KYIV – “Should I scare them?” joked the intelligence colonel, referring to the press. The Ukrainian minister sitting next to him laughed but did not answer. The colonel scared us anyway. He waved classified maps showing the exact positions of 127,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s border and assured us that the command and control system of those troops was ready to invade within hours.
That was 11am on 21 February. By 9pm the same day, those troops had invaded. It was no surprise to the Ukrainian government when Vladimir Putin made his rambling, paranoid speech, claiming Ukraine had “no real tradition of statehood”, and threatened implicitly to destroy the sovereignty of a country of 41 million people. Nor are the Ukrainians fazed by the entry of Russian troops into the separatist areas of eastern Ukraine.
Because the Ukrainians know the script Putin is working to. The dramatic occupation of territory seized by Russian-backed separatists in 2014, the renunciation of the Minsk II peace deal and the annulment of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum are only act one.
Act two, say the officials in the Kyiv ministry, goes like this. The separatists have called up all men aged between 18 and 55 and forcibly evacuated many families to Russia. They have staged one amateur dramatic event after another – fake explosions, fake terror attacks. At some point the separatists cross the line of control and fight the Ukrainian army. It retaliates, and then Russian troops massed in Belarus, Russia, Crimea and Transnistria roll into Ukraine and dismember it. They seize the capital, assassinate their opponents and say to the world: what are you going to do about it?
So while the world reels from the sight of one modern European state invading another, the Ukrainian people and government are staying calm. There are no anti-aircraft missiles in public squares. No police roadblocks. The bars are quiet but open. At the entrance to Ukraine’s ministries there is no armed guard, no airport scanner, no surrender of smartphones.
And that is for a reason. Before issuing his ultimatum to Nato, Vladimir Putin prepared the ground with years of destabilisation in Ukraine and disinformation across the world. He claimed Ukraine was enacting “genocide” against the Russian-speaking minority. He claimed Ukraine wants to develop nuclear weapons.
Actually, all the Ukrainian people want is to be European. I watched them calmly and quietly mourn the more than 100 civilians shot during the 2014 revolution that kicked out the puppet regime. The revolt was called Euromaidan. Then, Ukraine’s crime was not to apply for Nato membership but to sign a trade agreement with the EU.
Everyone I’ve met here – from the human rights workers, the left-wing social activists, the feminist groups, the independent trade unions to, yes, the MPs from President Volodymyr Zelensky’s political coalition “Servants of the People” – simply wants the right to live in a European-style democracy. One in which you can form an NGO, take the government to court, run an opposition newspaper and call a demonstration or a strike without getting arrested.
That’s what this crisis is about. Does Ukraine – a country that’s been formally constituted since 1919, albeit for decades as part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, have the right to choose its own destiny?
Putin thinks not. He thinks Ukraine is not really a country. His chic celebrity followers, live on state TV, call Ukrainians “a cancer”. He believes there can be no Ukraine without Russia – and that if Ukraine becomes more democratic, more European and less corrupt then that is an existential challenge to Russia itself.
This is not about Nato. Ukraine made the ill-advised decision to write the desire for Nato membership into its constitution. But it is nowhere near ready to start the process of joining, and many countries already in Nato would rightly question the wisdom of extending the nuclear defence umbrella to Russia’s border.
Ukraine is not going to join Nato any time in the next decade – and its ministers and people generally understand that. But this crisis goes far beyond Ukraine: Putin’s goal is to destabilise the West. He’s made great strides towards that goal already. His subversion efforts in the US are echoed nightly on Fox News; Joe Biden’s presidency looks increasingly weak; the European Union is divided; and Nato itself is uncertain over what to do next.
Putin’s vision, spelled out alongside Xi Jinping on 4 February, is a world in which there are multiple modernities; multiple superpowers; and therefore multiple truths. If Putin says there’s genocide in the Donbas, there’s genocide in the Donbas; if Putin says Ukraine is a non-nation, it’s a non-nation. What happened on 21 February was simply proof of concept.
What should we do? Massive sanctions on Russia to enfeeble its economy should be the starting point. Massive and unashamed military aid to Ukraine, to help its people defend themselves against further aggression. And that’s just the start.
We need to rebuild the resilience of Western democracies against the kind of attack Putin has unleashed. It doesn’t matter to him whether he gets to send his shiny tanks across Ukraine’s border en masse – what matters is humiliating Biden and flaunting his ability to spread dirty money across the banks, law firms and public affairs consultancies of London.
And we need to solidify Nato. As a defensive alliance that should avoid “out-of-area” actions, it is now vital for deterrence. For if Putin does invade the whole of Ukraine, its people will resist. And that will bring 21st-century chaos to the borders of the EU.
Finally, we need to have some hard words, and some kind words, for the people who have repeated Putin’s justifications during this macabre comedy.
Those parts of the ex-Stalinist left that claimed Nato was “encircling Russia” and that Ukraine couldn’t really exercise sovereignty, and that the latter is full of genocidal fascists – well, their master’s droning voice said all that as his troops rolled in.
The kind words I reserve for those people who were duped, and duped themselves, into believing that US imperialism is the worst in the world, that Ukraine is just a “puppet” of the US and that “peace” could best be achieved by denouncing Biden.
The self-deception must come to an end. We are in a global conflict between systems: democracy, science and the rule of law versus dictatorship, disinformation and armed anarchy. The side we choose will not be a set of countries – for there are now pro-Putin movements and media proxies in the US, Canada and Europe.
What we’re choosing is a political ethos. Do it now and live, morally, with the consequences. For at least you have a choice. The teenagers of Kyiv, who spent last Saturday breakdancing and may spend next Saturday in a bomb shelter, don’t have that luxury.