Getting a count of Ukraine’s dead that isn’t the output of someone’s propaganda machine is difficult to do. But the number of dead is indisputably a horror. Measuring the maiming of Ukraine solely in deaths, though, is an injustice to the depth of the Ukrainian wound.
It is not just that using tens of thousands as the unit in which to measure the dead may be an understatement meant to maintain morale and keep Ukrainians fighting with the political West providing support. Deaths may be the worst way to scar a nation, but they are not the only way to scar a nation.
The promise that the sacrifice of soldiers in the counteroffensive would be worth it has been deflated and hope has been lost. The payment in lives it purchased is little, and a senior western diplomat told CNN that “for them to really make progress that would change the balance of this conflict, I think, it’s extremely, highly unlikely.”
The result is despair. An August 10 report from Kiev in The Washington Post begins with the words, “This nation is worn out” and continues with the hopeless observation that “Ukrainians, much in need of good news, are simply not getting any.”
Reports of Ukrainians lining up to fight in the early days of the war have been replaced by reports of Ukrainians doing everything they can to elude the draft. On August 11, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky dismissed every director of a regional military recruitment center. Though reports focused on the crackdown of corruption, the real news was what the corruption was selling. Those who were willing to volunteer have gone to the front and fallen; those who are left have seen the price and no longer want to go. The heads of the recruitment centers were fired for taking bribes to help them. They were fired for “exploiting their positions to enrich themselves through draft evasion schemes.” Zelensky described the “cynicism” and “treason” as the “illicit enrichment” and “unlawful benefit” for the “illegal transfer of persons liable for military service across the border.”
But death and despair are not the only costs. So too are loss of limb and loss of mental health. A Washington Post article of August 15 describes “Bodies ripped to pieces. Arms and legs mangled beyond recognition” from mines and “the mental anguish of amputating limb after limb after limb.” The Wall Street Journal recently reported that between 20,000 and 50,000 Ukrainians “have lost one or more limbs since the start of the war” before saying that “the actual figure could be higher.”
There are also unconfirmed reports of high numbers of suicides in the Ukrainian armed forces. A New York Times piece called “The Hidden Trauma of Ukraine’s Soldiers” reports on the “crisis of wounded psyches, in addition to broken bodies, among Ukrainian soldiers.” The report says that the need for “treatment for psychological trauma…far outstrips Ukraine’s ability to address it.”
There is no sign of an end to the horror. But what comes next for Ukraine may be worse.
Russia may not stay on the defensive forever. After a counteroffensive comes the next offensive. Russia has been staying on the defensive, allowing Ukraine to walk into their prepared positions and be devoured. As the Ukrainian armed forces become frustrated and reduced, Russia may be biding its time to turn the counteroffensive into the next big Russian offensive.
There has apparently been unofficial chatter in Russia about the inevitability of a future Russian offensive. Former general Konstantin Pulikovsky is said to have commented that “there will definitely be an offensive. But it usually begins when we feel that the enemy is really exhausted.” On August 15, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu told a security conference in Moscow that Russia says was attended by 26 defense ministers and 75 countries that “Ukraine’s military resources are almost exhausted.”
Writing in Asia Times, Stephen Bryen says that “The Russians have been holding out instead of starting a big push to finish the war, trying to wear down the Ukrainians… But war planners in Moscow know how to count, and it could be they now see opportunities for a big offensive.”
While emphasizing their defensive stance, Russia has reportedly been quietly advancing in the north. Though Russia has not called it an offensive, Ukrainian officials claim Russia is “amassing vast numbers of troops and equipment along the northern frontline in Ukraine,” as well as hundreds of tanks, artillery systems, and rocket launchers.
Military analyst and ret. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis has repeatedly pointed out that, even if Ukraine were to launch and win a counteroffensive, the rate of casualties and deaths would be so high, they would “have spent [their] last remaining force with which to conduct offensives” or future operations, leaving them vulnerable to a Russian offensive.
If the goal, as U.S. President Joe Biden always says, is to put Ukraine in the best position “on the battlefield [to] be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table,” then that opportunity has twice passed. It passed in the days before the war when Ukraine could have kept all its territory and avoided all of the deaths in exchange for an American promise not to admit Ukraine into NATO when Moscow presented its proposal on security guarantees. It passed again in November 2022 when Ukraine recaptured massive amounts of territory, and military analysts warned of an inflection point at which Ukraine could likely not capture more territory but could lose more territory and more lives.
The third opportunity is now. The counteroffensive is failing and pushing it further may just be setting the battlefield for a Russian offensive.
One day, Ukrainians, every one of whom will have known someone who was killed or wounded in the war, may remember in despair that Russia would likely have called off the war for a promise of Ukraine’s neutrality, which is less than the U.S. demands of Cuba. Zelensky was willing to make that promise in negotiations in the first weeks of the war. Anatol Lieven, Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute, reports that the large majority of Ukrainians opposed joining NATO in every poll that asked the question before 2014. In 2008, when NATO opened the door to Ukraine, 58% of Ukrainians opposed it. As late as May 2022, three months into the war with Russia, still only 59% of Ukrainians said they would vote to join NATO.
They will also remember in despair that all of the territories now annexed by Russia, excluding Crimea but including an autonomous Donbas, could have remained part of Ukraine. Sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko, a leading scholar on radical movements in Ukraine, says in a recent article that “on the eve of the invasion, the largest opposition party…advocated Ukrainian neutrality and the full implementation of the Minsk Accords.” At the height of the political crisis over the implementation of the Minsk Accords, Ishchenko reports that only 26% of Ukrainians supported the “No” campaign.
Ukrainians may one day remember that, after they had negotiated to their satisfaction in Belarus, again in negotiations with then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet, and yet again in Istanbul, they fought on in service of a wider American war that led to all their deaths, broken bodies, and broken minds.
If the war goes on, all of this will likely only get worse. If the goal is to negotiate before Ukraine is in an even more vulnerable position and before it is even more wounded, then the time to end the fighting and negotiate a diplomatic settlement is now.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.