Expert Comment: 24 and 8 years later, Ukraine’s war for independence continues
Expert Comment: 24 and 8 years later, Ukraine’s war for independence continues.

Expert Comment: 24 months and 8 years later, Ukraine’s war for independence continues

Dr Marnie Howlett, Departmental Lecturer in Russian and East European Politics in the Department of Politics and IR (DPIR) and the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies (OSGA) comments on the two year anniversary of the war in Ukraine. 

Two years is a seemingly short blip of time in the grand arc of history. For Ukrainians, however, the passage of time since 24 February 2022 has felt like an eternity. Since the Russian Federation illegally invaded their territory, Ukrainians have lived with ceaseless fear and anxiety about their own survival and their country’s future, about the status of their loved ones, and about the situation on the frontlines. Every one of the last twenty-four months has been filled with greater grief, loss, and destruction than the last. Every one of the last seven hundred and thirty days has been defined by war.

Marnie HowlettMarnie Howlett
An incredible amount has been lost in the last two years. As of January 2024, an estimated 3.7 million people were internally displaced in Ukraine and a further 6.3 million Ukrainians were recorded living abroad as refugees. Nearly 5,000 cultural and tourists assets have also been damaged, with the most in eastern and southern regions like Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Odesa, estimated at roughly $3.5 billion and necessitating almost $9 billion for recovery. The reconstruction and recovery process in Ukraine is now projected to cost up to $486 billion over the next decade. And not all will, nor can, be recovered. The precise number of casualties since February 2022 is not known but is estimated at more than 30,000 civilians. While the scale of military casualties on both sides remains classified, Western sources suggest that tens of thousands of Ukrainian personnel have been killed and even more wounded in the last two years. Each of these lives representing a family and community forever deeply scarred by Russia’s war.   

Amidst these immense losses, Ukrainians have repeatedly shown their steadfast commitment to their state, its political autonomy, and its territorial integrity. Their determination in the face of significant territorial, material, and infrastructural losses, as well as the ongoing barrage of warfare – conventional but also psychological – inflicted by Russia has continually amazed and surpassed the expectations of citizens and governments globally. Today, the grit of Ukrainians is thus widely recognised, especially within western democracies, as is the critical importance of continued support for the state. 

But it must be remembered that, two years ago, Ukraine was not the main focus of most security conferences or policy briefs, nor was it an especially significant topic in party leadership debates or dinner table conversations around the world. In fact, many people woke up on the day of Russia’s full-scale invasion shocked that in 2022 a global power and permanent member of the United Nations’ Security Council would even consider invading its neighbour, let alone actually do it. Yet, most failed to acknowledge that Russia has done this before; in Georgia in 2008, for example. It was also widely believed that Ukraine was still deeply situated within Russia’s sphere of influence. Many predicted Kyiv would fall within a matter of days.

Had the international community truly recognised the threat Russia posed to Ukraine’s sovereignty prior to 24 February 2022, the last two years could have played out very differently. Specifically, it would be realised that the Russian Federation’s 2022 invasion was not its first invasion into Ukraine. Rather, Russia first invaded sovereign Ukraine ten years ago, in 2014. At that time, it illegally annexed Crimea, occupied much of Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and started the Russia-Ukraine war. The last two years are thus only two of the ten long years that Ukrainians have spent fighting for their territory. It should thus come as little surprise that they are categorically fighting for their state, rejecting political or territorial concessions, at any cost.

As we enter the third year since Russia’s latest invasion, and the eleventh year of the war, the sacrifices and losses of Ukrainians must not be forgotten. The last twenty-four months underscore that Ukraine is a sovereign state equal to that of its neighbours, despite it not being treated as such following its independence in 1991. The last seven hundred and thirty days are thus a stark reminder of Ukraine’s now ten-year long existential fight for survival.