When the war in eastern Ukraine broke out last year, I suddenly became something of a gatekeeper for untarnished information about what’s really happening in my country of origin.
Upon learning that I’m Ukrainian, strangers pelted me with inquiries about the war, curious about my sentiments towards Russians and separatists. They wanted to know what Russian-language publications were saying, and what the latest news was from family and friends back home.
In recent months, however, that curiosity here in the U.S. has tapered off. Replacing questions about Ukrainian-Russian relations are quick wishes for my family’s safety.
But with an estimated 5.2 million people living in the war-zone, our eyes should focus on eastern Ukraine more than ever.
The Minsk Peace Summit
After 16 hours of negotiations last Wednesday night, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko reached a ceasefire agreement in Minsk, Belarus with the help of French and German mediation.
The ceasefire, which began on Sunday, calls for both sides to release all hostages, withdraw heavy weapons, and increase the range of the buffer zone. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) will supervise the removal of all foreign soldiers and weapons from Ukraine. The agreement gives way for Ukraine to regain full control of its eastern border so long as Donetsk and Luhansk can hold local elections. Constitutional reform, with a strong emphasis on decentralization, must take place before the end of 2015.
A similar ceasefire agreement from September 2014 held for little over a day.
On Sunday, it became clear that pro-Russian rebels did not and would not observe the ceasefire in Debaltseve, where they’ve encircled the Ukrainian army. With five Ukrainian troops dead and another 25 wounded, the new truce already seems to be on the brink of collapse.
Brothers in Arms
At 6:30 p.m. last Wednesday, a group of 30 gathered in a building on the Microsoft Campus to watch several episodes from a documentary titled Brothers in Arms: Stories from the Russian-Ukrainian War. A collection of interviews from soldiers, residents, and volunteers, the documentary was filmed at the front lines between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces in 2014.
“The initial idea was to make a film that did not have any political or ideological agenda,” said filmmaker Constantin Mohilnik. “But this appeared to be impossible.”
Mohilnik was joined by producer and translator Yaroslav Ovsiienko; the two men are traveling across the U.S. to spread the word about their film, having already shown it at the Kennan Institute and Columbia University.
“Ukraine was a totally peaceful country, and Russia seemed this way too,” said Mohilnik. “Then suddenly, in only a couple of months, hundreds of thousands of people raised and volunteered to kill each other from both sides — and this is a big mystery to me.”
On Mortar Shells
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5,486 — that’s the number of people killed in the war since April 2014, according to the U.N. On January 15, the separatists seized Donetsk airport, a symbolic stronghold. Over the span of six days, from January 31 to February 5, 263 civilians lost their lives due to fighting in populated areas. Another 674 were wounded.
Since the beginning of the conflict, both separatists and Ukrainian forces have been accused of shelling civilian areas. In one scene from Brothers in Arms, a man from a small town near Donetsk brings the remains of a shell from his apartment — it was manufactured in Russia, said Mohilnik. Others who were captured on video winced at the sound of shells landing in the distance and explained that they had no choice but to spend every night in their basements.
“I’m not going to tell you anything for television on camera, because what’s going on here is not for television,” a woman from the town told filmmakers.
Though Russian leaders consistently deny supplying weapons to separatist regimes, the rebels have more advanced weapons and higher-quality tanks than the Ukrainian government. PKP machine guns, VSS sniper rifles, and ASVK recoilless rifles — all weapons used by separatists in Donbass — have never been available to the Ukrainian army, which many describe as being under-supplied for modern warfare. On the other hand, these weapons are widely used by the Russian army.
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The Two Kinds of Russian Soldiers
According to Mohilnik’s experience, the Donbass front is populated by at least two types of Russian combatants. The first, whom he calls “vocational” soldiers, receive a small sum of money to fight in the region for a few months. The second, highly-trained military specialists from Russia, reportedly began appearing in Donetsk in mid-August of last year. Based on his communications with prisoners of war from the Donetsk People’s Republic, Mohilnik says these individuals are not only training rebels, but running the separatist armies.
Though he cannot attest to the exact chains-of-commands, Mohilnik says it’s clear these soldiers are being controlled from the Russian side. When captured, many of them disclose their Russian nationality, and a number of circulating videos capture these confessions.
PTSD and the Equites Fund
In addition to filming Brothers in Arms, Mohilnik and Ovisenko have helped establish the Equites Fund, a humanitarian and cultural fund which provides food, housing, and medical assistance to people displaced by the war. According to figures from a recent U.N. report, there are 978,482 registered internally displaced people in Ukraine. Many more are unable to leave their war-torn villages and towns from fear and lack of financial resources.
For their upcoming project, Mohilnik and Ovisenko are working alongside psychologists and psychiatrists to build Ukraine’s first center for the rehabilitation and socialization of PTSD victims. Having avoided warfare since World War II, Ukraine lacks the resources to treat soldiers with psychological trauma.
“Many of the people who come back from war are unable to return to a normal, peaceful life” said Mohilnik. “Some people join gangs, other turn to drugs, and for the majority this story does not end well.”
Russian Media and the “Tsunami of Hate”
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Despite a withering economy and world criticism, Putin’s approval rating has increased to 73 percent from 46 percent just last year. With 70 percent of Russians watching national television on a daily basis, propaganda seems to propel much of this state approval.
According to Ivan Zhillin, a journalist for Novaya Gazeta, the Kremlin uses media to send messages of exceptionality, vilify Ukraine, and shape ideological agendas through the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. He recalled a story about a female refugee who claimed her three-year-old son was crucified by Ukrainian soldiers in Slovyansk because the father was a separatist. The story, which ran on Russian media Channel 1, quickly fell apart, though broadcasters never retracted it.
But despite the climate of war and increasing feelings of ethnic distinction, many still consider Russia and Ukraine to be blood nations.
“The tsunami of hate between our nations was raised by oligarchs and politicians,” said Gennadiy Mokhenko, a pastor from Mariupol and head of the Pilgrim charity fund, in a segment of Brothers in Arms. “I love both Russians and Ukrainians.”
Regardless of where the blame lies, one thing is clear to me: these countries are at war. While the media skirts around the “w” word, emphasizing terms like “conflict” and “crisis” in its place, Russians and Ukrainians are dying.
For Americans, media fatigue and geographic distance cannot justify disinterest when the loss of real human lives are concerned. The outcome of this fight will have implications for the entire world.
Right now, it’s a time bomb.