The Cost of War to Ukraine

Human cost: a Ukrainian refugee arrives by train in Poland in March 2022. Image: NurPhoto SRL / Alamy

As the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion rolls around, much global attention is directed towards the battlefields in eastern Ukraine. But what has been the cost to the rest of the country of the past year of fighting?

In January 2022, Western leaders seemed be sending a clear message to the Kremlin. US President Joe Biden said preparations were being made to ‘impose severe economic costs’, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned of ‘severe costs’ if there was ‘any further aggression’, and Downing Street said Russia could be hit with ‘swift retributive responses’. But from the moment Russian tanks moved in from three directions early on 24 February 2022, it is Ukraine and the Ukrainians who have paid the heaviest price for Russian aggression.

The Human Cost

Above all, there has been the cost to human life. The UN has confirmed 8,006 civilian deaths, including 487 children: victims of heavy artillery shelling, missiles and air strikes, often on their homes. The UN always caveats that ‘the actual figures are considerably higher’ because there are many places it cannot reach. Among them is Mariupol, a formerly thriving port city. An investigation by Associated Press established that in Mariupol alone, 75,000 are likely to have died as a result of the fighting. As the Russians bulldoze their homes, the majority will never get a decent burial.

The Ukrainian government is reluctant to disclose military casualties but in December it admitted that at least 13,000 soldiers had died, and some estimates suggest as many as 100,000 casualties (dead and injured). Around 3,500 Ukrainian soldiers are currently being held as prisoners of war, with multiple reports of torture and starvation.

Tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers alike have suffered often life-changing injuries. Foreign doctors volunteering in Ukraine have described horrific ‘First World War-type injuries’ that were worse than what they had seen in Iraq. There are many reports of sexual violence, with victims as young as four.

Behind each of these numbers are many human stories. Like 3-month-old Kira, her mother Valeria and grandmother Lyudmila, who were killed when a Russian missile ripped through their apartment block in Odesa. Or 10-year-old Yana, who survived the bombing of Kramatorsk train station but lost her right leg below the knee, her left foot, and her mother. Or Roman Ratushny, a well-known civic activist, who with many others his age volunteered for the army after the invasion, and was killed in combat in Izyum a month before his 25th birthday.

Economic Collapse

The cost to Ukraine’s economy has been devastating, not least due to the extensive damage caused to the country’s infrastructure and its most productive industries.

The Kyiv School of Economics estimates that the value of damage due to the invasion has now reached $137.8 billion (at replacement cost). This includes the complete destruction of 344 bridges, 440 educational facilities, 173 hospitals and hundreds of thousands of homes, while many more buildings have suffered extensive damage.

In a country that was the ‘breadbasket of the world’, the World Food Programme now provides food assistance to 3 million people monthly

The steel industry, which before the war constituted a third of the value of all Ukrainian exports and was one of the country’s biggest employers, collapsed in 2022. Steel production fell by over 70% last year and will not be able to reach pre-war levels in the near future. One of the biggest steel plants, Azovstal in Mariupol, was totally destroyed. Many others have seen production limited, such as ArcelorMittal’s steel plant in Kryviy Rih. The latter was recently modernised for $5 billion, but is running at only 25% capacity because of chronic energy shortages and logistics problems now that it is no longer able to export by sea. This needs to be seen in context of the fact that half of Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial heartland, was already taken by Russia after 2014.

Agricultural products, Ukraine’s other major export, have also been significantly hit. 26% of cultivatable land has either been lost or damaged, or is contaminated by mines. As a result, the wheat and sunflower harvests in 2022 were down 40% compared to the previous year, and a further drop in production is expected in 2023. In a country that was the ‘breadbasket of the world’ – exporting enough before the war to feed 400 million people around the globe – the World Food Programme now provides food assistance to 3 million people monthly, and approximately 35% of Ukraine’s population is estimated to be suffering from insufficient food consumption.

Overall, an estimated 47% of Ukrainian companies have stopped operating, leading to a sharp fall in tax intake at a time when significantly more needs to be spent on defence. Other consequences include the collapse of the advertising market, without which media outlets are struggling to survive.

Having been on a positive economic trajectory following the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2022 Ukraine suffered a 30% drop in GDP, and it is now dependent on at least $3–4 billion monthly in outside budgetary support to pay for necessary government functions.

