Illustration by Tilly Binucci
Volodymr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, was on Ukrainian television this Wednesday. Speaking in fluent Russian, a language which nearly half of Ukrainians know, he speaks directly to the Russian people. He knows, he says, that Russian state television will not show this speech. Yet he speaks from the heart, as from one brother to another. “This step,” he claims, referring to Vladimir Putin’s decision to order Russian forces to “support” the “independence” of the so-called republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, “could be the start of a big war on the European continent.”
“The whole world is talking about what could happen any day now. Any provocation. Any spark. A spark that has the potential of burning everything down. You are told,” Zelensky says, “that this flame will bring freedom to the people of Ukraine, but the Ukrainian people are free. They remember their past and are building their own future.”
Early on Thursday morning, on Russian state television, Vladimir Putin announced that he is conducting a “special military operation” in order to “demilitarise” all of Ukraine. He demanded the surrender of the Ukrainian military and all but announced that his aim is regime change. In short, Vladimir Putin has declared war on Ukraine. There are around two hundred thousand Russian troops massed on the border of Ukraine, who are now rapidly moving into the country. Ukrainian airspace is closed to all civil aviation and Russian military hardware was seen near the border of disputed regions. There is heavy artillery fire. Almost all Ukrainian government services are under cyberattack. There are huge explosions in the Ukrainian cities of Kyiv, Mariupol, Kramatorsk, Kharkiv, and Odessa.
In 2014, Russian troops seized control of Crimea. In 2018, the Russian navy fired on Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait. This latest gambit is the end, not the beginning, of a strategy intended to – it is now dreadfully clear – swallow Ukraine whole. Russia claims that the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, collectively referred to as the Donbas, are “independent republics”. Ukraine demurs. On the 22nd of February, Vladimir Putin broadcast an hour-long speech/rant on Russian television, alleging in essence that Ukraine was not really a sovereign nation. At the end of this, he recognised the entire region as independent states, not just the areas currently controlled by Russian-backed proxy forces. The following day, Putin received “approval” from the upper house of the Russian legislature for approval to use Russian forces beyond the bounds of Russia in order to “uphold” the “sovereignty” of the so-called independent republics. The scare quotes that dot this paragraph should be indicative of the fact that much of this is political theatre. Videos allegedly evacuating civilians are recorded days before the events that they are supposedly reacting to. Meetings are allegedly held at one time but recorded hours earlier. Attacks by Ukrainian military forces on Russian-backed proxy militias are faked. The whole matter is steeped in misinformation.
But one thing is deadly clear. Vladimir Putin now lays claim to around thirteen percent of the territory of Ukraine. He may very well seize claimed territory, and install a puppet leader in Kyiv. Or he may simply absorb the sovereign country of Ukraine into the Russian Federation.
Ukraine is a threat to Russia because it puts the lie to Putin’s preferred narrative. Putin’s story to the Russian people for the entirety of his regime has been that liberalisation, Europeanisation, and Westernisation are all false promises which lead to nothing but decadence, decay, and corruption. But when a Russian looks to their West and see their brothers in Ukraine being the living proof that the exact opposite is true, they begin to raise awkward questions. There is a path, Ukraine shows, other than Vladimir Putin’s. Kazakhstan has a larger Russian minority than Ukraine does. Belarus is majority-Russian. But Russia invaded neither. The reason why can only be that what concerns Vladimir Putin about Ukraine is not the welfare of its Russian minority but its independence and its freedom. This threat is all the more real given domestic opposition.
Ukraine has called up reservists, mobilised its armies, imposed martial law, and made guns legal for civilian purchase. Gun shops in Kyiv, needless to say, are sold out. However, it is likely but not inevitable that the Russian military force will prove overwhelming. This is not to say that the Ukrainians will not exact terrible casualties in return, first in initial resistance, using materiel provided to them by the West, and then in a prolonged and unpleasant insurgency. The West will, and should, continue to support Ukraine in every way possible throughout this. Vladimir Putin will break the country he rules on the rocks of Ukraine.
What is to be done? Sanctions are all very well, but the Russian soldier exists on the material plane, unlike sanctions or international law. No amount of international finger-wagging and condemnation can dissuade a man with a gun from shooting it. The time for the West to act was six months ago, at best. Now all it can do is react and look on in horror as force exerts itself in international relations. It will seem not enough to donate to charities that try and pick up the pieces left by the Russian war machine. But the months of inaction and the years of abortive attempts at diplomacy and the decades of unseriousness about the Russian threat have brought us to this point today, where all we have amounts to not enough.
On the eve of the First World War, the British Foreign Secretary remarked that the lamps were going out all over Europe, and that we would not see them lit again in our lifetimes. The lamps are going out all over Ukraine. We may not see them lit again in our lifetimes. Slava Ukraini.