icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
A member of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic forces stands guard at a checkpoint at the frontline with the Ukrainian armed forces near the town of Avdiivka, outside Donetsk, Ukraine, 17 March 2016. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Ukraine: The Line

The 500km line of separation between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatist rebels suffers heavy daily violations of the ceasefire agreed in Minsk in 2015. Escalation is possible, and the status quo risks a political backlash against the Kyiv government and no way out of sanctions for Moscow. All sides should pull back heavy weapons from front lines, take responsibility for civilians trapped there, and return to other steps toward peace set out in Minsk.

I. Overview

The 500km line of separation between Russian-supported separatist districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and the rest of Ukraine is not fit for purpose. The ceasefire negotiated at the February 2015 Minsk talks is being violated daily and heavily. Tens of thousands of well-armed troops confront each other in densely populated civilian areas. The sides are so close that even light infantry weapons can cause substantial damage, let alone the heavy weapons they regularly use. This presents major risks to civilians who still live there – about 100,000 on the Ukrainian side alone, according to an unofficial estimate – often next door to troops who have taken over unoccupied houses. It also heightens the risk of an escalation. Kyiv, Moscow and the separatists all bear responsibility for the security and well-being of civilians living along the front line.

Likewise, Kyiv’s European allies, Washington and Moscow all have crucial roles to play in addressing the overall situation. They should insist that both sides withdraw their heavy weapons, as Minsk requires, from the front line to storage areas monitored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). They should also press their respective allies – the Ukrainian government on one side, and the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (DNR and LNR) on the other – to separate troops from civilians and to substantially widen the line of separation. Russia’s role in this is vital. It insists it is not a party to the conflict, but its military intervention in early 2014 triggered the crisis; two major incursions by its armed forces in 2014 and 2015 deepened it; and it is now the sole source of military, economic and other assistance to the two entities. Its officers train and largely command the separatist forces, and it continues to assure the separatists that it will intervene again if Ukraine attacks. Given Russia’s continued role in the conflict, international sanctions need to be maintained.

There is little doubt that the death toll is significantly higher than either side admits. Fighting takes place daily along large parts of the line, much of it unreported. Both sides often use howitzers, heavy mortars and rocket systems or park them menacingly in the centre of large urban areas where they risk at the least becoming targets for the other’s artillery. The Minsk agreement to withdraw heavy weaponry, meanwhile, is violated daily.

Both sides should take urgent measures to address the security and humanitarian, including health, needs of the civilians stranded along the front line. Troops and military equipment should be moved out of civilian buildings and settlements. It would be helpful if the OSCE, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) specifically identified in their public monitoring reports those locations where civilians and military are intermingled. Ukraine also urgently needs to address the humanitarian fallout of the conflict, including clear signs of psychiatric distress in front-line villages. If it is unable to do this, an experienced international organisation like Doctors without Borders should be encouraged to survey the needs. And the Ukrainian government should order local civil administrators, most of whom seem to have abandoned settlements on the front line, to return to work and at least be in contact with the population concerned.

The humanitarian crisis on the front line is also a political one. President Poro­shen­ko’s poll ratings in the east, including those areas Kyiv controls, have declined substantially. One oft-cited reason is the sense that the country’s leadership is not interested in the east. Ukraine, whose sovereignty over the occupied territories is internationally recognised, needs to take the lead in addressing these problems. Doing so would not be a sign of weakness, as some Ukrainian voices argue, or imply equal guilt with Moscow for the damage inflicted by the conflict. On the contrary, it would be proof that Kyiv was acting as a legitimate and responsible member of the international community that cares for the well-being of all its citizens.

The government-controlled areas of the two oblasts are also the stronghold of one of Ukraine’s main opposition parties, the Opposition Bloc. Widely described as pro-Russian and oligarch-funded, the Bloc is running nationwide ahead or neck and neck with the president’s party in many polls. Failure to help its own citizens on the border thus could well have political cost for the Kyiv leadership and fuel conflict by strengthening anti-government feelings in Luhansk and Donetsk.

This briefing, based on travels along the Kyiv-controlled side of the line of separation in April-May 2016, focuses on the intermingling of civilians and military in front-line areas on the Ukrainian side. It also surveys the views and outlook of Ukrainian military officers stationed along the front line. The officers are younger and more confident than those encountered two years ago. But their opinions were bitingly critical of the country’s political and military leadership, including President Petro Poroshenko. The president and other top leaders would be well advised to pay more attention to the mood of what is in essence the next generation of Ukrainian military commanders. All officers interviewed described the Minsk process as dead and strongly supported the idea, floated by some leading politicians, to seal off the separatist enclaves for the foreseeable future – a policy move the international community should caution against in no uncertain terms. 

II. Home on the Front

A. Elusive Statistics

Government officials in Kyiv and in the east were unable to provide figures for the number of civilians still living in the many villages and settlements that are now part of the front line. Staff of the Agency for the Restoration of Donbas, the very theoretical government lead for work in the east, said they knew of no consolidated data. The Donetsk governor’s office, Donetsk police, internal affairs ministry and state statistical service, among others, were unable to provide up-to-date figures. 

Enquiries to local military or civil administrators in the combat zones yielded some estimates: 10,000 highly vulnerable in the Luhansk district of Popasna; 1,500 in the industrial town of Avdiivka, whose suburbs are part of the front line; a substantial portion of the population of Marinka, a small front-line town with a pre-war population of over 9,000; and 1,500 out of a village of 3,000 in a position close to Mariupol. The UN Humanitarian Response Plan for 2016 estimates the civilian population in Ukrainian-controlled front-line areas at 200,000. Other specialised international organisations feel this may be an overstatement. Given a pre-war population of approximately 230,000 in these areas of Luhansk and Donetsk, it seems reasonable to assume that the most at-risk population – those living in government-controlled areas where front-line military units are based, and which are frequently subject to attacks – number around 100,000. 

Crisis Group was not able to conduct research on the separatist side of the front, as access to much of the separatist-controlled territory is becoming increasingly difficult. However, earlier visits to the self-proclaimed People’s Republics and reports from major international organisations leave no doubt that the intermingling of civilians and military is also prevalent there.

There is no distinction between military positions and civilian dwellings in many front-line settlements. Combat units are embedded in villages, usually scattered in houses beside civilian dwellings. In Marinka, a town just beyond the western edge of Donetsk city, many civilians still live in Matrosova Street, once a quiet area of pleasant small houses and large gardens. Military units now occupy abandoned houses, and the beginning of the front line is marked by a heavy machine gun position on the street corner. Separatist positions are 150 metres or less away. During firefights, which usually happen at night and are frequent, casualties are evacuated along Matrosova and parallel streets. An officer who coordinated casualty evacuations noted that he preferred to use small passenger cars rather than ambulances, as those drew heavy incoming fire that left civilians “pretty scared”.

In the hamlet of Zaitseve, military armour pokes out of the bushes, and visitors observed fresh craters from a 152mm howitzer and an 82mm mortar on the edge of a newly tilled vegetable plot. Local people said the shells had dropped short of a military position. On Kirova Street in Avdiivka, a Ukrainian military observation post is on high ground behind residents’ gardens. Just across the road, troops occupy houses, one of which had been seriously damaged in fighting a few weeks earlier. The front line is only 50 to 100 metres away. 

B. Those Who Stay

Those who remain in the front-line area usually have nowhere else to go or lack the means to leave. They are more likely women than men, are often pensioners and sometimes have to care for family members too infirm to leave. Moving requires considerably more financial outlay than pensioners can afford. A one-bedroom apartment in Kramatorsk, the temporary seat of the Ukrainian government’s Donetsk regional administration, costs approximately 1,500 hryvnia ($60) per month, about three quarters of a monthly pension. Utilities would add substantially to this. With schools closed or on the other side of the line and mines everywhere, families have usually left or sent children to relatives. Schools and health facilities in Horlivka, some 15km from the front, used to service a significant part of the area, but the large industrial town is now on the separatist side of the front, a strategic part of the defences of Donetsk city and frequently subject to shelling and attacks. 

