“But they can't admit it to you.”
A simple sentence.
A sentence bathed in brutal honesty.
A sentence that transcended the fog of war by putting the human being first.
On December 30, Ukraine’s Defense Minister, Oleksii Reznikov, delivered those words during a video address aimed at Russian civilians who are at risk of being mobilized by the dictatorial Moscow regime.
For more than 10 months, much of the discourse surrounding Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has focused on death. Be it coverage of the murderous war crimes carried out by Putin’s army, the multiple mass graves found in formerly occupied areas of Ukraine, or the more than 100,000 Russian soldiers who have been killed in action, war breeds discussion about the dead and dying. However, two days before the New Year, Reznikov introduced a narrative firmly focused on life.
The more than eight-minute-long presentation was equal parts warning and plea and saw the battle-tested Minister of Defense share sensitive intelligence information relating to an impending mobilization order that will affect the entire Russian Federation. In reaching out directly to those men living under the barbaric and draconian whims of the Kremlin, Reznikov focused on how the failures and lies of Putin and his enablers have brought cities across Russia to the precipice of seeing their sons sent to the front lines, forced to fight as the country’s borders would close to them. As Reznikov helpfully pointed out, once there, these mobilized troops would be positioned to die or become permanently injured at the hands of the superior Ukrainian army. In doing so, he asked them the most important of questions relating to Russia’s losing effort: ``What exactly are you fighting for?”
While Reznikov’s style was novel and bold, the focus of the AFU as a whole is on preserving life. In October, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made clear that Ukrainian forces were to focus on taking Russian soldiers prisoner, adding that “Every Ukrainian soldier, every front-line commander should remember this."
Despite seeming counterintuitive to achieving combat-related successes, prioritizing life over death during this war is the correct moral and ethical choice. It is also what separates us from them.
During the September Kharkiv offensive, after a particularly brutal day on the front in Kupyansk, where the bodies of Russian soldiers lined our path, I turned to a Commander and told him how much I’d come to hate war; that even the sight of lifeless enemies didn’t bring me any joy. His response became a daily mantra for me in the months since.
“We are fighting this war to stop war, we are fighting this war to stop senseless death,” and then pointing at the bloated Russian corpse near our feet, added, “and no deaths are more senseless than theirs. They are coming onto our land to die, to die for no reason.”
Adding to the body count will only take us partially down the road to victory. To sustain the ideals of what we are currently fighting for, to show future generations what victory truly meant, we will also be judged by how much we valued life in addition to the ongoing tally of enemies KIA.
In asking the Russian populace why they are fighting, in laying out the stark truths and the accompanying choices that they will soon be facing, in offering them the choice to live, Oleksii Reznikov, a former non-commissioned officer turned fearless public servant, showed the world yet again why Ukraine has already won.