“A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends. At some table a document is signed by some persons whom none of us knows, and then for years together that very crime, on which formerly the world’s condemnation and severest penalty fall, becomes our highest aim.”
—Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
It has been a year since Russian forces crossed the border into Ukraine and initiated an offensive that became the latest and most significant development in a long-running Russo-Ukrainian conflict, which continues to define much of Eastern European politics. That single year has borne witness to immense tragedy and horrific suffering.
A fluid situation on the ground, the limited availability of reliable figures, and relentless propagandizing from both Russian and Ukrainian officials make it difficult to calculate exactly how many casualties have been inflicted since Russia launched its invasion last February. In late autumn, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley estimated that over 200,000 Russian and Ukrainian soldiers had been killed or wounded in the fighting. And while the United Nations places the civilian death toll at around 7,000, General Milley suggested that as many as a staggering 40,000 civilians are dead as a direct result of the war and its consequences, which include lack of access to food, water, and basic infrastructure.
Chilling accounts of war crimes have also emerged, from the front lines and from population centers alike. In the first month of the hostilities, the Russian Air Force conducted an airstrike against a pediatric hospital in Mariupol; not long after, video and eyewitness evidence surfaced of Russian troops in Bucha lining up and shooting Ukrainian captives. These atrocities would establish a precedent and develop into a pattern of behavior: reports that the Russian military deliberately targets densely populated areas and summarily executes civilians have persisted, often with corroboration. Germany’s prosecutor general claims that the pieces of evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine have reached triple digits; mass killings and attacks on civilian infrastructure have been a particular focus of German investigations. Meanwhile, video surfaced that seemed to show Ukrainian soldiers gunning down Russian soldiers who had surrendered and were lying prone on the ground. The United Nations has also determined that Ukrainian forces, much like their Russian counterparts, have brutally tortured prisoners.
Behind the appalling violence of the war, various subtler human rights violations have occurred. The Russian government has turned to a collection of conscripts and convicts to wage its war: deploying servicemen who did not volunteer or consent to fight for destructive imperialist aggression, and prisoners who were only freed under the condition that they be willing to die for deluded Russian irredentism. In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has used the cover of defensive war and alleged ties to Russia in order to outlaw some political parties and ban entire religious organizations. While some might argue that such infringements upon fundamental human rights are justified by the harsh realities inherent in a bloody struggle for survival, it is in fact during war that the observation of human rights becomes more vital than ever before.
More than eight million refugees have fled their homes in Ukraine, seeking safety throughout Europe and the United States. While these men, women, and children have escaped the bloodshed, they are still its victims. Their lives never can and never will be the same.
Ever invested in undermining Russian interests and, doubtless, genuinely eager to protect the national sovereignty of its allies, the U.S. government spent $113 billion in 2022 on the defense of Ukraine: almost $10 billion a month. In spite of notorious and systemic corruption that has long plagued the Ukrainian government, the United States has continued to divert vast quantities of taxpayer dollars to the cause, even as Americans cry out for debt relief, aid for underfunded schools and social programs, and healthcare reforms: financing war, as ever, at the expense of peace.
And so the second year of this war begins, with no end in sight. It is a war that has been predictably tragic; it is also a war that has been tragically predictable. As is invariably the case in all wars, human lives have been lost or upended, civil liberties have been eroded, and massive sums have been exhausted.