In Zaporizhzhia, a city of about 700,000 people (at least before the war) but largely hollowed out, there is a sense of stalemate. The town has the feeling of a military garrison. Such hotels as the city has are not available for booking, because they are full of military personnel. There is insufficient accommodation even for the very small number of aid workers present in the town, by reason of the priority given to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Shops, cafes and restaurants are opening and operating, but most of the customers seem to have something to do with the military. There are air raid sirens as often as hourly, but the sense of war fatigue is such that nobody bats an eyelid whenever they go off. Should a drone, missile or piece of artillery strike, you are expected to take your chances just as do the soldiers. There is no scramble to the air raid shelters. These risks are just a daily incident of war.
An uneasy stalemate has emerged over the city. Although the Russian front line is only a few kilometres away, the sides have dug in with a network of trenches, sandbags and sniper positions, and the main road arteries in and out of the city are not being seriously challenged. Russian artillery has withdrawn so that Zaporizhzhia itself is no longer within accurate shelling range (25-30 kilometres using the Krasnopol Russian laser-guided artillery system) but it is within inaccurate shelling range and there is always a risk of drone or missile attack. The Russians, having apparently run short of their high-quality Kalibr cruise missiles after using them early in the war, are now resorting to the use of Soviet-era cruise missiles that are far less accurate. Nevertheless it seems now that attacks upon Zaporizhzhia city itself are confined to occasional random stray episodes of aerial bombardment, possibly without official instructions but just on the whim of local Russian forces.
From time to time Russian reconnaissance drones fly overhead, scouting for targets, as Ukrainian air defences seek to shoot them down. Miscellaneous ordnance explosions take place throughout the city. On the second day I was in Zaporizhzhia, a Russian cruise missile targeted an automotive factory just outside the city centre and the city was placed into temporary lockdown, with military checkpoints springing up around town to check for Russian infiltrators. One Ukrainian Armed Forces unit stationed near the city was reported to have suffered 70% losses. The appearance of life going on as usual is superficial; the environment is constantly brimming with tension.
The civilians suffering the most are in the villages. There, life has ground to a halt as public transport has stopped running and basic amenities are not making it out from the cities. Rural life is become increasingly impoverished as a result. Also the front line runs through a string of villages that may be the subject of constant bombardment and military assault. Mobile telephone and GPS signals are subject to frequent interruption in both urban and rural areas, principally to frustrate Russian reconnaissance drones or the guidance mechanisms in Russian cruise missiles. People spend their days juggling mobile telephones, trying to connect to different mobile networks to check on friends and loved ones in places that have been under attack. Everyone’s mobile telephones constantly ping with messages reporting attack warnings or the latest massacre, deaths or injuries on the front.
The journalists have seemingly all left Zaporizhzhia. The threat of nuclear explosion at Enerhodar, the town accommodating the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant with six adjacent water-cooled nuclear reactors some 60km southwest of the city and now occupied by the Russians, may have been a contributing factor. In fact that facility, although under Russian military occupation, is probably not a threat to Zaporizhzhia even if it does explode (which now seems less likely than it once did) by reason of the fact that the prevailing winds in the region are southwesterlies. In other words, were there to be a nuclear winter emanating from a nuclear meltdown at Enerhodar, the nuclear cloud would not head towards Zaporizhzhia but southwest towards the city of Kherson, itself having recently been flooded after the Russians mined then blew up the dam at Nova Kakhovka on the Dniepr River just downstream from Enerhodar. Hence one danger the residents of Zaporizhzhia probably do not face is the risk of radioactive fallout, although that is scant consolation given the daily risks to their lives and welfare.
It is manifest that insufficient attention is being paid in the West either to Zaporizhzhia or the settlements surrounding it, and that the omnipresence of the war in this region is being overlooked. Zaporizhzhia could well benefit from an influx of international peacekeepers, development funding, and stabilisation assistance. Were there to be a substantial international presence in the region, rather than just a small number of well-intentioned volunteers the assistance of whom is undoubtedly hugely appreciated by local people but without sufficient numbers or support cannot make the sort of fundamental difference needed to change the conflict politics of the region, real progress might be made in southeastern Ukraine. The Russians would not dare to bomb daily a city with a substantial international presence of journalists, UN or other international peacekeepers, state-building officials and other international civil society representatives with stature and standing.
The West can do more to assist the Ukrainians in the conflict in the southeast, the epicentre of which is the Zaporizhzhia region. It is possible to insert a substantial international legitimising presence into Zaporizhzhia, the consequences of which may be to prevent the relentless Russian bombardment and onslaught of the city and its surrounding settlements. Such a presence may lower the temperature of the conflict in southeastern Ukraine, which at the current time comprises a bloody stalemate between the Ukrainian Armed Forces and Russian military groups using dirty tactics such as the deployment of reconnaissance drones to blow up harmless civilian light industry. The perpetual reign of terror in Zaporizhzhia might be brought to an end, or at least reduced in intensity, in return for a relatively modest international civilian investment in the region. International civilian engagement in Zaporizhzhia and its surrounding areas is one amongst the menu of constructive options available for the West in deciding how most effectively to reduce the intensity and damage done by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.