Every evening after sunset, my landlady, Nastya, would draw the curtains as the bombs started falling around Donetsk and tune into the TV news, broadcast across the border from Moscow.

Russia’s state-owned Rossiya 1 provided the diet of current affairs in our cramped, Soviet-era apartment. Militias had taken over transmission facilities the previous year, forcing Ukrainian fare off the airwaves in the country’s eastern, separatist heartlands.

A stout, straight-talking woman in her 60s, Nastya was twice-widowed and supplemented her meager pension by working part-time as a security guard at a supermarket. She had the night off, and she was in a fearsome mood.

“Look at this Nazi!” she seethed, as the television projected an unflattering image of Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko, the confectionery tycoon sworn into office following 2014’s pro-European Maidan revolution.

The camera panned back to the TV presenter, Dmitry Kiselyov, often characterized as Russia’s chief spin doctor, notorious for his tirades against homosexuals and the degenerate, liberal West. His lips curled into his trademark smirk as he paced across the set, deriding the Kiev “regime.”

Nastya stroked her aged, pudgy cat and narrowed her eyes. “Poroshenko stuffs his face with chocolate while he butchers the children of Donbass and kills our brave heroes with napalm.”

Napalm? “I’m fairly sure neither side is using napalm,” I ventured, instantly regretting it. I had learned to bite my tongue during the daily discussions of war and politics, in order to avoid Nastya’s breathless, long-winded outbursts in response.

Luckily, the show’s next story flashed up—a puff piece on Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s thuggish strongman. Nastya soon softened. “He’s such a lovely young man,” she beamed. “And so handsome. He’s done wonderful things for that place.”

Valeria, her daughter, a teacher in her mid-thirties, called me into the adjacent study, which doubled as my bedroom. Every night, I slept here on a tiny, fraying sofa-bed, surrounded by Orthodox icons, plastic flowers and cartoonish toy animals, often with the sound of exploding artillery shells outside, or–less often–a salvo of Grad rockets. Valeria wanted to show me her Twitter feed.

Apparently, Kiev’s “invading fascists” were goose-stepping into Donbass to crucify children and commit genocide against the region’s ethnic Russians. “It’s awful,” she lamented, almost in tears. “Isn’t it just awful? The world has abandoned us to the junta. Only Putin can save us now…”

She trailed off as a kitsch GIF featuring a trio of puppies suddenly popped up. “Jyek, look!” she cooed. “Aren’t they cute?” She tilted her head with a placid smile, then continued scrolling down for more digital harbingers of slaughter and doom.

A young girl stands outside of a pro-Russian rally in a small city in Eastern Ukraine. One sign reads: “America Leave!” Photo by Justyna Mielnikiewicz

Cognac and shelling

I had quit my desk job as a journalist in London in the spring of 2015, buying a one-way ticket to Ukraine to go freelance and cover a grinding conflict that, despite the signing of a second ceasefire, refused to go away. On my arrival in the separatist de facto capital Donetsk, it soon became apparent that two wars were being fought: one on the battlefield, the other in virtual reality. “Trolls soon started attacking my own journalistic output, the same story simultaneously deemed Russophobic or Russophilic by nationalists on either side of the line.”

The propaganda–on both sides–is exhausting and ludicrous. Every medium is exploited: website comment sections, Instagram posts, Facebook and VKontakte virals, YouTube videos, graffiti, suburban billboards, hashtags and tweets, “academic” studies, opinion polls, online reports, newspapers, radio and, above all, TV–the main source of news for the Ukrainian and Russian public. Trolls soon started attacking my own journalistic output, the same story simultaneously deemed Russophobic or Russophilic by nationalists on either side.

The Kremlin-controlled media has fuelled its information war with distortion, half-truths and outright lies, for example by exaggerating the profile of Ukraine’s marginal, far-right groups to cast Kiev as the heart of a new Third Reich. Meanwhile, many supporters of a united Ukraine regard the war solely as a struggle against terrorism and Russian aggression, rather than as a complicated conflict, with elements of civil war, whose tinder had been laid by decades of economic decay, population decline and cultural alienation. Both sides are prepared to accept utter rubbish as fact and to disregard ugly historical truths if it bolsters their cause.

Nastya and Valeria, whose names have been changed because of security concerns, were a kind, hospitable pair who showed me great affection during my two-month stay. Their allegiance in the conflict had been swayed by many factors–history and geography, ethnicity and economics, and to some degree, chance. But propaganda had proved a significant, if not principal, influence beneath the hermetic, stifling seal of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic.”

Propaganda is central to any conflict but it has reached its apotheosis with Russia’s methods of “hybrid” and “non-linear” warfare. False ceasefires are staged, armed forces are deployed without war being declared, opponent groups are infiltrated, co-opted and turned upon each other. Implausible denial follows calculated admission follows yet more denial. Confusion reigns supreme.

