Reflections from the Ukrainian front lines of 2017 and what's changed

REGIONAL AFFAIRS: A firsthand look at the complicated situation in 2017 provides clues to why an invasion today would be difficult for Moscow.

 THE AUTHOR (kneeling) with Ukrainian soldiers in 2017. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
THE AUTHOR (kneeling) with Ukrainian soldiers in 2017.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

I’ve been to Ukraine twice. The first time was in 2015 to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.

Western Ukraine is home to many of the Eastern European county's most staunch nationalists who have supported an independent line vis-à-vis Moscow for decades.

When I went to Lviv – which is a pretty city that seems to be, and is geographically closer to Vienna than it is to Moscow – posters of Ukrainians killed in the war against Russian-backed separatists festooned some of the buildings.

The war that had broken out in 2014, when protesters pushed out the pro-Russian Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovich, had already been going on for a year.

To understand the Ukraine that any Russian army would have to cross and invade, it is worth looking back at what happened between 2015 and 2017. The nation that has been formed in the last several years has a strong sense of purpose. With the US warning of imminent invasion, it’s worth learning a bit about what the country is like.

 Service members take part in military exercises held by the armed forces of Russia and Belarus at the Gozhsky training ground in the Grodno region, Belarus, in this handout photo released February 12, 2022.  (credit: LEONID SCHEGLOV/BELTA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS) Service members take part in military exercises held by the armed forces of Russia and Belarus at the Gozhsky training ground in the Grodno region, Belarus, in this handout photo released February 12, 2022. (credit: LEONID SCHEGLOV/BELTA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

I returned to Ukraine in 2017. It was early August and the days were sunny and beautiful. Kyiv is a pretty, lively city and combines the old Soviet-style brutalist apartments with modern elements. Ukraine is still sifting through Soviet history, removing monuments and statues, trying to reclaim a  nationalist history that is, in a sense, at the center of the current conflict.

ONE OF my first meetings in 2017 in Kyiv, prior to leaving for the front line, was with members of Right Sector, a right-wing movement that also has provided volunteers for the fighting against Russian separatists. It is one of many groups that form a milieu of Ukrainian nationalism that opposes Russian attempts to control Ukraine’s policies.

Without going into all the details of the 2014 conflict, suffice it to say that after the pro-Russian leader fled Kyiv, there were clashes between the Ukrainian army and Russian separatists. Volunteers from groups like Right Sector and others went to the front.

The Russian-backed separatists are themselves Ukrainian, so this had the makings of a civil war, but with a big Russian influence placing Moscow’s hands on the scales in eastern Ukraine.

Running battles in 2014 led to stalemate in 2015. Fighting led to a sort of ceasefire, such that large munitions like tanks were withdrawn from the front line, and clashes with small arms continued almost every day.

The front line was cemented around two self-declared republics, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. With a population of several million, these breakaway areas became new features on the map. Once-wealthy coal-mining country, they now became part of a depressing conflict. People fled, and shelling destroyed homes.

To get to this area, my colleague Jonathan Spyer and I went on a long train journey – of around 700 kilometers – that took all day, from Kyiv to Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine. This is a huge country. Any army trying to cross it from Russia has to contend with these vast expanses. 

WHEN WE arrived at the end of the train journey, we hired a driver to take us toward the front line. However, the actual front is another two-hour drive, and one needs permission to enter what Ukraine referred to at the time as the zone of “anti-terrorist operation” or ATO.

This is a huge swath of countryside that is a buffer between the separatist breakaway states and Ukraine. Civilians live in the ATO, but for journalists there are checkpoints, and permissions to proceed are necessary. The buffer extends dozens of kilometers from the front line. Obtaining permissions required some paperwork beforehand and then a visit to a local office of the military, where they give you a card and make sure you can pass where you need to.

With the permissions in hand and the driver, as well as a local fixer to help with meetings, we drove down to Marinka, a town on the front line near Donetsk.

