On the 24th of February in 2022, the people of Ukraine woke up to the shock of Russia's all-out invasion of their country, a large-scale military operation that killed and injured thousands of civilians, and damaged civilian buildings including hospitals and schools. There have been indiscriminate attacks that violate the laws of war and may be considered as war crimes.
By the end of the first week one million Ukrainians fled their homes seeking refuge outside of Ukraine. Meanwhile censorship in Russia reached terrifying levels with authorities blocking access to many independent media websites on the basis of their publications about the war and closing major independent media outlets. Thousands of anti-war protesters were also arbitrarily detained across Russia during the first week of the invasion.
Conflict between the two states began in Eastern Ukraine back in 2014, shortly after the Maidan Revolution overthrew a pro-Russian president and the subsequent Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, between 2014 and 2021 about 14,000 people were killed there including 3,106 civilians.
A Massive Array of Atrocities
On February 24, Putin announced, without any valid justification, the need for the “disarmament and eradication of Nazism in Ukraine.” Moscow also described this invasion as a “special military operation” to protect the Donbass region, where a “Russian-speaking population lives and suffers from persecution” according to pro-Kremlin media. Putin fears the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) towards its borders through Ukraine–he also still believes in eighteenth-century concepts about how large powers control small states, especially those neighboring them.
More than a year and a half later, Russian forces have shattered the lives of millions of Ukrainian civilians, destroyed Ukraine's civilian infrastructure, and committed a massive array of atrocities, leaving behind scores of victims who deserve justice.
Millions of Ukranians have been forced to leave their homes since the 2022 invasion, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). An estimated 17.6 million people in Ukraine, out of a total population of 41 million, need urgent humanitarian support, including more than 5 million internally displaced people. There are also more than 5.9 million Ukrainian refugees who are registered across Europe, according to UNHCR data.
Eighteen months since the outbreak of the Ukrainian war, the Russian invasion has killed tens if not hundreds of thousands of people, displaced millions, and caused economic turmoil around the world. The war saw death on a level not seen in Europe since World War II. More than 9,000 civilians were killed and more than 16,000 injured by the end of July of this year. The use of explosive weapons with wide-ranging effects, such as heavy artillery shelling, multiple rocket launcher systems, missiles, and air strikes, continues to cause most of these casualties among civilians.
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights considers that the actual numbers are much higher, as information from some locations where intense hostilities are taking place is delayed, and many reports are still pending, awaiting confirmation.
The war also left nearly 500,000 soldiers dead or wounded, according to US officials quoted by The New York Times. They went on to say that up to 120,000 Russian soldiers were killed and between 170,000 and 180,000 were wounded, while the Ukrainian army’s toll reached 70,000 dead and 100,000 to 120,000 wounded. The newspaper also quoted officials warning that it was still difficult to estimate the number of casualties because Moscow often underestimated the number of dead and wounded in the war.
But Russia's military losses are not limited to soldiers. Moscow has also lost a generation of officers, especially lower-level officers such as lieutenants and captains, on the battlefields of Ukraine. The Russian Army also saw their most professional units rendered combat ineffective after a majority of their troops were killed or wounded in the first six months of the war.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby commented that half of the Russian dead belonged to the notorious private military company Wagner Group, and the majority of them were former prisoners “thrown into combat in Bakhmut (eastern Ukraine) without adequate military training or leadership.” Kirby also stated, “ Russia's losses in the war exceed those recorded in World War II, and are considered greater than the Allied losses during the attack on Japan in that war”. He also said: "Russia has exhausted its military stocks and its armed forces."
About a year after the invasion, Oryx, an open source intelligence website, collected evidence of the military equipment losses in Ukraine since the beginning of the Russian invasion. The website’s statistics show that Russia began the war with about 3,000 operational tanks, and there is a high probability Russia has lost half of its usable tanks. The Oryx website says that the total number of Russian equipment losses, when adding infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers and other vehicles and tanks, is about 9,100 vehicles. The site added that the total losses of equipment in Ukraine amount to 2,934 vehicles.
