Ukraine, Reborn, Deserves a Just End to Putin’s Criminal War
This jaded and cynical world is seeing something new: A tragic and traumatized nation — Ukraine — is creating its own New Day.
Ukraine gives the lie to the Biblical pronouncement “There is nothing new under the sun.” There is something new: A people, heels on the abyss, their numbers pathetically small, can throw off their tragic history, and the trauma and endemic corruption flowing from that tragic history — to unite and to fend off their giant of a neighbor’s invading army. In so doing, this people can give birth to their new self, their New Day.
High-flown as this rhetoric seems, it is reality. For seven months now, the Ukrainian army has performed astonishingly, valiantly. Facing down a convoy of Russian tanks headed for its capital Kyiv, it posted its first signal victory, proof that Vladimir Putin’s expected cakewalk in Ukraine was not to be. More recently, after Russia with its superior numbers occupied large swaths of eastern Ukraine, Ukraine in the so-called “Kharkiv counter-offensive” retook all that occupied territory, plus territory Russia took in 2014. Echoing Sun Tzu’s dictum “Make a noise in the east, attack in the west,” Ukraine made noises of a southerly move and struck in the north. The totality of Ukrainian effort has left Russian forces demoralized and deserting in large numbers.
At the same time, Ukrainian civilians are suffering hideously. In direct violation of the Geneva Conventions protecting civilians and their property in war, Russian forces, claiming to target military installations, instead target apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, theatres. Whole towns and cities are laid waste, with the port city of Mariupol dying a slow death, seen via drone-cam, for the world to watch. And the people: They have been driven from their homes — the numbers are stunning: Nearly one-third of Ukraine’s entire population, and nearly half of all its children, have been “displaced,” either abroad or internally, in Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II. Those remaining behind have been tortured, executed, raped, “disappeared” into Russia, with Ukrainian children “given” to Russian families to adopt, a crime tantamount to genocide. To hide their bloody acts, Russian troops use mobile crematoria. A new synonym for atrocity is Bucha, where townspeople’s bodies were left lying in streets and yards. Joining Bucha now is Izium, where another mass grave was discovered, along with other atrocities. A traumatized people, being re-traumatized. This is beyond any “rules of war,” this is butchery.
And never to forget, the grandparents of today’s Ukrainians endured, during World War II, the mass killing of Germans moving eastward and then Russians moving westward, after having endured Stalin’s campaign of famine in the 1930s. Such is the fate of a small power caught between big powers.
To understand the context of Ukraine’s suffering throughout History, a collection of stories by Ukrainian author Yevgenia Belorusets, titled “Lucky Breaks,” sheds light. If irony is stating the opposite of what pertains, then this book’s title is the ultimate in irony, for absolutely nothing that happens to the nameless characters in these very short stories is “lucky.” So beaten down are they, that “Nobody can believe in anything definite. It even makes no sense to try. People only make-believe they believe.” Least of all could one believe in oneself: “I totally lost my bearings and now I don’t know what a beginning is” and “I forgot the last time I was myself” and “How to act if you don’t know which way to go and where to start?” and “The acquisition of — begging your pardon — a self is going to be a real catastrophe.” Exhaustion and waiting are the dominant feelings, without even memory to console: “I’ve rid myself of memory…. I wish I could learn to be totally unaware of the passing life…. Now the day passes without having started…. I have no idea how to describe the reality around me.” As for politics, there is only disdain for “the windbags who aspire to organize their lives and those of others.”
Finally, the reader gets a clue, a story providing a lens to this mass-traumatized society: A Ukrainian woman living abroad, in Germany, calls home to her father to arrange to visit him. But he warns her off. The father doesn’t have to reference Russia’s incursion in the east (it’s 2014); he simply says: “Better you stay where you are,” then adds, “That’s the kind of country we have.” What kind of country is it? The “unprotected” kind. Says the narrator, “This is how dangerous — unbelievably dangerous — it got to be to live in our country.” Life in Ukraine the Unprotected meant essentially: “You suffered, now get over it.” As another character says: “What safety was there to talk about?” This is life at the biological level, beyond politics or culture. As yet another character says, “I am a microsubstance.”
