The honey was delicious. The beekeeper and I ate it by the spoonful, scooping it out of a chipped porcelain bowl alongside swigs from a dusty bottle of moonshine he kept hidden under a pile of crumpled newsprint in the cold, crumbling hearth. A swallow flitted around our heads, darting in and out of the house. In through the broken window. Out through the gaping hole where the north wall had been blown away by a tank shell a few months before.
I met the beekeeper in the summer of 2015, a few weeks after arriving in Ukraine for the first time. He lived in a tiny town called Nikishyne, in Ukraine’s far-east Donbass region. What happened there was very simple.
Nikishyne sits on either side of a narrow two-lane road that connects directly to the E50 highway five miles to its north. The E50, in turn, slices through the Donbass in a direct line from the Russian border to the city of Debaltseve, a major rail hub whose tracks cobweb out across the region. In late 2014, separatist forces backed by Russia started a push for Debaltseve, slowly encircling the city, which was still controlled by the government. Nikishyne, just seven and a half miles southeast from Debaltseve, got in the way. Government forces took up positions along the road in the north of town. Separatists took up positions in the south. And then they fought, for months. Artillery leveled houses on both sides as soldiers fought through kitchens and dining rooms, up and down the town’s main road. When I visited months later, we were warned not to stray too far from the pavement or pick through debris, as the soldiers had left unexploded munitions, mines, and booby traps behind. Miraculously, the beekeeper told me, most of his hives had survived. One was hit by shrapnel, but the rest were still good, and the happy bees were hard at work pollinating a lush vegetable garden growing in and among the rubble behind what remained of his house.
There are towns like Nikishyne all over eastern Ukraine. In 2014, shortly after annexing the southern port territory of Crimea from Ukraine, Russian forces covertly invaded the country in order to prop up a budding separatist movement in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, which make up the majority of the Donbass region. Separatist forces fought bitterly with the Ukrainian government over territory in the Donbass for much of 2014 and early 2015, before largely falling into a protracted, but bloody stalemate. For the past seven years, the two sides have lobbed sporadic artillery shells and sniper bullets at each other while their governments haggled over terms in a series of international summits. At the end of 2021, the Russian government began deploying large numbers of troops to bases close to the Ukrainian border, as well as sending thousands to training exercises in neighboring Belarus, raising widespread fears that Russian president Vladimir Putin was planning a new invasion of the country in order to exert more pressure on both its government and that of the United States.
There’s still time to avert further conflict, but the consensus among analysts is that a major Russian incursion into Ukraine — whether through the already-ravaged Donbass or into previously untouched regions, perhaps even the capital — is more likely than not.
There are two main kinds of news stories about the crisis. There are stories from the front lines, in which journalists visit the fighting going on in the east of the country, and refresh the world on a situation that has not changed much in roughly seven years. In 2015, I spent a week living in a trench in a town called Pisky, which is now the center of The New York Times Magazine’s latest look at conditions on the front line, which are largely unchanged since I was there. The second kind of story is far more prevalent: strategic analysis, bylined by Washington correspondents and national-security reporters, who bring grim tidings of the status of negotiations between superpowers, relaying soundbites from diplomats and citing sources who cannot speak on the record about the various “intelligence assessments.”
What both of these stories often miss is who will pay the cost of any new war. Front-line stories sometimes hint at the costs of the war on the people who lived through it, but invariably center on the experiences of soldiers, the most readily accessible and dramatically compelling subjects on embeds. Strategic stories, meanwhile, treat the entire region — sometimes literally — as if it is a chessboard, layering economic analysis and strategic jargon about “spheres of influence” over speculation as to the whims and temperament of various world leaders.
These stories have become extremely easy to swallow. In America, decades of marketing by the arms industry and careful propaganda by the government have deluded many of us into thinking that violence is a tool that can be precisely applied to evildoers. Years of diligent reporting on the disastrous effects of U.S. wars abroad have proved that this is false, that when two countries or groups go to war, it is mostly bystanders who suffer. And yet when a new conflict rears its head, the delusion always comes back, because the grander goals of the world’s political elite are much easier to undestand when you ignore all the people murdered in their name. In Ukraine, failure is portrayed as a “breakdown of negotiations,” or some strategic change in which the Russian military encircles major cities in order to “pressure” or “influence” the U.S. or Ukrainian government to make concessions in neatly written treaties.
This is not what will happen. That is not how war works. What will happen is Nikishyne, over and over and over again — more tank shells through living rooms, more mortars in back gardens.
Since 2014, more than 14,000 people, including 3,300 civilians, have died in the conflict, according to the United Nations. The fighting has also displaced an estimated 1.4 million people, who have fled their homes or moved elsewhere to escape danger along the front lines. The people who are left, particularly in the semiautonomous areas controlled by the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, are “folks who really had nowhere else to go,” according to Andrew Lohsen, a fellow at the Center for Strategic International Studies. Prior to joining CSIS, Lohsen spent five years as a monitoring officer and analyst for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the intergovernmental organization that monitors the conflict in Ukraine.