Few if any civilian males of military age have stayed – not surprisingly given military suspicions that locals are separatist sympathisers (see below). Often one person, usually a woman, has remained to ensure that the family home is not sequestered by the military or damaged. The military takeover of temporarily uninhabited homes and other buildings seems ad hoc and arbitrary. In many places, the houses have become billets for small units or fire positions. As a soldier explained, a house is more comfortable to live in than a trench. In some places, residents have protested, usually with little success. 

People living along the front line have drastically simplified their daily routine. Most sleep in cellars for all or part of the night, remaining close to their house and shelter through late morning. Firing usually tapers off around noon or early afternoon, before residents edge closer to shelters. Work prospects in the villages have largely disappeared. Those previously employed outside them are unable to travel, most local mines are closed, and farming has become dangerous.

The front line has cut through some of eastern Europe’s richest farmland and vegetable gardens, bringing agriculture to a halt in most places and making even subsistence farming dangerous. Large fields are mostly untilled, for fear of shelling or mines (see below). Any planting is usually limited to potatoes in vegetable patches close to the house – in some cases the small green space outside village houses where in quieter times the elderly would sit. Even these relatively sheltered areas are vulnerable. In Avdiivka, the coke-smelting town whose suburbs flow into the front line, a 75-year-old woman was killed by what locals say was an incoming shell while working on her potatoes. The police report attributed her death to “careless handling of ammunition”.

The military on both sides carries out hit-and-run raids from largely civilian areas. Several front-line residents in Avdiivka related how a small Ukrainian unit recently sped in, strafed its foes, then pulled back. These actions inevitably trigger retaliation, well after the soldiers have left. Donetsk residents described separatist mortar teams using the same tactics and provoking the same response. 

Given the volatility of the situation, few who have left show any sign of wanting to return permanently to the villages. Residents of Zaitseve reported a family briefly returning to plant potatoes, “in case there is peace later this year”. Villagers said that even occasional visits from relief agencies offer little hope. An international organisation explained to Avdiivka residents that it was too early to distribute roofing and other building materials, as they would only have to be replaced again in a few months.

Those able to leave are among the 1.7 million officially registered internally displaced persons (IDPs). About one million are registered as living in other parts of Luhansk and Donetsk, though it is quite possible that many have moved elsewhere or even returned home on the other side of the line. Most IDPs are said to live with relatives, friends or in rental accommodations in larger towns that offer more safety and work opportunities.

C. Military-civilian Relations

Civilians in the east agree that the Ukrainian military’s behaviour has improved substantially since the grim days of 2014, when its troops were a byword for indiscipline, drunkenness and sometimes violence. But there are lingering suspicions on both sides. Some civilians, echoing a line favoured by many separatist propagandists, discreetly remarked to visitors that if the troops were not living next door, their homes would not be under fire. 

The military has its own preconceptions regarding the locals. One holds that civilians have chosen to remain at the front because of separatist sympathies. Quite often, in Avdiivka for example, residents reported allegations by soldiers that local people helped DNR sabotage teams that slipped into the area at night. Another frequent comment offered by the military was that local people were getting what they had asked for in the May 2014 separatist-organised referendum on self-determination. Some senior officers were more direct: “50 per cent of my civilians are separatists”, claimed a battalion commander; in another area, an officer estimated hard-core sympathisers at about 10 per cent of the population. Soldiers said they could hear separatist radio stations from their civilian neighbours’ homes, which reinforced their suspicion. One of the few local officials on the ground remarked that, on the rare occasion he or his colleagues were able to achieve something for the local population, separatist media claimed credit, and the news quickly spread among locals. 

Separatist media are ubiquitous, because in the vast majority of settlements along the front line, towers carrying Ukrainian broadcasting were destroyed in the early days of the fighting and have not been replaced. The only choice for most civilians are local radio stations from nearby separatist-controlled towns. The governor of Donetsk acknowledged the problem but noted that repair of transmission equipment is the central authorities’ responsibility.

D. Mines

Visitors to a hamlet in Zaitseve are instructed on arrival to use only well-trodden paths between houses, never shortcuts. Mines – anti-personnel and anti-armour – have been laid all across the front line. Both sides recently added trip wire devices. Few have been mapped, so regular troop rotations mean that any institutional memory of the mines’ location has been lost. Inhabitants of the front-line villages often cite mines as the main reason for sending children to relatives. “The shelling is bad enough, but at least we see or hear the risk: with mines you had to keep children in prison”, a woman explained. On Kirova Street in Avdiivka, a resident said his five dogs had “gone”, probably killed by mines just beyond his back garden, which opens out on the front.

Demining specialists believe that clearing all mines once hostilities end will take a minimum of five years and up to twenty if sufficient funding is not available. Large-scale demining cannot begin, however, until the Ukrainian parliament passes legislation determining which government authority oversees the removal of mines and unexploded ordnance, and establishing national technical standards, including a framework for the accreditation and quality. Meanwhile, the number of mines and explosive remnants of war is increasing daily. Western diplomats say the legislation is so far moving slowly. 

E. Distress and Alcohol

The sheer terror of living in a war zone, the highly limited opportunity of moving even a few miles away, the lack of work, the separation of families and general social disruption have for two years subjected the remaining inhabitants of front-line areas to inordinate social pressure that has disproportionately devolved upon women. The state has done little or nothing to address these problems, and visits by international monitors and aid organisations are rare. Residents are mostly anxious and depressed: few conversations continue for more than a few minutes without an interlocutor showing signs of this.

Alcohol abuse has long been an engrained feature of village life in Russian and Russian-speaking areas, but usually among men. In villages along the front line, alcohol consumption by women is widespread. Church volunteers in Marinka, as well as members of other local groups working with villagers, expressed concern that constant military activity was leading to an increase in serious diseases. After particularly heavy attacks in mid-June, a pastor reported “pathologies” among the local children: “their hair starts falling out, their legs and arms shake, and some stop speaking”. None of the villagers recalled visits by psychiatric health professionals. A senior regional government official shrugged off the question when asked if such visits had been made. There is urgent need for a survey of the psychiatric health needs on the front line by a competent international body.

F. Where Are the Officials?

A number of local government officials recently joined a delegation of the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) Human Rights Committee on a visit to Marinka. The committee chair, Hrihoriy Nemyria, recalled that local people were surprised they were from the district administration. No one recognised them: local officials left with the onset of war and have been handling administrative affairs from the small resort town of Kurakhove, a good distance from the front. Zaitseve residents said they did not recall any visits by officials. A military commander in Dokuchayevsk mentioned that civilian administrators initially joined him on front visits. They would note requests, leave and not follow up. “People here are abandoned” by the local government, he said. “There is no sense of interest in their problems, and the quality of civilian officials is very low”. The result is that people on the front line are left to fend for themselves.

G. Holes in the Line

There are six official vehicle-crossing points between Ukrainian and separatist-controlled territories, while mostly local people use a hastily-repaired bridge in Stanitsia-Luhanska, the single official pedestrian crossing. Over 700,000 passed through the official checkpoints in May, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). They tend not to live along the front line, are usually relatively affluent, own vehicles, can pay for fuel and food and have a certain sophistication in dealing with the sometimes intimidating military or security personnel. Even so, the crossing is challenging. Waits of ten hours or more – often overnight – are common. Crossing points are usually close to military installations, increasing the danger of shelling or mines. Many who live on the front line, on the other hand, have neither the money nor experience required to deal with men in uniform. Some complain that they are asked at Ukrainian checkpoints for proof they are registered as displaced, which they are not.

