Ukrainians’ postwar mental traumas will be a problem for generations

Ukrainians’ postwar mental traumas will be a problem for generations

CIUS weekly report on media coverage of Ukrainian affairs, 25 April01 May 2022

Four North American online magazines (The Economist, The Atlantic, Atlantic Council, and Politico) were selected to prepare a report on how the war in Ukraine has been portrayed in the media during the past week (25 April–01 May 2022). The sample of magazines was created based on their impact on public opinion, as well as their professional reputation, popularity among the readership, and topical relevance. Overall, the four magazines represent the centrist and liberal political spectrum.

This report covers only the most-read articles in the past week about Ukraine as ranked by the respective magazines themselves. Also, this report covers texts from the home pages promoted by editorial boards, texts from special sections on Ukraine, and texts from paper versions of the magazines. 

Topics featured in the publications:

  • Ukraine at war: emerging stalemate on the battlefield, the necessity of psychological treatment of Ukrainian civilians, plans for postwar reconstruction;
  • Russia at war: continuous failures of the Russian army, Russian tactics of scorched earth in Ukraine, sources and means of Russian neo-imperial conduct; 
  • The world at war: increasing Western weapon supplies, reasons behind India’s and Belarus’ ambiguous perceptions of the war;
  • Energy aspects of war: new European tariffs on Russian oil, new Russian bans on oil and gas exports.

The most common arguments:

Ukraine’s victory should primarily be secured by the efforts of Ukrainian troops. Graeme Wood (The Atlantic) argues that “the Ukrainians should be circumspect about foreign fighters, and the governments that support Ukraine should discourage their citizens from travelling there to fight.” Regardless of the noble motivations to defend democracy and save civilians, the foreign fighters are at much higher risk of injury (they manoeuvre poorly in unfamiliar terrain), miscommunication with the locals (they do not know the language), and exploitation by Russian propaganda (e.g., the victories of Ukraine are ascribed to NATO). 

The Russo-Ukrainian war has entered a stalemate phase. In his interview with The Economist, Oleksiy Arestovych, а security adviser to the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff, delivers three major messages. Firstly, “the decisive phase of the war…will last no more than two to three more weeks.” This said, both fighting sides have been dragged into a stalemate and are not progressing today. This stalemate may extend for months, if not years. Secondly, evacuation of Ukrainian soldiers from besieged Mariupol is possible. To do so, Russians should become more exhausted in Donbas and agree to a humanitarian corridor. Thirdly, the Ukrainian army is different from the Russian in numbers, command, and warfare logic. Since 2014, both armies have chosen divergent paths of reform, and the Ukrainian army became more decentralized and adaptive. 

Western heavy weaponry is key to Ukraine’s winning the Battle for Donbas. The same as Arestovych, Christopher Miller and Paul McLeary (Politico) highlight that Russians moved the core of their troops to the Donbas and attempted a pincer movement on the Ukrainian defenders. As of today, Russians “simply destroy everything with artillery, shelling day and night” and Ukrainians have limited options to respond. If delivered within days, Western long-range artillery systems and counter-battery radars will change the frontline fight and, very likely, prevent the encirclement of Ukraine’s troops as happened in Mariupol. 

Ukrainians and Russians share different world views, but reasoning is possible. Peter Pomerantsev (The Atlantic) claims that Russians convinced by propaganda may be persuaded eventually to change their minds. Pomerantsev offers an analytic summary of a three-week-long interaction of the Ukrainian Horbonos family with Russian soldiers who occupied their household. It appeared that the soldiers were motivated to the invasion by monetary rewards and material goods. They also believed in the evil nature of their victims and reluctantly acknowledged their own guilt. Pomerantsev concludes that suffering deficits of material goods and restoring free media may eventually turn Russian society into “normalcy.” However, this will take time and come at a high price. 

Vitaly Sych (Atlantic Council) publishes another analytic summary based on his war-time experiences. As the Chief Editor of NV.ua, Sych writes about the challenges of managing an online news outlet under Russian invasion, as well as about his relocation from Kyiv to Lviv, war-time restrictions on liberties, and interactions with displaced people. 

Traumatized Ukrainian civilians need mental health treatment. The Economist highlights that Ukrainian people who have relocated to the Central European states “have carried with them trauma and loss. That has been compounded by the economic stress of living abroad, and by family separation…The World Health Organisation estimated in March that at least half a million refugees were suffering from mental-health issues.” The number of people who need help exceeds the capacity of the mental-health infrastructure of their Central European hosts: there often are not enough psychologists to provide relief. The Russo-Ukrainian war highlighted the necessity to reform mental-health infrastructure in the whole region. 

