Ukraine One Year On
Today I am left with Samuel Beckett: "nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express" (quoted by James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett). Well. Perhaps obligation is accompanied by desire to express solidarity with Ukraine on the anniversary of the Russian invasion. A matter of conscience.
There are almost as many opinions about what the future holds for Ukraine as there are analysts and authorities with claim to expertise on the subject. In truth I have little if anything to add to the wealth of serious reporting and scholarship and no desire to contribute to the wholesale bloviation around the war and the politics of it. For what it is worth, what follows are scattered, maybe some scatterbrain, remarks that do not pretend to constitute a cohesive essay as I try to cobble something together.
War grinds on with no end in sight. Images from the past year stay with us. In the early days the 35-mile convoy of1,000 tanks, 2,400 mechanized infantry vehicles and 10,000 personnel, dozens of supply trucks carrying food, fuel, oil and ammunition (Press, Libet, Russia's 35-mile convoy) bearing down on Kyiv in the tradition of Soviet tanks rolling into Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968. The bombed ruins in towns and cities whose names over the course of a year have become part of the lexicon: Kharkiv, Kherson, Mariupol. The horror in Bucha.
The Russian assault peaked a month after the invasion with 22 percent of the Ukrainian territory under Russia's control. Then it blew up from incompetence, corruption, internal rot, and heroic Ukrainian resistance. In the months that followed Ukraine regained a quarter of that territory. Since November the fight has been concentrated in the eastern part of the country and is now mostly a stalemate.
The fall of Bakhmut has reportedly been imminent for months. Ukrainian forces hold out as bodies of Wagner mercenaries pile up. There are reports of dissension in the Russian ranks. The generals use Wagner soldiers, many of them convicts, as cannon meat to prepare the way for the regular army.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, said on Tuesday that the country’s defence minister and chief of general staff were depriving his fighters of munitions, accusing them of trying to destroy Wagner. "There is simply direct opposition going on," Prigozhin said in a voice message posted on his Telegram channel. He said it was "an attempt to destroy Wagner" and equated it to treason. (Lock, Belam, Russia-Ukraine war)
The war is waged in the traditional Russian manner with indifference to their own casualties while infliction of civilian casualties and destruction of civilian infrastructure are part of the strategy. Atrocities of every variety are numerous and well documented.
From the other side are ordinary Ukrainians from all walks of life, all ages, doing whatever is in their power to come to the aid of their country. Volodymyr Zelensky stood with them from the outset, setting the tone with his refusal to leave when offered the opportunity: "I don't need a ride. I need ammunition." A few days ago Joe Biden was striding through Kyiv with Zelensky and Olena Zelenska, an audacious presidential visit to a war zone. "Pretty ballsy for an old man" was the verdict of a contributor to the blog Turcopolier, where criticism of the president in more the norm than compliment (Biden in Kyiv–TTG).
Those who argue, some in good faith, others not so much, that the war will only end with a negotiated settlement must reckon with the fact that Russian brutality has so hardened Ukrainians that even most Russian speakers would not settle for anything less than Russian withdrawal from all occupied territories, including those seized in 2014, including Crimea. Timothy Garton Ash wrote of a refugee from Mariupol who told him
through repeated bursts of tears how her best friend, Luda, had been killed together with her soldier son when a Russian missile destroyed their ninth-floor apartment: "Their screams were heard for hours, but no one could help." Tetiana had spent days shivering in a cellar, without light, heat, or running water, then experienced a terrifying odyssey of escape. Her mother was from Russia, as were her parents-in-law, and she spoke Russian much better than Ukrainian. Putin would consider her to be a Russian.
Ash asked if she had a message for the Russian leader. "Yes, she said, she would like to kill him. 'We saw the Russians as our brothers—and then they came to murder our children'" (Ash, Ukraine in Our Future).
Ash met Vladimir Putin in 1994 "when he was an unknown deputy mayor of St. Petersburg…and he was already talking about the territories that he said had 'always' been Russian, including Crimea, and the people…whom he considered to be Russians living outside Russia."