On rare occasions, local officials on both sides have unofficially created crossing points. These purely local initiatives, distinct from the officially stipulated crossing areas, allow front-line residents to visit nearby settlements on the other side to buy food – considerably cheaper on the Ukrainian side – visit relatives and, when possible, collect pensions. They must show proof of registration in a settlement close to the border: despite the current armed conflict, all Ukrainian citizens remain required to register in their place of permanent residence. Two such informal points were known to exist as of early 2016. One, in Popasna, remains functional while another, near Marinka, has reportedly closed. 

There are other ways to get across, but not for simple residents. Ukrainian soldiers know the village of Verkhnetoretskoye as a smugglers’ crossing. Some contraband is for local consumption, but much is part of the major smuggling operation – of coal, scrap, weapons and probably drugs – that is enriching officials on both sides of the line. A prominent blogger and volunteer supporter of the armed forces, Yuriy Kasyanov, described watching a goods train passing through the village and into the separatist-controlled area of Donetsk oblast. Fighters from the ultra-nationalist Right Sector prepared to attack the smugglers’ train, but were stopped, Kasyanov said, by Ukrainian soldiers.

There has also been at least one instance of soldiers on both sides cooperating to improve conditions on their part of the front. Ukrainian troops said that sometime in May 2016, they contacted the troops facing them; one of their number crossed to the opposing front line and over a bottle of vodka suggested they might shoot at them less often. The separatists explained that military service was one of the few ways to earn money in the entities – a frequently heard complaint in the DNR. They reportedly agreed, however, that on those days when they were on duty they would fire away from their targets. They added that they could not answer for the Russian troops on duty the other days. 

III. The Military

Around 90,000 troops face each other across the 500km-long line of separation. The Ukrainian government says it has 69,000 troops in its Anti-Terror Operation (ATO) zone, not all of whom are based directly on the front line. Kyiv and its allies usually estimate the separatist military strength at 35,000, though this is probably high. In addition, Ukrainian officials say, more than 8,000 Russian troops remain inside the separatist entities, with a much larger force permanently stationed just the other side of the border, ready to intervene. Moscow denies any such plans, just as it does having ever intervened militarily in Ukraine over the past two years. Separatist officials say the permanent Russian military presence is considerably less than Ukraine claims, but they stress that Russian troops on the border could deploy throughout the entities in hours if needed. 

A. Officer Politics – Criticism of the President, 
Support for Sealing-off the Separatists

Most observers agree that the Ukrainian military is very different from the poorly led, often demoralised force sent into action two years ago. Many battalion commanders and their deputies are in their early thirties. A lieutenant colonel who hopes to leave soon for staff college said most of his peers in neighbouring front-line positions were between 29 and 32. At 34, he is feeling old, he joked. In private, the officers are deeply critical of their country’s military and political leadership. One started his analysis by describing the deadlock in the conflict as beneficial to both Russian and Ukrainian leaders: “The Russians can maintain pressure on us, and our president has an excuse for not carrying out reforms”. 

All expressed belief that the Minsk process is “dead”. This line has been increasingly echoed by Ukrainian officials, Western diplomats and many Russian commentators. As a result, the officers said, the crisis could only be solved by military means. None, however, felt this would happen soon. There is wide agreement among analysts and the military that while the front-line advantage has shifted moderately in favour of Ukraine (see below), the key factor remains Russia’s readiness to intervene militarily in support of the separatists. As long as this holds, the officers felt, Ukraine would not attack to regain control of the entities. 

The idea to seal off the separatist entities from the rest of Ukraine, cutting political and economic ties and excluding their population from elections, has been floated since January 2016 by political leaders in Kyiv – including such prominent figures as the secretary of national security and defence, Aleksandr Turchynov, and Rada Speaker Andriy Parubiy. It has gained some support, but also considerable criticism. 

Officers interviewed along the line of separation were unanimous in their support for the idea. “People in the separatist areas are totally brainwashed. They still live in the Soviet Union”, one said. “Maybe, just maybe, they will one day come to their senses, and they will return to us, but until then we should close them off”. Another officer, who hails himself from a separatist-occupied area, was equally blunt: “Let the people who want to be Russian go to Russia; we will help them leave. In the meantime, the separatist districts should be fenced off, and Russia left to support them”. 

Proponents of sealing the border see a number of advantages, both political and economic. The Minsk agreement obliges Ukraine to pay for the restoration and rehabilitation of the entities, an endeavour that would cost billions of dollars. Sealing the enclaves off would in their view shift the whole financial burden onto Russia, which for months has already been paying salaries and pensions. This would intensify economic pressure on Moscow at a time when it is hard pressed by international sanctions and declining revenues. The assumption behind this line of thought, however, is questionable – Moscow has not formalised ties with the entities, and while it has provided social support, it has not indicated it would provide reconstruction or rehabilitation funding.

Ukraine is preparing for a difficult transition – with any luck – to a modern Westernised state, and the entities allow Russia to maintain military pressure that forces it to divert major budgetary resources from economic development to defence. Elections during the transition period are likely to be tense and volatile. Removing the entities from the voting process for several years would neutralise the votes of a million or more Ukrainians who, many politicians and analysts believe, would be little inclined to support the country’s present leadership. 

Proponents of the idea, who say they briefed senior Western ambassadors early this year, maintain that Poroshenko privately is sympathetic to the idea but cannot be seen as in essence amputating part of the country. Opponents fear sealing off the separatist enclaves would accelerate their slide into organised crime and contraband. Moves to close off the separatist entities from the rest of the country would concern several of the country’s most influential oligarchs, who have extensive holdings in the separatist areas. Many made their fortunes during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, and most – Rinat Akhmetov, Sergei Lyovochkin and others – are heavily invested in the area’s oil, steel and natural gas. Further limited access would be financially deeply painful to these businessmen. Ukraine’s Western allies should stress to all in Kyiv that isolation would be a risky policy choice that could exacerbate the conflict, create new tensions and deepen the sense of many inhabitants of separatist-controlled areas that Kyiv has abandoned them. 

B. Combat, Casualties

1. Ukrainian strategy: erode and probe

Front-line commanders are more confident than in the past that their troops could make serious inroads into separatist territory, or even destroy the entities, but the main factor stopping such an attempt is the threat of another major Russian invasion. Front-line Ukrainian forces consequently seem to be probing separatist territory in order to gradually erode military manpower. Local commanders noted that separatists are not only less well-trained than Ukrainians, but that it is much harder for them to replace lost equipment or personnel – the latter because of their very small recruitment pool. Many analysts sympathetic to the separatists agreed. 

Ukrainian troops have edged forward along most of the line into the so-called grey zone – a thin stretch of land between the fronts which both sides had until recently refrained from entering. By occupying this zone, Ukrainian troops have strengthened their positions along the border modestly, by inhibiting vehicular traffic on the other side, or gaining better forward observation positions. Asked whether this was a new strategy, officers sidestepped the question. 

In some cases, the troops are going further. In an area along the Mariupol sector, a battalion commander said his men had moved 1.5km into separatist-controlled territory. Similar movements have been reported elsewhere. Around Debaltseve, the site of a major Ukrainian defeat in February 2015, a military volunteer from one of the many groups that raise money to equip troops reported that a unit of the 54th Mechanised Brigade had advanced 1.5km and dug in. This could be, as an officer suggested, pure opportunism; it might also be that some units are trying to gauge Russian patience with such incursions. Officers routinely refused to comment on operational matters, but a senior government security adviser and avowed hawk in the confrontation with Russia described the penetrations as efforts by some commanders to maintain morale, combat preparedness and discipline. The static, often trench warfare saps morale, the adviser suggested, and when this happens, “the Ukrainian army drinks”.

