Dead Men Tell Many Tales Reflection on one year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (Part I)
An estimated 18 000 civilian deaths, 1250 of whom are children; over 17 million people who have fled Ukraine in 2022; a shrinking of the Ukrainian economy by 35%; a staggering total of 200 000 military casualties evenly split between Russia and Ukraine; an increase in European gas and electricity prices by well over 100% between February and September 2022; these are the estimated numbers describing the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that began on 24 February 2022. As is typical of any war, it is frustratingly difficult to get any reasonably accurate numbers of the effects of the war, as each side will likely attempt to use the figures in order to project its own military might (by inflating the number of enemy soldiers killed and minimising its own deaths) as well as to gain the moral high ground and demonise the opponent’s war efforts (by reporting greater civilian deaths caused by the enemy and minimising those inflicted by its own troops). As is also typical of any war, there is a certain dry cynicism to using numbers to describe the proceedings of the war. Numbers fail to convey the tales that the dead tell through their damning silence in mass graves, and pale next to the unnerving accounts of those who have survived the horrors, though few of these are unscathed. Numbers fail to capture the full extent of the humanitarian damage done, the unspeakable atrocities committed, the manner in which war brings out the absolute worst in people, the trauma caused, and the resentment it breeds among the innocents on both camps towards each other that will endure throughout generations, even long after the war will have ended. They do, however, reveal an unsavoury reality that took most of Western Europe by surprise, namely that war and armed conflict are still a part of Europe’s contemporary geopolitical reality.
The penumbra of a problematic past...
Following the conclusion of World War II, Europe began its quest to make sure that war on European territory would remain no more than an unpleasant part of the continent’s past, quarantined to a time when armed conflict was a legitimate means for accomplishing geostrategic goals. With the creation of that which would later become the European Union, Western Europe set out to create a system where politics would ideally be driven by the rule of law and adherence to a set of agreed-upon principles that would benefit those involved and bind them in a system that would ensure that any misunderstandings would be solved not by weapons, gunfire and manslaughter, but by dialogue, compromise and judicial arbitration. On a broader scale, the whole point of there being five permanent members on the United Nations Security Council, all of which are nuclear powers that also possess economic, technological, energy or military leverage, is to ensure that there is a semblance of a balance of power to prevent any single one of them from tilting the scales in its favour. With the creation of the Iron Curtain between the democratic, capitalist West and the totalitarian, communist Eastern bloc, armed conflict with one another was something both sides greatly wanted to avoid. Thus, the Cold War began, during which both sides would attack each other not via conventional means, but through espionage, covert sabotage, propaganda, and by supporting opposing factions in wars between third parties (or proxy wars, as they are better known) in geostrategically important zones.
The fall of the Soviet Union brought an end to the Cold War with Western democracy and capitalism prevailing against the communist brand of totalitarianism as a viable system that stood the test of time; this led to the creation of a new, unipolar world order spearheaded by the United States. The chaotic throes following the dissolution of the Soviet Union contributed to several conflicts occurring in some localised areas of the former Soviet territory throughout the 1990s, most notably the Balkans and the infamous Yugoslav Wars. Though these conflicts have also produced much humanitarian tragedy and trauma, none of them have had the global impact and reach that Russia’s campaign against Ukraine has had, and were restricted mostly to the Balkans, an area traditionally associated with conflict and violence in the view of Western Europe. This has therefore resulted in this perception among European citizens that war in its active, violent form is a remote phenomenon, confined to faraway territories such as the Middle East, Africa and the Third World in general, away from the civilised Western world. This is further evidenced by early coverage of the refugee situation in Ukraine as reported by Al Jazeera: one CBS correspondent expressed their bafflement that such a situation could occur in a “relatively civilised, relatively European” place, unlike “Iraq or Afghanistan”, while one of Al Jazeera’s English presenters described the Ukrainian refugees as “prosperous, middle class people” who were not fleeing areas such as the Middle East or North Africa. For all the backlash and criticism received for their content, these comments accurately reflect the Western perception of war as something that simply cannot happen in Europe or the West in general.
