Overview:

Recently updated civilian casualty counts in Russia's invasion of Ukraine only highlight how many known unknowns exist 10 months into the conflict. How do we account for the less easily quantifiable impacts of brutal war?

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It happens in every conflict, every international power play: reliable real-time numbers go out the window. In China, it’s lately taken the form of local government under-counting infection and casualty rates from COVID-19, despite overwhelmed emergency and funeral services telling a different story. In recent civil war around Tigray, in Ethiopia, the sheer complexity of documenting the missing and murdered drove civilians in diaspora to try to build better intel around a conflict finally reaching a cessation of hostilities (and beginning a much longer path to full reckoning and peace).

And with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the fog of war has taken the form of both sides under-reporting civilian and military casualty counts. Sometimes, because it can take a while simply to get internal accounting straight (let alone properly corroborated). Sometimes, because it’s strategic not to let the enemy, or the world, know the exact losses one is taking.

On December 27, the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights reported 17,831 known civilian casualties in Ukraine, including 6,884 killed and 10,947 injured, with 429 children among the dead. As the release noted, “[m]ost of the civilian casualties recorded were caused by the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects, including shelling from heavy artillery, multiple launch rocket systems, missiles and air strikes.” This informed the office’s opinion that the actual casualty count is far higher, due to ongoing “hostilities” (military bombardment) in Mariupol, Izium, Lysychansk, Popasna, and Sievierodonetsk.

Map of current war-time holdings as of December 28, care of Wiki Commons.

On December 28, air raid sirens have been sounding all across Ukraine, after months of attacks on civilian infrastructure that have left millions in the cold and dark. General Staff of the Ukrainian army reported 33 artillery attacks and 1 missile strike in the last 24 hours, with Russian military firing not only along the whole contact line in the east, but also on many expressly civilian targets. These included the southern region and city of Kherson, where a maternity hospital has been listed among the attacked sites.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s 10-point peace plan, widely disseminated among international leaders, covers a wide range of activities meant to restore civilian well-being in the region and abroad. These measures include food security (especially with respect to grain exports), radiation and nuclear security (Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia is the largest nuclear plant in Europe), energy restoration with price stabilization to rebuild Ukraine’s half-demolished infrastructure, the return of war prisoners (children among them) taken to Russia, and the prevention of ecocide and protection of the environment (e.g., de-mining local terrain and restoring water treatment facilities).

However, political facets of this plan include the full restoration of Ukrainian territory, including the recently annexed Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia oblasts (currently enduring some of the worst military attacks on military and civilian targets), and this is non-negotiable for both Ukraine and Russia. Whether there will be any forward momentum on other aspects of the peace plan until these territorial issues have been resolved is doubtful—and ruinous, because the other points speak to a broader category of wartime “casualties” than can ever be fully summarized by UN reports.

Other forms of civilian harm also pose challenges to quantification in the fog of war. Ethnic Chechens fleeing Russia before enlistment into its war are struggling amid different visa requirements in Bosnia and Croatia to reach safe haven. They join the nearly 8 million recorded refugees from Ukraine across Europe, and the at least 420,000 Russians recorded to have fled since the breakout of war. (More recent figures have not yet been released, but likely surged after Putin announced a draft in September.)

Energy crises from the fallout of disrupted power and gas imports are also hitting Europe harder now that winter has arrived, with Finnish director general Riku Huttunen, of energy and climate policy, most recently telling Reuters about impending risks to electricity and heat (and how the Finnish people are responding with household measures).

Humanist action requires the most comprehensive data possible, with which to inform the best policies to maximize human well-being and agency. But in the fray of natural and human-made disasters alike, we are inevitably impoverished in the realm of immediately accurate and complete intel. We must instead rely on a cautious acceptance of new data as it arises (and is eventually corroborated or amended), and what a wealth of historical data teaches us about the needs before us in similar crises.

This brutal Russian war in Ukraine, which has so deeply and diversely affected civilians both locally and abroad, will stretch into the new year.

What will we carry with us from this one, to better address tomorrow’s hurting world?

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.