2. A ceasefire ignored

Both sides complain that they are under instructions not to violate the ceasefire. Ukrainian troops said they are told to observe and report violations and only respond if their lives are threatened. “That is an instruction that only a staff officer could think up”, a Ukrainian senior lieutenant complained. “Everything we fire is life-threatening, for f***’s sake”. Separatists have complained for months that their Russian military handlers (kurators) have strictly enforced the ceasefire. In fact, both sides have violated the ceasefire daily for several months, most commonly with light weapons, but also with artillery rocket batteries and armour that should have been withdrawn many months ago. 

Ukrainian front-line officers all described Russia’s current military posture in the same terms. Its troops have pulled back from the front line: any remaining Russians are usually commanders of the separatist units or small groups of special forces. The Ukrainians portrayed many of their adversaries as poorly trained locals, with little inclination to fight and drawn more by the pay. Monthly salaries for separatist troops reportedly range from 15,000 roubles ($230) for a private to 46,500 roubles ($715) for a colonel. Some Ukrainian officers, however, singled out several separatist units for grudging approbation: the “Viking” battalion, named for its founder’s radio call-sign, and Vostok, which has been involved in some of the most intense fighting around Avdiivka.

3. Hiding the casualties

Both armed forces play down the intensity of fighting and often under-report casualties. Ukrainian troops on a section of the front line which has not figured extensively in official combat reports stated that they have been involved in almost 60 engagements since deployment in late 2015. Another officer in the same unit said his troops have taken “heavy” loses but that the figure has been classified – “the General Staff does not want to be embarrassed”. Civilian volunteers who help resupply Ukrainian troops have at times denounced the official military spokesman for disinformation or covering up the real situation. In March 2016, a volunteer juxtaposed on his social media site a photograph of the burial of elite Ukrainian troops with a military spokesman’s announcement that there were no casualties that day. 

The same thing happens on the separatist side. The commander of DNR’s Viking battalion resigned in December 2015 along with a number of staff officers in protest at a high command decision to reclassify military casualties as victims of civilian accidents. Supporters of the separatist militia, usually Russian nationalist groups, have on occasion leaked much higher death tolls than officially admitted. For instance, a supportive website revealed that in late March and early April 2016, separatists had lost at least 90 fighters along a small stretch of the front line around Avdiivka. More recently, a well-informed Russian nationalist blogger quoted a DNR officer saying that a regiment heavily involved in late May fighting “no longer had” two companies.

4. A message from Moscow?

Separatist civilian and military officials have admitted privately for some time that the Russian military exercises complete control over militias. Russian officers command units, handle operational planning and oversee the military. Given regular separatist complaints that they are not allowed to respond to Ukrainian fire without the permission of their Russian minders, analysts on both sides have posited that sudden spikes of violence along the line are explicit reminders from Moscow that war could quickly escalate if deemed necessary. “I think we sometimes dial up or down the pressure as needed”, a veteran Russian analyst remarked. A recent burst of costly attacks on Ukrainian positions in late May followed signals of Moscow’s frustration with the Minsk process. Shortly before the escalation, a Kyiv politician with close links to Moscow expressed concern the situation could turn ugly.

C. Unpaid Bonuses, Understrength Front-line Positions

Ukrainian military confidence and morale may be higher in 2016, but many problems remain. Most are connected to what front-line troops see as incompetence at best, venality at worst among the country’s top military and political leadership.

Mid-level officers, in particular the deputy commanders responsible for troop morale and related matters (zampolit) in several places raised the same problems. They said troops rarely received the 1,000 hryvnia (approximately $40) bonus they were promised for every time they were engaged in combat. Other promised bonuses – for destruction of enemy heavy weapons or armour, for example – have also not materialised. Instead, troops have been warned they must reimburse the defence ministry for damaged uniforms and equipment on demobilisation. 

Delays in demobilisation are another source of resentment. Troops said they had to stay on the front line for weeks – in one case several months – after their eighteen-month rotation had officially ended. An officer in an affected unit remarked that such delays had drastically reduced the number of conscripts willing to remain in the army under contract at the end of their service. “Six months ago, half my company were ready to sign contracts and stay in the army”, he said. Now the number planning to stay is “in single figures”. Shortages of equipment are another regular complaint. Many units still depend to some degree on volunteer groups who raise funds, providing them with anything from electrical cable to night vision gear, binoculars and food. 

Troops seem most concerned, however, about the clumsy and chaotic process of bringing front-line units back up to strength when a cohort of conscripts has ended its service and left for home. This often leaves front-line positions dangerously understrength and lacking in combat experience for weeks. “Our ‘specialists’ have had two years to get this right”, an officer said, “and it is still a cock-up”. 

These delays can have lethal consequences. Lieutenant-Colonel Andriy Zhuk, 32-year old commander of the 3rd battalion of the 72nd independent mechanised brigade (72OMBr ) stationed in the area of Dokuchayevsk, was killed on 28 May in a brief clash. An investigative journalist who specialises in military affairs interviewed his fellow officers immediately after. The officer had spent much of the past eighteen months on the front line, and his battalion was desperately short of armour and troops: most of his men had been demobilised in April and he was reportedly left with 100, 20 per cent of a full-strength battalion, to control a 15km stretch of the line. Given the lack of experience of his remaining men, the journalist wrote, he took it upon himself to investigate reports of unidentified armed men and was killed. An informal 72nd brigade Facebook page posted photographs of Zhuk’s funeral. Just under that posting was a message urging any would-be volunteers to make their way directly to brigade positions on the front line, bypassing recruitment centres.

D. A Non-functioning Pullback

The persistent and regular violation by both sides of a key part of the Minsk agreements – withdrawal of all heavy weapons from the front line – has further deepened military insecurity and tension. Their ample inventories of heavy weaponry seem to rotate almost permanently from storage areas to front-line positions and back. Most OSCE daily monitoring reports note the absence of tanks, rocket systems and artillery from storage areas and, more occasionally, their return. Weapons covered by the agreement have been extensively used in recent fighting, most often tanks and artillery. Others are relocated to major population centres, usually Luhansk and Donetsk cities. On 5 June, a relatively typical day, monitors checking Ukrainian government sites and positions inventoried a number of forbidden systems, including two surface-to-air SA-8 missile systems, six 152mm towed howitzers, and three 100mm anti-tank guns. They also noted 33 howitzers missing from two storage sites. The next day, monitors recorded Grad missile batteries and anti-aircraft systems in the LNR and DNR areas.

OSCE monitors complain regularly that their teams are harassed and on occasion refused access to areas. They also report that their drones have been shot down and monitoring equipment shut down. They continue to do a thorough job under very difficult circumstances. However, their reports have no tangible consequences for the violator. Until Europe and Washington on one side and Russia on the other are willing to force their allies to observe the pullback – by withholding military or other aid, for example – the situation will remain highly volatile.

IV. Conclusion

A temporary fix on eastern Ukraine’s front line has become, by oversight or neglect, a semi-permanent “solution”, like so much in the Ukrainian crisis today. In the absence of a genuine settlement, most parties would probably welcome a frozen conflict, even though they are unwilling to say so publicly. But the situation on the ground is too unstable to guarantee even this. There are too many troops far too close to each other. A crucial agreement to withdraw heavy weaponry from the battlefield is violated daily by both sides. The needs of many thousands of civilians stuck along the line and the many grievances of troops who are fighting there have been ignored.

A number of issues need to be addressed immediately. A substantial distance – much more than the 100 or so metres currently common – should separate the sides. Military positions and civilian settlements should be clearly distinguished. These are not just requirements for Kyiv. The separatists should take the same steps. The DNR and LNR have shown neither capacity nor interest in doing so. Kyiv should do better. 

