Russia-Ukraine war at 100 days: Compassion fatigue is here

Putin’s war has slowly drifted from the forefront of minds and hearts; overtaken by other convulsions of violence against innocents in other places.

Woman walking beside wreckage
An elderly woman walks next to a building damaged by an overnight missile strike in Sloviansk, Ukraine, on Wednesday, June 1, 2022 [Andriy Andriyenko/AP]

Doctors call it “compassion fatigue”.

It can be the inevitable cost of devoting a career to caring for patients, of tending to their pain – physical and emotional – of trying to relieve suffering.

After some time, the potent impulse to help subsides. Empathy wanes, too, replaced by a measure of powerlessness, a numbness, a detachment, and a divide between healer and patient.

It has not taken years, but only 100 days for compassion fatigue to begin, I sense, to creep into how people outside Ukraine feel about what is still happening to people inside Ukraine.

You may have sensed this as well. The outrage and gloom that once were so acute have dulled into resignation. A war that once seemed so close has become, in many ways, distant. The once enthusiastic expressions of solidarity have evaporated in favour of the routine, often mundane, aspects of life.

This is not to say, of course, that people outside Ukraine have lost sympathy for what has happened and continues to happen to people inside Ukraine. But the intensity of that concern and the preoccupation with another war in Europe have started to fade into the rear view.

The noisy, teeming anti-war protests have stopped. The hashtags on social media have vanished. The touching accounts of frightened Ukrainian refugees fleeing terror are gone. The praise of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s heroism and Ukrainian resistance have become redundant. Opinion pages that, a few weeks ago, overflowed with columns about the grave import and implications of Ukraine have turned quiet, seized these days with the mass murder of school children, phantom gun control “debates” and the tempest over COVID-inspired “Partygate”. Even the brave dissidents in Moscow and beyond have been silenced by the thug-in-residence-at-the-Kremlin’s goons disguised as police.

The shock of Vladimir Putin’s brutal, inhumane blitzkrieg invasion no longer shocks. The war has slowly drifted from the forefront of minds and hearts; overtaken by other convulsions of violence against innocents in other places. Meanwhile, spring has arrived in parts of the world, gardens require care and the warm, inviting air outside and away from television screens beckon.

Putin can see what others see: Compassion fatigue is indeed setting in. As such, the disappointment over his original outrageous calculation that Ukraine would capitulate within days, has been swapped for another, perhaps more sinister design: recalibrate Russia’s military aims and turn time to its advantage by turning the aggression against Ukraine into a war of attrition.

It may be working. Lately, Russia’s military has scored some big strategic successes, particularly in eastern Ukraine. Zelenskyy admitted on Thursday that Putin’s army has seized control of at least 20 percent of Ukrainian territory with other chunks poised to fall into the occupier’s grasp soon.

It appears, as a result, that the on-the-ground “narrative” has shifted. Stories exposing the Russian campaign’s early troubles, debacles and blatant incompetence have largely disappeared. The military momentum is with Russia. The numbers are on its side. More troops. More weapons. More bombing. It all translates into more wins and determination.

And despite the silly, contrived speculation that Putin is gravely ill and that disenchanted oligarchs – miffed at the impact of Western bans and embargos on their yachts, travel plans and pocketbooks – are conspiring to depose their patron and enabler, Russia’s Borg-like leader remains at the helm, in control, secure, and as intransigent and vicious as ever.

Russia seems to have not only absorbed, but rebuffed what were touted to be “crippling” sanctions that were supposed to punish Putin and company into retreat. For the moment, a country familiar with deprivation and inconvenience has, yet again, adapted to deprivation and inconvenience.

So far, most Russians appear content not only to tolerate the irritating consequences of Putin’s hegemonic ambitions in Ukraine but are eager to see them through. The yearned-for-in-the-West popular uprising is as distant and cockeyed today as it was when the invasion was launched on February 24.

While Putin no doubt welcomes the metastasising onset of compassion fatigue, Zelenskyy has to fear it.

He knows that complacency and forgetting are the enemies of victory. If he and Ukraine are to prevail, then Ukraine’s president understands that he must say and do what he can to convince others to do what they can to prevent fatigue from morphing into complacency and forgetting.

That would be disastrous.

Zelenskyy’s tone and demeanour have changed. There have been the usual displays of steady calm and stirring defiance. Still, recently, his urgent pleas for aid from abroad have been tinged with exasperation, tipping, on occasion, towards desperation.

Zelenskyy’s frantic demands for more resolve, more sanctions, more weapons are evidence that after having blunted Russia’s advance, Ukraine is not only losing on the battlefield, but also, drip by drip, the notice of people outside Ukraine that it needs to beat back the invaders.

While presidents and prime ministers have vowed to remain by his side – undeterred by the mounting costs or sacrifices – the politician in Zelenskyy, not the resistance leader, appreciates how fickle politicians can be.

The escalating tit-for-tat economic war being waged between Russia and the presidents and prime ministers wanting to bring it to heel, has made life decidedly more expensive in Europe and North America.

Gas and food prices have ballooned, fuelling inflation rates that have hurt a lot of people outside Ukraine who, for the most part, want to help people inside Ukraine.

How long that dynamic can be sustained politically by presidents and prime ministers who have to respond to domestic hardship and pressures while fulfilling their foreign “commitments” is a question that Zelenskyy and his government have to heed.

On this score, time may not be Zelenskyy’s friend.

The looming fact that Zelenskyy and Ukrainians confront is that the longer the war goes on without a definitive outcome, the more likely that people outside Ukraine will lose interest in the fate of people inside Ukraine.

The other undeniable phenomenon that Zelenskyy and Ukrainians confront that compounds compassion fatigue is war fatigue.

However noble and just Ukraine’s fight is, people across a scarred and dejected globe are weary of war. Weary of hearing about it. Weary of watching it. Weary of being told about the necessity of it. Weary of being weary of war.

Zelenskyy is battling on two fronts: at home, where he faces a regrouped, if not resurgent, Russian military and abroad, where he faces dwindling attention to the fight at home.

Now, more than ever, Zelenskyy must sustain, if possible, his extraordinary will, strength, stamina and imagination to marshal a nation to do the impossible: Defeat Putin.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.