... And the polarising polemics of the present
Ukraine’s growing interest in joining the Euro-Atlantic structures has been a cause for concern in Russia, which does not want NATO in its immediate vicinity. The Euromaidan protests from late 2013, when the population rose up against the Ukrainian Government’s decision to veer from the West to Russia, led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovich from office; this eventually prompted Russia to intervene militarily, illegally annexing Crimea to its territory after a referendum that lacked any credibility, and supporting separatist forces in eastern parts of Ukraine, most notably in the coal-rich Donbas region. The US and EU retaliated by imposing economic sanctions on Russia, which did little to deter it. A series of ceasefire agreements ensued between Russia and Ukraine. By late 2021, tensions were brewing once more between the two countries, and in early 2022, Vladimir Putin had Russian troops amassed at Ukraine’s border. To confer a veneer of political legitimacy to the upcoming invasion, Russia announced its recognition for the independence of two breakaway republics in Luhansk and Donetsk on 21 February 2022, to widespread condemnation from the West. An iconic episode was Putin’s heavy-handed approach to his chief of foreign intelligence, Sergey Naryshkin, who stuttered an ambiguous response upon being questioned on Russia’s stance towards the independence of the two republics, a clear demonstration as to who wields the most power in Russian politics. Any doubts there had been as to whether it was a serious threat or just a bout of sabre rattling were dissipated on the morning of 24 February 2022, when Russian forces began attacking targets in Ukraine in what the Kremlin has officially termed a “special military operation”, ostensibly to “de-Nazify the country”.
Sides inevitably coalesced around the two combatants, with the majority of the Western world backing Ukraine, providing it with over $100 billion worth of humanitarian, financial and military aid, including high-grade military equipment like Bayraktar drones and HIMARS rocket launchers. At the same time, the West has imposed harsh economic sanctions on Russia, while 335 companies have completely withdrawn their operations from Russia, with an additional 171 significantly scaling back their activities in Russia. Russia, in turn, has received support from its loyal sidekick Belarus. Furthermore, the US views Iran as Russia’s ‘top military backer’, having offered Russia support in the form of kamikaze drones that were used to deadly effect by the Russian armed forces. Collaboration between the two on trade has increased since the beginning of the invasion, from a trade deal involving 20 million tonnes of basic commodities, to talks about establishing a free trade zone, oil and gas swaps and joint investments, to increased banking collaboration in order to lessen reliance on US dollars, and to the joint development of a transcontinental trade route spanning 3000 km from Eastern Europe to the Indian Ocean. North Korea has also been accused of supplying Russian mercenaries with rockets and missiles. However, the most notable developments have been between Russia and China, which have grown notably closer over the past few months.
Although, officially, China is neutral and has called for peace talks, its anti-Western stance can be observed in its accusations of NATO for supporting Ukraine and that, by supplying it with arms, only serve to prolong the war (while conspicuously overlooking the fact that it was Russia that initiated hostilities and is actively launching attacks on Ukrainian soil). Moreover, Russia and China’s heads of state declared in early 2022 that the two countries enjoy a “no-limits” partnership. Russia’s trade flows made a U-turn from European markets towards its Eastern neighbour; in 2022, trade between the two nations reached a record $190 billion, while Russia’s energy exports to China have soared, with China importing 50% more natural gas from Russia through the Power of Siberia pipeline, according to Reuters. Though China has not formally provided any sort of financial or military aid to Russia’s war efforts, its deepening trade with Russia and increased imports of energy from Russia do help the Russian economy to mitigate the effects of European and US sanctions. Lastly, it is worth noting that, even within the EU, there are countries such as Hungary and Austria that, while also officially neutral, have not imposed any major sanctions on Russia; moreover, Hungary has also criticised the EU’s decision to sanction Russia, especially in the energy sector. The government led by Viktor Orban, reconfirmed in office after a landslide victory in the 2022 parliamentary elections, has always maintained good relations with Russia and has been criticised by the rest of the EU for its stance ever since it opposed sanctions on Russia after the latter’s incursion in Ukraine.
Peacemaking... for a price
A few rounds of tentative peace talks have taken place before being discontinued once it became clear that they were merely an effort by Russia to maintain the appearance of wanting the conflict to end while continuing hostilities, especially as Ukraine views Russia’s terms as unacceptable: the latter’s demands of territorial concessions were outright rejected, while its requests that Ukraine never join NATO, though initially given some consideration by Ukraine as long as several countries would pledge security guarantees, seem to no longer be an option for Kyiv as Ukraine’s political leadership has been pushing for accession to the military alliance. These peace talks have also drawn the attention of Turkey, which has attempted on several occasions to serve as peacemaker, clamouring for peace talks between the warring parties and offering to host negotiations. An important NATO member, Turkey has supplied military aid to Ukraine; at the same time, it has also maintained friendly relations with Russia. Turkey’s foreign policy in the Erdoğan era has been defined by a rather ambivalent approach, neither fully aligned with its Western and NATO partners nor fully allied with Russia. Turkey, instead, pursues its own brand of realpolitik, seeking to exploit its geostrategic position and role in regional security thanks to its military clout to maximise its own gains, even if that means diverging from the stance of its NATO allies. Notably, Turkey opposed Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO in light of the increased security risk posed by Russia, ostensibly in order to avoid further aggravating Russia and risking an escalation of violence that would cause even more damage and loss of life.
