On Friday, Dec. 29, Russia launched more than 110 missiles and drones against Ukrainian urban center, a tactic we analyzed in a previous commentary for the Kyiv Post, “Kyiv and the Blitz.” Then we acknowledged that by September 2023, a “Ukraine fatigue,” had set in, a burnout of empathy and compassion for the victims of this war, or in a blunter sense, a lack of concern for Ukrainian deaths in the past, present, and unfortunately future. Just a few weeks later “Ukraine amnesia” set in.

Ukrainian deaths no longer figured prominently in the international media and are forgotten by international policy makers. This willful forgetting is a form of transnational “necropolitics.” Nonchalantly, they leave Ukrainians to die as global concern focused on deaths occurring in Israel after Oct. 7, 2023, and to a much lesser extent in the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank. 

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Necropolitics

Achille Mbembe, a scholar from Cameron, defined “necropolitics” as the subjugation of life to the power of death. For example, when the US Congress holds up American military aid to Ukraine, that is a form of necropolitics. Domestic politics get in the way of weapons arriving that could mean the difference between life and death on the battlefield.

Concurrently in 2023 a new Russian regime of necropolitics emerged: Putin’s strategy and tactics of exposing Ukrainian civilian populations, both human and nonhuman, to death, via aerial bombardment and ecocide, the deliberate flooding of land.

While Ukrainians have been fighting a war with Russia since 2014, in 2023 Ukrainian life became more precarious. Russia imposed a necropolitical regime on increasing masses of civilians and animals, through direct violence, ranging from more intensive Shahed drone strikes and the deliberate destruction of dams.

Along these lines, while national security approaches focus on the agents of death, weapons and armies, the focus on the victims of death falls under a human security approach that prioritizes the protection of vulnerable groups, particularly during conflict, such as women, children, or refugees. Human security is juxtaposed against traditional notions of national security, which focus on protecting abstract notions of the nation, or sovereign territory and borders through military means.

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We argue the wars in Ukraine as well as in the Holy Land, should set the agenda for a broader sentient security, including humans, animals, wildlife and domesticated, as well as plant-life, and the water they all depend on. 

The Deluge

In our previous Kyiv Post commentary we sought to give voice to those bombed as of May 2023, enduring the showers of weapons that had rained upon the Ukrainians from the skies. A few months after the May attacks, in June 2023, a massive breach in Kakhovka dam in occupied-Ukraine led to a deluge that benefited Moscow, creating a defensive barrier on the eve of Kyiv’s counteroffensive. Everything downstream fell victim to the floodwaters, the literal product of rain from the skies. Paul Josephson, a historian of the Soviet Union, argues that such an action would fit into Russia’s history of “scorched earth” tactics – or in this case “drenched earth” tactics – and provided the scientific evidence to bolster Russian culpability.

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The ways water was weaponized in Ukraine represented a disturbing military tactic. The act was hydro-necropolitics, or more broadly an act of ecocide. We define ecocide as an act of punitive political ecology, the indiscriminate targeting of environmental terrain affecting humans, wildlife, soil, water, and/or foliage. Ecocide would include the American use of the defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, or by using nature itself to attack nature, such as using water to flood downstream areas in Ukraine.

The “drenched earth” tactics of 2023, or what we term hydro-necropolitics, led to mayhem and havoc from breaching the dam in Ukraine. It forced the population to leave the region, a wave of environmental Ukrainian IDPs (internally displaced persons). It will take Ukraine years to rebuild the dam and lands in the south of Ukraine will dry out. Breaching the dam dredged up oil and chemical fertilizers in the soil, depriving 700,000 people of drinking water, while increasing the risk of waterborne diseases like cholera.

Not just a human catastrophe

When the dam was breached, 260 zoo animals downstream died. The death of these animals serves as a reminder that necropolitics also affects nonhumans. Throughout history animals have been slaughtered during war, to deprive the enemy of its food supply and income. During the failed 2022 assault on the capital, invading soldiers in retreat from the Kyiv region left behind executed cattle, horses, and goats. The invading forces deliberately killed domesticated dogs, while animal shelters have been bombed and animal rescue volunteers have been killed or are wounded. For example, a half-breed corgi with shrapnel wounds could not even drink water because it spilled through a wound in his neck.

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Unfortunately, categories such as Internally Displaced Persons, do not capture the problem of “Internally Displaced Animals.” Animals are excluded from treaties governing warfare, such as the Geneva and Hague conventions. Animal welfare should be included in international humanitarian law, that the “human” in “humanitarian” should refer to acting “humanely” to both humans and animals as citizens and civilians. Human health and animal health, in wartime and peacetime, are a continuum. Both will need each other to overcome PTSD. Recognizing this relationship will constitute the first step in advocating for a “sentient security.”

Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is an international norm for states to prevent genocide, mass atrocities, and war crimes, in response to the failure to do so in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s. As a historian who has taught in Lviv, Ukraine and a Ukrainian researcher living in Kyiv, we have coined “Responsibility to Remember,” or R2R.

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If both the wars in Rwanda and Yugoslavia set the agenda for R2P, we argue the wars in Ukraine as well as in the Holy Land, should set the agenda for a broader sentient security, as well as R2R, the need for compassion for “victims of war” in general, the soldiers or civilians with PTSD, the kidnapped and tortured, the raped and victims of gender-based violence, child soldiers, IDPs and refugees, the survivors of landmines or IEDs who need prosthetics, the victims of depleted uranium, even animals and domesticated pets caught up in conflicts that they had no role in creating.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post. 

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