It’s been six months since Vladimir Putin ordered tens of thousands of Russian troops into Ukraine on a “special military operation” that began on Feb. 24, attacking the country from the north, south and east. It was an act that shocked the world, a mass invasion on a scale that hadn’t been seen in Europe since the Second World War. The ensuing six months of war put Ukraine’s nearly 44 million people in danger, and left a trail of death and destruction across the country, with cities reduced to ruins and thousands of civilian lives lost.
At the start of the war, Russia was preparing for a swift victory – but a strong Ukrainian resistance forced the Russian army to change course and focus its attacks in the east. Six months on, Russia has failed to overrun Ukraine, but it controls a fifth of Ukrainian territory and the invasion shows no sign of ending any time soon.
The impact of the war has been felt well beyond Ukraine’s borders. It triggered an unprecedented refugee crisis in Europe, forcing millions of Ukrainians to flee the country. It continues to threaten global food security, with increased prices worsening hunger and famine in the developing world, and has triggered an energy crisis that threatens to push more people into poverty.
Here are the key takeaways from the war in Ukraine, plus essential reading to better understand how the invasion has developed and how it could evolve.
Destruction and civilian deaths
Images of brutality in Ukrainian cities have stirred global horror and demands for war-crime investigations. The Kyiv suburb of Bucha, which was occupied by Russian forces for a month early in the invasion, has come to symbolize the worst atrocities of the war. There, soldiers tortured, raped and executed civilians in backyards and basements. The strategic port city of Mariupol, known as a cultural capital of Ukraine and a growing tech hub, was completely destroyed and is now under Russian control. Ukrainian officials say tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in Mariupol. In Zaporizhzhia, missiles continue to rain down in cities and towns around the Russian-held nuclear plant.
Earlier this week, the United Nations reported it had confirmed 5,587 civilian deaths and 7,890 injured, although it concedes the actual numbers are likely considerably higher. Ukraine is investigating more than 28,000 war crimes, including the killing of 373 children, by Russian forces.
A report led by the Montreal-based Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights said there is a serious risk of genocide in Ukraine amid evidence that Russia has committed atrocities intended to destroy the Ukrainian people. Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada said that Russian soldiers are burning books on Ukrainian history in occupied cities, bombing museums and churches, and forcing Russian to be spoken in schools in occupied areas.
Essential reading on the destruction in Ukraine:
A refugee crisis
In the first seven days of the war alone, more than one million people fled Ukraine – the most rapid exodus since the Second World War. Now six months on, more than 11.5 million refugees have left the country, many to neighbouring Poland, Slovakia and Romania, according to the United Nations. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians – mostly women and children, owing to Ukraine enacting a martial law banning men ages 18 to 60 from leaving – have fled to Germany, Czech Republic, Italy and Turkey.
But the refugee crisis has changed dramatically since the start of the war and much of the early support has vanished, reports The Globe’s European correspondent, Paul Waldie. The number of Ukrainians leaving has fallen sharply and there’s no longer a global sense of urgency. But aid workers say the situation could change quickly if fighting intensifies or Ukraine faces a brutal winter. And they worry that there won’t be the same outpouring of support as there was six months ago.
Essential reading on the refugee crisis:
The economic consequences
Several countries including Canada, the United States and Britain, as well as the European Union, have imposed sanctions on Russia, causing a 4-per-cent drop in the Russian economy in the second quarter of this year. The decline is expected to worsen as the war drags on. Many countries have also sanctioned Russian oligarchs close to Putin, seizing yachts, villas and other assets.
Russia is the second-largest producer of natural gas and the third-largest producer of oil. The country supplies the European Union with 40 per cent of its natural gas and Germany has been the largest importer. Russia has been squeezing natural gas supplies to the region in retaliation for sanctions, waging a full-blown “gas war” in Europe. The EU says it plans to reduce its reliance by reducing Russian gas imports by two thirds in 2022.
Canada, meanwhile, has played a controversial role in the Germany-Russia gas tensions. In July, Ottawa came under fire for its decision to return six repaired Russian-owned turbines to Germany – despite objections from Ukraine. Russia cited the delayed return of the turbine equipment, which Siemens Energy had been servicing in Canada, as the reason it decided to reduce the flow of natural gas through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline. The pipeline, which ships gas to Germany from Russia, was cut to 40-per-cent capacity. Canada’s decision to repair the Nord Stream turbines has since sparked a significant and public disagreement between Ottawa and Kyiv.
Essential reading on the economic impact of the war:
Disruptions to the global food supply
Russia and Ukraine account for a quarter of global wheat exports, and are near the top of the production list when it comes to other agricultural goods such as barley, corn, potatoes, sunflowers and sugar beets. Their exports are the sustenance on which many countries in North Africa and the Middle East depend. Russia is also the top fertilizer producer, accounting for 13 per cent of world output.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sets the stage for “the worst food crisis in decades,” reports The Globe’s Jason Kirby. Food prices have risen globally because of soaring fertilizer prices, and food shipments have ground to a halt owing to closed Black Sea ports, sending shock waves through commodity markets and spreading social unrest around the globe.
The UN negotiated a grain deal last month with Ukraine, Russia and Turkey to allow the resumption of shipping Ukrainian grain exports from Black Sea ports. Officials had high hopes that it would unlock millions of tonnes of foodstuffs for countries in Africa that are on the brink of starvation. Instead, the deal has run up against commercial interests – and the 12 ships that have left so far have gone to Britain, Ireland, Italy, China, South Korea and Turkey.
According to a report released by the United Nations World Food Programme, as many as 47 million people will fall into acute hunger in 81 countries worldwide this year because of higher grain and fuel prices resulting from Ukraine war – with African countries likely to be the hardest hit.
Essential reading on the global food crisis:
The war has tarnished the notion of Russia as a global military power, writes The Globe’s senior correspondent Mark MacKinnon. The juggernaut that seized Crimea in 2014 has been almost completely stopped in its tracks by the smaller Ukrainian army. Meanwhile, the country’s previously vaunted intelligence services have been exposed as either having been incompetent in their assessments of Ukraine’s willingness and ability to resist – or unable to communicate such unwelcome information to the Kremlin.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rapidly evolved from TV comic to wartime leader and national hero, rallying support from Western allies, which have committed billions of dollars in military, humanitarian and financial aid. The United States has pledged more than $54-billion, the most of any country, while Britain has pledged the second most at $4-billion.
The war has changed the global geopolitical landscape, with Russia becoming increasingly isolated. In addition to economic sanctions, hundreds of brands and companies have pulled out of the country and Russian airlines are banned from flying over much of Europe and North America. Russia’s invasion has also reinvigorated NATO, which has been sending reinforcement battlegroups to Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. In June, the military allegiance also approved membership bids by Finland and Sweden, and as of early August, more than two-thirds of NATO’s 30 members have approved their addition. (All current members of NATO must approve it.)
Essential reading on the geopolitical impacts:
Aug. 24 marks a grim anniversary for the war in Ukraine: six months since Russia invaded. In this compilation video, footage shows cities reduced to rubble, some of the millions of refugees fleeing, and the aftermath of Russia’s attacks.
The Globe and Mail
– With files from Mark MacKinnon, Paul Waldie, Nathan Vanderklippe, Michelle Carbert, Steven Chase, Robert Fife, Jason Kirby, Geoffrey York, Reuters