However, the Turkish government seems ready to waive these noble concerns for the greater good should Finland and Sweden do more to fight the alleged terrorist activities against the Turkish state orchestrated by Kurdish militants linked to the PKK residing on their territories. While the two countries have asserted their commitment to fighting terrorism, and Sweden offered Turkey several concessions including lifting a ban on arms sales, Turkey has upped its demands, going so far as to request that Sweden extradite a Kurdish journalist, which Sweden has adamantly refused. Recently, Hungary also jumped on the bandwagon of demanding concessions in exchange for accepting the two new members. Despite the criticisms voiced by the other NATO members towards Turkey for its stance, pointing out how it merely benefits Russia and worsens the security climate, Erdoğan’s position has yet to change. It is reasonable to assume that, though no friend of Russia’s, Turkey seeks to use the ongoing war to its advantage, viewing the chance to host and mediate peace talks as a means for Turkey to act as a powerbroker in order to showcase its relevance as a regional power and a key player in international security; these ambitions can be speculated by Russia to its advantage, even as Turkey continues aiding Ukraine. By arming Ukraine, Turkey ensures its role as a key member of NATO and a vital component of NATO’s military supply chain which allows it to dictate its own terms, while also weakening Russia, diminishing the latter’s position of power towards Turkey in negotiations and making it more amenable to the latter’s demands and influence as Turkey has not only not imposed sanctions on Russia, but it has increased its trade with it as exports to Russia rose steadily in 2022, in stark contrast to most NATO members who have reduced their trade with Russia.
The peace talks also did little to offset another side of the cruel reality of war, namely atrocities. Shocking reports of brutal massacres of innocent civilians (such as those in Bucha and Izium), horrific torture methods employed merely for the sake of sadistic amusement, horrendous acts of sexual assault, and the plundering of abandoned Ukrainian homes (apparently, there was a shortage of toilets and washing machines in Russia) began to surface via images, recordings of conversations between Russian soldiers and their families in Russia, and word-of-mouth. Predictably, Russia has since denied the allegations, claiming it was the Ukrainian authorities who either committed their massacres themselves in a false flag operation to blame them on Russia or staged the scenes with fake bodies in order to rile public opinion against Russia. Although we must be aware that propaganda is an indispensable part of any nation’s wartime arsenal, and that ordinary citizens cannot empirically ascertain for themselves the veracity of the claims presented or of the evidence given, an invader’s credibility is in extremely short supply, especially when the justification for the aggression is flimsy, and especially when the invader is governed by an authoritarian regime where any sign of dissent and opposition risks drawing persecution, poisoning, gunshots or suspicious falls from deadly heights. Not only that, but wartime atrocities are a well-documented and historically well-attested phenomenon, from ancient times to the modern day. If such atrocities and sadistic acts are known to have been committed by the forces of a democratically-ruled country such as the US during its invasion of Iraq, there is no reason to assume that Russia’s forces have behaved any more nobly.
Man’s inhumanity to man
It is both unnerving and sobering to think that ordinary citizens – the kind we pass by everyday on the street – when put in a uniform and included in a group of other similarly ordinary, uniform-clad citizens, removed from the scrutiny of individual accountability that comes with individual identity, can strip themselves of any trace of humanity and engage in unspeakable barbarity as long as they know there won’t be any repercussions for their actions. Nevertheless, this has time and again proven to be the case, from the Vietnam War to the Bosnian War and to the ongoing War in Ukraine. This further brings to mind the uncomfortable findings of Stanley Milgram’s experiments in the early 1960s that have since been replicated independently. Milgram’s research revealed that even decent, law-abiding citizens can cause grievous harm to other people with full knowledge of the effects and extent of their actions so long as they are being instructed to do so by an authority figure. Ironically, Milgram himself wanted to prove that the excuse the Nazis gave at the Nuremberg Trials of “just following orders” was baseless, fully expecting that no decent person would purposely harm another person simply on someone’s orders, yet his experiments yielded evidence to the contrary. As for the case at hand, wartime atrocities, regardless of their unequivocal condemnation by international law, are also a form of ruthlessly pragmatic psychological warfare designed to crush the morale of the enemy, diminish their will to fight, encourage defections, build pressure upon enemy leaders, and demonstrate superior force, as well as improve the invading troops’ morale and combat effectiveness by strengthening the bonds between soldiers through their shared descent into inhumanity.