JOSHUA TREVIÑO, AUSTIN
The war for the cities in Ukraine begins. The ferocity, competence, and efficacy of the Ukrainian resistance signal clearly that a Russian occupation will be a blood-soaked affair.
As this is written, it is just past midnight in Kyiv. The capital city is, it seems, under a partial siege and we can expect this night and weekend to be, if not decisive, then determinative. If the city breaks in the darkness, then the Russians can still claim the swift victory they sought — and politically need.
If the bells under the golden domes ring across a fighting Kyiv by Sunday morning, then it means the cities of Ukraine will do their timeless work of absorbing armies, and pulling them to pieces, bit by bit in the byways and warrens of unnumbered homes, alleys, and buildings. The Ukrainian state is obviously working toward that end.
Small arms and ammunition are handed to whoever wants them. The ranks of the army are thrown open to all, and the ersatz recruiting centers are overwhelmed with volunteers. Instructions for the creation of Molotov cocktails are broadcast, and young women set up home factories, in kitchens and flats, for the supply of their men as they prepare to resist. Former presidents and former heavyweight champions, clad in blue jeans and dark jackets, shoulder Kalashnikovs and patrol their streets.
And, at the border crossings jammed with fleeing civilians, the gendarmes let the women and children pass. But the men, they seize and turn back. Every man fights. This is the war of the whole nation, for absolutely everything that it was meant to be, and should be still.
The war is just two days old.
The Ukrainian elites were just last week a byword for corruption, rapacity, and greed. Now in two days, we see many of them as something else: genuine patriots who, though perhaps they plundered their country, are also willing to die for it. The tragic and heroic figure of Volodymyr Zelenskyy—for all we know, Ukraine’s last president—sets the example for the rest.
There are a few items that we should consider as events race to their unknown culmination. In no particular order, here are some things you, as an informed citizen, ought to be thinking through this weekend.
The ferocity, competence, and efficacy of the Ukrainian resistance signal clearly that a Russian occupation will be a blood-soaked affair. The constituency for the occupation regime would invite comparisons with Vichy France, except that Vichy and its figurehead in Marshal Petain were actually popular.
It is impossible to imagine the Russians achieving anything similar: any figurehead or viceroy will be propped up with bayonets. Meantime, there will be a nation of tens of millions that have just endured hellish urban combat and resentful of the victors.
That pool of resistance will possess nearly everything necessary for an insurgency to flourish and persist: moral superiority, narrative motivation (that will, ironically, reach not just into the history of Ukrainian nationalism, but also into the historical experience of anti-Nazi partisans), technical means, foreign support, and geographic refuge.
The last bit presumes that Ukraine’s neighbors to the west will all participate in sustaining and supplying the insurgents. Every one of those neighbors, soon-to-be-conquered Moldova excepted, is a NATO member. Thirty days back I was skeptical that they would render that aid. Now I am certain they will.
The Ukrainian elites were just last week a byword for corruption, rapacity, and greed. Now in two days, we see many of them as something else: genuine patriots who, though perhaps they plundered their country, are also willing to die for it.
THE TRAGIC HEROES
The tragic and heroic figure of Volodymyr Zelenskyy—for all we know, Ukraine’s last president—sets the example for the rest. He had the opportunity to flee, and he refused. He had the opportunity to hide, and he refused. The Americans have, at last report, offered him safe passage out, and he refused. This man, a nonentity to the world just forty-eight hours ago, has become the embodiment of his nation since.
Weary, embattled, but determined and clear, the president fights. Kyiv is plunged into battle and he is there. Who can imagine the war had he fled, had he set a different example by breaking at the first strike? At the moments upon which history pivots, men matter. To borrow from Churchill, Ukraine and the theater of the watching world are “witnessing the birth throes of a sublime resolve.”
The other event of significance is the Russian threat, today, to undertake unspecified military measures if Sweden or Finland join NATO. (Judging from the Russian toolkit of the past decade, this either means an invasion, or someone gets poisoned.)
Two events of significance occurred today that bring NATO and therefore the United States closer to active participation in this war: which, I am persuaded, is nearly inevitable if Ukraine is a state in being within thirty days.
One is the declaration by the NATO Secretary-General that a cyberattack constitutes cause for Article 5 action. It may or may not, but there is considerable ambiguity in this, and a public discussion ought to be had of exactly what that Article 5 response might be.