In the latest index of press freedom compiled by the NGO Reporters Without Borders, Ukraine rose a notable 22 places. The country came 107 out of 180 globally, thanks to a number of reforms, including increased transparency of media ownership and improved access to state-held information. But the NGO also warned of entrenched problems.

Oligarchs retain “a tight grip on the media,” intelligence services exhibit “paranoid behavior,” and the state blacklists foreign journalists perceived as hostile. There was outrage when anonymous, ultra-nationalistic hackers accessed the records of journalists accredited by the separatists, published the data on the website Mirotvorets (Peacemaker), branding us all “terrorist collaborators,” regardless of the nature of our reporting. And a string of attacks on journalists culminated in this summer’s car-bomb assassination in Kiev of the award-winning Pavel Sheremet. Many believe the killing was motivated by the prominent journalist’s professional activities.

However, the east’s lawless, separatist-controlled provinces have witnessed by far the worst abuses against press freedom, as they have become proxies to Moscow’s rule. Dissent is not tolerated and the region remains haunted by the continued threat of illegal detentions, torture and extrajudicial killings.

During nights when the shelling was particularly bad around Donetsk, Nastya and Valeria’s neighbors would join us in the cluttered kitchen where we kept up morale over plates of sliced apple and walnuts, chased with shots of cognac.

Everyone in the block seemed to support the separatist movement, including Denis, an alcoholic, chain-smoking, divorced salesman in his 40s. Regardless, he was among my favorites there, and by far the least confrontational when it came to discussing politics. “Jack—I know they’re not Nazis. But we have to believe that they are Nazis. And I do believe that, to this day, in this war, we are fighting against Nazism.”

One evening, as he topped up our glasses and the artillery thumped outside, he turned to me and said: “So, tell me about your most recent assignment.”

“I was reporting on the Ukrainian side of the front,” I replied, piquing his interest.

“Huh…How were the soldiers?”

“They were fine. You do know they’re not Nazis, right?”

“What were you expecting?” he laughed. “Devils with horns and spiky tails?”

“No, of course not. But that’s how most here think of a Ukrainian soldier.”

He took in a deep breath, then exhaled sharply. “Jack, I know they’re not Nazis. But we have to believe that they are Nazis. And I do believe that, to this day, in this war, we are fighting against Nazism.”

Photo by Justyna Mielnikiewicz

Charm offensive

Several weeks ago, at the height of this summer’s fighting, I returned to eastern Ukraine to embed among government forces on the frontline around the pitiful, battle-scarred village of Zaitseve. Upon arriving a few kilometers away at the main base–a former Soviet sanatorium–the garrulous military press officer, Sasha, told me that my paperwork had not yet arrived. So, to kill time before heading to the front, we visited a Ukrainian activist nearby.

We drove through Toretsk, a concrete, cheerless town that was among the first to fall to separatists in 2014 before Ukrainian forces wrested it back later that summer. Ukrainian flags and pro-government placards adorned every street, part of Kiev’s charm offensive against a section of the local population that feels a greater affinity with the Soviet past than with contemporary Ukraine’s national project. Many here still wonder if they are on the wrong side of the border with Russia.

The maternal, middle-aged Galina is not one of them. We arrived at her modest cottage and she ushered us into her garden, thrusting bowls of plums and trays of chocolates before us. “Oh, I must show you my photos from Independence Day!” she said, steering us into her home. Her Facebook page was plastered with pro-Ukrainian memes and photos from a recent jamboree. Sasha, the military press officer, pulled out a memory stick and started playing a homemade video–a montage of tanks, foot patrols, parades and explosions set to Ukrainian rock music. “This is wonderful, we must put this online!” grinned Galina, eyes wide. “Sasha, you are such a patriot!” “Information is the most important thing in this war,” he replied, locking his eyes on mine. “Without it, our weapons count for nothing.”

My taxi driver, a Donbass lad in his late twenties, left the room in disgust. “These fucking patriots make my skin crawl,” he muttered later. “I was pro-Ukrainian before it was mainstream.”

A few nights later, Sasha and I found ourselves in a dugout on the front as heavy machine-guns hammered around us and rocket-propelled grenades streaked the night sky. During a brief lull, I asked him how he regarded his role in the conflict. “Information is the most important thing in this war,” he replied, locking his eyes on mine. “Without it, our weapons count for nothing. I am on the frontline of this information war. You, too, are on this front.”

The sound of incoming fire interrupted him. He nudged me and shook his head at his enemy’s blatant disregard for the ceasefire. “Separatists,” he said. An artillery volley erupted nearby, clearly from the Ukrainian side.

“Outgoing?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Hard to tell.”