Reporter with deep ties to Maine tells of fear, uncertainty in Ukraine

Feb. 22—Mike Eckel was making his way back from the front lines of Eastern Ukraine when his cell signal was finally strong enough to talk.

Had the conversation been delayed even a day, things might be radically different, he said Monday. Such is the uncertainty in the separatist regions of the country, where a few dozen miles to the east, thousands of Russian troops stand at the border ready to invade in the largest build-up of military force since World War II.

"We've been out on the frontline position today with a Ukrainian unit," said Eckel, 50, a journalist for Radio Free Europe based in Prague who has deep ties to Maine. "Putin being who he is, we're all kind of waiting on tenterhooks."

He has been in Ukraine for a month, but the malaise of uncertainty has accelerated over the last several days and Eckel has repeatedly delayed his travel back to his home base in Prague as the specter of conflict grows.

As the world watches, one of the voices it hears will be Eckel's.

Eckel's path to Eastern Europe began in Maine three decades ago, when his study of the Russian language and culture at Colby College in Waterville became a fixation. Eckel studied abroad in a remote village east of Moscow around 1992. It was a historic moment, only a few years, after the fall of the Iron Curtain but before major steps toward westernization.

"We were the first Americans to live and study in this town," he said. "I had this itch. It gets into your system and you can't get it out. It's a mild obsession you end up having."

Since then, he's found ways to get back to the region.

After he graduated from Colby, Eckel worked for a language exchange program in Russia run by Vermont's Middlebury College, and that gave him the chance to wander and discover the country for himself.

"I'd end up in these crazy, off-the-beaten-path places talking to people," he said. "One of the joys of being a reporter is sitting and listening to people and hearing their stories and trying to find out what makes them tick and see the universe the way they do."

When his position at Middlebury ended, Eckel returned to Maine, chewing over his future. He decided to pursue journalism at the SALT Institute for Documentary Studies, which is now incorporated as a graduate certificate program at Maine College of Art and Design.

After a short stint writing for the Norway Advertiser Democrat, Eckel was hired in 1998 to write for an English-language newspaper in Vladivostok, a Russian city on the Pacific coast about 60 miles east of where the borders of Russia, China and North Korea converge.

"Much of Russia was still in the throes of this capitalist experiment," Eckel said. "It was seafood processors, fishing fleets, it was lumber, it was a lot of natural resources and lots of trade. It's the biggest port on the Russian Pacific coast."

The online edition drew readers from the United States, Japan, Moscow and mainland Europe. But an economic crisis in Russia destroyed the value of the ruble, and Eckel's path to secure a visa evaporated with his employment. He flew back to Maine and picked up work as a reporter for The Times Record and eventually covered Bath Iron Works for the newspaper's Bath bureau.

From Bath, Eckel leapfrogged to Vermont and New York while working for The Associated Press, before landing in Washington, D.C., and a promotion to the AP's foreign desk. In 2004, he was posted to the Moscow bureau, a stint that lasted six years.

He has worked for Radio Free Europe based in Prague since 2015, and has focused on Eastern Europe.

Understanding the threats in Ukraine means acknowledging how deeply intertwined it and Russia have been and how complex their relationship is, Eckel said. The countries share a cultural heritage and history, and some regions of Ukraine have had deeper ties to Russia than others.

Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, is an aspiring European city, Eckel said. There are hip coffee shops and restaurants and barbershops offering luxury services. A period of intense international development has brought a European flavor to a city that still telegraphs its Soviet history through grandiose urban plans with wide boulevards and imposing apartment blocks, Eckel said.

"These two countries are entangled and it's an entanglement that goes back centuries," Eckel said. "This entanglement is now fraying, and one side want it to fray completely, and the other wants to sort of retie the knot."

Fighting in Ukraine's east has been going on since 2014, when protesters ousted a Russian-backed Ukrainian president who resisted formalizing trade agreements with the European Union. Moscow called it a coup, and protests around Ukraine devolved into open conflict, especially in the east, where the Russian-backed president had high support.

"It was called a revolution of dignity, and it was a movement to move beyond this kind of Soviet vestige system of corruption and to move a sort of bright European future. And for a lot of Ukrainians, that's where the future lies."

Russian President Vladimir Putin seized on the turmoil and sent troops into the separatist regions, called Donetsk and Luhansk, in the east, and annexed Crimea, a strategically important peninsula on the Black Sea previously under Ukrainian control.

"It's like the French Canadians all of a sudden saying you Anglos in Maine are committing genocide against us and we're going to start seizing buildings in Aroostook County and all of a sudden you've got these armed thugs running around," Eckel said.

Since he arrived a month ago in Kyiv, the sense of impending conflict has grown stronger.

The government has been both reassuring its residents against war, while it also prepares for battle, setting up territorial defenses, and far-right groups began training civilians ahead of conflict.

Regular people are preparing "go bags" to flee in a hurry, or are making plans to leave cities for countryside cottages where they can hunker down. Emotions swing with the diplomatic developments, which are coming at increasing intervals and point to a dire picture, with fewer glimmers of good news.

"When I arrived it was all very normal, life went on, there was no tangible signs of panic or overt concern," Eckel said. "That's changed."

Last week on the border, more people, mostly women and children, fled the separatist regions, fearing war.

Each day on the front, new rumors emerge about Russia's desire to spark conflict with false-flag operations meant to appear like a provocation from Ukraine, Eckel said. A few days earlier, his reporting partner, a Ukrainian photojournalist, Maryan Kushnir, captured video of the Ukrainian interior minister and a band of journalists as they sought shelter from shelling during a visit to Novoluhanske, a city about 100 miles east of the Russian-Ukrainian border.

"Hour by hour there's these really strange reports," Eckel said. "Clearly Russia is looking for a pretext."

In one case, he said, Russian separatists said mass graves found in the eastern region were evidence of a genocide of Russian-speakers by Ukrainians. In reality, the bodies were hastily buried during the 2014 fighting, when regions that had lost sanitation and electricity were forced to deal with the mounting death toll of people killed in the conflict.

As Eckel spoke Monday, Putin held a made-for-TV security council meeting, and in a speech that followed, declared his intention to take by force regions of Ukraine he deemed to be Russian possessions.

Eckel returned to Bahkmut, the town where he was staying about 80 miles from the border, and hurried from restaurant to restaurant looking for a place that was open and showing Putin's speech. He found a Georgian restaurant and ate Shashlik, a grilled kebob with vegetables and drank Ukrainian beer as he listened to the Russian president.

What happens tomorrow is a question mark, Eckel said, and so is the day after that. But if tanks roll through the streets, he will be there to document history as it unfolds.

"There's a lot of improvisation when you're covering a story. You go in and say, 'OK this is what the story is going to be.' And then the story turns into something completely different and you have to roll with it to improvise," he said. "That's what it feels like right now."