By Isabel Pulgarin
A mass grave site in Izyum was uncovered as forces in Ukraine won back their region in a surprising, five-day counteroffensive attack early September. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced 450 graves were found and almost all bodies exhumed evidently died a violent death.
“More than 10 torture chambers have already been found in various cities and towns liberated in Kharkiv region," he said.
Oleg Synegubov, the head of Kharkiv regional administration, claimed that “among the bodies that were exhumed today, 99 percent showed signs of violent death."
Though over the seven-month assault on Ukraine, United Nations officials and the Human Rights Council have been documenting evidence and tracking hundreds of war crimes among more than 30 settlements in Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Sumy regions, including instances of brutal executions of tied civilians and soldiers, and sexual violence against communities including children.
Since the invasion, there an estimated 8 million displaced refugees in Ukraine and an additional 7.6 million who fled across Europe. But, strikingly, a record number of about 2.7 million Ukrainian refugees crossed the Russian border, some voluntarily, but mostly through a Russian filtration system for prisoners of war that has a reportedly violent “welcoming process” with human right violations. All this came after the five-day strategic move that started Sept. 8.
After spreading talk of an offensive move in the south, Russians mobilized down south to Kherson, lessening reinforcements in the east near Kharkiv. Then Ukraine attacked both regions in a trick, liberating villages in the south and east while Russian forces rapidly withdrew abandoning all equipment, including ammunition and tanks. It is reported that soldiers even fled by disguise when Ukrainian soldiers were pushing them out of villages.
In a referendum, a single general vote by electorate, the Russian occupied regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia were annexed and became a part of Russian territory forever. These join the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea that was annexed by the Russians in 2014 in Putin’s first attempt at taking the country he believes is rightfully the Russian Empire’s.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has since threatened nuclear retaliation and ordered a “partial mobilization” of 300,000 experienced fighters.
On Sept. 21, President Putin said that “if the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will use all available means to protect Russia and our people— this is not a bluff.” It was then later that day President Zelenskyy officially requested NATO membership to protect his country from further Russian assault.
After the start of the invasion on Feb. 24 earlier this year, he acknowledged the “open-door policy” of NATO but also understood he still would not receive support from the organization of most countries who wanted to avoid entering themselves in conflict.
“The US, NATO and the UN have all decried these recent moves by Putin, but it is unlikely any forces will involve themselves directly in this war,” said History Professor Sarah Riva.
Experts are claiming the annexation of the four regions are his sign of acknowledgement that he failed taking what he wanted: the whole of Ukraine. President Putin claimed the February morning invasion was a “special military operation” for them to de-militarize and de-nazify Ukraine. He first attempted to take the capital of Kyiv failed, and he has since also failed to take control over another sought-after region, the whole of Donbas.
The Ukrainian president’s boost in morale and organizing of his society in support of the war efforts has contributed greatly to the high morale among his troops, leading to their new successes.
According to U.S. Army General David Petraeus, Russia meanwhile faces a “disastrous situation” militarily and is “literally running out of soldiers, ammunition, tanks, fighting vehicles and so forth.”
Other experts point out a lack of camaraderie, confidence, and morale after discovering the misinformation they were fed while being recruited. The private military company, The Wagner, has reportedly turned to recruiting prisoners by tricking them into six months of service in exchange for their freedom.
“It is clear that the Russian army did not even have full control of these regions and in the past week we have seen Ukrainian forces liberate these regions and force the Russians to retreat,” Riva said. “Now, this is concerning because this might be the excuse Putin needs to increase attacks and potentially turn to nuclear weapons, which he has hinted.”
The definition for Ukraine’s victory varies.
“There is no exit but to win,” said Zelenskyy said.
Others point to a full withdrawal of Russian troops as a win, reparations with a NATO membership, and restoration of Crimea as Ukrainian territory have all been tapped as potential wins for its citizens. Zelenskyy just wants to win, as he said in the Yalta European Strategy Conference, created after Crimea was taken from Ukraine.
“After they had the tragedy of not one big war but two, so to see history repeat itself on the eastern side of Europe is pretty heart breaking,” said freshman English major Lojan Shaker. “So, all our thoughts and prayers go out to Ukraine and to the families that have been displaced and lost loved ones.”