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Opinion: Even if Ukraine announced mass mobilization, who is left to fight?

Opinion by Michael Bociurkiw

Lviv (CNN) — Few places ooze the pain Ukrainians have been subjected to over the decades more than Lychakiv Cemetery in the western city of Lviv.

Among its rolling hills you’ll find the final resting places of many of the figures of Ukrainian independence – from renowned poet Ivan Franko, to composer Volodymyr Ivasiuk, whose mutilated body was found hung from a tree in 1979, a widely-believed victim of KGB brutality.

These days, Lychakiv has become the burial ground for hundreds of service men and women killed in the most recent wave of Russian aggression. The sense of pain is palpable. When I visited the cemetery a few weeks ago, howling winter winds competed with the heartbreaking sound of wailing mothers and wives mourning the loss of their loved ones. Many of the downed fighters are in their 20s — in the prime of their lives.

I’ve been coming to Lychakiv since the early weeks of the war to get a better sense of the human cost. Amid the high-level diplomatic wrangling over long range ATACMS missiles and F-16 jets, this is the true face of the conflict that often gets neglected in international headlines.

Here in Ukraine, the losses are so vast that they touch pretty much every family, contributing to the sense of weariness that has covered the country like a cold blanket of snow.

It’s time the West recognized the human cost of the war – not only the deaths but also the injuries, displacement and tearing apart of the social fabric brought by massive dislocation. My friends in the medical profession speak of a coming catastrophic tsunami of mental health problems once soldiers return from the battlefield en masse.

With no end in sight to the war and with Lychakiv and other cemeteries bursting at the seams, officials are forced to make room for fresh graves. While the number of war dead has, until recently, remained a tightly-held state secret — President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday pegged the number at 31,000, far below the 70,000 cited by US officials last August — it is those who’ve been silenced who remind us of the amount of blood spilled in the fight to push back Russian forces.

“There are such cemeteries as Lychakiv all over Ukraine,” Lviv resident and community activist Lesia Krepyakevych told me. “While the pain is great, so is the pride since those who voluntarily went into battle went to protect us. Now it’s become a place of pilgrimage, where we gain strength of spirit.”

Several people told me that small villages around Lviv have been completely depleted of men. The wave of volunteer fighters who flooded recruiting centers at the start of the war have all but gone. It makes me wonder: between those who’ve died, been permanently put out of action by injuries, have fled overseas or have paid off officials to have their names disappear from draft lists, who’s going to be left should a mass mobilization be introduced? (Under Ukrainian law, men between the ages of 18 to 26 can’t be drafted, though they can volunteer).

Now, as Republican lawmakers return to work after a two week recess it remains unclear whether Speaker Mike Johnson will allow the mega supplementary bill — which includes $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and approved by the Senate — to come to the House floor. For weeks it’s been tangled up in political gridlock under the direction of former US President Donald Trump.

In considering the way forward, Johnson and his Republican colleagues should note the number of Ukrainians who paid the ultimate price to not only defend Ukraine, but also to slow the onslaught of Russia’s land-grabbing, creeping authoritarianism. The battleground is in Ukraine, but the stakes for democracy go beyond borders.

The Biden administration has heretofore done a poor job of convincing the American people what a great deal its military aid to Ukraine – roughly $46 billion – has been. For about 5% of the annual US military budget, Ukrainians have managed to destroy about 50% of conventional Russian military capability. With virtually no navy, Kyiv’s stealth strikes on the Black Sea fleet have forced Russian commanders to move ships to safer waters and it has busted apart a unilateral Russian blockade of the western Black Sea, re-opening waterways for food shipments to world markets.

There’s a dangerous disconnect between those who argue against aid for Ukraine and what the reality could be, should Putin have his way. While millions of Americans feel that they are suffering economically, the pain could be even more acute if the Russians disable Ukrainian ports such as Odesa – a crucial component of the global food supply chain. Just look at how bottlenecks created in the Red Sea by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have thrown supply chains into disarray.

Perhaps that’s why French President Emmanuel Macon didn’t rule out the idea of sending European troops to Ukraine, when asked Tuesday. Even though other European nations quickly threw cold water on the idea and Russia responded with threats, it’s an indication that if the US slides in its commitment to Ukraine, Kyiv will feel it has no better friends than its immediate European neighbors.

Tying Ukraine’s hands in this David and Goliath fight will exact horrific costs, far beyond the amounts paid out by Washington since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion two years ago. In fact, along the 1,000 km frontline, guns pointed towards advancing Russian forces have already fallen silent due to lack of ammunition.

For the US to give up on Ukraine now, as some Republican lawmakers wish to do, is to give up on America itself and what it stands for. In many ways, this is also America’s war – except that the Ukrainians are the ones fighting and dying in it.

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