The next six months in Ukraine will hurt a wider world

A looming winter and the ongoing war of attrition will be hard on both sides but its affects will be global

Mother of Ukrainian serviceman Abdulkarim Gulamov, who was killed in a fight against Russian troops in Kherson region on July 17, holds national flag during a funeral ceremony in Kyiv, Ukraine, on July 2. Reuters
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Some people might have thought that Russia would win the war in Ukraine quickly. That it would occupy two thirds of Ukraine in weeks, and it would be over. This did not happen. Yet, even as Ukrainian forces have recaptured some of their lost territory in recent days, the war has raged on for nearly seven months, which is a long time.

The conflict is being called a war of attrition – a terrible term to describe a military strategy that means grinding down the enemy by destroying its military capability but also morale. Russia won the 1812 war against Napoleon; a textbook example of how troops were demoralised. The French emperor and his men crossed the Neman River in June, believing with all the optimism of a beautiful summer’s day that they would win in a few weeks. They did not foresee the enormity of the Russian landscape or its resistance – people fighting on their own land. In the end, the snow, the distance, the hunger and the casualties forced the humiliating retreat of the Grande Armee.

The First World War on the Italian and western fronts was also a war of attrition. The central powers and the allied powers, both drained, tried to take the lives of as many young men as possible, sending them over the trenches into the line of fire, marching straight to their death. It took Europe decades to recover from the carnage of that war.

The Ukrainian war is not quite the same as the conflicts of the past. There is immense suffering, the country is broken, and the war is causing death, destruction and displacement.

The longer the war goes on, the harder it will be to broker peace. People will grow more bitter. The ability to forgive will be harder

I don’t much like reducing a war to numbers, but it helps to understand the scale of a conflict. According to one UN estimate, at the six-month mark of the conflict, 5,587 Ukrainians had died. The military on both sides have kept the actual numbers of their casualties carefully guarded, although Kyiv last month reported it had lost 9,000 troops. US military officials, also a month ago, estimated that between 70,000 and 80,000 Russian soldiers had died. If all these figures are true – and it is currently hard to verify – then that’s too many young men who won’t be going home to their loved ones.

More than 8,000 Ukrainian civilians have been injured, according to reports last week. Thousands have lost their homes. Millions have fled – the UN Refugee Agency says about 6.6 million. Even in places no longer occupied, bodies are still being buried, such as in Bucha, a commuter suburb outside Kyiv where 400 people are believed to have died during the March occupation.

Passers-by in front of the "Testament of Bucha" exhibition in Berlin, on August 24, Ukraine's Independence Day and the six month mark since the beginning of the war. The wrecked car is one in which four fleeing Ukrainian women were shot at by the Russian military and died. Getty

When the conflict began, I took a job directing a war crimes unit in Ukraine. I am part of a team made up of incredibly courageous researchers who are spread out across the country, gathering testimonies.

Part of my job, whenever I am not in the field with them working, is to go through the testimonies and pull patterns that would point to alleged war crimes or crimes against humanity. The scope of these crimes is staggering – and it is growing. We have collected witness statements of alleged torture, murder, child trafficking, indiscriminate attacks on civilians and siege warfare in Mariupol. With each witness statement I analyse, it appears to get worse.

Ukraine's infrastructure is ruined, with damages estimated at about $113 billion. Agriculture has been hit hard. I visited a village outside Kharkhiv in July, where a farmer walked me through her devastated farm. She told me how rockets had killed the farm animals. She pointed me to the roofless stables, the scorched earth, and the destroyed structures. “What can grow here after this?”

There are also charges of ecological targeted attacks. Russian troops occupied the Chernobyl nuclear facility for nearly a month, allegedly keeping workers hostage for a month. Although Chernobyl’s last reactor went offline in the year 2000, it serves as a highly contaminated nuclear waste facility.

When the war began, western media outlets reported that advancing soldiers dug trenches and unsettled contaminated earth in the Red Forest, a 10 square kilometre area surrounding the Chernobyl plant. It was given that ominous name after the 1986 nuclear accident. When I spoke to the Ukrainian officials in charge of the Exclusion Zone – the 30km area around the plant – they told me a number of soldiers are gravely ill if not dead, poisoned by radioactive dust. We are now watching the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant with growing anxiety as shellfire resounds around it.

A Russian serviceman guards an area of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station, under Russian military control, in Ukraine, on May 1. AP

US President Joe Biden’s recent promise of billions of dollars in the form of a military package and high-tech weaponry shows American commitment to Ukraine. European allies, too, firmly believe that Kyiv can fight on. But despite its recent gains, most experts agree that the war is not going to end soon.

This has implications not only for the Ukrainians and Russians fighting and suffering, but also globally. It is already destabilising the whole world, by dealing blows to the global economy, hurting growth and raising prices. According to the International Monetary Fund, since the invasion, prices for energy, grains and metals have soared, and inflation has accelerated. There is also the very real possibility that Moscow will cut its gas supplies to Europe this winter.

The prospect of a harsh winter is worrisome. First, for the refugees and the internally displaced people in a country that turns bitterly cold from November until March. In terms of military manoeuvres, that might be the time for both Ukraine and Russia to regroup in preparation for spring fighting. But Moscow last month ordered a 10 per cent increase to its forces, so a pause in fighting doesn't seem likely.

The psychological and physical terror over the past six months has been horrific – in a country that is already deeply traumatised by a cruel history: the Second World War, several occupations, and death by starvation during the Holodomor, Joseph Stalin’s man-made "terror famine" that killed millions.

Nonetheless, there is no shortage of courage in Ukraine. The resistance is at a level that I have not witnessed in many years of war reporting.

Every Ukrainian, it seems, is helping towards the war effort; even in government buildings in Kyiv, office workers use old garments to make tank camouflage shields. Instead of taking coffee breaks, workers stop on the frames and tie coloured cloth to make giant camouflage nets. “Everyone in this country is doing something. No one is not fighting, in one way or another," a young woman called Iryna told me as she showed me how to knot the material.

But what of the long-term future?

Workers sew uniforms and material for flack jackets at a military clothing factory in May in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine. Getty

The Europeans have said that at some point in the future – not knowing when that would be – Kyiv could become a member of the EU. But even though Ukraine has oriented itself much more towards the West for almost a decade – pre-war Kyiv resembled any other European capital – it is difficult to imagine how and when the war will end.

The longer it goes on, the harder it will be to broker peace. People will grow more bitter. The ability to forgive will be harder. The humanitarian situation will get worse. Violence will settle deep into the bones, as will vengeance.

Nevertheless, even as the path to settlement seems closed off for now, Kyiv’s allies will need to continue their commitment to, as Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba recently put it, its long-term security in order for it to have any chance of averting a Russian victory. But while the West continues to supply to weapons Ukraine, it must also keep pushing for diplomatic solutions.

It will be a long and grave winter if the war continues into next year – or longer.

Published: October 06, 2022, 12:35 PM