There is a supposition that cyberattacks merit a cyber response — no one will sink a Russian destroyer to avenge a malicious shutdown of ATMs across London — but that supposition is considerably less grounded than I suspect it ought to be.
Electrical-grid failures that cost lives, for example, because elderly citizens freeze to death, or because infants suffocate in darkened NICUs, could generate political pressure to strike back in more kinetic ways. No one seems to quite know. It would be good to know.
The NATO Secretary-General seems to know. He should be asked. He should be asked because democratic citizenry deserves to know how and why they go to war—and also because a Russian cyberattack is one hundred percent inevitable.
The other event of significance is the Russian threat, today, to undertake unspecified military measures if Sweden or Finland join NATO. (Judging from the Russian toolkit of the past decade, this either means an invasion, or someone gets poisoned.) Both countries may, in fact, be on the precipice of NATO membership, and not just because they both obviously qualify — in ways that, until the past two days, it seemed Ukraine did not.
Will Russia actually attack Finland? If it does, it is a near-certainty that Sweden will aid the Finns. Will NATO or the United States aid the Finns? Will they do for Finland what they refused to do for Ukraine? One suspects we would, for the exact same reason Poland got a guarantee in 1939 after Czechoslovakia did not. History is contingent, but it’s like poetry, it rhymes.
Portentously, both nations participated in yesterday’s NATO Article-4 meeting: a significant step forward from, in Sweden’s case, already meaningful military to military cooperation. Finland is a historic Russian buffer zone, having been compelled into that role beginning in the Napoleonic wars.
Following its defeat at the close of the Second World War, it was subjected to the humiliation of a de facto Soviet veto upon its governance — even extending to Finnish self-censorship of perceived anti-Soviet films (including, incredibly, Red Dawn) until the late 1980s. Finland took the opportunity to renounce its subjection with the dissolution of the USSR, but unlike its Baltic neighbors, saw no reason to seize that historical moment for full integration into the Western alliance.
Now views are changed, and Finns know that any full restoration of Moscow’s sphere—clearly Putin’s ambition now—will include them. They may therefore wish to join NATO, late in the day, and the Kremlin has therefore issued its warning. Finland is given the exact same prohibition as Ukraine, and the implication is it will suffer the exact same penalty of invasion.
Ask yourself a series of questions, including but not limited to: Will Finland acquiesce to the Russian warning? Will Russia actually attack Finland? If it does, it is a near-certainty that Sweden will aid the Finns. Will NATO or the United States aid the Finns? Will they do for Finland what they refused to do for Ukraine? One suspects we would, for the exact same reason Poland got a guarantee in 1939 after Czechoslovakia did not. History is contingent, but it’s like poetry, it rhymes.
We do not think of these things as idle speculation. There is a real chance this war grows, and we get in it.
Here’s the war map this evening.
NEW MAP AND REPORT: Russian forces entered major Ukrainian cities — including #Kyiv and #Kherson — for the first time on February 25. Read the full report: https://t.co/djGQiIdAJh pic.twitter.com/hwR4nuEzCB
— ISW (@TheStudyofWar) February 25, 2022
“A wonderful story is unfolding before our eyes. How it will end we are not allowed to know. But on both sides of the Atlantic we all feel, I repeat, all, that we are a part of it, that our future and that of many generations is at stake. We are sure that the character of human society will be shaped by the resolves we take and the deeds we do. We need not bewail the fact that we have been called upon to face such solemn responsibilities. We may be proud, and even rejoice amid our tribulations, that we have been born at this cardinal time for so great an age and so splendid an opportunity of service here below.”
— Winston Churchill, from “The Birth Throes of a Sublime Resolve,” 16 June 1941.
The Churchill passage above is from “The Birth Throes of a Sublime Resolve,” delivered at a moment when his own nation fought alone against rapacity and power. Much of it seems to apply today.
But let’s not let yesterday’s orators have the last word. Here’s a man defending his country, with a message for those who would take it from him.
Translation by @joelreymont and @SandiResistz . pic.twitter.com/dYhwu8DshA
— Peedu Tuisk (@peedutuisk) February 25, 2022
Joshua Treviño is the Chief of Intelligence and Research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He writes at Armas about culture, events, and strategy, with a particular focus on Texas, Mexico, and China.
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