Ukraine’s postwar reconstruction should start now. Denys Shmyhal, Ukraine’s Prime Minister (The Economist), calls for creating a specialized recovery fund. Before the invasion, Ukraine’s economy demonstrated its highest GDP growth in history and became an important part of global supply chains. After the invasion, Russians decided to do “everything to destroy Ukraine’s economy and throw our nation back to the 19th century.” Shmyhal argues that the recovery fund should be financed from three sources: frozen Russian assets in the West, grants and soft loans from Western states and international organizations, and Ukraine’s own businesses and people.

The Russian army is in a woeful condition. The Economist argues that the strength of the Russian army, which Western analysts accepted as a given, was the product of propaganda and delusions. The invasion of Ukraine demonstrated that the Kremlin did not learn its lessons from the previous failure in Georgia in 2008. Regardless of increased military expenditures in recent decades, Russians continue underperforming in combined arms warfare, follow faulty tactics and strategies, lack competent leaders in the field, and are ill-trained and poorly motivated. The Economist concludes that today’s Russian army is a “far cry from the nimble, high-tech force advertised over the past decade.” Moreover, it may happen that “Russia’s plodding forces will exhaust themselves long before they achieve their objectives in southern and eastern Ukraine.”

The Battle for the Donbas will be one of attrition. Rob Lee (The Economist) also shares the position that the Russian army is in a terrible state and is not achieving good results in Ukraine. Moreover, Russians have already lost the crucial manoeuvre units that are vital for success in the Donbas (tank and motorized rifle units, special and airborne forces). On the other hand, little is known for certain about Ukraine’s losses, reserves, or preparations. Lee concludes that “the extent of the Russian ground forces’ manpower problems, coupled with high attrition, suggests Russia’s offensive in the Donbas is likely to achieve only partial success,” if any success at all. 

Russians will implement the Syrian scenario in Ukraine. Charles Lister (Politico) argues that with the stiff resistance of Ukrainians, growing Western support, and only modest advancements on the ground, the Kremlin will transform the invasion into a protracted and ruthless one, as it did in Syria. For Ukraine, this means the necessity to constantly adapt to Russian moves, prevent freezing of “non-urgent” front lines (or ones where Russia has retreated), fight irregulars and mercenaries on the battlefield, and expect escalations in unexpected places, such as Transnistria. For the West, this means pragmatic disregard of Russian calls for de-escalation (so that it can win time and regroup), curtailing Russian disinformation worldwide, increasing its weapons production capacities, and demonstrating unity in interactions with the Kremlin.

Russia’s neo-imperial war is a threat to global security. Volodymyr Vakhitov and Natalia Zaika (Atlantic Council) claim that the invasion of Ukraine makes sense if one looks at Russia as a revanchist imperial power. For the Kremlin, a liberal and democratic Ukraine automatically becomes “anti-Russia” and appears as a deviation from its “one people” concept. In this light, the Kremlin sees it as a rightful task to bring Ukraine back into its sphere of influence, where it presumably should belong. Vakhitov and Zaika conclude that “If Russian imperialism is not confronted and defeated in Ukraine, other countries will soon face similar threats…The Baltic states and Moldova are among the most likely to become targets of Russian imperial aggression, while the nations of Central Asia are clearly at risk.” 

Putin falsifies history for political needs, the same as many other autocrats. Katie Stallard (The Atlantic) argues that Putin today follows the pattern of Soviet leadership in inventing sworn enemies and, thus, solidifying his power. She also adds: “I have seen this playbook in action in China and North Korea, where Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un insist that they too are defending their nations against hostile foreign adversaries.” The enemies are invented based on revisions of history, concealing misconduct of the leadership, and defining new malicious forces that allegedly prevent these autocratic states from reaching their zenith. As a rule, those malicious forces are neighbouring democracies, such as Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and Ukraine. Stallard concludes that the autocrats “cannot determine what individual citizens think or the individual memories they hold, but they can decide what is presented on the evening news…and they can make it dangerous to challenge the official line in public.”

Russia uses genocidal language to dehumanize Ukrainians. Anne Applebaum (The Atlantic) draws parallels between the vile portrayals of Ukrainians by Soviets in the 1930s, which led to the legitimization and orchestration of the Holodomor, and the portrayal today of Ukrainians by Russians: “In Putin’s language, and in the language of most Russian television commentators, the Ukrainians have no agency. They can’t make choices for themselves. They can’t elect a government for themselves. They aren’t even human—they are ‘Nazis.’ And so, like the kulaks before them, they can be eliminated with no remorse.” This attitude particularly explains the mass murders in Bucha and the total destruction of Mariupol. 

The West has decided to support Ukraine till its victory. The Economist writes about a new Western set of objectives regarding the Russo-Ukrainian war: “It involves providing more and heavier weapons [to Ukraine], sustaining the effort for months, and above all embracing the belief that Ukraine can now ‘win.’” However, these new objectives may be reconsidered in future as it remains hard to predict when the war will end, how it will end, what will be the human cost, and whether the West will remain united by that time. 