By failing to address these issues, Ukraine’s leadership is storing up political problems for the future. Civilians’ feeling on both sides of the line that the government has abandoned them plays into the hands of Opposition Bloc, President Poroshenko’s major political rival in the east and an important actor in Ukraine’s parliament (Rada), where it is often decisive in key votes. Meanwhile, on the other side of the line, Ukrainians living under separatist control regularly complain of being abandoned by Kyiv. When eventually Kyiv is able to restore full control over the east, there is a serious risk that the several million residents in the whole of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts will have become a strong anti-centre political force. The needs of another important constituency also must be considered. Incompetence, neglect and corruption in the military high command, both military and civilian, may well turn a large pool of angry, militant and articulate critics of Poroshenko – active duty and demobilised troops – into a force that could prove even more of a threat to Kyiv.

This does not detract from Russia’s responsibility for the situation. Moscow denies, against all evidence, that it is a major actor – and the main initiator – of the present crisis. It should pressure its separatist allies to support serious efforts to defuse the situation. And while many western analysts and diplomats seem increasingly to view a frozen conflict in the east as the least bad option, even this will be impossible without firm action to increase the distance between opposing front lines and address humanitarian problems. 

Kyiv/Brussels, 18 July 2016

Women on the Brink

Originally published in The London Review of Books.

The Russian assault​ on Ukraine has produced the largest and swiftest mass movement of women since the Second World War. More than four million women have been displaced within Ukraine and around the same number have fled the country. Many of those who left, congregating in towns and cities in Poland, or taking buses and trains to other European capitals, went reluctantly. Their male relatives – men between eighteen and sixty have to remain in Ukraine – pushed them to go, saying they would be happier to fight if their families were safely out of the country. Whether it is safer out of the country, however, is far from clear. Ukrainian women have been among the most trafficked in the world since the fall of the Soviet Union. And since the war began, instances of predation have surged at border crossings and railway stations, and on social media platforms where women seek shelter and work.

The Ukrainian women arriving in Poland find a country experiencing a different kind of conflict. The Polish government recently tightened what was already a near total ban on abortion, and both emergency and basic contraception are tricky to access. Many women arrive in need of medical care for problems ranging from those caused by sexual violence (STDs, pregnancy, trauma) to infections, injuries and already existing illnesses. Proper medical care also enables evidence to be gathered about the prevalence of rape and sexual assault more generally in Ukraine. When arriving in Poland many refugees are met at train stations and border crossings by religious groups and belligerent anti-choice activists, who see their plight as constituting a new front in Poland’s long-running battle over faith and reproductive freedom. Across Poland, local councils, mayors and central government, with different political agendas, are vying for control of the humanitarian response. There are huge disparities in the treatment of refugees. This is part of the reason that, as of Easter weekend, for the first time the number of Ukrainians crossing back into the country outnumbered those leaving.

Just before Easter I travelled to Poland’s border with Ukraine. At the main station in Kraków, a volunteer pushed a pet assistance trolley filled with dog and cat treats; she was looking for a woman who needed bird seed for her parrot. A boy with Down’s syndrome wandered around the concourse on his own. The area designated for refugees was covered with fliers warning that ‘armed conflicts are usually accompanied by human trafficking. Be ready!’ Mothers and tired-looking teenagers queued for free train tickets back to Ukraine or on to Warsaw. Among them was a man wearing a T-shirt and baseball cap emblazoned with the American flag. He carried a green army bag and said he was travelling to a city, the name of which he couldn’t pronounce (he spelled out ‘Dnipro’), to evacuate civilians and then, lowering his voice, to do ‘some other things I probably shouldn’t say out loud’. He told me he was a ‘private defence contractor’, by which he meant he was joining the Ukrainian Foreign Legion. But most of the carriages on the night train from Warsaw to Przemyśl were full of Ukrainian families heading back to the border.

The new arrivals ... were leaving unwillingly after surviving weeks of Russian shelling and living in basements.

Before the war, the only pedestrian border crossing into Poland was at Medyka, thirteen kilometres east of Przemyśl. Within days, all eight crossings between the two countries had been converted to allow both car and foot traffic. Hundreds of thousands of people converged on these crossings in the first week; during the busiest period, 140,000 people crossed into Poland every day. To reduce the long waits in freezing temperatures, border guards stopped registering those crossing. For the UN, which organises its services by tracking refugee flows, this has made it harder to target and deliver relief. There are millions of ghosts in Poland now, an official told me. When I arrived in Medyka, around two hundred Ukrainians an hour were crossing. Many were going in the opposite direction, heading to Lviv or Kyiv for Easter, or to assess whether their home cities were safe enough for them to move back. The women who were still arriving came from battlefield areas, such as Mariupol, Bucha or Kharkiv, or from Kramatorsk, which is under fire from missiles and rockets. The early wave of refugees had crossed in cars and with carefully packed suitcases. Some had even been trained by their employers in the logistics of conflict evacuation. The new arrivals, by contrast, were leaving unwillingly after surviving weeks of Russian shelling and living in basements. They carried their belongings in supermarket bags.

A bus left Medyka every hour to take refugees to ‘the Tesco’, as it’s known, in Przemyśl: an old supermarket warehouse converted into a refugee processing centre. Security was tight. Polish soldiers monitored the entrances, and you had to scan the QR code on your wristband to go in or to leave. There was at least one woman soldier on duty at all times and any car leaving the site was inspected by police. Sleeping quarters were marked by flags for those who knew their destination countries, so when the time came they could leave together. The undecided slept in a large open room. An Israeli relief charity ran a disco where volunteers danced with Ukrainian kids under strobe lights. A clown in a top hat and red nose roamed around doing magic tricks. A canvas sheet was spread along the length of a wall, and children crouched over it painting a mural. Someone played Schubert piano sonatas.

The Tesco is the best large-capacity refugee hub in Poland; its approach is refugee-focused, apolitical and humanitarian. It’s led by locals with support from volunteers and international charities. When I arrived, the first person I met was a Russian-speaking Israeli social worker who was setting up a makeshift beauty salon. She told me that trauma causes the mind to switch off from the body and that getting women to care for themselves can aid recovery. She also said that Ukrainian women cared a good deal about their appearance: grooming ‘makes them feel human again’. A colleague called her away to speak to a 23-year-old woman who had arrived from Bucha after spending more than a month in a basement with her grandmother and child. The family had been at the Tesco for days, and the mother refused to leave because her child was sick.

‘All the children here are sick,’ the social worker told me. ‘They’re all vomiting because of the journey they took, but this mother is fixating on that.’ She left me to look after the beauty parlour. I painted nails, plaited hair and pencilled in eyebrows for the rest of the evening. Most of my clients were little girls. The adult women didn’t want to play salon, but they gradually began to chat while their daughters received manicures. ‘I won’t wear make-up until the war is over,’ one of them told me. ‘But maybe I’ll dye my hair.’ Alissa, aged seven, asked me for a different colour on each nail. Her mother, Nella, said their hometown, Shostka, had been partially destroyed by Russian artillery. The soldiers hadn’t occupied the city for an extended period, but they had blockaded it and sometimes marched through the streets. Nella left when a humanitarian corridor finally opened.

Vika, a young manicurist from Kharkiv, sat down with us. Two days earlier, after a Russian missile struck the railway station at Kramatorsk killing more than fifty people, she had packed her gel nail lamp and a hundred bottles of polish and forced her mother to leave Kharkiv with her. She said she was proud of Ukraine’s resilience, but that it deserved more military help. ‘If not, this war will come to other countries soon,’ she said. Zarina, a 14-year-old from Cherkasy, of Roma background, came over in her wheelchair to ask for smoky eyes. There were a number of Roma families among the refugees at Tesco, but they seemed reluctant to approach volunteers. Suspicion towards the Roma dogs them at every step. I asked a psychologist at the centre whether she’d worked with Roma families. She replied that they were exploiting the war to make money and didn’t need as much help as other Ukrainians, because ‘they’re more used to these kinds of situations.’

