Saturday, February 26, 2022

Few Ukrainians Thought Vladimir Putin Would Would Launch Full-Scale Invasion

At the editors' note appended to the top of this article: "On February 24, six hours after this article was filed, Russia began an all-out attack on Ukraine."

It's Tim Judah, at the New York Review of Books, "Ukraine on the Brink":

It is quite normal to refuse to believe that you are about to be engulfed by a cataclysm.

People in Kharkiv may not believe much in a Russian attack, but by the time you read this it may have begun. When I started writing it in the Half an Hour café in Kharkiv, there was news that the puppet regime in separatist-controlled Donetsk was evacuating the population, which sounded like a prelude to war. By the time I finished it, Russian troops were reported to be arriving there. Meanwhile they were playing Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” in the café, which was full of earnest young people poring over their laptops or relaxing.

In my experience it is quite normal to refuse to believe that you are about to be engulfed by a cataclysm that will change your life forever—or kill you.

In 2014 I was invited to a Passover Seder by the Donetsk Jewish community. During the dinner the rabbi said unexpectedly, “We have a foreign guest, he can make a speech!” I said that “Next Year in Jerusalem” was all well and good but there were separatists constructing checkpoints on the highway into the city, so “Next year in Donetsk” might be more apt. “Nah,” they said, “it will all be fine!” A few weeks later they probably all fled. It was the same in Bosnia and Herzegovina just before the war in 1992. People said that since everyone knew that tens of thousands would die, there would be no war.

I met a teacher who told me that she veers between panic and shrugging it all off. In January Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said that the Russians might try to occupy Kharkiv, which alarmed people here. President Joe Biden was said to have told Zelensky a few days later to “prepare for impact,” though that was later denied. But then you think about it rationally, which of course Putin may not be doing, and you wonder how he could hope to seize a city of some 1.5 million people, let alone much of the rest of Ukraine.

In Kharkiv’s history museum there is a section devoted to World War II. Battles here were as bloody and devastating as anywhere in Europe. Millions of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians were killed or starved to death. Then something caught my eye: a panel explained that by the time the Red Army expelled the Germans from Soviet Ukraine in 1944, it numbered 2.3 million men. Putin has amassed anywhere between 150,000 and 190,000 on Ukraine’s borders, we are told, not all of whom of course will actually fight. Some are quartermasters, mechanics, and cooks. One of the videos circulating on social media, also allegedly from Belgorod, showed army mobile kitchens—identifiable by the chimneys poking out from under their tarpaulins—flowing past in a convoy.

In Lviv, in western Ukraine, I saw Ukrainian soldiers practicing with new antitank missiles that the British had given them. Some commentators scoffed that, in the face of overwhelming Russian military might, these were symbolic. Oh no, said the Ukrainian soldiers, these were great for the 200-400-meter range, which they did not possess, and were especially suited for urban warfare. When he talks about Ukraine, it is clear that Putin believes many Russian myths and has outdated views about its people. He published a long essay last year on the “historical unity” of Ukrainians and Russians. But what he and even many liberal, intellectual Russians may not appreciate is that Ukraine is not the same place it was when Mikhail Bulgakov grew up in Kyiv at the beginning of the last century. It is not the same place it was at independence in 1991 or at the time of the Orange Revolution in 2004, nor is it the same country that was wracked by revolution and war in 2014.

In Lviv, Odesa, Kharkiv, and finally Kyiv, something struck me for the first time after many years of coming here: their post-Soviet feel has finally been cast off. That is not the case in smaller Ukrainian towns, but for the first time these big cities feel like anywhere else in Europe.

Unlike Russians, Ukrainians have not needed visas to visit Europe’s twenty-six-country Schengen area since 2017, and thanks to cheap flights millions have done so. Most young Ukrainians, who have no memory of the Soviet era (for which you need to be close to forty), are now just like other Europeans. They are no longer people from Russia’s periphery who mentally, culturally, and socially orbit Moscow. I can imagine that older Russians like Putin, if he knows this, must hate it. It relates directly to the wise maxim of Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former US national security adviser: “It cannot be stressed enough that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” As the links that have bound Russia and Ukraine for centuries slowly snap with every passing year, no wonder Putin is worried and thinks this is his last chance to suborn and subordinate.

And Putin’s war since 2014 has made a big difference here. There are no longer direct flights or trains between the two countries. At Hoptivka, Lieutenant Colonel Yuri Trubachev of Ukraine’s Border Guard Service told me that before 2014 some 25,000 people crossed there every day. Now that figure is 2,500, and even if you discount the effect of Covid it is symbolic of the frayed ties. While I was there a two-mile line of trucks was waiting to enter Russia. A driver told me they had been there for perhaps three days, and it was the same to enter Ukraine. There is no logical reason for this, but as Taras Danko, a professor of international business in Kharkiv, noted tartly, “You need the cooperation of the border authorities and for that you need the cooperation between states, not talk of one state invading another.”... 

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