Reporter’s Notebook: An Apocalyptic War With No End?

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the western Ukrainian town of Ternopil was full at lunch time — as it has been most days since Russia invaded Ukraine.

“The cathedral is full of people praying for peace,” Archbishop Vasyl Semeniuk told me. But as I reported Thursday, the Greek-Catholic prelate can sound like a holy warrior: He sees Vladimir Putin’s army as an evil that must be overcome so it cannot again attack Ukraine or others. His sentiment is not out of line with the thoughts of many in his flock.

While no one wants a long war, both growing confidence and fury with what weeks of war have done to Ukraine — with the loss of life and widespread damage — has left many Ukrainians in no mood to concede very much to Russia to end the fighting.

“You have to do what you have to do, if you want to keep what you have, or get what you want,” one of Semeniuk’s priests told me. He said he hopes for peace but suspects this might turn into a long war.

Anti-Russia sentiments are hardening. A group of lawmakers has drafted a law to strip the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate — an autonomous church subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church — of its property, churches and monasteries. More than 150 of its churches have already defected to the smaller Kyiv-based Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

Their priests and congregants have reacted furiously to the spiritual defense that Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has made for Russia’s invasion. In weekly broadcasts the 75-year-old Kirill has depicted the war as an apocalyptic battle against evil forces determined to shatter the God-given unity of Holy Russia. He has described the conflict as having a “metaphysical significance” as he echoes President Putin’s painting of a depraved and decadent West.

The late American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who played a key role in negotiating the 1995 Dayton Accords that put an end to the three-and-a-half-year-long Bosnian War, used to say that warring parties could only strike a peace deal when both had become exhausted. It is not clear that either Russia or Ukraine is yet exhausted.

But many people are — the millions of Ukrainians who are displaced, mainly sheltering in central and western Ukraine.

The displaced

Outside Ternopil’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, local volunteers crowd around a truck delivering humanitarian aid sent by churches in Sicily. They quickly unload its contents for distribution — the consignment including food, clothes and diapers. They make short work of the unloading.

Nearby, some of the displaced sort through items already laid out in front of the cathedral.

“People come here from the east and south of Ukraine with nothing,” says Maria, a 30-year-old local journalist. “They arrive with just what they were wearing when they crawled out of bunkers and fled.”

She has taken time off from work to help with the humanitarian effort.

“They need clothes, shampoo, soap, food and toys for the kids,” she adds. “They also have no money — most Ukrainians live from month to month and don’t have savings.”

Some 230 kilometers to the east, in the crowded central Ukrainian town of Vinnytsia, accommodating the steady influx of evacuees from farther east and south is becoming harder.

Despite local aid efforts here on the ground, most continue moving west.

“People come here in an awful state: they’re physically exhausted because the way here is long and most probably they were staying in the basements and in shelters for days and weeks in terrible conditions,” says Valeriy Dyakiv, director of a reception facility sheltering around 300 evacuees.

Dyakiv told me air raid sirens sounded at the same time a young couple was arriving with their child, after having been under shelling for days.

The couple’s daughter “got a panic attack; she started screaming and she couldn’t keep quiet and so he hugged her, and then she finally calmed, eventually,” Dyakiv said.

People from all walks of life shelter at Dyakiv’s reception — among them theater director Oleksandr Kovshun and thespian Olena Prystup. Kovshun is the director of the world famous Berezil Theater in Kharkiv, the beleaguered eastern Ukrainian town.

“The building is still intact,” he tells me. But a building next door was struck by a Russian missile.

Prystup said many of the theater company sheltered at the Berezil for 10 days mainly huddled in the capacious wardrobe. She and her photographer husband decided to leave the city when the neighboring building was hit. She has been in Vinnytsia for three weeks and with Kovshun has organized drama classes and poetry readings for the kids.

“But I so want to go back to our theater,” she says.

Journalists

Journalists are urging Ukrainian authorities to clarify and discuss wartime reporting rules following a series of ugly confrontations between TV crews and Ukrainian officials and soldiers at media centers in both Kyiv and Lviv, as well as on the streets. A team of British broadcasters was at the center of a heated confrontation Thursday when Ukrainian soldiers waved guns at the reporter and crew as they filmed blast scenes from Russian missile strikes.

Ukrainian authorities say real-time footage can be used by Russian commanders to assess the impact of missile strikes and to repeat an attack, if they judge it unsuccessful. Foreign TV crews have been accused of being “camera killers.”

Media companies say the Russians have other means for damage assessment — including footage and images they get from drones and satellites. They also point out that the Russian armed forces are notorious in Syria for striking at targets twice. The technique is called a “double tap” — when an initial strike is followed by a second attack shortly after, targeting and often killing rescuers and first responders who have converged on the site.

There have been mounting frustrations among the foreign press corps over accreditation hold-ups, resulting in applications taking weeks to receive approval or never materializing at all. Ukrainian photographers have complained of being obstructed in Kyiv and having their cameras snatched or broken. Journalists, led by the local Ukrainian media, appealed this week to authorities to develop more transparent rules for covering Russian shelling.

With relations souring, Ukraine’s defense and culture ministries issued a statement this week urging the media to adhere to the rules of martial law. They praised the media, saying: “It is difficult to overestimate the work of a journalist in wartime. Working in combat zones, they are constantly in an atmosphere of fear and tension, risking their own lives to convey the most complete, true and unbiased picture of developments.

But they continued: “Under martial law, information must be balanced and portioned, as the enemy is constantly monitoring the information field to counter Ukrainian defenders. So, we call on the media to continue to follow the rules during martial law so as not to endanger themselves and others.”

The ministries acknowledged the tensions, adding that after the war, government and media can pool their experience and “work together to develop the necessary solutions for more effective interaction.”

In the meantime, media organizations — foreign and local — are worried at the lack of clarity about what is allowed or not.