth every time I go to the store. But it's only around 35 degrees here, normally, so I don't.
Still, this is not about me. There is nothing worse, in my opinion, than going to a war in a country that you don't live in and making it all about you. I'm writing this instead to give a little bit of context into how it must feel for the millions of people who live in Ukraine, especially those who are already directly experiencing the war every day. The ambiguity and stress is crushing. There are only so many ways to deal with it. One is to let it consume you by staying hooked to the news and constantly running through scenarios to get out and save yourself or fight back. The other is to basically turn it off, to not think about it, to go about your daily life. This is largely what most Ukrainians have chosen, but the problem is that it never fully works, and there will always be that undercurrent of stress running through you. I don't think that's something that many Americans can really understand. Maybe for a bit after 9/11 if you lived in NYC, or if you are a person who lives on the extreme disenfranchised fringes of our society, where you constantly and intimately deal with the structural violence that America inflicts on its most vulnerable. That is what it is like in Ukraine right now, for the most part. People are still going to work. I hope they get to get up again tomorrow and do it again.