The café at the centre was serving chicken soup and apple cake, delivered by chefs from nearby towns. I sat with Daniela, a woman from Balakliia, near Kharkiv, who had just arrived with her teenage daughter. She couldn’t stop crying. ‘What about our soldiers, what are they eating? Do they even have food?’ She showed me pictures on her phone of a Russian flag hoisted over Balakliia town hall. ‘I don’t know if it’s true or not,’ she kept repeating. Her daughter, Ana, snapped at her to stop talking so much. Something terrible happened to them in Balakliia, Daniela said, and ‘kind people warned us to leave.’

They had been travelling through Kyiv on 9 April, the day Boris Johnson took a surprise tour of the city with President Zelensky. ‘Now that is a leader,’ she said, reaching to squeeze my hands. ‘Please thank the people of the United Kingdom.’ A tall man in a leather jacket walked past, attracting some attention. Ukrainian men of fighting age can only leave the country if they are single parents, have a medical exemption or have three or more children. This man was a single father from Mariupol, where he and his son had survived the bombardment by melting snow to drink. They had tried to find accommodation in western Ukraine, but every city, every town, every hostel and hotel, was full to the brim, and they had a dog, which made things more difficult: six months earlier, after his wife died, he had bought his son an Alsatian puppy. They were heading to Warsaw in the hope of finding a flat. The salon volunteers shared a table with animal welfare. Many of the pets had walked great distances, so we found them carriers. The only dog we failed was an extremely long dachshund.

The unregulated movement of millions of women and children ... has created what the UN calls a ‘protection crisis of vast proportions’

The unregulated movement of millions of women and children, many too disturbed or exhausted to think clearly, has created what the UN calls a ‘protection crisis of vast proportions’. A volunteer told me that the women she met at the border often had little sense of what to expect, were not always lucid and feared they would have to pay for anything they were offered. Although thousands of people from across the world have rushed to volunteer alongside the Poles, and UN agencies have been working with the Polish government on co-ordinating its response, caring for this number of refugees is beyond their means. The threat of trafficking, kidnapping and sexual violence is extremely high. A volunteer at the Tesco told me that in the early days of the war, before private drivers had to register their cars with the police, one mother and her child accepted a ride, only for the mother to be pushed out halfway through the journey. The child has not been found. Every reception centre has stories like this from the war’s chaotic early phase. Measures such as the wristband system at the Tesco and checkpoints at exits are becoming more widespread, but they are not consistently applied.

Almost​ as soon as Ukrainian women began to arrive at the Polish border, the traffickers descended too. Anti-trafficking groups such as the Netherlands-based La Strada braced themselves. In the volunteer lounge at the Tesco, I spoke to Irena Dawid-Olczyk, the head of La Strada Poland, who told me that traffickers often recruit through Tinder and other apps. Some of the online activity was grooming: promises of friendship, transport, a place to stay. Knights in shining armour. But some of it related to a phenomenon that, she said, people didn’t like to acknowledge: ‘We have observed in Europe during many wars, women deciding [to take up] prostitution voluntarily because they need money for their families.’ ‘If you compare it to being a cashier in a supermarket,’ she added, ‘working three nights in a week and having time and money for your children, maybe you choose this second opportunity.’

I mentioned that I was concerned by the presence of so many international volunteers, most of them with no training. The atmosphere at Medyka reminded me of the early expat scene in Kabul before Afghanistan became dangerous, when gap year bohemians and conflict voyeurs headed there. Iuliia, a human rights worker originally from Donetsk, who was translating for me, logged into her Tinder account while we were at the Tesco to see what was going on nearby. There were dozens of foreign volunteers, active duty US servicemen and medics in uniform as well as fighters with the Ukrainian Foreign Legion. The profile of Matt from Portland announced he was ‘here to find a foreign wife’ to take to the US. One man said he lived in Abu Dhabi but ‘can be in Ukraine if the situation calls for it’. Many profiles used the same line: ‘You will be safe with me.’ A man calling himself Tom posted that he was ‘sleeping in a warehouse full of supplies but would much rather spend the night in your bed’. Sean from Maine said he had travelled to volunteer in Poland but had contracted Covid and was ‘looking for a lady to spend time with who has or has recently had Covid’. You could tell yourself that these men weren’t seeking to exploit Ukrainian women for profit so much as looking for a wartime hook-up scene, but that wouldn’t explain why (or how) so many of them had published their profiles in Ukrainian.

One argument for quick resettlement is that it reduces the amount of time women are left vulnerable to such dangers. The Tesco centre was full of charities promoting their countries as host destinations. France advertised itself with a cartoon of baguettes. The Irish stand was decorated with a large smiley face and run by a woman in a glittery green fedora. The Danish had a children’s book which explained that their country was the home of Lego and ‘flat as a pancake’. The UK stand was unadorned. Nadia, who had fled Ternopil, approached it with her young daughter to ask about the visa process. A volunteer from Bristol asked my translator to tell her that processing could take up to three weeks. ‘So she’s aware of that, in case it changes her mind.’ He said his charity could try to provide accommodation during the wait, but the board behind him showed everywhere was full. Around dusk, a woman in a Christmas jumper began mopping the floor, forcing everyone to move their belongings (and encouraging them to move on).

Women Take the Wheel ... now has eight hundred women drivers moving refugees around the country.

When I arrived back at the Medyka crossing, the Polish side was rowdy. A group of young male volunteers were drinking across the road from the transport bus. They looked rough and intimidating. One man had stripped down to his vest despite the cold and was waving his tattooed arms around. Couldn’t they drink somewhere else? I met Ella Jarmulska, the Polish organiser of Women Take the Wheel, in a nearby car park. She had driven to Medyka in the first days of the war, when the temperature hovered around zero and there was little in the way of transportation. She saw groups of single men waiting around with their cars, and Ukrainian women and children huddled at the reception point refusing to go with them. She drove two women back to Warsaw and wrote in a Facebook post that ‘this is a war where men should make the soup and women should take the wheel.’ It was shared thousands of times, and her network now has eight hundred women drivers moving refugees around the country.

They also take on other tasks. I went with Ella to deliver three cats that had just arrived from Lviv to their owner in Korczowa, a border village 26 kilometres north of Medyka. The cats – Tisha, Mitrushka and Patya – protested angrily from the boot. Their owner rang midway to check they had been given a pee break and was distressed to learn it hadn’t been possible. ‘I should never have entrusted them to you,’ she snapped at Ella. I asked Ella who was most in need of her network. Women with newborn babies, she said, and severely traumatised women, who may have suffered sexual violence. Then there were women from rural villages who had never left Ukraine before and were scared to be driven by men, even those screened and vetted by the police.

In Hrubieszów, a small town further north along the border, I met Marta Majewska, the local mayor and a lawyer by training. She had reacted quickly when war broke out, designating a sports centre in the woods a refugee hub. Surrounded by fir trees, it had the advantage of being both serene and easy to secure. Eight police officers guarded the site at all times. She had also dispatched uniformed and plainclothes police to the local border crossing and installed CCTV cameras there and at the centre. When I visited there was a psychologist on duty – a Ukrainian woman called Vika – and small private rooms available for ‘people with epilepsy or madness or acute depression’. Refugees slept on cots in the sports hall, and at night, when the lights were dimmed, a television played relaxation music over pictures of edelweiss. Basia, a local businesswoman who was volunteering at the centre, said Hrubieszów was attracting the most vulnerable refugees. Increasingly, however, these women were choosing to go home. She had been told by her accountant that the owner of a local brothel had been offered six Ukrainian women ‘at a discount’. The mayor said there would be agricultural work soon, picking beetroot and blueberries.

Vika had arrived at the centre at the beginning of the war and decided to stay. She slept on one side of the sports hall with her young daughter and newborn baby, in a tent fashioned from a velvet blanket. She had previously worked with soldiers returning from the Donbas and felt she could be useful. Many of the women at Hrubieszów couldn’t move on until they had received medical treatment. The mind and body needed to be treated together. She described a woman who had arrived the day before with a leg wound. She didn’t seem to notice her injury, but insisted on showing Vika pictures of her chihuahua, which had been tortured. A Russian soldier had swung the dog round in the air by its hind leg until it broke. Another woman lay still all day, staring out of the window. She had hidden in a basement when the first Russian tank rolled into town; when she emerged her husband had been shot and the naked corpse of her neighbour, who was eight months pregnant, was lying in her garden.

