A year later, still defending freedom, democracy


The moment Russian President Vladimir Putin marched his forces across the border into neighboring Ukraine, the world was shocked. Not that Putin was going to do it — it was an open secret that an invasion was imminent. No, the world was shocked because it couldn’t believe he actually did it.
“How this can happen in a modern world, in a modern country, is beyond me.” Those were the words of Oleh Balaban, the Ukrainian-born owner of Ole Fajitas in Wantagh, in the days following the Feb. 24, 2022, invasion. Balaban has lived in the United States since he was 11, but has plenty of family back home — including a cousin who was drafted into the Ukrainian army at the start of the conflict.
“I’m watching the news every day, hoping that maybe something turns positive,” Balaban said. “That maybe Russia decides to call back and say: ‘Retreat. We don’t want to do this anymore.’ But that is never coming.”
It was the largest European invasion since World War II, pitting a superpower — Russia — against a much smaller, yet far grittier, opponent, Ukraine. Yes, there was ample pride on the Ukrainian side, where they waved the blue-and-yellow flag. But this was Russia we were talking about.
More than 900,000 soldiers, with another 2 million on standby — triple the numbers Ukraine boasted, according to a CNN report at the time. Nearly 16,000 tanks, 1,400 planes, nearly 1,000 helicopters, compared with Ukraine’s total of barely 3,500 in all three of those categories of armaments.
And Russia has dedicated more than $45 billion per year to defense spending, while Ukraine spends $5 billion.
On top of that, its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, had spent his entire life as a comedian and actor, not a politician or even a military leader. This wasn’t going to be a long campaign.
Or so we thought. It turns out that underestimating Ukrainians’ tenacity, pride and desire to stay independent is a mistake. Especially if you’re Russia.
More than 100,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in the conflict, according to NBC News, compared with 13,000 Ukrainians. But so have more than 7,000 civilians, including hundreds of children. Then again, it’s likely that casualties on both sides are actually far higher.
And that is the truest cost of war. Not the billions of dollars poured into it, but the lives that are damaged or destroyed, and especially those that are lost. Governments see war as territorial expansion, or acquisition of resources. Sometimes it might be necessary to remove someone truly evil, or it could simply be over what kind of faith you practice.
But in the end, all it really accomplishes is turning the world upside down. Even after Russia bullied its way into the Crimean Peninsula, Ukraine was home to 44 million people who lived their lives the same way we do — looking to leave our society in a better place than we found it. Getting married. Having kids. Spending time with our grandchildren. Working dream jobs. Counting down the days toward retirement and relaxation.
Some 8 million people have left Ukraine since the invasion, and many will never return. Even if they do, with the blue-and-yellow stripes flying above Kyiv, it will take years — if not decades — to rebuild. To heal. To move forward.
“I know a great deal of the horrors and tragedies of war,” U.S. Army Gen. George C. Marshall once said. “The cost of war in human lives is constantly spread before me, written neatly in many ledgers whose columns are gravestones. I am deeply moved to find some means or method of avoiding another calamity of war.”
Yet the constant deluge of horrors from war is never enough to turn us off from it. As long as there are people on Earth, there will be wars. Most of us are fortunate we haven’t been caught up in it, but we don’t have to be there to feel the pain.
Just ask Oleh Balaban. When his cousin left for the military, he had to leave his wife and young son behind.
“I hope this comes to an end so I can stop worrying what I’ll wake up to see on the news,” Balaban said a year ago. “It’s tough to watch, but I remain hopeful and optimistic that Ukraine will keep defending their freedom, their democracy and their homeland.”
But the fact is, Ukraine never should have had to.