In light of the losses incurred militarily by Russia, revenge was and still is usually directed at civilians. The Russian armed forces stand accused of war crimes on a systematic scale, including the torture of civilians. Members of a United Nations-mandated investigation committee said Russian occupiers had tortured Ukrainians to death and forced captives to listen women being raped nearby.
Eric Moss, head of the Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that his team had “collected further evidence indicating that the use of torture by the Russian armed forces in areas under its control was widespread and systematic.” He added: "In some cases, torture was practiced brutally that it led the victim to death." He went on to say, "Russian soldiers committed crimes of rape and sexual violence against women whose ages ranged between 19 and 83 years in areas they occupied in the Kherson region." Moss added that often, family members were detained and forced to listen to the abuse nearby.
It is clear that Ukrainian civilians in the areas occupied by Russian forces have suffered horrific ordeals. Justice may not be served quickly, but all steps should be taken to ensure that those who have suffered gain justice one day.
Russia denies committing any atrocities or targeting civilians in Ukraine. Moss said that the committee's attempts to communicate with Russia went unanswered. Moscow had an opportunity to respond to these accusations during the Council session but no representative of Russia attended.
Children and adults alike were affected by this war. Students have suffered interrupted or disrupted education due to attacks on educational facilities, while the elderly and people with disabilities have faced huge challenges. In some cases, they were unable to access shelters or had to spend long periods in basements hiding from Russian soldiers and indiscriminate bombing under conditions that affected their health.
The Economic Factor
Russia has controlled 11% of Ukraine’s territory since the beginning of the war, and when adding the Crimean Peninsula, they now control about 17.5% of Ukraine, an area of about 41 thousand square miles (106 thousand square kilometers). Ukraine lost a large area of its coastline, its economy was paralyzed, and the military conflict has turned some cities into barren lands. And according to the International Monetary Fund, Ukraine's economy contracted by 30% in 2022 and is expected to grow by 1% to 3% this year. It is unclear how much Ukraine spent on the fighting.
Although Russia's war spending is a state secret, it coincides with a major shock to the Russian economy as a result of the toughest ever Western sanctions, which had been imposed after the invasion. The economy has defied early expectations of a double-digit contraction in 2022, but a return to prosperity remains elusive as the government directs more spending toward the military.
“In the medium term, the Russian economy will be hampered by the departure of multinational companies, the loss of human capital, its disconnect from global financial markets and a decline in its political reserves,” IMF spokeswoman Julie Kozak said last month. “Thus, in the medium term we expect that Production in Russia is 7% lower than pre-war expectations.”
A governmental document seen by Reuters showed that Russia doubled its defense spending target for 2023 to more than $100 billion, a third of their total public spending. The costs of the war in Ukraine continue to escalate and put increasing pressure on Moscow's public finances.
As Russian military spending rises and sanctions squeeze its energy revenues, Moscow struggles to control its budget deficit.
Russia lost a large portion of the European gas market, but it was able to keep selling oil to global markets. Even though the United States, Europe and other powers limited or stopped its purchases. Russia has also been excluded from Western financial markets. Sanctions have been imposed on most of its supporters and it faces problems in obtaining certain items such as microchips.
CIA Director William Burns said earlier this year that Putin risks turning Russia into "a Chinese economic colony over time." Russia defaulted on its foreign bonds for the first time since the disastrous months following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
On the other hand, the invasion and the sanctions imposed on Russia had led to sharp rises in the prices of fertilizers, wheat, metals and energy, fueling an inflationary wave and a global food crisis. It is noteworthy that Russia is the second largest exporter of oil in the world after Saudi Arabia, and the world's largest exporter of natural gas, wheat, nitrogen fertilizers, and palladium.
Shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, global oil prices rose to their highest levels since 2008. A recent German study also found that the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war cost the global economy $1.3 trillion in 2022. According to a study published by the German Economic Institute (IW), western economies were particularly affected, losing two-thirds of their global production, according to The Meghalayan. Co-author of the study from IW, Michael Groemling, said in a statement that the war had "major global economic significance."
In fact, Ukraine has received acceptable support from Western countries. Since the invasion, the United States has pledged more than $43 billion in security assistance to Ukraine, including Stinger anti-aircraft systems, Javelin anti-armor missiles, and 155-millimeter howitzers–this also includes equipment designed to counter chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological attacks. Ukraine's biggest backers in nominal terms were the United States, the European Union, Britain, Germany, and Japan, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.
Russia responded to this by claiming the West's weapons supplies were leading to an escalation of the war.
This aid enabled Ukraine to stand against Russia, a nuclear-armed former superpower. It was also able to target the Kremlin and the heart of Moscow with marches and destabilize its security. The press office of the Russian Presidency (the Kremlin) said in May this year that “Ukraine’s attempt to assassinate Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “planned act of terrorism.”
The press office explained in a statement that "two Ukrainian drones had attacked President Putin's residence in the Kremlin last night" in what they’ve described as a "terrorist" assassination attempt.
Ukrainian forces were also able to penetrate the Russian border and carry out deep infiltration operations, such as what happened in the Belgorod region. They also launched the first phase of its counterattack with the aim of regaining territory controlled by Russian forces. Fighting has intensified at multiple points on the 1,500-kilometre-long front line, and Ukrainian forces are making progress. Regular advances were made on the northern and southern outskirts of the destroyed city of Bakhmut, which has been occupied by Russia since last May.
Battles are also raging on the southern front of Zaporizhzhya, where Ukrainian forces are making limited gains against massive Russian fortifications. Although it is too early to judge Ukraine's counterattack, it does indicate that Western military aid to Ukraine is making a difference on the ground.
Russia engages in media misinformation in an attempt to gain international sympathy through various means, including foreign government media such as the multilingual RT channel and other channels on social media. In this way, Russia seeks to influence public opinion in its favor and deepen potential social divisions. It also aims to discredit Ukraine and the West. At the same time, the Russian leadership is addressing its citizens through propaganda, seeking to justify the invasion and portraying Western countries as the aggressors–with the aim of ensuring broad approval among the Russian people for what the Russian government is doing in Ukraine.
The approach taken by disinformation actors, such as Russia, can be divided into four categories: denial, distortion, distraction, and destabilization of trust.
In the first category, which is denial, the Russian government disavows any responsibility for the military escalations, and even claims that it was forced to enter the war. Russia is also trying to play the victim and create justifications for its aggression that have no basis and/or have already been refuted.
The second category, "distortion", involves trying to reinterpret the information. The depiction of the war in Ukraine as a “special operation,” as Russia claims, is an example–Russia even prohibits the use of the term "war" in this context. However, given the soldiers it has sent to occupy Ukraine and the countless missiles it has launched, some of which targeted civilian infrastructure, it is without a doubt waging an aggressive war against Ukraine in violation of international law.
The Russian government also claims that the United States of America is waging a war against Russia with the support of European countries. Russian official authorities even claim that Russia must defend itself against a fascist alliance, as was the case in World War II. This is a very strong distortion of the facts.
The third category, "diversion," seeks to use false information to push away other information that may not be in Russia's best interest. The Russian government, for example, describes Ukraine as an aggressor authoritarian state and claims it is under the control of a neo-Nazi-led regime. This aims to divert public attention from the fact that Russia is violating international law and attacking a democratic state led by a president of a Jewish origin. In addition, Russia is trying to cover up the war crimes it is committing by, for example, accusing Ukraine of organizing the massacres that took place on the outskirts of Kiev.
