At a small army field clinic outside Bakhmut, I watched as the body of a dead soldier was carried in. Two more soldiers followed, this time seriously injured – and this was what troops described as a ‘quiet day’. Ukraine doesn’t talk about its military deaths much and refuses to reveal any figures. There’s little in the way of victim culture here; the emphasis is on how brave its troops are, not how many have perished. Most people know someone who’s died in action, but treat the collective trauma as something to worry about when the war is over. In the meantime, there’s vodka.
Here and there, though, glimpses of the nation’s best-kept secret emerge. In every big-city cemetery, the ‘Heroes Alley’ of fallen soldiers now holds several hundred graves. Soldiers I know complain that their Facebook pages have turned into endless-scrolling obituaries. Countless wounded veterans face a future in wheelchairs. While Russia has used the conflict to drain its jails, Ukraine is losing its brightest and best, the young generation that stood up to defend it.
Already some western leaders question the merits of an all-out push by Kyiv to reclaim all of its lost lands, especially if it spikes the death toll even higher. Ukrainian casualties are estimated at upwards of 16,000 dead, a figure that may rise steeply in the counter-offensive’s coming months. Estimates for Russian casualties start at around 25,000.
Within Ukraine’s political elite, nobody has yet called for peace negotiations that might include conceding Crimea or the Donbas, but one man I spoke to did break ranks: Gennady Druzenko, the founder of the Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital, a team of civilian doctors who work on the front lines.