Inside the NYTimes: Reporting on the Ground in Ukraine

From an Inside the Times column by Emmett Lindner  headlined “Reporting on the Ground in Ukraine”:

As Russian troops are dispatched to Ukraine’s borders, the threat of a major assault on the country continues to escalate. Ukrainian soldiers stand guard at possible points of invasion, including sections of irradiated zones near Chernobyl. The United States has sent troops to NATO countries and has pulled most diplomats from Kyiv, Ukraine and world leaders are in contact with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to try to negotiate peace in the region. In a one-hour phone call on Saturday, President Biden warned Mr. Putin that an invasion would result in “swift and severe” costs.

Andrew E. Kramer, a Times Moscow correspondent, has been reporting from Kyiv and the Ukrainian border since November, speaking with soldiers, civilians and diplomats to gain a sense of what the conflict looks like from the ground.

What has the atmosphere been at the border and in Kyiv?

You would expect more nervousness than you actually see, and part of the bigger story here is that the Ukrainians have been less worried on an official level and in society than the U.S. government about the Russian buildup. You also see in eastern Ukraine that soldiers didn’t articulate particular worry — but they’re also soldiers.

It’s not exactly calm. This is the line of contact between Russian-backed separatists and government forces. It’s been compared to the Berlin Wall in a sense because it divides these villages and fields out of eastern Ukraine between two political camps, and the people on both sides are very similar. It’s a sense of waiting for the unknown.

What’s your approach to reporting?

It’s been a story that is largely about expectation and ascertaining the intentions of Russian commanders who deploy troops near the Ukrainian border. There’s been a lot of high-level diplomacy, and a lot of it has come through Kyiv, so that reporting is done by keeping an eye on Ukrainian statements and press conferences. The other part of it has been reporting on the military situation and the ongoing conflict in the east. We don’t know if that will be the site of a potential escalation, but it is certainly a likely one. It also really shows the stakes — there already is a war going on in Ukraine, and we’re talking about whether it’s going to get worse.

I spent a night in a bunker with the soldiers in eastern Ukraine, which was uncomfortable. These are dug-out structures; you go under the ground level and you have bunk beds. They usually smell very dank and are warmed by wood fires. It’s a bit like camping, but not the most pleasant parts. The soldiers cook all their own food. Their rifles hang on pegs, and there are logs and rubber boots and warm coats hanging up in these underground, cavelike environments.

The photographers have done a good deal more work in these conditions, and have continually covered these sites. The burden of the reporting on the line of contact has really been on the photographers.

What are the biggest hurdles to covering these events?

The biggest barrier to covering the conflict since around 2015 has been access to the pro-Russian side. We haven’t been given accreditation, although we’ve applied for it to look at what’s been happening in the occupied areas, how people live and how happy or unhappy they are with what’s happened.

It’s also been a story that involves source reporting. There’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomacy as well as very public diplomacy. To stay ahead of this story has been a task of finding people in the Ukrainian and U.S. governments who are willing to provide guidance on where the story might be going.

Do you have any idea of what comes next?

We try to report what happens rather than predicting the future. I think that’s been one of the challenges of the story — to not lean into one possible outcome too heavily. We all follow certain threads and maybe see the logic of one course of events or another. The challenge really is to make sure that it was reported thoroughly and that our reporting reflects what’s happened, what’s been discussed and what that signifies for the future.

Are there any instances that capture what you hope to express in your reporting?

The story is always better if it has a human element. I spent time talking to the soldiers — one of them had his marriage fall apart; others had suffered health problems. This geopolitical standoff is already evident in not only the 14,000 lives that have been lost on both sides, but in the way people’s futures have been disrupted. Their well-being has been harmed.

We’re now at an interesting inflection point where it might get a lot worse. That’s really the issue about this geopolitical contest in Eastern Europe — it’s also about the people who live in this area and what’s going to happen to them.

Emmett Lindner has covered international protests, worked on live briefings and asked the tough questions about frozen reindeer meat for The Times.

 

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