Into the Abyss in Ukraine
War came suddenly for the hordes of reporters who streamed into the country ahead of Russia’s full-scale assault of its neighbor
A week and a half ago, there was still time for journalists to hang out in Ukraine. When freelance conflict reporter Jack Crosbie, who previously covered the conflict in the country’s Russian-backed separatist regions in 2015, flew into Kyiv on Sunday, February 13, the country was already swarming with reporters. Russia had started maneuvering troops nearby, and a wider war seemed to be on the brink of heating up. “This is the biggest story in the world right now, obviously,” Crosbie told The Fine Print. “Everyone wanted to get to the front,” said Kenneth Rosen, a former staff reporter for The New York Times turned freelancer for Politico, The New Republic, and elsewhere, who showed up for a roughly two-week stint in early February. “A media representative for a frontline brigade told me he’d upward of 70 journalists staying overnight (generally a one-night tour) in the last two weeks.”
Crosbie landed around six that Sunday evening. “I hadn’t slept at all,” he recalled. He recognized most of the journalists he met when he arrived from his previous reporting trip. “I haven’t run into too many first-timers out here,” he said. “The guy that I was going to be traveling with, who was my reporting partner the last time I was out here, was flying in on Monday, and we had an Airbnb booked on Monday night. But for Sunday night, I was like, ‘I’m going to be exhausted,’ so I booked a room.” He chose a hotel where he knew his friend Christopher Miller, a BuzzFeed correspondent, was staying, and he planned to meet up with The Guardian’s Shaun Walker. “I just checked in and then texted them, ‘What’s up?’” he said. “They were like, ‘We’re going to dinner.’ And so I went to dinner with them. Then I went back to the room and slept for like 10 hours. That was essentially the extent of the reunion.” He soon found that the pace of events meant he had little time for socializing. “I haven’t seen or hung out with a ton of journalists this trip. I’ve actually been much busier than I was last time. The frenetic pace of news developments in the story since I’ve been out here has meant,” he said, “I’ve been very much from one city to the other, etc., etc., etc., filing pieces, so I haven’t hung out as much.”
On Monday, Crosbie moved to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, close to the Russian border. Though he was further from the frontline than he’d been at other times during the trip, he kept up conversations with journalists in other regions to stay informed. “I’ve DM’d or WhatsApp’d or texted half a dozen different journalists today that are in different parts of the country, just basically being like, ‘What’s going on where you are? What’s the situation like? What’s happening?’” he said. “That’s the constant thing that you’re doing in this country, or in any country when you’re covering a conflict, especially as a freelancer, you’re trying to figure out where the story is, and where you can go and how you can get there.” That network of journalists came in handy on Wednesday. “We were maybe thinking about going back down to a city called Kramatorsk, which is near to the frontline. It’s where you have to go to get into Avdiivka,” he said. “I was texting with some people down there, and they were like, ‘Kramatorsk is full, man. All the hotels are booked up. There are so many journalists here. You can’t get a driver. You can’t get a fixer. Everyone’s doing stuff down here.’” So they decided to stay in Kharkiv.
Crosbie reached out to Rolling Stone before leaving Brooklyn. “I have a good relationship with the editors there. I told them I was going and they helped me out with some of the bureaucratic hurdles,” he said. “So I’m sort of, I guess unofficially, giving them the right to first of refusal on most of the stuff that I file out here.” The magazine paid for his emergency medical insurance but didn’t cover most of his reporting expenses. “It’s always funny when you see people that are on staff and they’ve got everything paid for,” he said. “You can approach your reporting in a completely different way when you don’t have to worry about that. For me, I’ve always got to think of like, ‘Well, I can try and do this story, but it’s going to take me probably three days of reporting to get and if I’m shelling out $100 a day for my driver fixer, on the low end, plus fuel, plus lodging and stuff like that to get the reporting for the story, when I know that who I pitched the story to is only going to give me 500 bucks for it,’ that can be a struggle.”
A lack of resources also limits the contingency plans freelancers can make. The conflict in Ukraine has taken place on multiple fronts, including cyberattacks on Ukrainian government sites. If those escalate into a full-scale attack on communications infrastructure, including phone and internet service, or if those are knocked out in some other way, the question arises of how reporters will get their work out to the rest of the world. Crosbie said he didn’t have a plan for that situation. “Your options there are relying on local telecommunications networks or you have a sat phone — and sat phones are expensive,” he said, “and I don’t have one.” Rosen maintains fairly complex procedures to mitigate against that risk. “At regular intervals, I upload copies of my research, audio files, transcribed notes, and story drafts to an encrypted cloud server and emergency contacts,” he said. “I have other contingencies in place for digital security, but those are private.”
Rosen said that in his case, at least, there were some upsides to being a freelancer in a war zone. “My mental health is at times worse without ongoing support through a staff job,” he said. “But my home life is better without the constant workaday mentality, meaning I have the flexibility to take assignments that I can run with and at whatever interval I choose. So in that way, being an independent journalist fosters a much-needed respite against the world at large.” After his first stint was up, Rosen returned to his home in Italy for what he’s planning will be a short breather before he heads back to Ukraine.
For Crosbie, the differences between the staff print journalists and the freelancers pale compared to the divide between them and the TV news crews. “They’re kind of in their own stratosphere,” he said. “They don’t really experience or report on the conflict anywhere remotely like the way that writers and photographers or freelance videographers do. They roll into town and they’ve got security teams and are staying in nice hotels and immediately hoover up, oftentimes, the best fixers and drivers. They’re rolling through. They’ve pretty much got it made.”