The​ extent of rape by Russian soldiers in Ukraine is difficult to estimate. Ukrainians think it’s rampant. Politicians tweet details of attacks that would fit the legal scholar Sherrie Russell-Brown’s definition of rape as genocide:

It is also rape unto death, rape as massacre, rape to kill and to make the victims wish they were dead. It is rape as an instrument of forced exile, rape to make you leave your home and never want to go back. It is rape to be seen and heard and watched and told to others; rape as spectacle. It is rape to drive a wedge through a community, to shatter a society, to destroy a people.


Genocide has a complex legal definition and I don’t want to pre-empt the findings of those investigating what’s happening in Ukraine. It’s possible to say only that the types of rape that Ukrainian officials (such as the human rights ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova) are reporting sometimes fit Russell-Brown’s description. After Russian troops withdrew from Bucha, ending their three-week occupation of the suburb, the accounts that emerged suggested brutal and widespread sexual violence. Denisova said her office had evidence of numerous crimes, including the rape of a group of women and girls who were held in a basement for more than three weeks. Some of the girls were as young as fourteen and several of the group are now said to be pregnant.

The success of the Ukrainian resistance effort has been demoralising for Russian troops, particularly for young conscripts with little or no military training who didn’t want to fight in the first place. Intercepted messages show that many of them are refusing orders or abandoning their positions. Russia says it is no longer using conscripts in active battlefronts, but a European defence official told me they are still being deployed in Ukraine. The culture of abuse within the army’s own ranks – a legacy of its impunity despite atrocities committed in the Chechen war – and years of low-level propaganda about Ukrainians being Nazis and traitors make what happened in Bucha not very surprising. Privately, some diplomats point out that Ukrainian propaganda can be misleading, exaggerating the extent of particular abuses. No one talks much about Ukrainian propaganda, one official told me, because it’s for a good cause, leveraged by the weaker power in a brutal and asymmetrical war. I asked a long-time Ukrainian human rights activist what she made of the accounts of rape. She said it was difficult to assess because both victims and evidence collectors were displaced. But she saw no reason to doubt Denisova’s reports.

My arrival in Poland coincided with the trial of an activist accused of helping a woman get an abortion. Both the activist and the woman, whose partner had been violent and controlling, were Polish. But the prosecution, the first of its kind, was a troubling sign at a time when many women were turning to the country for protection. Ukrainian women ‘did not expect such a draconian law’, Krystyna Kacpura, of the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning, told me. I learned from Iuliia that accessing even regular contraceptive pills is difficult. ‘If you can get an appointment with a gynaecologist within a week, it’s better not to go,’ she told me. The good ones, the ones willing to prescribe contraception, have a waiting list of three or four months. ‘Here they prevent people from not having kids,’ a displaced interior designer from Kyiv told me.

This militant stance over reproductive choice is at odds with the recent depiction of Poland as a haven for Ukrainians.

This militant stance over reproductive choice is at odds with the recent depiction of Poland as a haven for Ukrainians. Polish anti-choice activists have confronted refugees. The Fundacja Pro paraded one of its vans, bearing the image of an aborted foetus and the slogan ‘Abortion Pill Kills’, past the refugee hub at the main station in Warsaw. The country’s most prominent anti-choice activist, Kaja Godek, claimed that feminist groups were proposing to help women fleeing the war kill their children. Others have distributed leaflets with similar images and a quote from Mother Teresa: ‘The biggest threat to peace is abortion.’ I heard from four people involved in front-line psychosocial services that Ukrainian women who had been raped by Russian soldiers were choosing to stay in Kyiv, where teams are gathering evidence of war crimes and where services for post-rape trauma and reproductive health are better established and less punitive.

Ukrainian women in Poland who are still in the early stages of pregnancy can get treatment most quickly through underground channels. First, they are told to contact a particular Polish women’s group, which sends them a legal briefing. They are then introduced to a sister organisation in Europe that offers advice and questionnaires in Ukrainian. This organisation then supplies the women with abortion pills within two to three days. ‘Don’t ask me how it happens,’ Krystyna said. Women in refugee centres, who have no postal address, must get help from local volunteers. Those in need of surgical abortion must navigate a different system. Polish law permits abortion in cases of rape, but requires an investigation and the approval of a prosecutor, which can take weeks (two Polish MPs have recently introduced legislation requiring the prosecutor to process cases within seven days). The law also allows for abortion when the pregnancy would threaten the woman’s life. Some feminist groups work with psychiatrists to assess women facing difficult pregnancies, in line with the WHO’s definition of health as a holistic condition that encompasses psychological wellbeing. Most Polish hospitals don’t accept such problems as life-threatening, but some do, and it’s to those that women are directed. Since the war began, Krystyna’s group has heard from more than two hundred women seeking surgical abortions. ‘I am expecting a wave of pregnancies,’ Kyrstyna said. ‘They are not aware [that they are pregnant] right now, but we know many women have been raped. They are just waiting for the facts.’

Many​ of the women I spoke to at Hrubieszów worried about where they should go next. Most Ukrainian refugees don’t want to be in rural Polish areas. A Ukrainian woman called Tatiana, a bank manager who had moved into the centre with her daughter, filled out registration forms for new arrivals. The morning I met her, she had reviewed the paperwork of a mother and daughter bound for Ireland. She told me that refugees often asked her where they should go. ‘I tell them I am not God; I cannot see into the future for you,’ she said. ‘They should write down on a piece of paper what they see in their new lives and think towards it.’ But she discouraged people from going to Germany. ‘Do you really want to go there, after all they’ve done to us? To be what, a fourth or tenth class citizen? People don’t want to go there after I say these things.’ She said she also cautioned young women who were travelling alone, putting information leaflets in their folders and taking their mobile numbers so she could check up on them later. As I sat with Tatiana, a young woman called Ola approached me. She had spent two weeks in Hrubieszów with her family, waiting for UK visas. Her mother was agitated by reports that host families in Britain were not being screened properly. ‘She picks fights with everyone here,’ Tatiana whispered to me. I agreed to help them make sure their sponsor family, whom they had met on Facebook, looked safe.

The huge reservoir of personal information about these displaced women available online has attracted the attention of large criminal gangs. Today it’s rare for traffickers to control women using physical violence; that’s the stuff of TV dramas. Recruitment starts on open groups on Viber or Telegram, organising travel to France, for instance, or offering jobs or accommodation in luxury villas. Gangs pick places like Lourdes, which they know the women will be familiar with. Once a group has enough followers, it goes private, and the recruitment drive intensifies. Anti-trafficking activists pose as participants in these groups to monitor them and so that they can warn users when the content starts to move towards sex work. Often the activists are then kicked off by admins, who accuse them of being pimps. Irena from La Strada told me that many Polish hosts are getting in touch, worried that their Ukrainian guests are making dubious contacts on the internet. They’ve had reports of men in Mexico inviting young Ukrainian women to stay, claiming that they’ll find it easier to get to the US by crossing a land border and applying for asylum. A man in Sweden invited three teenage girls to stay.

Traffickers on Tinder and other dating platforms use ‘fishing’ (an attractive offer of care or romance) and ‘hunting’ – identifying the most vulnerable women. This isn’t difficult. The Help for Ukrainian Refugees group on Facebook, for example, which links refugees with British sponsor families, features many profiles of beautiful young women who, as they try to appeal to potential sponsors, reveal information useful to traffickers: one woman wants to start a band or is learning French, another writes that her parents have stayed in eastern Ukraine and she is alone. The men often start an interaction by expressing paternal concern, Irena told me. ‘They say: “I have a daughter the same age who’s also interested in that!”

