At a small army field clinic outside Bakhmut, I watched as the body of a dead soldier was carried in. Two more soldiers followed, this time seriously injured — and this was what troops described as a “quiet day.” Ukraine doesn’t talk about its military deaths much and refuses to reveal any figures. There’s little in the way of victim culture here; the emphasis is on how brave its troops are, not how many have perished. Most people know someone who’s died in action, but treat the collective trauma as something to worry about when the war is over. In the meantime, there’s vodka.
Here and there, though, glimpses of the nation’s best-kept secret emerge. In every big-city cemetery, the “Heroes Alley” of fallen soldiers now holds several hundred graves. Soldiers I know complain that their Facebook pages have turned into endless-scrolling obituaries. Countless wounded veterans face a future in wheelchairs. While Russia has used the conflict to drain its jails, Ukraine is losing its brightest and best, the young generation that stood up to defend it.
Already some Western leaders question the merits of an all-out push by Kyiv to reclaim all of its lost lands, especially if it spikes the death toll even higher. Ukrainian casualties are estimated at upwards of 16,000 dead, a figure that may rise steeply in the counter-offensive’s coming months. Estimates for Russian casualties start at around 25,000.
Within Ukraine’s political elite, nobody has yet called for peace negotiations that might include conceding Crimea or the Donbas, but one man I spoke to did break ranks: Gennady Druzenko, the founder of the Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital, a team of civilian doctors who work on the front lines. It is named after the physician Nikolay Pirogov, a Slavic Florence Nightingale who pioneered the art of triage during the Crimean war. Druzenko’s staff have treated 20,000 casualties in sixteen months so it is perhaps no surprise that he is less than gung-ho.
“I think when the government finally reveals how many people have died, it will be a figure that makes the country cry out,” he says. “We have to ask whether we are ready to pay 1,000 or 10,000 lives to reclaim every last bit of territory.” For example, he asks, is it really worth trying to retrieve the likes of the separatist-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics, when both are filled with people who have been fed pro-Russian propaganda for a decade? “Many of the people there just hate us,” he says. “And I am not sure our leaders have a vision of what to do once they liberate them.” Druzenko believes that the rising death toll will make Ukrainians more amenable to negotiation by the end of the year. Wartime polling comes with obvious caveats but monthly samples of Ukrainian public opinion say about 10 percent believe territorial concessions will be needed to agree peace.
Russia is also unlikely to give up Crimea easily. The peninsula is home to Russia’s Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol, which Moscow used to rent from Ukraine. As Russia’s only warm water port, Sevastopol is crucial for projecting Moscow’s power worldwide. That, indeed, is why Putin snatched Crimea in 2014: he feared Ukraine one day joining Nato, leaving his key southern naval asset in the hands of an unfriendly landlord. Now that NATO leaders have said that under the right conditions Ukraine will be admitted, Putin’s nightmare may well come true, and everyone agrees it’s a mistake to underestimate Russian capabilities.
The Center for Defense Strategies, the Ukrainian security think tank, believes that despite last month’s Wagner Group rebellion, Putin will stay in power until at least March’s elections. The think tank also argues that if Ukraine doesn’t get enough Western kit to win decisively this year, Russian forces will have time to learn from their mistakes and stage a comeback. “We should have been building new ammunition factories to supply Ukraine from the very moment the war broke out,” says Glen Grant, a former UK defense attaché to the Baltics. “Instead it’s been a little here and a little there. The advice to ministers has been awful.”
Grant does not agree with Gennady Druzenko that Ukrainian resolve has been tested by the casualties, though. “This war is going right to the end,” he says. “Yes, Ukrainians are weary, but they also know they can’t let the Russians have a pause and come back in a few years’ time.”
It’s true that most Ukrainians I met insisted that the massacres of Bucha and Irpin have only hardened hearts. Among soldiers, there is the desire to avenge comrades’ deaths, and even the grieving mothers I met at the vast military cemetery in Dnipro wanted the war to carry on.
The Center for Defense Strategies suggests that by September the counteroffensive may have retaken enough of the southern Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions to start “de-occupying” parts of Crimea. Progress there will also free up troops for retaking the separatist republics, which will largely “collapse” without Kremlin support. Whether they happily accept Kyiv’s embrace doesn’t really matter. If nothing else, they serve as a buffer zone against further Russian incursions.
Might Putin really blow up the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, or detonate a tactical nuclear weapon over the Black Sea? He could, but he’d be poisoning the very backyard he sees as his own.
Crimea, though, could become irrelevant if Russia begins to implode, as last month’s Wagner uprising suggests it may. The spark may not even be a palace coup or frontline mutiny. War, economic meltdown and mobilization have pump-primed the country for an Arab Spring convulsion. It’s easy to imagine some small event sparking it off: war widows being roughed up at a protest, or a food-price row in some impoverished governorate.
Should the Kremlin face grassroots unrest within, the top players will start jockeying for position. And whoever comes out on top, they may be far too busy dealing with internal problems for the next few years to care about whether Sevastopol can help them project Russia’s presence in the wider world.
But while a post-Putin Russia could spent the next decade licking its wounds, there is no guarantee it will lose its imperialist mindset. Germans had this programmed out of them through denazification after World War Two, but that was at gunpoint after total defeat by the Allies. Nobody is talking about invading Russia.
Ukrainians argue that ordinary Russians must one day be made to grasp why the Ukraine war was a terrible mistake, just as Germany had to confront its Holocaust past. Tetyana Ogarkova, a Ukrainian writer, wants a museum in Moscow dedicated to the horrors of Mariupol and Bucha, where future generations of Russians can learn about their own mistakes. Right now, however, that seems unlikely.