In contrast, according to independent media reports, there is ample evidence that Russia is currently committing war crimes in Ukraine, particularly against civilians. Numerous cases of rape, torture and sometimes indiscriminate or deliberate shooting of civilians by members of the Russian Armed Forces in the occupied regions of Ukraine have been documented.
Under the fourth category, “destabilization of trust,” a threat scenario is created with the aim of raising fears in the targeted countries and restricting their ability to act politically. This applies to the Russian government's threats to continue escalation against countries that support adherence to international law, and also includes spreading the narrative about possible nuclear escalation by Russia. State media and social media accounts related to government circles in Russia also constantly warn of the imminent danger resulting from an energy crisis and a global economic crisis. The aim is to create fear of an economic deterioration.
Syrians Understand the Ukrainian Tragedy
The Syrian people are well aware of the lies and hypocrisy of the Russian media and how they deal with this type of conflict. We also know the criminality of the Russian forces. How could we not, when we have experienced the presence of these forces on our lands since 2015, in addition to their continued support for Bashar al-Assad since the first day of the Syrian revolution?
By providing him with expertise, consultations and weapons, and by repeatedly using the veto in the Security Council–16 Russian vetoes in favor of the regime, by permanently voting in the Human Rights Council against resolutions condemning the violence and brutality of the regime, and even mobilizing countries allied with Russia to vote in favor of the Syrian regime. This support had even extended to include various fields, including justifying the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, questioning the reports of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, exploiting cross-border humanitarian aid, and harnessing the media’s propaganda in favor of the regime as well as improving the image of its violations.
On September 30 in 2015, the Russian Air Force began directing airstrikes in Syrian territory at the request of Bashar al-Assad (who lost legal, popular and political legitimacy) for military support from Moscow in order to confront the Syrian revolution. The Russian Duma approved authorizing President Putin to use the Russian armed forces outside the country. Russia announced that the goal of its intervention in Syria, as President Vladimir Putin said at the time, was to fight the terrorist organization ISIS.
The Russian forces did not eliminate ISIS, but rather the Syrian people and the international coalition ended it. As for the Russian forces, they have contributed to the killing of Syrian civilians and demolishing their homes, hospitals, factories, churches, mosques, and bakeries, they have also destroyed roads, bridges, and crops. Russia has strengthened the presence of the dictator Bashar al-Assad, who is considered a war criminal by all international standards. In addition, Syria was considered a testing ground for Russian weapons, including phosphorus munitions, thermal bombs, and cluster bombs–banned under the international treaty, against civilian facilities, targeting hospitals, schools, and markets.
The Russian government and its media, along with the Syrian state media, are telling total lies when they say that this war was directed against ISIS and terrorists. The number of defenseless civilian victims is many times greater than the number of militants they have killed, according to investigations conducted by human rights organizations.
Therefore, the Syrians are able to understand the tragedy of the Ukrainian people. The enemy is the same and so is their criminal method. The most recent images of destruction in various parts of Ukraine due to Russian attacks were familiar in places like Daraa and Homs. Videos uploaded to social media depicting possible unlawful attacks on hospitals and residential areas are a reminder of the brutal air strikes the Russian-Syrian coalition has been waging in Aleppo and Idlib since 2015.
Despite the media's double standards and countries' quicker response to the Ukrainian war than to the Syrian one, the commitment of civil society groups and activists to basic rights and solidarity with other people facing repression has not diminished. Syrian activists and refugees are often among the first to show solidarity with other people facing crises. The Syrian humanitarian organization the White Helmets, which has reportedly saved the lives of thousands of Syrians through its ambulance efforts, has expressed its willingness to volunteer in Ukraine since the first days of the war.
Recent events have shown that the world can mobilize to confront brutal aggressors, and that countries can waive visa requirements for people who are fleeing conflict, and that refugees can be welcomed any time with compassion. This moment should be a reminder that the Syrians' experience with violent human rights violations is the same as that of the Ukrainians, and that they deserve the same continued protection and support.