“If you just follow this road a couple of kilometres east, you’ll be in Russian territory”, a lady in the street cheerfully told me today as I was walking through the centre of eastern Kramatorsk. I hadn’t realised there was a distinction between eastern Kramatorsk and western Kramatorsk, but it turns out that it’s a bit like the difference between east and west Beirut. West Beirut is quiet and safe, while east Beirut is anarchic, chaotic and noisy. I don’t think I’d realised how close eastern Kramatorsk runs to Russian positions, until I heard this lady’s comments and I also observed that the city centre in eastern Kramatorsk is awash with fully dug trench positions. So the Russians are able effectively just to march into the centre of (eastern) Kramatorsk with virtually no opposition, because there is nobody actually in those trench positions. Eastern and western Kramatorsk are divided by a murky frozen river I will name the “River Styx” because I can imagine the boatman Charon carrying the souls of the living irreversibly across it: that’s how dark and miserable it looks. But it is frankly extraordinary that this city hasn’t been taken by the Russians, and that is something that calls for explanation.
It turns out that there are a number of positions in the Kramatorsk region where you can just walk over or cross the front line unimpeded, and not just outside Kramatorsk and in the vicinity of Sviatohirsk, as I learned earlier today. Another interlocutor this afternoon, over coffees and pizza in western Kramatorsk, told me of a route across the front line I had long heard rumoured to exist east of Kostyantynivka where the Russian checkpoint guards simply don’t check you. They don’t want to know what’s going on: you might shoot at them, or they might have to fill in some paperwork or talk to the FSB, and they certainly don’t want any of those things. It’s particularly remote and you just drive straight past them and nobody says a thing. You can even take a vehicle. The Donbas is full of all these ill-kept secrets about the permeability of the front line; and people come to me and ask me how to cross the front line. There are dozens of ways, many of them perfectly safe if you have the right story and papers and navigable even if you don’t. In many ways this is a fake war, something I have said before: the front line is fixed, and even though it is full of holes and vulnerabilities people don’t take advantage of them because this war is in a stalemate phase in which nobody much wants to know.
I also heard today that several communities close to the front line have been hollowed out to just a few thousand people in this area. In Sviatohirsk, the front line community north of Sloviansk that I visited today, I counted the local population as about 5 people including farmyard animals. There is nobody left in these places yet they remain unoccupied really by any side, just sitting sadly in no-man’s-land with maybe a checkpoint guard or two but nothing of any determination or showing sophistication. These solitary checkpoints are not overrun; they are just ignored. The front line in the Donbas has come to a halt and nobody seems in the mood to get it moving again.
In fact I have become ever more persuaded that Kramatorsk is operating as a sort of neutral zone between the parties, in which in theory there is a front line but in practice it is routinely breached. The centre of the city is a series of small stalls and wooden shacks selling all manner of bric-a-brac from both sides of the front line: Ukrainian Armed Force flag patches and Russian trench boots alike. It reminds me of a place now long forgotten in the history of wartime Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Arizona Market, in which the precarious de facto neutrality of a small portion of territory was preserved notwithstanding its theoretically belonging to one of the warring parties in the conflict, where people could meet, families could be reunited and small trade could be done across the front line of a war. Also in the Arizona Market, checkpoints were ignored and shells conveniently missed the shambolic market but hit any military targets in the environs. That is pretty much what seems to happen in Kramatorsk: there is a general atmosphere of permissiveness in which anything goes as long as you don’t resort to violence. So the soldiers in Kramatorsk don’t carry guns (or at least I haven’t seen any of them) and not too many questions are asked about who you are or why you are there.
I never made it to Sloviansk today. Although I am interested in what the International Legion is doing there and what they are going through, it doesn’t seem that any of them want to speak to me. The front line hasn’t moved around Bakhmut, in respect of which Sloviansk is effectively the forward operating base for the International Legion, either: it remains about 1 kilometre outside Bakhmut’s outer suburbs, and this territory is all controlled by the Russians, and they show no interest in moving further forwards although anything that comes towards Bakhmut that doesn’t look like a harmless civilian will end up shelled. So Bakhmut is entirely permeable to Russian and Ukrainian civilians, but foreigners shouldn’t go close. The fight for Bakhmut came to an end towards the end of 2022 and that hasn’t changed, and no foreigners are going to upset the delicate ceasefire there. That I think is the message I have learned about Bakhmut from being in Kramatorsk, although I must emphasise again that no International Legion troops will talk to me, on or off the record, and therefore the conclusions I have reached are surmise, albeit based on clear evidence. The battle for Bakhmut is long over and the International Legion is kept at bay, held off from trying to change the facts on the ground, by a relentless pounding of artillery.
I leave you with a selection of photographs of trenches (empty) in central Kramatorsk, and of the bric-a-brac market that dominates the centre of the city. I have learned that there remain perhaps 15 to 20 international volunteers still working in Kramatorsk, which is not many but more than many places. As far as I can tell, they are engaged in the provision of medical supplies to civilians in frontline communities who refuse to relocate elsewhere in Ukraine. Their work is admirable, if inevitably frustrating, because this hard and vacant front line, in which a phoney war seems destined to be continued indefinitely, has no obvious end in sight.