Putin considers himself an authority on Russian history—an authority with about as much validity as a flat-earther's claim to be an authority on geography—and sees himself as heir to powerful tsars Peter and Catherine. For him there is no distinction between Russia's continued existence and his survival as autocrat. Dmitry Medvedev served a term as caretaker president in 2008 when Putin ran up against constitutional term limits, which have since been eliminated. Medvedev expressed sentiment within Putin's circle:
"I’m often asked why my Telegram posts are so harsh," wrote Medvedev recently. "Well, I’ll answer: I hate them. They are bastards and degenerates. They want us, Russia, to die. And while I’m still alive, I will do everything to make them disappear." He did not specify whether the “they” in question referred to Ukrainians, western politicians, or both. (Walker, 'I hate them').
Casualty figures on both sides vary according to source. Last week USA Today reported the Russian death toll upward of 140,000 (Bacon, Ortiz, Russia's fleet of modern tanks down by 50%).
There have been at least 18,955 civilian casualties since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, according to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The OHCHR released the report citing the number of casualties as being 7,199 killed and 11,756 injured, but believes the actual figures are considerably higher. (Lock, Belam, Russia-Ukraine war).
Estimates are that at least 100,000 and perhaps as many as 1 million Russians have left the country since the war began, some out of principled opposition, others with less noble motivation, such as avoiding conscription. Many are young, among the best and brightest. Maybe 10 percent of IT workers have left. Putin refers to these people as scum. We can hope that this exodus will prove detrimental to the war effort. Unfortunately, it also strips the country of individuals who might one day make up the nexus of an effective opposition.
There is reasonable speculation in some quarters that Putin calculates he is home free if he can hold out until the 2024 US elections give Republicans the White House and majorities in the House and Senate. It could happen.
To my knowledge thus far only one friend has broken with me over Ukraine. His acceptance of line put out by Putin and recognized as legitimate by scholars associated with the realist school of international relations that the war is a consequence of US and NATO aggression against Russia is baffling. He is a longtime friend, decent, intelligent, admirable. A former reader of Portable Bohemia. The break distresses me. I remain open to rapprochement and have reached out to communicate that. Whether respectful disagreement would amount to betrayal of principle on my part, akin to respectful disagreement about the Holocaust, is something I continue to take up with my conscience.
Year two begins. Stand with Ukraine.
Timothy Garton Ash, Ukraine in Our Future, The New York Review, February 23, 2023
John Bacon, Jorge L. Ortiz, Russia's fleet of modern tanks down by 50%; more than 140,000 Russians killed in Ukraine war: Updates, USA Today, February 17, 2023
Amanda Carpenter, Biden Went to Kyiv; DeSantis Went to Fox & Friends, The Bulwark, February 21, 2023
Francesca Ebel, Mary Ilyushina, Russians abandon wartime Russia in historic exodus, Washington Post, February 13, 2023
Eric Edelman, David J. Kramer, Benjamin Parker, Moldova Is Putin’s Next Target, The Bulwark, February 21, 2023
Samantha Lock, Martin Belam, Russia-Ukraine war at a glance: what we know on day 363 of the invasion, The Guardian, February 21, 2023
Tom Nichols, Putin’s Desperate Hours, The Atlantic, February 21, 2023
Claire Press, Svitlana Libet, How Russia's 35-mile armoured convoy ended in failure, BBC News, February 22, 2023
Reality Check team, Ukraine war: President Putin speech fact-checked, BBC News, February 22, 2023
Steve Rosenburg, Putin promotes Russian escalation in annual speech, BBC News, February 23, 2023
Ivana Saric, Biden says "Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia" in major speech from Poland, Axios, February 21, 2023
United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ukraine: civilian casualty update 13 February 2023
Shaun Walker, 'I hate them': Dmitry Medvedev’s journey from liberal to anti-western hawk, The Guardian, August 1, 2022
Alexander Ward, Jonathan Lemire, Biden visits Kyiv ahead of anniversary of Russia’s invasion, Politico, February 20, 2023