LONDON (AP) – This is not war, Vladimir Putin said then – and says now. It is a “special military operation”. However, in almost every sense of the word, Russia’s war in Ukraine is just that.
And when a nation is at war, even if it claims it isn’t, the reverberations at home—where the conflict was first conceived—can be far-reaching.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in Ukraine eight months after Russia launched the war in February expecting a landslide victory against neighboring Ukraine, an independent nation from which it had already annexed Crimea in 2014. Millions have been displaced from their homes. A harsh winter is approaching. Nuclear fears are growing. And the Kremlin is now using killer drones to degrade Ukraine’s electricity supply, plunging hundreds of thousands more into the dark.
Four more regions of Ukraine were illegally annexed in the past month, although they are far from full Russian control, and Putin declared a state of emergency in them on Wednesday.
Even without calling it a formal war, Putin could lay the groundwork for expanding these restrictive measures across Russia. A clause in the decree allows emergency measures to be imposed in any Russian region “when necessary.” Moreover, officials in several Russian regions rushed to reassure the population after Putin’s announcement that they did not plan to introduce additional measures.
A war that Moscow does not call a war has also exacerbated the death and tension in Russia among its citizens. There is a huge number of dead and wounded Russian soldiers, many poorly equipped and poorly commanded, sent to the front to die essentially as cannon fodder.
The Soviet Union lost 10,000 to 15,000 men in Afghanistan from a much larger population, says Samantha de Bendern, a fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the international affairs think tank Chatham House. And, she told The Associated Press, even the most conservative model suggests that 50,000 men died in Ukraine. That’s between three and five times what the Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan in nearly 11 years.
“I don’t see how society can stand it,” de Bendern said.
The undeclared war is also raging elsewhere.
When a leader starts losing on the battlefield and announces a “partial” mobilization of reserves, hundreds of thousands of Russian families are immediately affected by the conflict that they may or may not have supported.
Putin’s decree does not specify any specific criteria for who should be mobilized and does not specify how many people should be recruited. The contrast with highly motivated Ukrainians defending their nation could not be starker. And when thousands of Russian men don’t want to be drafted into an undeclared war, they flee the country by air, sea and land, across borders wherever it takes them.
Anti-war and anti-mobilization protests were ruthlessly suppressed. Not everyone was sympathetic to those trying to leave Russia and closed their borders. The leaders of the Baltic states wondered aloud: Where were their voices against the war as it raged?
Russia is mobilizing from various republics and ethnic groups that do not necessarily share the Kremlin’s war aims and policies, and there have been violent incidents at training or recruitment stations. Last week, a shooting left 11 dead and 15 wounded in the Belgorod region of southwestern Russia. The two attackers — from a former Soviet nation not identified by Russian authorities — shot at other soldiers during the firefight and were killed by return fire.
In another incident in Siberia a few weeks earlier, a local commander shot and seriously wounded a young man whose friend had been invited. The attacker shouted: “No one will fight. … We will all go home now.”
Unlike the daily bombardment that Russia drops on Ukraine, Kiev’s military attacks on Russia itself have been significantly less lethal. The United States has been wary of supplying Ukraine with any weapons that might have sufficient range to strike inside Russia, lest it be drawn into direct conflict. But border areas in the Belgorod, Kursk and Bryansk regions of Russia have been shelled since the beginning of the invasion.
Also, when a country is at war, declared or not, there are more planes in the air. That could mean increased tension among his stretched and unchecked forces—and deadly crashes.
On Monday, a Russian warplane crashed into the Sea of Azov in the Russian port city of Yeisk, killing 15, including three who died when they jumped from a nine-story building to escape a massive fire. A Su-34 bomber crashed after one of its engines caught fire during takeoff for a training mission, the Russian Defense Ministry said.
The crash, which showed no signs of sabotage, marked the 10th reported non-combat crash of a Russian warplane since Moscow sent troops to Ukraine. Military experts note that as the number of Russian military flights skyrockets during the fighting, so do accidents.
De Bendern, an international relations analyst, paints a darker picture of the future for Russia and its troops. “It’s not so much the dead coming home that’s the problem,” she said. “The problem is people who are alive coming home — people who are alive and who come home and say, ‘Hey, we’re not fighting Nazis in Ukraine. We’re killing innocent women and children.'”
And that’s another problem with a war Moscow doesn’t call a war: its painful legacy could last for generations.
Tamer Fakahany, deputy director of global news coordination at The Associated Press, has assisted AP’s direct international coverage for 20 years. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/tamerfakahany. AP writer Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report. Follow Fakahany on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamerfakahany