Ukraine’s year of pain, death and also nation-building

In the final hours before the Russian attack, a last attempt at peace. Russian troops would soon cross Ukraine’s borders and Russian missiles would fill the Ukrainian skies, claiming Ukrainian lives in the largest air, sea and land attack on Europe since World War II. But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy still appealed, on the verge of war, for reason to prevail.

Staring into the camera in a last-minute videotaped plea, in the dead of night, against the invasion, Zelenskyy warned Russia that the consequences would be “an abundance of pain, filth, blood and death.”

“War is a great calamity,” said Zelenskyy, in what turned out to be one of his last outings in a suit before changing to casual military-style clothing. “This calamity comes at an enormous cost, in every sense of the word.”

The date was February 24, 2022: a cataclysm for Ukraine, a turnaround for Russia, a historic milestone for the rest of the world. Since then, every hour of every day has proven those words to be correct.


As milestones go, the first anniversary of the invasion on Friday is bleak and unnerving. It marks a full year of carnage, destruction, loss and pain felt even beyond the borders of Russia and Ukraine, the war-related price shocks being just one example. But it also raises a question that is unsatisfying because it can’t be answered at this halfway point: how long before this stops?

“Not soon enough” might be one answer, though any peace deal seems far off as Russia’s invasion forces mincemeat into the second year, with neither side coming close to achieving expected goals.

The misery of 365 days of bloodshed and the full scale of the global repercussions are hard to sum up in mere words. Russia is more isolated than at any time since the Cold War. Western nations are uniting for the defeat of Russian President Vladimir Putin, while also betting that the former KGB spy will not go nuclear. China is filing away lessons that could be used against Taiwan.

And how to measure all the tears? How to adequately describe all the suffering and atrocities? Or even the broken heart of just one of the children who has lost their loved ones and their future?

The numbers are staggering: hundreds of thousands of Russian men fleeing abroad to avoid being thrown into battle, millions of Ukrainians uprooted from their homes, tens of billions of dollars invested in weapons that make the war ever more difficult. lethal, billions of dollars more estimated lost. for the world economy. And even those figures do not do justice to the human and economic costs.

Of the body count, surely the most important count, but kept secret by both sides, all that can be said for sure is that it is horrible. Western officials estimate it to be in the several tens of thousands and growing inexorably.

But Ukraine is still here. That in itself is a painful defeat for the Kremlin. Putin apparently believed that his secret services and forces would have already turned Ukraine into a puppet state. The invasion plan called for resistant Ukrainian officials to be liquidated, eliminated or turned into collaborators, according to a study by a British think tank based in part on captured Russian documents.

Instead, the threat of extinction as a free nation is pushing Ukraine ever closer to the European Union, the United States and the West in general, the very outcome Putin wanted to avoid. Each additional delivery of standard NATO weapons, billions of dollars in other Western aid, and promises to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes” are fixed ties that, in peacetime, could have taken many years. more to build. .

Ukraine, independent of the former Soviet Union only since 1991, has also grown on warfare as a nation. Fighting to remain Ukrainian has forced clarity about what exactly that means, sharpening the contours of national identity.

In what have become daily video addresses to share news from the fronts and boost morale, Zelenskyy sometimes wears black hoodies emblazoned on the front with the words “I am Ukrainian.” Many more Ukrainians have joined the president in switching from Russian to Ukrainian as their primary language. Statues of Russians are also being torn down, street names are being changed, and Russian history is being removed from school textbooks.

Says Olena Sotnyk, a lawyer and former legislator: “Putin did something for us that no one else did. He helped us become a free nation.”


Abroad, too, Ukraine has won hearts and minds, as evidenced by the blue and yellow flags flying over city halls and the foreign fighters and aid workers who risk, and sometimes lose, their lives on the battlefields. Ukrainians hit by shells in hellish landscapes eerily reminiscent of World War I.

“No one will confuse Ukraine and Russia (again),” says Mykhailo Podolyak, one of Zelenskyy’s closest advisers. “No one will say: ‘It’s something over there, near Russia.'”

Ukrainians argue that by resisting Putin, they have also done the world a favor by exposing him as a cruel and dangerous enemy. The Russian leader who bewitched George W. Bush (“I looked the man in the eye. He seemed very simple and trustworthy,” said the then US president in 2001) and who was driven in a golf cart through the gardens of Palace of Versailles by the president of France in 2017, it has become a pariah for Western leaders. But others remain close to him, notably Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Despite failing to secure a quick victory, Putin’s grip on power remains firm, with protests quelled and most Russians apparently backing the war effort. Still, Russia is making previously unimaginable sacrifices.

In the battle, Putin has increasingly had to turn to mercenaries from the notorious Wagner Group, a private military company that has recruited fighters from prisons and thrown them into combat, with high casualty rates. Putin is also losing energy leverage over Europe as he turns away from Russian gas and most Russian oil. Russia’s economy is working under Western sanctions. While Putin is boxed in, some fear he may strike in new ways, perhaps resorting to more nuclear saber rattling or worse.

But history is written by the victors of the war. And at this point, the outcome of the invasion is far from clear.

One of Putin’s early mistakes was trying to conquer a country the size of France with a force that, by Western estimates, was barely larger than the Allies’ D-Day army in World War II. And the mission on June 6, 1944 was much more limited: to storm five French beaches, opening the gap through which the Allies advanced through Nazi-occupied Europe.

Putin is now throwing additional equipment and manpower at the mess he created, with 300,000 troops mobilized in preparation for a new offensive that Russia hasn’t announced but that Western and Ukrainian officials say is already underway in eastern Ukraine. .

“Don’t be seduced by ‘brave little Ukraine,’ because Russia is so much bigger. It could crush Ukraine,” warns retired air marshal Edward Stringer, a former senior officer in the British Royal Air Force. “He could force Ukraine to run out of bullets by putting a Russian in front of every bullet until Ukraine runs out of bullets before Putin runs out of Russians.”


Certainly, says Podolyak, time is not on Ukraine’s side. Quite the opposite.

“A prolonged war is the slow death of Ukraine,” he says. But the first anniversary of the invasion, she insists, “means we’re on the right track.”

“It means that we have a different Ukraine,” he says. “It looks completely different.”

So different that life before the invasion is an increasingly hazy memory. Back then, the statues in the capital kyiv had not disappeared behind walls of protective sandbags. People didn’t need to fill bathtubs when air-raid sirens sounded so they would have water if Russian strikes wiped out supplies. They didn’t download phone apps that send out shrill alarms when Russian missiles and killer drones are on their way.

And those same apps didn’t have “Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill announcing when the danger had passed, saying reassuringly in his Luke Skywalker voice: “The air alert is over. May the force be with you.” Surreal.

Sotnyk, the former lawmaker, remembers the panic that gripped her when Russian missiles began hitting Kiev a year ago. She called her mother and ordered her to pack. Now Sotnyk knows better than to run through the city in an air raid.

“It’s not that we got any braver,” she says. “We (just) became more aware of what it means: ‘war.'”

Before the invasion, February 24 had not been a very important date in world history. Then Prince Charles and Lady Diana announced their engagement that day in 1981. Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, was born on February 24, 1955. In 1938, it was the day the first nylon-bristled toothbrush was launched, “ Dr. West’s miracle toothbrush.

But 1920, in Germany, was also the day that Adolf Hitler presented a 25-point platform for the new Nazi Party. Back then, Hitler’s audience could not have known that his speech in a Munich beer hall would turn out to be a step toward World War II. If they had guessed, would they have turned back?

February 24, 2022 has not led to World War III, not “yet”, the pessimists might add. But the past year was, as Zelenskyy warned, full of pain, filth, blood, and death.

And ahead: a bleak abundance of more to come.

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