Field journalist David Patrikarakos, frequently on the front lines of Ukraine, wrote this reflection while in Kiev on February 16, 2015.
Almost a year ago today, Ukraine’s former President Viktor Yanukovych ordered snipers stationed on the upper floors of the Hotel Ukraine in Kiev to open fire on the thousands of protestors that had gathered on Independence Square and its surrounding streets below.
The resulting deaths marked perhaps the beginning of Ukraine’s war, though no one then knew how devastating it would become. It is an all-too-typical irony that its one-year anniversary is being marked with a ‘ceasefire’ more honoured in the breach than in the observance. The latest ceasefire was agreed in Minsk last Friday, and was reportedly repeatedly violated less than 24 hours after it came into effect at midnight on 15 February.
If you wanted to sum up the war in a single image it would be this: artillery firing at the precise moment that politicians grandly announce at a “cessation in hostilities.” I was there last April when separatists (helped by ‘little green men’) first took over government buildings in the eastern towns of Donetsk, Lugansk and Slavyansk. In each town and city the disconnect between those in the east — who lectured me on government conspiracies against Russian-speakers they had imbibed from Russian TV — and the reality of life in Kiev — where Russian enjoys, at the least, equal status with Ukrainian as the lingua franca — was not just disconcerting, it was frightening.
Fast forward mere months as I sat and listened to the new Donetsk People’s Republic Public Prosecutor, who had been “invited” from Moscow, grandly tell me about the new law enforcement measures he was drawing up for the city. It would, he assured me, bring more order to the city. Meanwhile, it seemed as if the very worst of eastern society had joined the rag-tag separatist militia present throughout the city.
As 2014 closed I spent time traveling throughout the “Anti Terror Operation” Zone in eastern Ukraine where I witnessed the harsh and basic conditions that soldiers faced, with outdated equipment, as they fought a 21st century conflict against an enemy that had not declared war and refused to reveal itself. An enemy that, moreover, they could not quite identify, and who seemed determined not to defeat them but to destabilize Ukraine to the point of paralysis. Soldiers told me that they were sure they were fighting Russians, or at the least Russian-trained forces, but no one was sure how many were present and the exact extent of their involvement. Meanwhile, their failing leaders said the war was now under control while in reality it was left to Ukrainian volunteers to supply them with basic necessities that the state couldn’t provide.
At every stage of this war truth has been strangled by its attendant bodyguard of lies. From the Kremlin to Debaltsevo and Donetsk, the lines between fact and fiction are no longer distinguishable. Nobody seems to know what is real and what is not, and what is worse, nobody seems to care any longer.