Way Station for War
Will the new cease-fire agreement bring peace to Ukraine? In Kiev, few see grounds for hope.
KIEV — On the second floor of Kiev’s central train station, in a cavernous waiting room full of red leather couches, Nina, a portly 57-year-old retiree, sat with all of her worldly belongings packed up in a mountain of bags at her feet. Nina (who didn’t want to share her last name) hails from Horlivka, a town in Donetsk Oblast that is now under rebel control, and it was her first time in Kiev. “Sitting around here, it looks like everything is fine, but over there people are getting their legs ripped off!” she said, looking wildly about the room where, just twelve days ago, Ukrainian authorities finally opened an advisory center to help displaced persons resettle.
Nina and her two children were evacuated from Horlivka in August, and have spent the past few months in Sloviansk. Last week, when she learned that her home in Horlivka had been destroyed in the fighting there, she decided to move her family as far away from the war as possible. Later that day, the three of them boarded a train to the western city of Chernivtsi, where they have no friends or relatives.
Of the 68 refugees from the East who arrived in the station on Tuesday, Nina and her family were among the luckier ones. Most of the others had only a few bags in tow, and a fair few bore the visible signs of shock, crying and shivering in their seats. Officers from the Ministry of Social Policy scurried about them, distributing informational pamphlets and administering psychological care. With ever more Ukrainians “voting with their feet,” either moving their families westward, or venturing east to join the fight, Kiev has become a way station for war.
A flurry of recent high-level diplomacy — culminating last night in a new cease-fire agreement hammered out after marathon negotiations in the Belarusian capital of Minsk — has brought no serious assurances of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The newspaper Ukrainska Pravda newspaper called the cease-fire deal, which goes into effect on February 15, a “dangerous agreement.” Among its other problems, the Minsk agreement fails to specify where the “truce line” lies — a sure sign of more fighting to come. Coming as it does on the heels of the previous Minsk agreement’s collapse (and that of so many other cease-fires before it), this latest imitation of peace is hardly inspiring. Already, more weaponry has been spotted entering Debaltseve, the latest hot spot in the fighting in the eastern Donbass region. More Ukrainians, both volunteers and regular soldiers, will soon be heading there to fight, too. (The photo above shows the Kiev funeral of a Russian volunteer who recently died fighting on the Ukrainian side.)
And so the grinding routine of war goes on. Across town from the train station, in a crumbling outpost of a nineteenth-century fortress, Tetiana Naumenko, 36, was waiting for the Ukrainian military to process her papers to go to the front. She submitted them three weeks ago, and expects approval to come through any day now. A former government administrator, Naumenko travelled to the East in the fall with one of the first caravans of supplies, an experience that made her realize just how urgently frontline units were in need logistical support. She plans to work just behind the front line as one of the “wives” of Ukrainian battalions, as female organizers at the front are sometimes called. They’re in charge of supplies and communication with the few remaining locals, whom they supply with leftover food from the army.
Naumenko is one of dozens of volunteers who have spent the last few months traveling to and from the war zone to keep Ukrainian soldiers equipped and fed. On Tuesday, she watched as a team of women finished weaving a white military net, to disguise tanks in the snow. Since August, women from the surrounding community have gathered in the fortress to sew sniper jackets, balaclavas, tank nets, and more. Back then, the nets were sewn from green cloth, not white: “We didn’t want to believe we’d be making winter ones,” said Veronika Blaschchuk, an architect who volunteers with Naumenko, told me. “There’s a so-called peace treaty, but no one is pleased with it, everyone is waiting to be attacked,” Blaschuk said. “It’s demoralizing. They are shelled every day, but they can’t respond.” As she finished her sentence, a jittery soldier who identified himself as “Shrek” arrived to pick up a new shipment of nets. “I’m an artist by trade,” he said. “I couldn’t even kill a fish. Now I draw with bullets.”
Even with the new cease-fire about to take effect, Ukrainian forces have been backed into a corner around the strategically crucial town of Debaltseve. “Advancing isn’t really an option,” Dmytro Myroshnychenko, a volunteer who returned to Kiev from the front lines on Tuesday evening, told me. “The commander showed me a map of the battle zone. They’re completely surrounded.”
This was Dmytro’s fifth trip to the front line to deliver supplies, and he barely made it to his destination, the temporary base of the 25th Battalion. “I don’t want to live in Russia,” he told me. “I’m 46 years old, I grew up in the Soviet Union, I know what it’s like. I didn’t intend to volunteer, because I fully understood that as soon as I would start providing logistical supplies as a volunteer, I wouldn’t have time for my business or my family. That’s exactly what happened.” His 8-year-old daughter gave him some 2,000 hryvnia ($75), her birthday earnings, to buy more supplies. “Putin has made a really big mistake, because our kids are completely different,” Dmytro said. “What we’re doing at the moment, it’s for them. When, at a birthday party for 8-year-olds, suddenly a child gets up on the sofa, puts her hand on her heart and starts singing the Ukrainian national anthem and asks the adults to do the same, it’s a completely different world. Even the evacuation from Debaltseve showed that ‘the Russian World’” — Putin’s ethnically charged term for Moscow’s self-defined sphere of interest — “is something the Donbass doesn’t want.”
The evacuation he was referring to took place over the weekend, as fighting worsened in Debaltseve. The separatist Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) sent 50 shiny coach buses to pick up civilians, while the Ukrainians sent 50 run-down marshrutkas, mini-buses. All of the Ukrainian buses were filled up, while just one and a half of the DNR buses were full, according to two people on the scene. “Voting with their feet,” Dmytro said.
He, along with everyone else I encountered in Kiev, strongly believes that the war would have ended long ago had the U.S. and Europe supplied lethal weapons to the Ukrainian army. “Now is the time for arms,” Maria Berlinska, a 26-year-old volunteer drone operator, told me over a beer at Kupidon, an underground cafe frequented by Kiev’s remaining intelligentsia. “Without them, we will lose the country.” Berlinska is a full-time graduate student in Jewish studies at Kyiv-Mohyla University, and looks the part, but she runs to the front line whenever someone calls to tell her that air reconnaissance is needed. She doesn’t want to register with the army, because then she wouldn’t be able to come and go between Kiev and Donetsk as she pleases. “My position doesn’t exist in the army, only volunteers do it,” she told me.
In July, volunteers first started delivering simple drones — the kind used for taking wedding photos, for example — and when Berlinska asked soldiers what they needed, they told her that more than boots or clothes, they needed someone to conduct aerial surveillance, so she taught herself how to do just that. The Russian fighters in the area use advanced drones that can travel 500 to 600 kilometers, which allows them to more accurately target Ukrainian positions. The ones Berlinska operates can travel no more than 20 kilometers. “They’re toys, but we don’t have enough toys,” she said. “We need drones because we can’t see who we’re fighting with. For now, the Ukrainian army is fighting blind.”
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Linda Kinstler is a writer based in Berkeley, California.