“I’m freaking out,” said the young guy trembling behind me in the queue at Kyiv’s Boryspil airport. We were trying to buy the last tickets on the only available flight going out. That was 36 hours ago.
At 3am today (24 February), Russian paratroopers stormed that airport. The polite young border guards who checked my ticket could now be dead or prisoners of war. All the people I met on my five-day visit to Ukraine – the politicians, the reservists, the miners, the human rights activists – face the danger of death, injury, kidnap, torture and the trauma that follows.
Vladimir Putin’s declaration of war was pre-recorded on Monday night (21 February). So this is the scripted cancellation of an entire country’s sovereignty – a country that had not even mobilised its army, nor posted armed guards at its ministries. Putin warned: “To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside: if you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history.”
On behalf of all the people I met, I believe we must interfere – not by fighting, but with massive sanctions and a systemic political counter-offensive. At the HQ of the independent trade union federation, an official told me of conditions in the Russian-backed separatist areas: “Our union was banned in the occupied regions of Donbas; our members have been tortured, kidnapped and even killed. The miners who fled to nearby cities on the Ukrainian side are telling us: ‘We’ve run away once, this time we will fight.’”
So will the reserve soldiers of the 112th territorial brigade, who I met on Tuesday morning (22 February). They plan to hold the cities – both against special forces raids and potential encirclement – while the regular Ukrainian army of some 28 mobile battalions fights more than 100 Russian equivalents.
An army intelligence officer told me they expect a four-pronged attack, against Kyiv from the north, Kharkiv from Russia, Mariupol from the now occupied Donetsk, and Odessa from Crimea and the Black Sea.
[see also: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changes everything]
The strategic danger for the Ukrainian army is that, in defending Mariupol, they get encircled by Russian troops attacking towards the north-east and from Crimea.
But just as important as conventional warfare is the asymmetric war that Putin will wage. British government sources told us to expect the assassination and kidnap of key Ukrainian political figures by Russian special forces. My guess is long before the army is beaten, Putin will install a puppet government somewhere in Ukrainian territory, and that this government will make “peace” with Russia, offering exile to the democratic political class.
As you watch this unfold you may be asking: what can we in the UK do? To an entire generation trained in liberal thinking, where there is always some technocratic market-based fix, or diplomatic fudge, or a can to kick down the road, the answer is nothing. You have rendered yourselves powerless by tolerating the emergence of an inhumane dictatorship in Moscow, allowing it to degrade your democracy through culture wars and electoral manipulation, and by accepting its money.
Make no mistake. This is the end of the postwar order. Not the post-Cold War order, the post-1945 order. Putin spelled it out. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum, guaranteeing Ukraine’s existence in return for the abandonment of its nuclear weapons, was itself scrapped unilaterally by the macabre waxwork in the Kremlin. If the Iraq War was illegal under international law, this one goes further: this is a war to end international law.
How did we get here? I’ve been covering this fiasco in real time and the short summary is this: the collapse of the neoliberal economic model created a fragile democracy in the US, which can no longer be relied on to keep its geopolitical promises.
Putin saw the vacuum and concluded a century-long pact with China to end the rules-based global order. The Ukrainian government overreached in its attempt to force Nato into giving it guarantees and fast-tracking membership.
What do we do now? Having refrained from total sanctions, in the hope that Putin would take the Donbas as a consolation prize, the West must hit Russia with sanctions that will paralyse its economy. Forget targeting “only the oligarchs”. There is plenty of pain the West can inflict so long as it understands the objective: the removal of Putin from power, either by an elite coup or a democratic revolution.
But much of the Western financial elite is enmeshed in the rent-seeking operation: the bankers, hedge fund managers, public affairs companies and commercial law firms. Today they have to decide which side they’re on. The job of democratic governments is to help them make that decision.
In response to sanctions, Putin will stop gas supplies to Germany and probably seize BP’s holding in Rosneft, Russia’s biggest state-run oil company. So it’s already a global conflict, at the economic level. It is therefore rational to ask: could we get out of it through compromise? The answer is no. Putin has declared war not just on Ukraine’s 41 million people but on the entire system of laws and structures governing our lives.
Nato should not go to war with Russia. That would mean a nuclear confrontation in which the nihilistic Russian government would be entirely prepared to immolate itself. But the West must mobilise and be ready to draw a line.
I am going to waste no words on the Putin apologists – left and right – who backed the dictator’s claims that Ukrainian nationhood was false, that Nato was encircling Russia and that the Ukrainian people are a bunch of Nazis. These defenders are facing a reputational catastrophe today.
The Ukrainian left and progressives will resist. As the activists of Sotsialnyi Rukh, a left-wing social movement, stated on Tuesday (22 February): “Only a socialist and democratic Ukraine can resist the oligarchic authoritarianism of the Russian Federation. Preserving the independence of our country depends on abandoning the model of oligarchic capitalism.”
Reluctantly, and with little trust in their government, the Ukrainian youth, the working class, the left and progressive movements will resist the aggressor. Support them and pray for them.