Teenagers, separated from their families and socially isolated, are a perfect target [for traffickers on dating platforms].

Teenagers, separated from their families and socially isolated, are a perfect target. A 14-year-old Ukrainian girl in Warsaw disappeared with a 36-year-old Syrian man. Of the 134,000 Ukrainian refugees officially recorded as entering Spain (a gateway country) since the conflict began, more than a third are under eighteen. The Spanish Red Cross detected possible trafficking cases among them and passed them to the police to investigate. Irena told me that in one case someone in Spain had been trying to sell two Ukrainian teenagers, aged fourteen and sixteen.

The scale of the difficulties faced by refugees in Poland has distorted accepted ideas about what constitutes exploitation. One Ukrainian family took shelter with a man who owned a large orchard; he confiscated their papers and set them to work picking fruit. The mother spoke no Polish, and when her youngest child fell ill, didn’t know how to get a doctor. She called a hotline for help and was linked up to La Strada. Irena sent the police to the house, only to have them tell her that everything was fine and the house was large and well-appointed. She had to explain to them that it was possible to be held captive in elegant conditions, and sent them back to extract the family. Irena predicted a great wave of forced labour in Poland. ‘The war will be a good alibi.’

The​ bus I took to Lublin was full. As the only reasonably sized city close to the border, a hundred kilometres away, it is especially attractive to Ukrainians biding their time until their return. Ukrainian and Russian are spoken everywhere. A local human rights group, Homo Faber, has set up a call centre to deal with refugees’ problems. By the end of March, volunteers had received more than twelve thousand calls from women needing help. Many of them had experienced sexual violence and were looking for private places to stay. There were so many of these calls that the group decided it needed to train all its call centre staff in rape crisis response and set up secret shelters for women survivors. All the Polish authorities need to be trained in this way, so that they can identify traumatised women and recognise traffickers and their potential victims. During her first night shift at the train station in Lublin, a Homo Faber staffer saw a woman in her fifties sidling up to young Ukrainian women and offering them rides to France and stays in fantasy villas with swimming pools. ‘The police just didn’t know how to behave,’ she said.

Civil society groups, municipal government and individual Poles led the early response to the crisis. Now, two months into the war, the ruling Law and Justice party has belatedly moved into action, attempting to take over the management of refugee centres and transit hubs from city authorities, most of which are controlled by the opposition. ‘The political side of this response is now coming into play,’ a UN official told me. In practice this means imposing limits on the involvement of women’s rights groups and local communities. Centres will become less safe and less hospitable, meaning that refugees will be more likely to risk returning home or else feel forced to keep moving.

I went back to Warsaw from Lublin on a train carrying large groups of refugees. A Roma woman told me she was in Poland to buy baby formula; she planned to go back to Ukraine after she had found it. A group of American soldiers from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where US special forces are based, were heading for a weekend break in Warsaw. They complained to the conductor that their seats were occupied, even though the carriage was full of refugees and their children. I met three twenty-somethings from Lutsk, squeezed into two seats. They were travelling together to Hamburg, where they hoped to find jobs as hotel maids. They talked politics for the whole journey: the absurdity of Putin’s plan to reinstall the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, and the good looks and bravery of the Ukrainian army, who, they were sure, would prevail over the Russians. One joked that the Russian army had ‘searched for the ugliest men of all of Russia and sent them to Ukraine’. Another said she thought it was better that the war was happening now rather than five years ago. Ukraine had had the chance to prepare itself, to develop a strong fighting force and a sense of national purpose.

At Warsaw Central, volunteers directed new arrivals to the city’s two big refugee centres, Expo Centre and Nadarzyn. A black and white flier about a missing woman called Julia was taped to the information counter. One volunteer said she didn’t want to send anyone to Nadarzyn. Conditions there were terrible and she’d heard of at least one rape, but there weren’t many options because the mayor had closed off private accommodation in the city. ‘Is that because Warsaw is full?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she said, ‘it’s because he’s an asshole.’ I took the bus to Nadarzyn with a large Roma family. They spoke perfect Ukrainian, but no one would sit next to them, preferring to crowd at the back of the bus. I’d heard bad things about Nadarzyn back in Hrubieszów. You can survive a day or a week there, but not more, one volunteer said. A woman on the bus was clutching a plastic bottle of soup to give to her young child. She said there was no fresh food or hot meals at the centre, just canned food that was making everyone sick. When I asked about the living conditions, she began to cry. ‘They treat us like animals.’ She said the centre was never cleaned and no one seemed to be in charge. The previous day, a couple had started having sex in a communal room in front of gaping children. She was due to spend four more days there before going on to Vienna. She said she wished she had stayed at the Tesco centre in Przemyśl. I complimented her on her nails, and she smiled. ‘I brought my gel lamp with me, want me to do yours?’

Insecure, deliberately unbearable, filthy places where thousands of women are kept in close quarters breed trafficking and exploitation and bad decisions.

Nadarzyn is about twenty minutes north of Warsaw. About seven thousand refugees are currently housed there in three massive convention halls once used for trade expos, surrounded by fields of scrub and a stream that smells of sewage. There didn’t seem to be any security. I walked into two halls full of unsupervised children without once being asked who I was or what I was doing there. Inside, there were no trafficking leaflets, no play areas, just a poster for a film about the lives of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Insecure, deliberately unbearable, filthy places where thousands of women are kept in close quarters breed trafficking and exploitation and bad decisions, because desperation means they are prepared to do things they would never normally contemplate. ‘You can imagine sitting there,’ Irena said. ‘Someone is telling you you’re beautiful, you’re not in a good place, you shouldn’t have to be there, I’ll take care of you.’

I spent Palm Sunday with Olga and Katrina, refugees staying with their four children in a log cabin in the northern outskirts of Warsaw. It was Olga’s birthday. She had been displaced once already, from Donbas, and believed that only divine providence could have protected her flat there from the intense shelling. On the preschool WhatsApp group, her daughter’s teacher, still in Ukraine, sent parents updates when their children’s classmates were killed. Katrina had recently learned that her husband had been badly injured in fighting near Dnipro and his leg had been amputated. Both she and her husband were being counselled on WhatsApp by a psychologist, who kept sending them photographs of oiled and muscular bodybuilders with prosthetic legs and the caption: ‘It will be fine!’ She showed me one of the images, adding quickly, ‘This is not my husband!’ Olga apologised for the modesty of the lunch she’d prepared and raised a toast: ‘May we celebrate my next birthday in Kharkiv, with wine and Brie and grapes.’

As the war enters its next phase, the Russian military will press to make gains around Kharkiv and to take areas held by Ukrainian forces in northern Donbas. Many of these regions have significant urban populations, and, depending on the way Russian forces conduct their assault, much of the fighting could take place in busy towns and cities. After what we’ve seen in Bucha, this is a terrible prospect. If the Russian military is as depleted as some believe, an operational focus on Donbas might preserve the safety of parts of western Ukraine. Many of the refugees who have returned home in recent weeks have done so in the belief, according to the UN, that their homes and communities are reasonably secure.

I asked Maryna, the interior designer from Kyiv, what it would take for her to go back. She said she worried that there wouldn’t be any work for her: decorating would be the last priority for devastated people surviving in a war economy. ‘I have this feeling of guilt for leaving my country, this feeling of treason,’ she said. ‘It grinds me down.’ She said she felt embarrassed by the kindness of Polish people, from the old woman who offered her a banana at the supermarket to the architecture firm that allows Ukrainians to hot desk from their offices at night. ‘I hope they understand that if they don’t help they will have a border not with Ukraine but with Russia. Maybe it’s not such a big price, when you look at it from this perspective.’

Listen to Azadeh Moaveni discuss this piece with Thomas Jones on the LRB Podcast.