If this portrait of a traumatized society, as rendered in a well-reviewed book by a political activist-turned photographer-turned writer, is any gauge at all, then the “before” and “after” photos of Ukraine’s performance militarily and diplomatically while fighting this criminal war are all the more stunning, given the deep trough from whence it launched. Conversely, given that deep trough, re-traumatizing its people through torture and massacre and disappearing is all the more unjust, all the more merciless. Ukraine has earned its New Day — by the hardest way possible: with blood, sweat, and tears — and the West must make sure it gets it.
Which quest — thanks to Ukraine’s successes — now becomes even more fraught. Because: The aggressor, humiliated by his epic fail to date, must up the ante — and he has.
Russian president Vladimir Putin now threatens to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine: “This is not a bluff.” Already he plays nuclear chicken by lobbing missiles near Ukraine’s nuclear plants(!). He ordered snap referenda in areas Russia still occupies in east Ukraine, pulling the geopolitical trick that, once “legally” rendered Russian again — annexed, as he just now did — he can claim to be defending Russian soil. To force the vote, Russian soldiers went door to door, ballot-boxes and rifles in hand. Ukraine speculates Putin will force these Ukrainians to fight their Ukrainian brothers — more trauma — while it vows to retake these annexed regions.
To compensate for Russia’s lousy performance in battle, and unable to sustain his “special military operation” in Ukraine with mercenaries and convicts, Putin is mobilizing 300,000 more troops — which mobilization, “partial” though it is, has ignited major blowback in Russia itself. Protests are breaking out — with some protesters, upon arrest, dragooned into the military — and Russians of military age, mainly men, fleeing to neighboring countries via one-way flights, cars, bikes, even by foot, by the tens of thousands. From his prison cell, anti-Putin opposition leader Alexei Navalny publishes an op-ed in The Washington Post laying out what a post-Putin Russia should look like.
Of course this royal bollix makes Putin all the more desperate and dangerous. In announcing his readiness to use nuclear weapons, Putin also widened the war to include the West, recasting the war he started as now a defensive war — against a West out to destroy Russia. In response, the West through its member leaders says it will not recognize Putin’s sham referenda in Ukraine and warns Putin against going nuclear. U.S. President Joe Biden states there will be “catastrophic consequences” if Putin escalates to the nuclear. Even Putin’s putative allies are talking de-escalation: At a recent summit Putin conceded China’s Xi Jinping had “questions and concerns” about his war, while India’s Narendra Modi told Putin, “This is not an era for war.” Yet Putin escalates even further: In his speech announcing the (sham) Ukrainian annexations, Putin ranted at America’s “Satanism” and cast Russia as leader of a world uprising against American power.
In big-power politics, which since ancient times through today has driven international relations, justice for smaller powers caught in a conflagration is rarely a priority. But perhaps Ukraine will prove the exception. Certainly by its exceptional wartime performance, and transforming itself from a traumatized people into a purposeful one, Ukraine deserves to keep its sovereignty and independence. Recipient of massive levels of munitions from NATO arsenals, the Ukrainian army has proved superbly capable of training at accelerated tempos and deploying the most advanced weaponry, from anti-tank Javelins and anti-aircraft Stingers early on to longer-range missiles and air-defense systems needed now to drive Russia out. Moreover, Ukrainian military ingenuity has “scored big successes,” per The New York Times, by using these weapons and equipment “in unexpected ways, and jury-rigging some on the fly,” for one, by mounting missiles onto trucks and moving into firing range more quickly. Ukrainian troop morale at present is self-reported “sky high.”
And in its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine has the canny and audacious leader that an underdog needs — a true leader who thrills all corners of the West. In the age of the anti-hero, as I wrote earlier, Zelensky is a true hero, whom only a helpless world can make tragic. Zelensky is also a master-diplomat, exhorting the West to stay the course with Ukraine.
