Ukrainian flag
The Ukrainian flag blowing in the wind.

The Never Ending War

Road bridge. On it, a truck, a tank, an armoured car; The iconography of war. Ten to fifteen Russian soldiers stand behind the tank. Gunshots. The Russians engage the enemy; The camera shakes. The Associated Press correspondent is fortunate to get footage this close. AP always gets the best footage in conflict zones.

This isn’t from Ukraine in 2022. The Associated Press got this from South Ossetia in 2008.

Understanding Russian aggression is impossible without understanding the history of violence the Russian Federation has engaged in since its very conception in 1991. Ukraine is not its first major war – just the first that borders NATO territory. This storm has been long brewing.

When I was thirteen, I remember distinctly the footage of the Maidan. What started as a protest against Ukraine vetoing access to the EU, transformed into a flame that engulfed the capital and its president, Yanukovych. Ukrainian MPs got chucked out to the streets on wheelbarrows. Yanukovych himself fled from the anger of the masses to Belarus, then Russia. His last gift to Ukraine, as he was running to leave everything behind, was to request assistance from Putin in quelling the uprising. In 2014, Russia invaded Crimea and took over Sevastopol.

My family has first-hand experience of Russian aggression.

A month after the birth of my mother, my grandparents saw tanks ride into the streets of the city nearest to us. Russian tanks. The Russian government was opposed to the idea that Poland would have trade unions. When a third of the Polish population unionised against Russian will, their government supported the  soldiers who shoved the budding, flowering civil society into the dirt.

My great-grandmother’s experience was much more visceral. She and her mother were given fifteen minutes to pack before the train took them far into the east: sent to Siberia. No crime was committed by my twelve year old great grandmother, other than being in the wrong country at the wrong time. After the war, she and her mother came back on the last train scheduled to leave Siberia. Her mother died a year after, from diseases she caught in what was an icy prison: a frozen concentration camp.

This is the part of the story that eludes western commentators – this visceral experience of persistent Russian imperialism. For my family, the only surprise was when the Russian advance of 2014 abruptly stopped. Something stopped them – the ferociousness of Ukrainian resistance? The threats of war?

On the western side of Europe’s border with Russia, we breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe Mr Putin and his men will stop here after all. What a foolish thought.

The Russian government is not interested in the business of abrupt pauses. In 1992, Russia invaded Georgia under the guise of ‘stabilisation;’ that was just the beginning. Chechnya, Moldova, Caucasus followed. Governments of Kazakhstan and Belarus, instead of dealing with internal unrest, submitted to Russia. The world watched. The world, my country included, watched as Maidan turned into the occupation of Crimea and the war in Donbass. No one can afford to attack the world’s largest nuclear power.

What is currently occurring did not strike me until I spoke to my friends from Eastern Europe at a social event. I have family near the border between Poland and Ukraine, but a friend of mine was hit even closer. Their family lives in the very country Russia laid its hungry maw upon. They told me a story of a frantic evacuation, a race against time to reach the border before the Russians reached them. No planes, no buses, blocked roads: a country swallowed up by chaos.

Everyone is trying to flee. For too many it is too late.

Russia controls the Chernobyl disaster zone, which means they have a corridor to plunge deeper into Ukraine. Any attack, sabotage or shooting in or around the region will endanger the whole of humanity’s survival. But doing nothing virtually seals Ukraine’s fate.

When I think about the situation in Ukraine, what comes to mind is a famous poem. Allow me to alter it slightly.

First they came for Abkhazia, but no one stopped them –

Russia was the largest nuclear power.

Then, they came to carve up Moldova, but no one stopped them –

Russia was the largest nuclear power.

Then, they invaded Crimea, but no one stopped them –

Russia was the largest nuclear power.

And when they carve deep into Ukraine, they are still the largest nuclear power.

Who will stop them when they come for us?

 

Featured image description: Ukrainian flag flying
Featured image credit: Max Kukurudziak via Unsplash