Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: Reflecting on a year of war and atrocities

February 23, 2023

 A main street in the Ukrainian city of Bucha after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

A main street in the Ukrainian city of Bucha after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Wikimedia Commons)
Story by Justin Zadorsky/Western News

It has been one year since Russia’s military crossed into Ukraine with a full-scale invasion force. Almost immediately, the horrors of Europe’s largest land war in decades were shown in real-time through news agencies and social media.

While the world watched, the resolve of the Ukrainian people rapidly became apparent. Assumptions that Russia would quickly take over were proved incorrect as Ukrainian forces managed to slow and eventually push back the invaders.

One particular viral video of a young Ukrainian girl singing from a bunker seemed to symbolize the unity of the people and the hope that remains to this day.

Marta Dyczok is a professor of history and political science who spent years working in Ukraine. Reflecting on the year since the invasion, she said the resolve of the Ukrainian people does not surprise her. “Putin expected to take control of Kyiv by force in a few days and Western leaders expected Ukraine’s president Zelenskyy to flee. Neither happened,” said Dyczok.

However, for Ukraine to have ongoing success, she stresses the country will need to have the continued support of Western allies.

“So far allies have been helping at a level where Ukraine has not lost the war but is unable to win. In the meantime, thousands of innocent civilians are being tortured and killed, and cities destroyed,” said Dyczok.

The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner recently estimated that roughly 8,000 civilians have been killed and more than 13,000 injured in the year since Russia’s invasion. However, the office noted the number is likely much higher due to difficulties obtaining records during war time.

Valerie Oosterveld is a Western Law professor who specializes in international law and war crimes. She said the level of atrocities being committed in Ukraine is not surprising but no less devastating.

“Unfortunately, past and ongoing Russian actions in countries such as Syria gave the international community a sense of the depravity that could be expected in Ukraine. Even so, the scope of Russian targeting of civilians, including children, and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine has been gut-wrenching,” said Oosterveld.

She said in areas liberated by Ukraine, investigators have found alleged instances of extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence and disappearances.

“The ongoing Russian attacks have created a traumatized population struggling to survive,” she said.

Oleksa Drachewych, a professor in the department of History at Western and King’s University College, has spent his career studying the history of Russian foreign policy and politics and he says the atrocities Russia has been accused of committing make the prospect for peace unrealistic.

“The forcible transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia for the purposes of raising them Russian is something the Russians are openly advertising and boasting and is in contravention of the Genocide Convention,” said Drachewych.

He argues that such actions mean Ukraine is increasingly seeking justice as part of any long-lasting resolution for peace, a notion he does not see Russia accepting any time soon.

What can be done as the war enters a new phase?

To mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s escalation of the war, Dyczok and Oosterveld have come together to host a virtual conference on Monday, Feb. 27, bringing together six experts from Ukraine and around the world to discuss issues pertinent to the ongoing conflict.

“Our aim is to inform the wider community about two aspects of the war where we do research – information warfare and international law and war crimes,” said Dyczok.

The morning panel moderated by Dyczok will include Yevhen Fedchenko, head of the Journalism School at the University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy; Andriy Hulykov, co-founder and head of Hromadske Radio in Ukraine; and Roman Horbyk, senior lecturer at Södertörn University College in Sweden.

The afternoon panel will be moderated by Oosterveld and will include Kateryna Busol from the University of Oxford, and Jennifer Trahan of the New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.

Dyczok says the conference is one small part in maintaining the conversation and support for the people of Ukraine. She says these discussions need to occur because what is at stake goes beyond Ukraine’s borders.

“What is at stake is the future of Europe and the international order,” said Dyczok. “If unprovoked war goes unpunished, along with crimes against humanity, it gives a clear signal to other dictators that international law is meaningless, and the international order based on principles of democracy created after World War II will likely unravel.”

The event is sponsored by the Centre for Transitional Justice and Post-Conflict Reconstruction; Western Law’s Public and Private International Law Research Group; the Faculty of Social Science; department of history; and the department of political science.

To register please visit Ukraine: One Year After Russia’s Escalated War.