Will the West stay the course with Ukraine? Signs are good it will. Recognition that Ukraine is fighting the West’s fight — for democracy, independence, human rights — and thus deserves our support is unwavering at both the leadership and public levels alike. Conversely, there is the dread that if Putin wins, atrocity and decimation become normalized in warfare, as I also wrote earlier. Thus NATO’s massive flow of munitions to Ukraine will continue. A recent cover story in The Economist, “Getting the Job Done,” has the subhead: “Vladimir Putin’s war is failing. The West should help it fail faster” — by supplying all the weaponry Ukraine needs, and doing it now. Because: While Ukraine is fighting our fight — and while it is the hinge actor fending off the world’s return to strongman rule executed via brute force — Ukraine alone is doing all the dying, all the suffering. Enough! Putin reportedly is considering mobilizing a full one million troops. Many note the Russian military maxim that “quantity has a quality all its own.” Again, enough.
Meanwhile, human rights investigators continue gathering evidence of Putin’s myriad war crimes in Ukraine. Keep in mind: These war crimes, of the grisliest and most inhuman kind, are taking place — even now — in a country historically “unprotected” and traumatized over centuries: It is trauma compounded. Some war crimes trials are being conducted now, rather than wait postwar. The U.S. just sanctioned the Russian official accused of orchestrating the forced deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. Perhaps these measures can bring Ukraine some Justice.
(Another good sign, parenthetically: improved big-power politics. All NATO leaders have been scrupulous about deferring to the decision-making of the smaller power, i.e. Ukraine. Finland’s president Sauli Niinisto, often the interlocutor between the West and his neighbor Putin, when asked on “Fareed Zakaria GPS” if he’d initiate a negotiated settlement to Putin’s war, as some voices now urge, said he’d do so only if Ukraine’s president asked him to. In the above-cited story collection “Lucky Breaks,” a Ukrainian character notes how the Americans at the American embassy in Kyiv were “unashamed of their importance.” It is good, in this historic test in Ukraine, to see signs of greater collegiality manifested by America, biggest power of all.)
Challenges to the West staying the course with Ukraine will arise. If a critical mass of Europe’s publics shiver from Putin’s cutoff of their gas and oil and if they protest in the streets, pushing their governments to insist that Ukraine negotiate…. (European Union head, Ursula von der Leyen, was early to seek alternative sources, though the recent sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline in the Baltic Sea — we wonder: by whom? — severely impacts Europe’s energy reserves for the winter.) Or, if far-right governments newly risen in Europe — Italy, Sweden — shift from their present pro-Ukraine stance to pro-Russia….
Or, of course, if Putin goes nuclear in Ukraine…. In his annexation speech, Putin noted America set a “nuclear precedent” in bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II.
The West must not capitulate to Putin’s “nuclear blackmail,” says Fiona Hill, veteran Putin-watcher at the Brookings Institution. Strongmen rulers need a “punch in the face” to change; Ukraine complied. Putin now must change the dynamic: by threatening nuclear war — against the West. This pass was “inevitable,” says Hill on “Amanpour & Co.”: We had to engage with Putin, now we are “on the home front.” Focus on the fact of nuclear blackmail, not kind of strike (tactical, intermediate, strategic): Putin wants us all to feel imperiled — and then to capitulate. How serious is Putin’s nuclear threat? Hill told “PBS NewsHour”: “Putin is always the kind of person that, when he threatens something, he wants to deliver on it.” The West must stay united, keep supplying Ukraine its weapons, work the diplomatic route, work jointly on the energy and food crises, stay resilient. Finland’s Niinisto also urges resilience: Our hardship is nothing compared to Ukraine’s. Says Hill, to push Ukraine to negotiate away its own land is wrong. Besides, “Ukraine will not give up.”
Nor should it. A people throwing off its traumatic history and rebirthing itself, a people not able to make new beginnings now making a most magnificent one — and doing so in the most searing of crucibles: war — has earned the right not only to exist, but to point the way. World: Take note. And, post-war, make the world safer for smaller powers.