JOHN OXLEY, LONDON
This is an existential crisis for the West—not just because Putin has threatened nuclear war, but because he has launched an attack on our ideals.
It’s not quite a year since I was last in Kyiv. It seems absurd now, but I went there for sanctuary. I’d been stuck overseas by the UK’s Covid Red List. Spending ten days in Ukraine was the only way home. I went to my favorite restaurant there, Ostanya Barikada, which means “Beyond the Barricades.” It’s in the heart of Maidan Square, where pro-EU, pro-NATO protests toppled the government in 2014. It’s themed around the revolt. You can take a 3D tour on their website. Everything on the menu is Ukrainian, in style and origin. The walls display artefacts from protests in 1990, 2004, and 2014—each one taking the country further out of Russia’s unwelcome clutches and closer to the West. Now I see that square on the news every night, accompanied by sirens and explosions.
In some ways the war seems unreal. Unfathomable. One of the world’s largest armies is bearing down on a city I love. Russian artillery is coming to kill my friends. Ostanya Barikada is delivering food to militia checkpoints; they’ve switched from delivering bottles of beer to Molotov cocktails. Everyone I met in Kyiv is either fleeing or fighting.
Rational as I want to be about this, I cannot. Those bars in Kyiv were not just pleasant places to eat. They captured something—not just Ukraine’s determination to embrace the free market, but its passionate sense that it belongs in Europe, that its culture and vocation is European. A Kyiv café would not be out of place in London.
It now seems as if everyone in London knows this. The British capital is a hotbed of support for Ukraine. Since noon on the day war began, there have been incessant protests near Whitehall, the seat of the British government, and outside the Russian Embassy, in upscale Kensington. The Ukrainian diaspora has a major presence there, but the crowd is swelled by other Eastern Europeans and home-grown Brits. “Slava Ukrainia,” “We don’t need a ride, we need ammo”, and “Russian warship, go fuck yourself,” are now common parlance. Social media is a constant flow of appeals for support, in morale, materiel and money for Ukraine.
The unity in British politics is extraordinary for a country that seemed, just moments ago, riven by Brexit and the politics of the pandemic. Before the Russian invasion, Britain was in a peacetime species of crisis following revelations the prime minister had hosted parties during the height of the Covid lockdowns. Boris Johnson’s ratings had dropped dramatically; he was humiliated both by the revelations and by his own convoluted excuses for them. Many thought his party on the verge of ousting him. The public was foul-tempered and fractious.
Now, the political spectrum very nearly speaks with one voice.
No one credible opposes arming the Ukrainians. Left and right alike support sending thousands of British made Nlaw anti-tank weapons and Javelin missiles. The only debate about sanctions is why it isn’t being done harder and faster. Though London has become a second home to Russian oligarchs, they have made themselves unloved; their dubious wealth in our city is a source of shame; we view their political donations with deep suspicion. The British public has (perhaps unsurprisingly) been a step ahead of the politicians in demanding sanctions, even for the confiscation of large London properties and the Chelsea Football Club, owned by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. (He is said to be putting the club under the control of a charitable trust.) On the international stage, Britain is competing with other democracies to see who can announce the most devastating financial sanctions against Russia, and it is holding its own: Each day sees a press release with a new list of frozen assets, banned oligarchs, new restrictions—on March 1, HM government announced that “any vessels owned or operated by anyone connected to Russia” would be banned from the UK’s ports. The next day saw a prohibition on providing loans or credit to “a person connected with Russia.”
The sole point of true political conflict concerns refugees. The British government continues to operate with its characteristic antinomy toward displaced people. It has ceased to offer temporary visas to Ukrainians save those tied by family to Britain. For the rest, it closed transit routes, effectively blocking the arrival of refugees. Politicians across the spectrum have attacked this policy, so perhaps it will be short-lived. Meanwhile, long lines of Londoners are forming wherever one may donate clothing and bedding for Ukrainian refugees in Poland.
Our approach is remarkably coherent, and it appears to be driven by something more than geopolitical calculation. The British love a spirited underdog and admire the heroism of President Zelensky and the people he leads—a heroism that echoes the way the British want to see themselves. The link between modern Britain’s defining narrative and plucky Ukraine is obvious: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender … ”
Moreover, Eastern Europe is no longer a faraway land of which we know little. The EU accession of Poland and the Baltic states brought with it significant immigration to the UK, now on its second generation. Their culture has become part of British culture, as have their memories of the horrors of Soviet and Russian imperialism. Low-cost airlines, too, have changed us: Before Covid, often a flight to Warsaw or Tallinn was cheaper than an intercity British train. We admired their cathedrals and opera houses before settling into our cups of cheap beer on countless Eastern European stag nights.
But it’s not just pity we feel. For the first time since September 11, inspired by Kyiv, there is a martial spirit in Western capitals. We may have been neutered by the unravelling of our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the spirit of Ukraine’s defenders has invigorated us. We see that this is about right and wrong, about a nuclear-armed bully who has exploited our cowardice and self-doubt. We equivocated as he ate up Grozny, mauled Georgia. We allowed Russian money to flow into our coffers even when chemical weapons killed Syrian children and nerve agents poisoned Salisbury.
Suddenly, we are filled with resolve, and even confidence. Ukrainians are teaching us to value something we have long taken for granted. For them, the peace and security of the West was a dream, a dream they’re fighting to make reality with their bodies and blood. They faced snipers on Maidan Square in 2014 and now they face the Russian army’s rocket launchers: Still, they will not give up. They are fighting for what we already have.
The test is how to channel this resolve into action. We turned the 9/11 alliance into a disaster. We cannot do so again—especially because Putin has apocalyptic weaponry in his arsenal.
Sanctions will rapidly unravel his economy. His oligarchs, we hope, will turn on him. It’s time to bring back the slogan: “You’re either with us, or against us.” It’s time to accept that what we are, and what we believe, is good. The Ukrainians are willing to die for it. So must we be. The Ukrainians are willing to fight for it. So must we be.
There are common-sense arguments for not committing uniformed troops and NATO planes to Ukraine; there’s no reason actively to seek the Apocalypse—but there’s a lot we can do and deploy in the shadows, and by comparison with Russia, we have almost unlimited economic power. We must make it absolutely clear to Putin that if he attacks NATO, we will “respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.” We must also be clear that what has happened in Ukraine is unacceptable, and his only way forward is total retreat.
For too long, our leaders have believed—or behaved—as if one more concession, one more pourparler, would cause him to see the light. “Wandel durch Handel!” squeaked the Putinverstehers. We thought the children of the Russian oligarchs whom we welcomed in our schools and universities would become liberal reformers. A triumph of hope over experience. Ukrainians now face the consequences of our mistakes, and we must not make any more of them.
I accept that I am emotional. My friends are under attack, and I would happily see every Russian soldier who fails to lay down his arms evaporated in a mist of blood by allied weaponry. Putin and his cohorts must see their empire dismantled. I would see them dragged before a war crimes tribunal, prosecuted, and—if convicted—hanged.
But my anger is beside the point. Cool reason takes us to the same place. This is an existential crisis for the West—not just because Putin has threatened nuclear war, but because he has launched an attack on our ideals. He stands for autocracy, nationalism, and cruelty. Ukrainians are throwing their own bodies before his tanks. If we value democracy and freedom as much as they do, as much as we say we do—and as we should do—we must be prepared to stand for them, to die for them, and to kill for them. There is no honor in capitulation. We must be steadfast.
These are our values, and those that encroach on them are not just our enemy, but the enemy of free people everywhere, and the enemy of what is right.
John Oxley is a writer in London.