While the season was very nice, this part of Ukraine lacks the resources and European feel one gets in Kyiv or Lviv. It feels more like a post-Soviet area, with simple shops and some old crumbling buildings, old concrete pedestals that once held statues of Lenin or other Soviet art.

There is an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe special monitoring mission for Ukraine, ostensibly monitoring the ceasefire, and we saw several of its white SUVs. For some reason every international organization has white SUVs – it seems like a requirement.

In the town of Marinka, the front line was a series of posts along a street, such that one row of houses at the end of town had become a war zone. The houses afforded protection so that the units on the front could walk along a street without being seen and then enter trenches just where the last house stood.

These were small, square homes, which once would have had cute yards and families living in them. Now they were deserted, and at least one home had become the living quarters for a local volunteer unit called the Donbas battalion.

MOST OF the men in the unit were veterans not only of fighting over the past years but also of the protests in 2013-2014.

For them, the war was a cause close to their hearts. They enjoyed each other’s company, and, like the Right Sector men, they also had nicknames.

One of the older volunteers was called Casper. He said that the job of their unit was not to attack or change the situation on the line, but just to stay in their positions. Nevertheless, the men didn’t believe in the ceasefire agreement, known as the Minsk Protocol. For them, there was fighting every evening, usually with rifles, but also, they said, the separatists used mortars, and Russian drones could be heard overhead. Their point was that while the world thought this conflict was over, it was very much happening every day.

We walked with the men down the street, now overgrown with grass, as nature was slowly taking back this part of town, to the trench line. Not much had changed here since the First World War type of fighting. This wasn’t the Second World War’s war of movement, like the Battle of Kursk, which took place near here, but rather an old-style conflict.

The trench was made with sandbags and a wooden roof. Through one bag a small hole had been made so you could see 200 meters to the position of the separatists. We didn’t see any of them, but the men guaranteed us that a house in the distance, amid a bunch of brush and overlooking what appeared to be a creek, was where the separatists were sitting. We were watching them, and they were watching us, the men said, but there would be no fighting until sundown.

Nearby, dug into the earth and covered in cement, was a hideout that could be used in case of artillery bombardment. The Donbas guys also had a macabre sense of humor and had draped a few pieces of with a black cloak and scythe of a grim reaper.

The volunteers said that in their last experience on the front line, a total of 160 days, some 52 of the enemy fighters had been killed in their sector. Considering the hundreds of kilometers of front – and we were seeing just a few of them here – that adds up to hundreds of casualties along the whole line. Clearly, this was an ongoing conflict.

That sense of conflict was confirmed not only by the shooting that broke out around sunset but also by our visit to a regular Ukrainian army unit over the next two days.

THE REGULAR army, unlike the Donbas volunteers, was a bit less cheerful, more like the workday life of regular soldiers.

We met first with the military spokesman of the 92nd Division. He said that in recent months, dozens of buildings had been damaged from shelling. He pulled from a stack of papers a long printed readout of every violation of the ceasefire, including notes on what type of weapon had been used. Of course, his job was to record the Russian separatist violations, not the violations by his own side. His point was that there is a huge amount of fighting taking place every day. Even if the casualties remain small, they adds up.

“Against the Russians, we feel real anger,” said one of the Donbas battalion volunteers, on our return to their house for the night. Sleeping arrangements were uncomfortable, with men sleeping in shifts on interconnected cots and beds, television blaring all night.

These are the soldiers that any Russian invasion would have to confront. While the Ukrainian army has been starved of resources since the 1990s, declining from a strength of some 850,000 in 1991 to 140,000 in 2015, reforms have changed the armed forces over the last several years.

One of the officers of this newly reformed army said that while Russia’s army is large, it is a “colossus with legs of clay.” He said in 2017 that if Russia wanted to invade Ukraine again, it would have to be willing to sacrifice a huge number of lives, like in a Second World War-style battle. 

“They are not ready to do that now and die here,” he said.