Ukraine is a Warning ShotThis is About Us All
Kyiv resident Paul Niland explains why the West must finally recognise the real cause of Russia’s aggression – and take a firm and collective stand against Vladimir Putin
On 13 June 2014, a veteran Ukraine-based writer, Euan McDonald, wrote an article titled ‘Putin’s Frog-in-a-Pot War‘. It leant on the analogy that if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water it will leap out – but if you put the frog in a pot of cold water and then gradually increase the heat, it will not notice.
Since the outbreak of armed hostilities in eastern Ukraine, it has always been clear to those of us living here that the causes of this conflict lay not in the minds of the residents of Donbas – it is a conflict that was incited by the minds of people in the Kremlin.
And, while Russian President Vladimir Putin has gradually turned up the heat, the tiny but perceptible ratcheting up of tensions have never quite been enough to alter either the Western approach to sanctions or the media’s choice of how to report on the situation. It is this collective failure to recognise the true nature of this conflict that has led to the events we now live with.
Ukrainians have been watching the build-up of troops on the border with resignation. Conversations with those in Europe about the mood in Kyiv have elicited surprise at the fact that residents of Ukraine’s capital have been going about their daily business.
But the mood has changed today. Calm resilience has been replaced by palpable anger. The stoicism that defines the people of this country has now been enhanced by fury.
I spent last night in the company of Ukrainian friends, in person and virtually, and their reaction to Putin’s hour-long speech was one of disgust. It is not just that Putin has decided to annex the Russian-occupied territories of the Donbas, it is that he treats Ukraine and its people with sheer contempt.
This is not new. Last July, Putin penned a 5,000-word essay outlining his thoughts on Ukraine. At the same time as his distorted and unhinged views were published, the Kremlin had deployed 100,000 troops on the border. When Putin announced that 10,000 soldiers were being drawn-down, a collective sigh was breathed in Western capitals at the thought of an imminent crisis averted. But voices in Ukraine shouted ‘there are still 90,000 of them there!’
That July troop build-up, accompanied by Putin’s narrative “on the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, should have been warning enough to the world. But it was not. What should have been plain to see last year was that the Russian President poses a threat to the international rules-based order, and he has lost his mind.
Vladimir Putin now presents not only a danger to Ukraine, but to the world. He has shown that he is willing to lie and manufacture pretexts for raising the stakes in the war he unleashed, and at the meeting of the Russian Security Council yesterday he seemed at times to be positively giddy at the thought of the bloodshed he was knowingly unleashing.
The man who has ruled and looted Russia for two decades has crossed over to a place – aptly summed up by Sweden’s former Prime Minister Carl Bildt – in which he has “lost contact with reality“.
The Need to Pay Attention
The question now on everyone’s lips is what should the response to Putin’s ongoing annexation of the Donbas be?
In determining this, a debating point appears to be ‘if Russian troops were already in the Donbas, is sending more of them in there overtly classed as an invasion or not?‘ But we are not in a debating class. The Donbas is home to millions of people and it is not clear, today, just how much of that region Putin wants or how many lives that will affect.
The first embers of this war were lit in a city called Slovyansk, which was taken over through military means. In the summer of 2014, Slovyansk was liberated by Ukraine’s armed forces.
One interpretation of Putin’s decree sees the entirety of the Donetsk Oblast becoming part of the fake ‘Donetsk People’s Republic‘ and that would therefore include Slovyansk.
To be clear, there is no appetite amongst the population there – not even a significant minority – to be controlled once again by armed men. But that may be their fate should Putin decide that a ‘safety buffer zone’ should be established beyond the lands seized by Russia in 2014. The same also applies to the city of Mariupol – another Donetsk-region city that was liberated in the summer of 2014.
Putin turned up the heat very gradually. By initially denying that there was any Russian involvement in events in eastern Ukraine, he seeded the narrative of ‘separatism’ that is still the terminology used today. It is wholly false, as the case of Slovyansk demonstrates: these are, as they have been all along, parts of Ukraine occupied by Russia.
And what of the response from the international community?
We have lived with war here in Ukraine for eight years. War is hell. Fifteen thousand lives have already been lost. 7.2% of Ukraine is occupied by Russia. If the world does not impose significant and biting sanctions now against the Putin regime what comes next is the occupation of more of Ukraine, more bloodshed, and the very real possibility that you too will find yourselves at war.
Vladimir Putin does not see the world in the way that the rest of us do. His prism is power through conflict – and he will not stop in Ukraine.
Those ‘security guarantees’ that Russia sought as this latest escalation gathered pace included a demand – against the threat of an invasion of Ukraine that has now happened – that NATO reduces its presence in Bulgaria and Romania, and an end (dictated by Russia) to NATO’s ‘open door’ policy.
This is about all of us. Ukraine is the warning shot. Putin must be stopped now.