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Ukraine and the Death of the Other

01/27/2023 - As major military offenses conducted by both Russian and Ukrainian forces are projected to take place in the coming Winter months if not weeks, the enormous human cost of this tragic war, now nearing one year in duration, will only grow. Some estimates of the battlefield carnage, such as the controversial one made recently by Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, have encompassed up to 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers, most of them young men. Her numbers stoked anger in Ukraine and were subsequently downgraded by the Commission, but in an interview with CNN in June, Ukraine's own Minister of Defense had acknowledged deaths in the range of tens of thousands while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself spoke of 700 Ukrainian casualties per day in a May television broadcast.

Most of the numbers publicly cited for Russian deaths also run into the tens of thousands. "You're looking at well over 100,000 Russian soldiers killed and wounded," General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated in a November interview. "Same thing probably on the Ukrainian side," he added. As for civilians, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recorded over 17 thousand casualties from February to December of 2022. While the overall estimates vary, it would be no exaggeration to speak of many thousands of deaths so far on both sides in the conflict.

This would suggest that it is the human cost entailed in continuing the war that should be a driver of public concern. It is one thing to talk about the issues behind the war, such as Ukrainian border integrity and Russian objections to any NATO expansion into Ukraine. As important as those issues are, it should be just as compelling, or even more so, to consider the cruel deaths of so many young soldiers, much less innocent civilians.

Yet all too often, whenever casualty figures are cited in public discussions, they are noted in the spirit of statistics with the pathos of dying becoming an intangible concept out of sight and mind. The existential notion that with the death of each soldier and civilian dies not only a physical body but an entire world of human relations and hopes and dreams goes beyond most of the daily discourse of the war's ends and strategies.

Here we can be reminded of the epitaph that graces the tombstone of the famed French artist Marcel Duchamp. It goes, "D'ailleurs, c'est toujours les autres qui meurent," which reads in English, "Besides, it's always the others who die." Isn't that, after all, the prevailing inclination regarding this war? To see Zelensky's numbers as abstractions that allow us to go about unaffected by them in our day to day lives.

But if we allow ourselves to be moved by these numbers, we will find ourselves drawn to bringing an end to the killing of Ukraine's and Russia's young men and women soldiers, not to say civilians caught in the crossfire. That would mean applying the allied commitment to doing "whatever it takes" for "as long as it takes" in enabling Ukraine to prevail in the war to also doing "whatever it takes" for "as long as it takes" in bringing the war to an end. This, of course, means promoting a negotiated settlement.

The issues associated with such a settlement are well known, with the main one dealing with Ukraine's right to join the NATO military alliance. The conclusion of this war will largely depend on how this issue is resolved, whether militarily or diplomatically. And we can be certain that it will be resolved in one of those two ways.

The arrival of the New Year is seeing increased shipments of tanks and armored vehicles flowing into Ukraine in support of a military victory that may or may not be achievable. France is sending AMX-10 RC light tanks; Germany is sending Marder Infantry Fighting Vehicles and Leopard 2 tanks; and the United States is sending Bradley Armored Vehicles and M1 Abrams tanks. But the one foregone conclusion of what will be achievable with more and more arms sent to Ukraine are more battlefield deaths.

Whatever we do, whether promoting a military solution or a diplomatic one, we should do it with an open mind and heart as to the human cost. For the death of even one more Ukrainian or Russian young man or woman in a soldierly role, or even one more civilian, is one death too many. Nothing less than our human compassion should acknowledge this much. Nothing less than love for our fellow human beings, wherever and whoever they are, should count as much.

Louis S. Segesvary, Ph.D. is a retired career Foreign Service Officer and author who writes out of Northern Virginia.

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