Life in a Warzone

For the past eight years, since Russia’s first invasion, life was transformed for anyone living close to the frontline in Donbas in the east. In the past year, however, all of Ukraine has become an active warzone.

The suspension of all air travel has become normal, with any international travel requiring long journeys, mostly through Poland. In most cities, including Kyiv, people still go to work and shops and restaurants are open, but everyone is subject to a curfew from 11pm to 5am. To conserve energy, streetlights are kept off, so it is eerily dark and quiet.

Air raid sirens – now often first heard through a special mobile app – and accompanying sounds of anti-aircraft fire are so frequent that many people have become numb to them and often don’t bother going to their designated underground shelters. But drones and rockets do get through air defences and continue killing civilians in their homes – as they did a month ago in Dnipro, killing 46 people, injuring 80 and leaving 400 homeless when their nine-story apartment building was hit. These attacks also cause blackouts and heating and water shortages due to intentional targeting of critical energy infrastructure, 50% of which has been damaged, occupied or destroyed. Closer to the front, such as in Kherson, people face daily shelling.

An estimated 8 million Ukrainian refugees are now outside their country, and a further 5 million are internally displaced

Living in this warzone is taking a toll on ordinary Ukrainians. According to the World Health Organisation, roughly 10 million people are potentially at risk of mental disorders such as acute stress, anxiety, depression, substance use and post-traumatic stress disorder. With millions forced from their homes and daily life including schooling disrupted, children are particularly vulnerable – as are soldiers, who suffer sleeplessness, flashbacks and panic attacks. The director of Ukraine’s newly founded and only dedicated military rehabilitation centre for post-traumatic stress says there is a need for 100 such facilities.

Those who now find themselves in territory occupied by Russia are witnessing the attempted eradication of Ukrainian identity, exactly as was done in occupied Donbas and Crimea after 2014. Ukrainian-language signs have been replaced with Russian, street names are reverting to what they were during the Soviet Union (in Mariupol, for example, the Avenue of Peace was renamed to Lenin Avenue), and historical monuments have been taken down, including those to the Holodomor, Stalin’s starvation of Ukrainians in 1932–33.

Most concerningly, Russia has also been operating a large-scale, systematic network of 43 camps and other facilities to ‘re-educate’ Ukrainian children. The Yale School of Public Health’s Humanitarian Research Lab has determined that at least 6,000 children, and likely significantly more, have been put through programmes aiming to make Ukrainian children pro-Russian. Hundreds of others have been taken for adoption by Russian couples.

The Demographic Price

Russia’s invasion precipitated the biggest European refugee crisis since the Second World War. An estimated 8 million Ukrainian refugees are now outside their country, and a further 5 million are internally displaced. In the short term this has caused hardship and uncertainty, particularly for many women and children (men under the age of 60 aren’t allowed to leave without special permission). In the longer term, this exodus is likely to contribute to a further deterioration of Ukraine’s pre-existing demographic crisis.

Since independence in 1991, the population of Ukraine has declined from 51 million to an estimated 43.5 million (including occupied Donbas and Crimea). It has also been ageing: the fertility rate has been low for years, and in 2021 it was only 1.16, one of the lowest in the world (the replacement rate is 2.1). Whether refugees return home will therefore be critical for the country’s long-term economic recovery. Many have gone back already, and others have indicated they will do so as soon as the conflict ends. But the longer it goes on, the deeper the roots that Ukrainians will put down in other countries, finding better-paid jobs and enrolling their children in schools. A survey of Ukrainian refugees in Germany last year found that more than a third (37%) intend to stay in Germany permanently. Similar polling in Poland found that as more of them find jobs, an increasing number of Ukrainians are planning to stay after the end of the war.

Despite nine rounds of EU sanctions, closely coordinated with sanctions imposed by the UK, the US and other allies, in 2022 Russia suffered only a 2–3.5% drop in GDP, much less than some had predicted. In Moscow, many Western brands are off the shelves, but there are no shortages. And 12 months on, there is no indication that Russia intends to stop its aggression or to be held accountable for the inhuman and lasting damage it has inflicted on Ukraine.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Janek Lasocki

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