The other big divide is between those journalists who have Ukrainian government credentials to work on the frontline and those who don’t. “There was a grueling 30-day process for accreditation to visit advanced positions and the frontline,” Rosen said. “Just from the level of attention that this story has gotten, the Ukrainian office that processes foreign press accreditation for what’s known as the Joint Forces Operations zone, the JFO area, has been completely overwhelmed with media requests,” Crosbie explained. “There’s been a lot of journalists that have applied for it and gotten denied for it that should have gotten it, so it’s been a real nightmare to get.”
Though he applied for accreditation, Crosbie didn’t get it before heading east. It wasn’t strictly necessary for the kind of reporting he’d come to the country to do. “There’s a lot more value, in covering conflict, in covering the people who are not involved in it by choice. I think getting the perspective right on the frontlines is an important part of journalism, but it’s not one that I thought was the most important or the most compelling,” he said. “The shape of those military embeds and the stories that you get from them literally has not changed in seven years. I did those stories in 2015 and I’ve been talking to my friends who did those stories in 2015. They’re like, ‘literally, nothing has changed.’ You go in there, you sit in a trench for a week, and you take pictures of soldiers’ backs because they don’t want to show you their faces. Or occasionally you get to make some nice portraits of ones that will show you their face. And you get quotes from soldiers being like, ‘Look over there, the Russians are right there.’ And you look over there, and the Russians are right there. And then at night, they shoot at you. And you get to write a story that’s like the Russians shot at us. And it’s like, well, yeah, they did. So I didn’t want to do that this trip because, ideally, I didn’t want to get shot at by the Russians.”
Despite his lack of interest in getting shot, Crosbie wanted to see how the civilians closest to the frontline were living. After a few days in Kyiv, he decided to post up in Avdiivka, a small city about eight miles from Donetsk that has seen fighting during the conflict. “Soldiers often aren’t stationed right in the civilian areas of the town,” he said, “but the frontlines and the trenches will be sometimes as close as a couple of hundred meters away, depending on where you are in the town.” Usually, journalists need to show their accreditation at military checkpoints along the road to get there. “We had to find a way to get into this town where that wasn’t going to be an issue,” he said. “So we had a driver that knew backroads and could get us around the checkpoints, just so we could be there in the civilian areas.”
He gets some of his logistical information from Facebook groups. “In international correspondent journalism, there’s a huge amount of Facebook groups. The Ukraine one is actually getting really big, obviously, because it’s been around since 2014,” he said. “These are secret invite-only Facebook groups, but I know that there are ones for basically every country and conflict. So if you’re going to South Sudan or you’re going to Iraq or Syria or wherever you have to just find a buddy that’s like, ‘Hey, do you know anyone who’s in the Iraq logistics group? Can you add me?’”
Early in his time in Ukraine, Crosbie had been skeptical of claims that an invasion was imminent. “Is an invasion possible? Absolutely. Is it probable? Honestly, who knows?” he wrote in a February 16 post on Discourse Blog. “But you’d have to be extremely gullible to believe it’s as ensured as the Biden administration says it is.” His outlook started to change on Monday when Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a televised address in which he argued that Ukraine as currently constituted was a development of relatively recent vintage and recognized the governments of the separatist republics. “At the beginning of the conflict, it seemed hard to conceptualize a logical or rational reasoning that Putin would have to engage in a full-scale war in Ukraine,” Crosbie said on Wednesday, before the invasion. “I think that calculus has shifted because he’s made it clear through his public statements and speeches and things like that, that he’s not exactly treating this situation from a completely rational lens.” He pondered what events would force him to think about leaving. “If there’s a full invasion of the country — obviously that’s the worst possible case scenario that I am here to cover and would want to cover — but I think if there’s that, the situation becomes so unpredictable that you start looking immediately to have some kind of exit plan,” he said. “A full invasion would be something where I would be looking to stay a few more days, a week more, or something like that, and cover the situation as it develops, but also like trying to figure out how I can get out.”
By the time Crosbie spoke with The Fine Print, around midnight in Kharkiv on Wednesday, even the most skeptical observers had difficulty denying that Russia seemed to be moving toward invading Ukraine. “The Western media has been crying wolf for so long, now that the actual wolf appears to have sidled up a little bit closer to town, it’s like what the fuck do we do?” he said. “I’m going to sleep tonight with my bags packed and my boots next to the edge of my bed, which is not something that I have done previously, but that seems wise. That’s kind of all I can do at the moment.”
Before dawn in Moscow on Thursday, Putin declared that Russia was launching “a special military operation” to facilitate what he called the “demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.” Soon after, reports proliferated of explosions rocking Kharkiv and cities across the country, including Kyiv. International condemnation came quickly. “President Putin, in the name of humanity, bring your troops back to Russia,” said António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, in a statement after a special meeting of the security council. “Do not allow to start in Europe what could be the worst war since the beginning of the century.” Crosbie published a Rolling Stone story and fretted about his relationship to jokes about the conflict. “im pissed man i was so close to being asleep and now we’ve had to put the kettle on,” he tweeted a little before 6 a.m. Kharkiv time, before adding, “please don’t take this dumb tweet as a suggestion that i am being cavalier about one of the most destructive world events of our lifetimes.”