The History Channel is broadcasting live. The American commentator who made this comment wanted to say that the events taking place in Ukraine will be remembered for many decades, that future generations of students will have to memorize the date of February 24, 2022. However, these words contain another truth darker. Because this is a war that evokes the past; we could say that it is a “retro” war. Russian troops marching across an international border, approaching a European capital? Families sheltered in subway stations, boys and girls separated from their parents, civilians dressed in uniforms and taking up rifles, vowing to fight to the death for their country? A full-fledged invasion of one European country by another? Images of these events look strange in color: they should be grainy black and white.
Because Europe was supposed to have left behind similar images. If it wasn’t in the 1940s, when the Nazi bombing of Kiev began at 4 a.m. one day in 1941, instead of the 5 a.m. time chosen by Vladimir Putin on Thursday, it was in the 20th century. , when Soviet tanks entered Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968. Now, history has returned and we are faced with a dilemma that we thought we had solved long ago.
The election was exposed in the starkest way possible by the leaders of the two countries who are now locked in unequal combat. Putin spoke twice. His first speech has been described again and again as incoherent, but it is no less chilling for that. Between the two appearances, Putin laid out a justification for the invasion, which, of course, was based on lies. He claimed that Moscow had to invade, to save Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine from a genocidal threat that did not exist. He would rescue Ukraine from the rule of “neo-Nazis,” a strange way of describing a country whose president and former prime minister are Jews, both of whom are Democrats.
Beneath the spurious justifications, however, lies Putin’s worldview. He was not rejecting, as Putin’s Western defenders on the far right and far left argued, the expansion of NATO, but something more fundamental. Putin argued that Ukraine was not a country in the strict sense, implying that of the States born from the former Soviet Union, only one was real and legitimate: Russia. All the others were invented products, whose right to exist was diffuse and had to be determined by Putin himself, by force of arms if necessary. If we listen to his words and his actions, Putin believes he has the right to redraw the map of Europe, and to do it with blood.
Shortly after, the Ukrainian Volodymyr Zelensky he addressed the Russian people, and also spoke in Russian. It was a speech that will go down in history and deserves to be read now and long after this conflict is over. Because he did not just defend the people from him, although he did: “Many of you have relatives in Ukraine. You know our character, our principles, what matters to us.” He didn’t just argue against all wars: “People lose their loved ones and themselves.” He specifically laid out the principle at stake: “international law, the right to determine your own future.”
So this is the choice. Do we want to live in the world described by Volodymyr Zelensky, where democratic states are protected by an international system of rules, no matter how flawed and incoherent that system may be? Or do we want to live in Putin’s world, governed by the law of the jungle and where force is the only reason?
What side are you on?
We think we know whose side we’re on. We want to be with those tired-eyed boys and girls, clutching their coloring books as they lie down in a Kiev metro station. We tell ourselves that we are with them and against Putin and his war of aggression.
But are we by his side? Because Putin’s vision of the world was an open secret. In fact, he has shown it on at least three occasions in the last 15 years, and each time he has he has had to pay a very small price for it. He seized part of Georgia in 2008 and part of Ukraine in 2014, not to mention his decision to endorse the Assad regime’s bloody war against the Syrian people a year later. We may have forgotten, in fact, the Russian dissident Garry Kasparov laments the “amnesia of the West”, but Putin does not. He noted the lukewarm reaction from the West after the annexation of Crimea. Just four years later, Russia became the new host of the soccer World Cup. We have not strengthened the defense system of the Ukrainians so that they could protect themselves from this moment. There was no cleansing of the oligarchs’ money from londongrad (the name of a series about Russian oligarchs and supermodels that is broadcast on the Russian TV channel CTC). Putin understood the signal: he had a free hand.
And what do we propose to do to stop it now, as it invades its neighbor? The latest rounds of economic sanctions are insufficient. Moscow has allies, China first of all, who are willing to soften the blow. But even if the measures were stronger, there is no guarantee that they will work. Both Bashar al-Assad and the Tehran regime have faced sanctions for years; they are still standing, and their behavior has hardly changed.
The problem is obvious: Putin doesn’t care if his people suffer. He has valued the impact this action will have on his oligarch friends, just as he has valued the loss of lives of Russian soldiers. For him it is worth conquering Ukraine, and removing the example of a democratic neighbor that could show the Russians that a different life is possible.
But if confronting Putin economically is ineffective, confronting him militarily is hardly plausible or acceptable. The Russian dictator has reminded the West, actively and passively, that his is a “powerful nuclear state.” Analysts say that Putin does not see Russia’s nuclear capability as theoretical: it is absorbed into his military strategy. No one would want to confront such a man, especially since he seems to be drifting further and further away from stable rational behavior. Apparently more prudent options, such as imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, face the same problems: It would mean NATO would be at war with Russia.
We can expect a palace coup against the tsar. We can express our solidarity and admiration for the Russians demonstrating against the war who are brave enough to take to the streets, hoping that they can topple the autocrat who is ruining so many lives. But these are just wishes. The grimmest prospect is that Putin acknowledges an aspect of the 21st century that very few of us are willing to acknowledge: that this is an age of impunity, especially for those who have a vast and deadly arsenal but are unscrupulous.
That is what is at stake right now. Beijing gets it: if Russia can take Ukraine, why can’t China take Taiwan? Kseniia also understands it. She is the young resident of Kiev who, after a night in a metro station, told the BBC: “We are like a shield for Europe and for the world. We fight for the freedom of the world.” She is right, and yet she, and her country, are terribly alone.
Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for The Guardian
Translation by Emma Reverter.