Germany agreed to supply weaponry to Ukraine. On 28 April a historic vote took place in the Bundestag that undermined decades of German policies of “no confrontation” with Russia: the MPs agreed to supply weapons to Ukraine. Vitaly Sych (Atlantic Council) connects the prior reluctance to supply weapons with the phenomenon of the Putinversteher (Putin understanders). This phenomenon is rooted in three prejudices: Germany’s sense of guilt toward Russia due to the crimes of WWII; Germany’s perception of Russia as an accomplice in its anti-American sentiment; and Germany’s financial and business interests in Russian markets.

The US may not have enough weaponry to arm its partners and allies. The Economist highlights that supplying weapons to Ukraine is emptying the US stockpiles, and the military factories lack the capacity to raise production quickly. The munitions are used very intensively by nations at war. Moreover, “the US defence industry, like others, has been hit by the covid pandemic, tight labour markets, and global shortages of computer chips.” This puts a strain on the US government to increase its defence production before other democratic states are threatened or invaded. 

India’s attitude to the Russian invasion is dictated by its regional priorities. Tanvi Madan (The Economist) argues that India’s interests have suffered from the outbreak of war on Ukrainian soil: “The invasion endangered the lives of more than 20,000 Indian citizens in Ukraine…increased Indian concerns about further Chinese military action at their shared border…jeopardized the Russian and Ukrainian links in the arms supply chain.” This said, India’s reluctance to condemn the invasion stems from the concern that Russia will become a major regional supporter of Pakistan and China. This poses vital security and economic risks to the government in New Delhi. 

Belarus has no good options in the Russo-Ukrainian war. Brian Whitmore (Atlantic Council) writes that Alyaksandr Lukashenka counted on a swift Russian victory in Ukraine. For that reason, he even allowed the use of Belarusian territory for the invasion. Lukashenka expected that his support would please Putin and reinforce his Belarusian dictatorship. Instead, the unknown outcome of the war alongside the growing dissatisfaction with the war at home makes it precarious for the Belarusian dictator to continue praising Putin, to avoid Western sanctions, and to control his own society. 

In her turn, Alesia Rudnik (Atlantic Council) argues that Lukashenka may use the war to end his international isolation: “He has…recently implemented a number of measures that seem designed to improve relations with Brussels. The Minsk strongman has relaxed the detention measures of some political prisoners and allowed their release from prison to house arrest. The Belarusian authorities have also announced a visa-free regime for citizens of Latvia and Lithuania.” Rudnik warns, however, that the “Lukashenka regime is cynically seeking to exploit Western concerns over the war in Ukraine.” 

Europe should increase tariffs on Russian energy exports, specifically oil. The Economist debunks the misconception that an embargo on Russian energy exports “would plunge Europe into recession without doing much to hurt Vladimir Putin and his war effort.” Russia is not in a position to find new markets and redirect its oil and gas exports fast. Its recent cuts in supplies to Poland and Bulgaria are more a demonstration of power than a strategic change of policy (see The Economist). At the same time, it is also inappropriate for Europe to finance the Russian military machine by continuing “business as usual.” The solution resides in increasing tariffs that “could in effect seize some of Russia’s oil profits without disrupting supply.”

Craig Kennedy (Politico) also mentions that Russia does not have many options to redirect its oil exports from Europe to new “friendly markets.” The best way to deal with the aggressor, according to Kennedy, is a combination of smart sanctions that anticipate redesigned tariffs, the introduction of a new regulating authority, and consignment of the Russian oil money for Ukraine’s reconstruction.

NATO should prepare for confrontation in cyberspace. Erica D. Lonergan and Sara B. Moller (Politico) underscore that in 2014 NATO’s Article 5 collective defence pledge expanded to cyberspace. However, the types of cyber-attacks that would trigger Article 5 were not specified. This challenge of specification stems from the fact that cyber-attacks usually inflict virtual, not physical damage. In this light, NATO should closely monitor the Russo-Ukrainian war because cyberspace has become a separate battlefield there. NATO should also be cautious, as Russia may launch cyber-attacks against its members in revenge for the imposed sanctions.

Ostap Kushnir

Ostap Kushnir

Ostap Kushnir is an assistant professor at Lazarski University in Warsaw. He holds an MA in Journalism from Odesa Mechnikov National University, an MA in International Relations from the University of Wales, and a PhD from Nicolaus Copernicus University (Toruń, Poland). His academic interests include geopolitical and boundary-forming processes in Central and Eastern Europe, specifically in the Black Sea region. Dr. Kushnir is the author of the book Ukraine and Russian Neo-Imperialism: The Divergent Break (2018). He is also a member of the editorial board of the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies (Czechia).

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