Spoiler alert. Darkness ahead.
There is only one way this ends well, with some Russian Army guy or FSB hood putting a bullet into Vladimir Putin’s brain, before Putin knows what’s happening.
It would be lovely to entertain a fantasy of bloodless revolution, with millions of Russians joining hands to simply wish away the Ghost of Stalin Past who appears have taken up residence in the Kremlin, but that’s not how these things play out.
The fairytale ending was the magical transformation of Volodymyr Zelensky into a hero for the ages, but that feels like an ending not a beginning. That forty-mile long convoy of Russian armour inching —like, literally inching— towards Kyiv right now speaks of Russian failure and incompetence, but it also reveals just how hard pressed are the Ukrainian forces.
It has sat, largely unmolested, for days. If the defenders of Kyiv had the means to entirely destroy it, they would have done so.
But there it sits, foretelling their doom.
This is hard to write because the world has been genuinely stirred by Ukrainian courage these last seven or eight days. They have modelled for us what valor and sacrifice in defence of principle really means, not just their soldiers but their citizens old and young. The ancient babushka telling a Russian soldier to put seeds in his pocket so that at least sunflowers might grow from the soil where he dies. The villagers standing in front of tanks and troop carriers. And Zelensky of course, the man who might just have saved Europe, even as he faces the destruction of his own country.
Because that’s where we are now.
Putin cannot allow Zelensky to live or Kyiv to stand. In the cramped little rat trap of his mind he has three options – to lay siege to the city, to storm it, or to reduce it. All three will kill tens of thousands of innocents. Maybe a million or more if the Russian army does not open an escape corridor for civilians, or if enough civilians chose to stay on regardless.
We are not yet at this hinge point, because the Russians have not yet encircled the city, or any of the other major cities they need to capture. But unless the situation on the ground changes radically, they will complete their manoeuvre into position within the next week or so. It is hard to be specific about the timing because the Russians do not control the timing. Nobody does.
But when they finally cut off the cities, everything goes dark.
For the moment, NATO is wisely standing off and refusing to countenance direct involvement in the war. Putin must be desperately hoping this will change, because although Russia’s military cannot hope to prevail in a conventional clash against the West, any such clash would allow him to sweep aside his blunders and reframe this grotesque crime against humanity as a great patriotic struggle for the Rodina. It would allow him to fire tactical nuclear warheads into the contested battlespace, an armageddon move which is a long established part of Russian war fighting doctrine. It is described as escalating to de-escalate.
It seems impossible, yes?
Just like the EU expelling Russian banks from SWIFT and sanctioning Moscow’s Central Bank were impossible, until suddenly they weren’t, so too I fear it will go with this.
Putin has made so many errors in this catastrophic adventure, but none more serious than his profound misreading of the nature of democratic polities. Yes, they are riven by discord (some of it recently sown by his own hand). Yes, they are often poorly led, and the interests of the many are routinely overborne by those of the few with the most wealth and power. They are decadent and materialist and weak, insofar as strength is measured by unity of purpose. And where can you possibly find greater unity of purpose than in a one man autocracy?
But they remain societies organised around the core principle of consent and within them lies the latent potential of entire peoples to suddenly rouse themselves from rancorous discord and materialist distraction and to turn as one upon an enemy. Democracies at war are fucking terrifying. Ask the ghosts of Hiroshima and Dresden.
And that could be where we are headed, because very soon now Vladimir Putin will order his field commanders to bring an end to Ukrainian resistance. Having lost thousands of troops thus far, he may calculate that losing tens of thousands in house-to-house fighting is a price he best not pay. And waiting months to starve out the defenders means waiting out the starvation of his own country thanks to sanctions which have turned out to be infinitely harsher and more effectively targeted than he could ever have imagined.
No, he will most likely do what he did in Grozny and Aleppo, standing off the rebel cities and reducing them with massed fire. Thousands of artillery pieces, hundreds of bombers, swarms of rockets and missiles. To invoke Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, in war quantity has a quality all of its own.
Stalin’s heir, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin will kill the Ukrainian people on an industrial scale, and we will be witness to it all.
Ukrainian courage won’t matter.
Zelensky’s leadership will count for nothing.
The cities and all within them will be atomised, incinerated, reduced.
But unlike the wretched and the dead of Grozny and Aleppo, they will not be unknown Others to us. They will be the heroes we have so admired this last week and their murder will feel intolerable. At that point we are in danger of giving Putin what he needs to mobilise his people in a war of national survival.
There are some hard and irreconcilable truths ahead.
To restrain our rage and stay our hand is to abandon the Ukrainian people to insensate slaughter and to allow the dictator to attain his ends; an achievement which will leave him not just desirous of further conquest but utterly dependent upon it for his survival.
To go to war with Russia is… well, to risk the end of all life on Earth.
There is no right answer. It is a question from Hell.
Escalation seems inevitable, unless someone puts a bullet into Vladimir Putin’s brain.
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(Really, I am sorry about this. I will try write some jokes next week. But I felt like I had to write this today - JB.)