On February 24 last year, after months of military buildup, Russia launched a fullscale invasion of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin assumed the result would be the speedy fall of Kyiv, Ukrainian surrender, and the installation of a pro-Russian puppet regime. A year later, what Putin’s “special military operation”—his fatuous euphemism for it—has mainly produced are a remarkable display of Ukrainian pluck, a continuing series of Russian atrocities, and a bloody conflict that neither side seems willing to halt short of victory.
While it is convenient to say this war is now marking its first anniversary, in a real sense the conflict began nine years ago. That was when, following overthrow of a pro-Russian Ukrainian president, Russia seized Crimea, which had been Ukrainian territory for some years previously, and began supporting pro-Russian separatists in the country’s eastern Donbas region.
The Ukrainians’ remarkable military success in the past year has been due largely to their own bravery and skill. But two other factors have been indispensable: the notable incompetence of the Russian military and the billions of dollars’ worth of top-of-the-line military hardware poured into Ukraine by the United States and other NATO allies—assistance without which no amount of Ukrainian bravery and skill could have pushed back the Russian onslaught.
So what now? With casualties, including Russian-inflicted civilian deaths and injuries, numbering in the thousands and continuing to mount, it’s hard to see what either side has to gain that could justify persisting in this bloodbath.
While Ukrainian President Zelensky declares bold but questionable goals that go beyond retaking lost territory in the Donbas and extend even to seizing Crimea, it’s fair to ask how far the U.S. should go in lending support. The Crimean peninsula has changed hands many times and until rather recently was part of the Soviet Union and, before that, the Russian empire. There is no compelling reason why America should help Zelensky to regain it now.
Putin for his part seems bent on destroying as much of the Ukrainian infrastructure as he can. But to what end? One thinks of the self-portrait supplied by a cold-blooded killer called the Misfit in a Flannery O’Connor story: “No pleasure but meanness.” In reality, Putin is buying longterm economic suffering for Russia along with a degree of international disgust that could make his country a pariah for years to come.
Already, too, the war has fractured relations between Orthodox groups in Ukraine while contributing to the isolation on the world stage of the Russian Orthodox Church and its pro-Putin leader Patriarch Kirill. Decades of bridge-building by the Holy See have suffered a setback that will not soon be repaired. There is helpful background to all this in a new book by John Burger called At the Foot of the Cross based on interviews with Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (Our Sunday Visitor).
In his traditional New Year address to diplomats accredited to the Holy See, Pope Francis called for immediate end to the “senseless conflict” in Ukraine. Then he said this: “The current conflict in Ukraine has made all the more evident the crisis that has long affected the multilateral system, which needs a profound rethinking if it is to respond adequately to the challenges of our time….We must return to dialogue, mutual listening and negotiation,and foster shared responsibility and cooperation in pursuit of the common good.”
Will that happen in Ukraine? Only when all parties to the war return to common sense and decency.