‘Tired Of Waiting’: Ukraine Photojournalists Describe Mood On The Front Lines

Photo: Andriy Dubchak/Donbas Frontliner (Copyright)  

Two of Ukraine’s most experienced combat photojournalists spoke to RFE/RL about the atmosphere along the line of contact in the Donbas as fears for an all-out Russian invasion mount.

Veteran freelance Ukrainian photojournalist Anatolii Stepanov, who is currently on the front line at an undisclosed location in eastern Ukraine. Veteran freelance Ukrainian photojournalist Anatolii Stepanov, who is currently on the front line at an undisclosed location in eastern Ukraine.

Anatolii Stepanov: ‘Quieter Than Kyiv’

It feels like at the front lines it’s quieter than in Kyiv. That’s usually the case — the farther from the capital and the closer to the front, the calmer it is.

Everyone here knows what they have to do. There’s nothing like the hysteria you see in the media at the moment. Over the past month nothing has really changed on the front lines.

A Ukrainian serviceman smokes a cigarette in a dugout alongside his PK machine gun at a position in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine on January 22. A Ukrainian serviceman smokes a cigarette in a dugout alongside his PK machine gun at a position in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine on January 22.

Although it is generally calm here, on Friday evening (January 21), a couple of kilometers from the position where I was with some journalists, a real fight went down. There were 82-millimeter mortars working, an Utyos heavy machine gun, and outgoing and incoming RPG rounds. It lasted around 90 minutes, but the front line where it happened has been static forever. It was probably just some squabble between the two sides.

A poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin that has been used for target practice at a frontline Ukrainian position in the Luhansk region. The photo was made by Anatolii Stepanov on January 22. A poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin that has been used for target practice at a frontline Ukrainian position in the Luhansk region. The photo was made by Anatolii Stepanov on January 22.

I was with a journalist speaking to some paratroopers recently and one officer told us outright that if this rumored Russian attack comes to where we are on the front, then we will most likely all be killed. He said the soldiers on the front serve as a shield, so they would be overrun, but could buy some time for the next line of defense.

I haven’t thought about a plan of escape if an attack happens. My job is to take photos of whatever happens, and I intend to stay here in the east.

A Ukrainian fighter walks along a trench in the Luhansk region on January 22. A Ukrainian fighter walks along a trench in the Luhansk region on January 22.

I imagine there are different plans of attack, but I doubt even Russia knows which scenario it would use, if it’s intending to use any at all. It’s less than 100 kilometers from the Belarus border to Kyiv.

In summer there were artillery attacks, but now there are mostly just small weapons being used — little things. The war feels dormant right now.

Ukrainian photojournalist Andriy Dubchak (right), who founded the Donbas Frontliner Media project and is currently working near Mariupol, on the southeastern coast of Ukraine. Ukrainian photojournalist Andriy Dubchak (right), who founded the Donbas Frontliner Media project and is currently working near Mariupol, on the southeastern coast of Ukraine.

Andriy Dubchak: ‘The Mood Is Different’

Right now, the front line feels quiet — just the usual bursts of fighting, but the mood is different than it felt a few weeks ago when people were very apathetic about talk of invasion.

People before didn’t believe in the possibility. They felt it was the same situation as the similar troop and materiel buildup in the spring. Now, though, both soldiers and civilians are definitely affected by rumors of an attack. It’s hard not to be, with all the news online and on TV.

Ukrainian servicemen on January 24 lay flowers at a memorial to victims of a rocket attack that killed 31 people in Mariupol seven years earlier. Ukrainian servicemen on January 24 lay flowers at a memorial to victims of a rocket attack that killed 31 people in Mariupol seven years earlier.

I was working recently in a market in Mariupol in the same place that came under heavy shelling by Grad rocket systems in 2015, and some babushkas started shouting at me. It was a real surprise and indicates the tension people are feeling right now.

The value of the hryvnya is also dropping, and the price of petrol is rising. One soldier told me he’s “tired of waiting” for a Russian invasion and said he would "rather it was under way already.” He thought the chances of a full-scale war are about 50-50.

A young Ukrainian soldier near the front lines at an undisclosed location in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine in early January. A young Ukrainian soldier near the front lines at an undisclosed location in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine in early January.

I watched a foreign journalist making a report near a checkpoint on the outskirts of Mariupol. He was geared up in a bulletproof vest and ballistic helmet. Behind him, civilians were going about their daily lives, looking with interest at this "show." For some, it seems a little silly.

A sign warning of land mines is seen from a vehicle near the front lines in eastern Ukraine in early January. A sign warning of land mines is seen from a vehicle near the front lines in eastern Ukraine in early January.

I have a lot of experience in static trench warfare but, honestly, I don’t have knowledge of fast-moving conflict. If an invasion comes, I will be as close to the fighting as feels safe, but who knows what that means.

One journalist recently asked a soldier near the front, “Is it safe here?” The soldier was confused by the question, then he laughed out loud and responded, “This place is completely incompatible with safety.”



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