Fragments from a War Diary, Part #150
The city of Chernivtsi in southwestern Ukraine has an important history and it has served as a capital of various historical states over a number of centuries. The strong historical connections with Romania and with the Austro-Hungarian Empire are evident in the distinctive architecture everywhere in the centre. However my first impressions of the city were ones of the commitment and sacrifice made by the men of Chernivtsi in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia starting in 2014.
The city’s principal pedestrian walkway, Kobylyanska Street, has a series of harrowing descriptions of soldiers fighting to resist the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, many of whom went to join the Azov Brigades in resistance to the Russian invasion of Mariupol. Those soldiers ended up besieged in the Azov steel factory and they eventually surrendered to the Russian Armed Forces and were taken prisoners of war. Many of those men either died in Mariupol, or are now incarcerated in Russian penal facilities in harsh conditions, or have died or been killed in Russian custody. A wall of their photographs, many of them with their loved ones, lines Kobylyanska Street and makes for depressing and grim reading. In the city’s main square at the end of Kobylyanska Street is a memorial for the soldiers from Chernivtsi who died resisting the Russian-backed forces’ invasion of Donbas in 2014: a war which continued into the following year and saw intense fighting and significant losses of Ukrainian territory including the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Many of the soldiers fighting that war on the Ukrainian side were from Chernivtsi and the city centre is strewn with memorials to them.
On a map, Chernivtsi feels a long way from the front line in eastern Ukraine and its history is tied up with the history of Romania and the historical region of Galicia far more than with the Soviet Union. That may be why the men of Chernivtsi were so keen to travel to the front line in 2014 and then again in 2022 to resist the Russian occupation of Ukrainian territory. For them, as a far flung outpost of the Soviet Union only since 1944, Soviet culture and Russian domination feels very alien. You are far more likely to get by in Romanian or even German in Chernivtsi than you are speaking Russian. This region has a nationalist sentiment all of its own which has caused particular resentment against Russian attempts to dominate Ukraine and we see that in the monuments to the city’s recent dead.
All this makes me wonder what we are to do about the problem of prisoners of war in the current conflict. By all accounts there are up to 10,000 Ukrainian prisoners of war who remain in Russian custody but the parties to the conflict have been able to cooperate periodically to agree on prisoner swaps. This seems a largely ad hoc set of arrangements in which each side waits until they have enough prisoners of the other side in order to initiate another round of hostage swap negotiations. Now that the front line has been fixed for such a substantial period of time - essentially for the last twelve months - large numbers of prisoners of war are not being taken or exchanged and the prisoner swaps that occurred in the first year of the war have not been repeated.
This means that thousands of people remain prisoners of war in extremely difficult and potentially lethal conditions of custody. I was reading an account of one man from Chernivtsi who died in a Russian penal colony, apparently being murdered after attempting some sort of breakout or disruption there. The prisoners are being starved, fed barely any food and very little information is returning to their families about their conditions. In fact we do not know whether all these prisoners of war are still alive or whether they are suffering an attrition in their numbers due to the brutal conditions for which Russian penal colonies are notorious. These penal colonies have particularly high fatality rates in the winter season, which is coming up, as temperatures in Russia and in occupied Ukraine drop dramatically and therefore frost is added to hunger and brutality as potential sources of lethality.
This war is crying out for some sort of resolution because so many people are suffering interminably on a daily basis. I looked at the amputees in Lviv and I have cried with the internally displaced peoples in Mykolaïv. I have seen the shelling damage to the beautiful historical city of Kherson. I have seen entire cities in free Donetsk Oblast washed out, the building structures destroyed and gutted, the people having fled over a decade ago as Ukraine and Russia fought over the Donbas front line and everyone ran away, never to return. Now the same front line is alive again and soldiers are risking their lives and risking mutilation on a daily basis. Even in Chernivtsi, relatives and friends are anxious about the fate of their loved ones sitting, rotting in Russian prison camps thousands of kilometres away, and men of fighting age are being torn away from families in the streets by soldiers enforcing mandatory conscription orders against people minding their own business. Cruelty and harshness are becoming daily, casual events in wartime Ukraine and this is at risk of dehumanising a cultured and civilised nation.
I am ever more convinced that to prevent the ongoing moral degradation I witness around me every day, and to mitigate the suffering of the Ukrainian people, this war needs to be brought to some sort of expedited conclusion and ever more fresh thinking is required in order to achieve this. Prolonging this war assists the Russian side, because Russian President Vladimir Putin does not care how many people die or suffer; such figures are irrelevant to his totalitarian calculus because he does not have to stand in genuine democratic elections that would test his popularity by reference to factors such as the degree of his barbarism. Russia’s war economy, Mr Putin no doubt estimates, can withstand the toils of war indefinitely and Ukraine’s cannot. Therefore some dramatic change in the war’s parameters, one way or another, is required in order to place Ukraine on a renewed upper footing. I have a number of ideas as to what those may be, but those reflections are for another day.