“If you look at Donetsk itself, what you’ll see is a hollowed out city,” Lohsen told Rolling Stone in an interview. “What was striking is how many people were there for purely economic reasons — folks who had tried to leave but who couldn’t find work or affordable housing or had to look after a family member.”
The Donbass is rapidly becoming one of the most-mined areas of the world, as both sides litter areas surrounding their positions with landmines and improvised booby traps, while unexploded shells and rockets sprout from asphalt and flowerbeds around them. Dozens of civilians are killed or wounded each year from these hazards, many of them children. During Russia’s five-day invasion of Georgia in 2008, which was also preceded by a simmering border war in a semi-autonomous separatist region, more than 160,000 people were forced to flee their homes, and the aftermath of the conflict saw widespread looting, arson, and sectarian violence, according to Amnesty International.
“Unfortunately, for eight years people have become accustomed to this impending threat,” said Yulia Didenko, a journalist who grew up in Donbass and now lives in Mariupol, a port city close to the front line. “We live with the understanding that the front line is less than 20 kilometers from us, and some kind of provocation or strike can occur at any moment.”
That may sound like nonchalance, but Didenko and everyone living in Donbass know the real cost of war. They know that if the haggling sides in Moscow and Washington do not find a way out, a lot of old people who cannot flee their apartment buildings in the middle of the winter will die. They know that the war will cut power and water and internet to those buildings, drop bombs on beehives, and force millions of people to suffer in the bureaucracy of violence that follows immediate hostility. There is no moral solution to this crisis that does not take that into account, that does not place the prevention of new violence at the forefront of all other priorities. As it stands, “humanitarian assistance” is seventh on a U.S. Embassy list of aid priorities to Ukraine. It states that it has devoted $246 million to humanitarian-aid programs out of more than $3.7 billion in total aid.
If Washington’s or Moscow’s negotiators wanted to actually help the people of Ukraine, of course, they could advocate for simple, tangible things: increased access and funding for humanitarian groups like the ICRC, restoration of damaged infrastructure, more freedom of movement in the region, commitments to pay pensioners. Didenko told Rolling Stone that on the current front lines in Donbass, there are only two border-crossing points into separatist-held territory, only one of which operates every day. The barriers to entry between government and separatist-held territory only serve to further isolate civilians on both sides of the line from their families, complicating administrative tasks and placing more civilians at risk as they try to navigate contested areas in transit.
“At this point in the conflict, folks just want to have some stability in their lives — some degree of opportunity to improve things for their families,” Lohsen said. “I think for a lot of the folks in Donbass it’s really clear that it’s not going to happen for them.”
It’s clear in places like Donetsk and Nikishyne by now that small, quality-of-life improvements are largely immaterial to the great powers’ wider game of “global security.” This game is important, insofar that “global security” relates to creating circumstances that will maximize peace and prosperity across the world. But half of the time, it doesn’t seem like that’s what’s on the table. We’re told that payments, positioning, and aid are geopolitical moves; but for people living in Ukraine, they are part of daily life. A troop buildup along the front means a family member might need to move again. A closed checkpoint means food or money or Christmas gifts may not get through. On one trip in the summer of 2015, a firefight shut down the main border crossing between Mariupol and Donetsk, forcing our driver to detour for hours, searching for another way through. As the day stretched on, he told me that we had to turn back and find a hotel with a refrigerator. His trunk was full of raw chicken. Any longer on the road, and it would spoil before it could reach his family on the other side.
For the past month, analysts, diplomats, and politicians on both sides have been arguing fiercely over the best choice of action — not to end the crisis, but to extract what they want from it. Few of their plans seem concerned with the material impact they will cause. There are sections of the right who want to put American boots on the ground in Ukraine as soon as possible. There are sections of the left who are convinced that Russia’s claim to the country is justified, and that its takeover of Ukraine will make the whole region more stable. Both of these opinions are flawed and dangerous, not only to the analysts’ precious “security paradigm,” but to the millions of people living in a country that could be torn even further apart by one diplomatic misstep. And they all buy into the myth that violence can be judiciously applied, that a new invasion by Russia or a new intervention by Western powers will bring anything but pain.
On one of the last evenings I spent in Pisky, Ukrainian soldiers led me and my reporting partner away from the trenches and into the town itself, where an old couple welcomed us into their home for tea. We left our body armor at the door, despite the low thumps of artillery in the distance, because it seemed rude to bring that small reminder of violence into their kitchen. Anatoliy and Svetlana, as they introduced themselves, had been married for 46 years, and had spent the entire war thus far in their house in Pisky with their cat Murko. After tea gave way to sweet plum brandy, and dusk fell, they showed us out through their small garden. In front of the house, they had sketched a message in blue chalk on the metal door of their garage. It read “PEOPLE LIVE HERE. AND CAT MURKO.” It was both a reminder and a plea, one that has not changed in eight years of war. People live in Ukraine. They are not expendable. Their beehives and gardens and cats and lives are not tokens to be exchanged in boardrooms by men in suits. Any strategic article about the crisis will tell you that the threat of war is still very much on the table, and growing every day. If the men in suits decide to use that threat, the least we can do is not once again fall for the lie that more death and pain was inevitable, or that the blood is on someone else’s hands.