Western Compassion Fatigue Is Hitting Ukraine As War Drags On
As the war approaches its two-year mark, Ukrainians are pleading with their allies to provide them with more funding to enable them to fight back against Russia, following a failed counteroffensive last year.
Those calls are competing for attention in the headlines with Israel’s war in Gaza, which Kyiv fears could work to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advantage.
Russia has all along been banking on eventual Western compassion fatigue for its neighbor, as officials have noted.
“According to our forecasts fatigue from this conflict, fatigue from the completely absurd sponsorship of the Kyiv regime will grow in various countries, including the United States,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov predicted in October. “And this fatigue will lead to the fragmentation of the political establishment and the growth of contradictions.”
As the politics plays out abroad, Ukrainians at home continue to endure the effects of the war, including what may amount to war crimes.
Waning Support For Kyiv In The E.U. And The U.S.
The European Union’s plan to provide 50 billion euros (nearly $54.4 billion) in new aid for Ukraine through 2027 was blocked last month by a single E.U. leader, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn, a Putin ally. But leaders have pledged to find a way to get that money to Ukraine.
The E.U. is also working on a new sanctions package that it hopes to get passed before the war’s two-year anniversary on Feb. 24, which will target Russia’s ability to get around currently-existing sanctions.
In the U.S., House Republicans have made approving Ukraine aid conditional on enacting tighter restrictions on the U.S. border. While President Joe Biden has been trying to get Congress to agree to extend support for Kyiv, former President Donald Trump, the front-runner in the 2024 Republican primary, has been calling on House Speaker Mike Johnson not to back any funding package unless the White House grants all of the GOP’s demands on immigration policy.
Despite the apparent standstill, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed hope that U.S. lawmakers will come around.
“I think it’s the matter of weeks,” he said through a translator during a special address at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week. “I have positive signals that Europe is supporting us, the countries of the European Union, and I believe we will also manage to solve the question regarding the aid in Congress.”
In his speech, Zelenskyy also sought to remind his country’s allies about why their support is so crucial, explaining once again what’s at stake in this war.
“If anyone thinks this is only about Ukraine, they’re fundamentally mistaken,” he said, noting that Russia could be incentivized to invade more countries if it succeeds there.
Documenting War Crimes
Against the backdrop of the war, many human rights organizations on the ground in Ukraine have been documenting and investigating Russia’s conduct.
Catriona Murdoch, who leads the Starvation Mobile Justice Team at Global Rights Compliance, an international human rights law firm and foundation, said her team is working on discerning whether starvation is being used as a method of warfare in Ukraine, by looking at the way in which hostilities are conducted.
She says her team has noticed a three-pronged approach: It begins with the siege of an area, followed by attacks on critical infrastructure in an effort to demoralize civilians. The last step involves attacks on agriculture, aimed at destroying Ukrainians’ livelihoods — but also able to impact other food-insecure countries.
Russia and its affiliates have continuously and deliberately engaged in the extraction of grain in the Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia provinces, according to a report by GRC published in November. Russian-backed actors have “seized the means of grain storage and export in Ukraine to such an extent that they fundamentally control the grain trade in the areas they operate,” the report said.
Meanwhile, Moscow in July withdrew from the U.N.-brokered Black Sea initiative, — a deal it had struck with Turkey and Ukraine that allowed Ukrainian grain to leave the country, in an effort to address fears of global food insecurity fueled by the war.
“In both seizing the grain and profiting from its export, one of Russia’s goals appears to have been to fund its own war effort, even in part, through purposefully denying food to civilian populations,” the report found.
Murdoch said recording these types of actions is one of the ways to keep the world’s attention on the war.
“I think that the importance of documenting and highlighting the severity and routine nature of these attacks on a daily basis is just so critical, and [showing] how vulnerable Ukraine is without support,” Murdoch told HuffPost.
A Stalled Counteroffensive
While Ukraine had raised expectations for what it would be able to achieve in the counteroffensive, their efforts appear to have failed, due in part to a delayed start that allowed Russian troops to better prepare their defenses.
Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s main intelligence unit, acknowledged that while not everything worked in Ukraine’s favor during the counteroffensive, his country’s forces have shown that Russia is not as powerful as once feared. He said he is optimistic that they will manage to contain Putin in the new year.
“To say that everything is fine is not true,” Budanov told The Financial Times. “To say that there is a catastrophe is also not true.”
In recognition that the frontlines are unlikely to move, Ukraine has also increasingly started to target Russia’s oil plants, in order to damage the country’s military’s supplies and to disrupt a source of income for Moscow, according to The New York Times.
Still, Ukraine is unlikely to make big territorial gains this year, as its forces face exhaustion from continued fighting and U.S. funding becomes harder to get, Hal Brands, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, wrote for Bloomberg.
“Ukraine cannot win a decisive victory in 2024,” Brands wrote. “But Kyiv and its Western supporters can — and must — find creative ways of intensifying the pressure on Russia while building strength for 2025.”
The outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November could also determine Moscow’s strategy going forward.
“Once [the Kremlin] knows whether it is going to have Donald Trump or Joe Biden or somebody else in the White House, then it will be able to make longer-lasting decisions regarding its next steps in the war,” Ben Noble, an associate fellow of Chatham House, previously told HuffPost.
Living In War
The uncertainty that comes with war has also taken a toll on Ukrainian civilians, who live with the fear of continued Russian attacks, even during holiday periods.
Russian forces launched missile attacks on the Kyiv and Kharkiv regions on Jan. 2, which, according to local officials, killed five people and injured 130.
The Museum of Civilian Voices, which has garnered an online collection of stories from civilians who have been living through the war, connected HuffPost with three Ukrainian civilians who witnessed the attacks.
Vitaly Krasnyi, a 52-year-old builder who was in his home in Vyshneve when the missiles were fired, said through a translator while Ukrainians have experienced many terrible things since the war began, accepting them as routine doesn’t get easier with time.
“On the one hand, it seems like life is normal. Everything is normal, and then the air raid sirens” sound, Krasnyi said. “And you understand how terrible the situation is.”
Kateryna Zapolska left her home country in March 2022 for the Czech Republic to secure a better future for her young son. However, they decided to return to Ukraine in August, after Zapolska’s 74-year-old mother got sick and needed their help.
Zapolska told HuffPost, though, that even during their time abroad, her son was always hopeful they would be able to come back home.
“I mean, he had a kind of hope at that time, and he’s got this hope now that the war is going to be over,” she said through a translator.
But there appears to be no end in sight to the conflict, and the Jan. 2 strikes were a painful reminder of that.
While Zapolska and her son left the apartment to seek shelter in a nearby school, they had to leave her mother behind, given her difficulty in moving.
Zapolska said she and her son left at her mother’s urging.
“Save your son, do everything to save him,” she recalls her mother telling her.
Zapolska placed pillows and blankets on her mother’s bed to ensure she would be safe from the missiles’ impact. In the meantime, Zapolska called the police to ensure medics would get to her as soon as they were able to enter the building.
The stark, heart-wrenching decisions Ukrainians have to make for themselves and their loved ones around the uncertainty that comes with war weigh hard on them.
Oleksandr Shikhov was another Ukrainian civilian who was in his Kyiv apartment during the missile strikes. He told HuffPost that while he has never left the capital — even in the early days of the war when the city was under siege, a situation which he described as “dangerous and scary” — he has recently been considering moving his parents outside the country to ensure their safety. Still, he said, his parents prefer to stay put.
“I understand it’s a war and I understand that I can be conscripted to the army as well,” Shikhov said through an interpreter. “This is life, this is our reality and I live in this reality.”