What a ‘frozen conflict’ in Ukraine would look like for ordinary people — opinion

Chris Hennemeyer explores how Russian occupation would transform the lives of ordinary Ukrainians if the war ends with an inconclusive, fragile peace.

I barely noticed the two secret policemen approaching me from opposite sides, until I felt their hands firmly grip my upper arms and pull me to the door of a modern office building. “You will come with us,” said one, dressed like his colleague in jeans and a tight black leather jacket.

They were unremarkable men, except for the large black semi-automatic weapons on their hips. I hesitated for a brief moment, unsure of how to react to this unfamiliar scenario, then told them that I wasn’t planning on going anywhere. This feeble attempt at defiance had no effect other than to conjure up a third armed man who approached from behind, placing a strong hand on my back. Seconds later I was bundled into the back seat of a nearby jeep with a military driver behind the wheel.

We raced through empty streets at insane speeds, ignoring traffic lights, stop signs, and the handful of other cars. The weather was as pleasant as it had been an hour before, the sky still a robin’s egg blue, but everything else was completely and utterly different. Wedged into the back seat between two of my abductors, I tried to determine who they were and where they were taking me, but the only response was a stolid “Everything will be clear when we reach our destination.” I contemplated the range of possibilities awaiting me: kidnapping for ransom; harsh interrogation; or perhaps a shallow grave on the outskirts of town.

Read also: Over one-quarter of Ukrainian territory remains under Russian occupation – Zelenskyy

As it turned out, my 2015 expulsion from Donetsk city ended rather benignly, with me being put on a bus to Kyiv. But what it taught me was that in the neo-Soviet world, anything is possible. Although I’d come to the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic with the approval of a local SBU [Ukraine’s security service] office, that meant nothing. Agreements, laws, and customary norms of behavior are irrelevant in criminal states.

Of course I was comparatively lucky, suffering nothing worse than a bruised ego. Countless Ukrainians have experienced far worse — death, torture, rape, and trauma — at the hands of the DPR and its Russian masters.

After more than two years of war, it’s no great surprise that many Ukrainians feel a sense of fatigue and sometimes even fatalism. Months of sleep deprivation due to drone and missile strikes, gnawing anxiety induced by endless media speculation, loss of friends and relatives, and the sense that perhaps life will never again be normal; these things take a terrible toll. And it is equally understandable that some might wonder whether some sort of “frozen peace” would not be preferable to the grim, grinding status quo. I have heard such comments.

Read also: Up to 800,000 Russians settled in Crimea after occupation, Kyiv says

The obvious question, it seems to me, is whether the alternative would be any better? I’m a foreigner, and my future is not in Ukraine, so I recognize I’m treading on dangerous ground. But my present is in Ukraine. I’m based in Odesa and travel throughout the South [of the country]. I know what it’s like to shelter from Shaheds [Iranian-made kamikaze drones used by Russia], to pass through military checkpoints, and to hear mortar shells whistling uncomfortably close.

Predicting the outcome of this conflict is a fool’s errand, especially if that fool hasn’t spent his life studying military history. Most unbiased observers believe there’s next to no chance of an outright Russian victory, especially now that the Americans and perhaps even the Europeans have woken up to Ukraine’s dire predicament. However, it is likely, as even [Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief] General [Oleksandr] Syrskyi has suggested, that Russians will capture more land in the East and even the South. That means that more people, used to living in the sometimes messy and chaotic world of modern Ukraine, will have to adapt to the very different environment of Russky Mir [Russian World]. A twilight world of criminal impunity, rampant corruption, and arbitrary violence. A place where nihilism and isolation are the future.

So, to those Ukrainians and foreigners who mutter that this war is too exhausting, too tragic, too draining, I would say: consider the alternatives for yourselves and your countrymen. A bad war may still be better than a terrible peace.

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