“Geopolitics and life at the frontline are two very different realities.”

Interview with Francis Farrell, journalist at The Kyiv Independent

Marit Amsterdam
On February 24, 2022 Russia launched the largest war in Europe since the Second World War. Francis Farrell is an Australian journalist who studied in Leiden and now works for the Kyiv Independent. He often reports from the trenches in Eastern Ukraine and speaks to Ukrainians who, for better or for worse, try to survive in their basements. “Civilians near the frontline have no way of knowing what’s going on geopolitically.”

You were present at the Munich Security Conference and last week you were in Sweden speaking to the Minister of Defence of the newest NATO member country. Now you’re back in Ukraine reporting on the war, often from the frontlines. How has this experience been for you?

“It felt surreal to be in Munich, especially while the city of Avdiivka fell, because I had just come from the frontlines. When you’re close to the battlefield with Russia it’s all about the physical aspects of war: explosion, trenches and drones. But Ukraine’s ability to stay in the fight very much depends on this diplomatic, geopolitical, international front. It is in places like Munich, where these things are decided. It was very interesting to feel that atmosphere, which was quite gloomy because the war had taken a turn for the worse. The biggest source of gloom, however, seemed to be the words of Donald Trump just a week before, where he had said that America under Trump wouldn’t defend NATO countries if they didn’t live up to the 2% defense spending. There was this feeling of Europe needing to step up and be more responsible for their own security.”

Soldiers examine a house recently destroyed by a Russian bomb in Orikhiv, Zaporizhzhia Oblast, on Sept. 14, 2023 (photo: Francis Farrell / Kyiv Independent).

You made a field report a couple of weeks ago, from the trenches in the east of Ukraine, speaking to the soldiers there about the immense shortages. What’s it like to see the decision-making that could change this, and the situation on the ground from such close proximity?

“That’s another painful thing for Ukraine. Every political decision takes a lot longer than it should. It takes a lot of time for weapon systems to arrive in Ukraine and be ready to use. The same goes for the arrival of the American Abrams tanks last year, which arrived too late for the counter-offensive. Things do arrive in Ukraine that the army is able to use, but time itself is a crucial factor. Especially for the counter-offensive last summer. It was a very decisive factor in this counter-offensive that Russia had so much time to prepare their defensive lines.”

You’ve spoken to a lot of civilians and soldiers near the frontlines. Do you feel like these people still have the capacity to follow these developments? Do you know their view on this?

“A lot of the civilians that are close to the frontlines, unfortunately have been living under these circumstances for such a long time in a kind of survival mode, where everything around them is being destroyed and they rely on free humanitarian aid. There is no phone connection, and people live in their basements, to shelter from the war. They have no way to know what’s going on geopolitically; it’s a very different reality. They have gotten so used to that life, that they think ‘I’ve stayed for so long; it’s no use to leave now’. Often, they also don’t have anywhere to go.”

A resident of Drobysheve, Donetsk Oblast, shows where a Russian aviation bomb destroyed his neighbor’s house on Oct. 4, 2022 (photo: Francis Farrell / Kyiv Independent).

The role of civil society in Ukraine has been quite influential. How do you see the role of civil society in Ukraine? Has it changed since the war?

“In general, what has happened since the full-scale invasion, is that there are a lot of grassroots organizations that popped up to fundraise for both civilians and the military. Something very particular about Ukrainian society during the war has been this culture of donations and crowdfunding for the military especially. Most soldiers must find and buy a lot of their own equipment such as cars, drones, bulletproof vests, and generators. It’s quite normal for civilians to regularly contribute rather large sums of money every month from their relatively small income. In terms of civil society, there’s also many anti-corruption organizations, watchdogs and independent media that are still active. The topic of corruption and democracy at war is a very difficult one in Ukraine, but it’s a good thing that Ukraine still has both independent media and civil society to keep the government accountable and as transparent as possible. Wartime is an easy time to concentrate power and to start to break the rules.”

Francis Farrell is a reporter at The Kyiv Independent.

Marit Amsterdam is an intern at the Netherlands Atlantic Association. She studies Interdisciplinary Social Sciences at the University of Amsterdam.