How We Got Here 

The tragedy of Ukraine and the one-way road to war.

Vladimir Putin
Protests, Moscow. 29 February 2020. Photo: Valery Tenevoy on Unsplash.

By all accounts, Raphael Lemkin was a pain in the ass. The Polish lawyer from present-day Belarus was a polyglot from the earliest age, a skill that would become his greatest asset. He was a teenager during World War I and watched as his family farm was ransacked by both German and Russian forces. He saw the books that he had buried for safekeeping go up in flames, books that contained his detailed notes of mass atrocities throughout history. He reached Sweden in 1940, just as German troops advanced through his country, where he frantically translated key passages from German legal decrees that detailed the scale and scope of Nazi intentions for Jewish people. He made it to the United States but by the end of World War II, he had lost forty nine relatives in the Holocaust. Raphael Lemkin lived the rest of his life as a thorn in the side of any politician or representative he could corner, in any of the at least nine languages in which he was fluent. He was dogged, relentless. He had to be. All that was left for him was the word that he had invented, the word he believed could save the world from its own worst impulses. Genocide.

Almost eighty years later, on February 23, 2022, Vladimir Putin went on Russian state television to make the case for a wholescale invasion of Ukraine. Putin spoke for more than one hour, starting with a historical background that began, quite literally, at time immemorial. His objective was to paint Ukraine as an invention of the Bolsheviks and in so doing, delegitimize its very existence. But he did not stop there. Instead, he declared that the Russian speaking population of Eastern Ukraine was faced with a threat to their very existence. The words were horribly familiar: 

“The so-called civilized world, which our Western colleagues proclaimed themselves the only representatives of, prefers not to see this, as if this horror and genocide, which almost 4 million people are facing, do not exist. But they do exist and only because these people did not agree with the West-supported coup in Ukraine in 2014 and opposed the transition towards the Neanderthal and aggressive nationalism and neo-Nazism which have been elevated in Ukraine to the rank of national policy. They are fighting for their elementary right to live on their own land, to speak their own language, and to preserve their culture and traditions.”

The following day, using the very term that Raphael Lemkin pushed, shoved, begged, and suffered for, Vladimir Putin launched the most brazen attack on European soil since World War II. The Russian Army advanced from all sides, including from Belarus, Lemkin’s homeland. Thankfully, he is buried in New York, in the country he adopted. The same country that failed to ratify the Genocide Convention during his lifetime. 

Over the coming days and weeks, you will hear the same question posed countless times, if you have not already. You may pose the question yourself, if you have not already. How did we get here? We’ll be asking this question about Ukraine as its 44 million citizens take shelter in subway stations, car parks, or in nearby states. We will look at each other in the bar, or on our social media channels, or around our dinner tables and wonder it aloud. Just as we all became expert virologists over the past two years, so too will we now become political analysts. You will hear and offer myriad opinions. The truth is incredibly complicated. It is also tragically simple. 

Away With Private Peasants! Russian Propaganda against Ukrainian farmers, date unknown. Русский: Иванова и Мирзаянц, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The complicated answer

It’s not necessary to go back as far as Vladimir Putin did in the imperial history lesson that precluded his speech of February 23, but a bit of historical context is necessary. The scope of it is too vast to cover in this short space, and there are specialists who are vastly more capable. Suffice to say that wars do not hatch fully grown, and do not spring up out of thin air. They are the result of profound and prolonged instability. Since the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has unfortunately suffered from this condition. 

The starting point for this current iteration is perhaps 2013 when then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych pulled out of talks to join the European Union, leading to widespread protests in the country. Those protests would continue for more than three months before escalating with a gunfight in central Maidan Square, which left nearly 100 dead. After global condemnation, the pro-Russian Yanukovych was removed from office and fled the country, with elections scheduled for May 2014 and an interim leader installed. Those halcyon days are alternatively known as the Maidan Revolution, or the Revolution of Dignity

However, the celebrations were as abbreviated as the month of February itself. By March 1, 2014, the Russian government had approved, at the request of Putin himself, the annexation of Crimea, an autonomous region in Southern Ukraine with strong ties to Russia and a strategic position on the Black Sea. After a referendum that is condemned by most of the world as illegitimate, Ukrainian armed forces fight back against occupying Russian soldiers, which leads Putin to declare that the two countries are “on the brink of a civil war.” It is during these first chaotic months that the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, known collectively as Donbas, declare independence; however, their referendums were unrecognized, a fact that will become critical in the days leading up to the present invasion. 

Though a ceasefire would be signed in September 2014, it would come at great cost and do little to stop tensions on the ground. Before an agreement would be signed a commercial airliner would be shot down, killing all 300 people on board, harsh sanctions would impose suffering on citizens in Eastern Ukraine, and nearly 2 million children would be caught in the crossfire. All this would occur before Donald Trump was elected US President, permanently altering the chessboard upon which international politics had been played since the end of the Second World War. Among the many, many, many instances that Donald Trump showed an affinity bordering on adulation for Vladimir Putin, a fair number of them have had a direct impact on the escalation of the crisis between Ukraine and Russia. 

During the infamous 2018 Helsinki Summit, where Vladimir Putin publicly declared that Russia had not interfered in the 2016 US Presidential Election, he and Trump also “agreed to disagree” on the Crimea problem, effectively granting the Russian leader carte blanche to continue his maneuvers at pace. By 2019, former comedian turned Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy found himself and his country embroiled in one of the most complex scandals in modern politics, which culminated in the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump by the end of that year. The then-US President had threatened to withhold $400 million in military aid for Ukraine unless compromising material against presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter were produced, along with assistance in sabotaging Democratic party servers. But Zelenskiy wasn’t interested in colluding with the United States government, or anyone else; instead his administration was committed to rooting out corruption in Ukraine. That put the young upstart, by this time perhaps emboldened by a front seat to the world stage vis-à-vis his involvement in the US scandal, squarely in the crosshairs of Vladimir Putin. 

Zelenskiy’s openness to the West and his desire for Ukraine to join NATO was made clear by 2021, and Putin’s disapproval was immediate and resolute. As the year progressed, so too did troop build-ups around the Donbas region; likewise, the rhetoric surrounding Ukrainian admission to NATO became more impassioned, with the Russian leader making ever more emotional appeals to the unity of Russian and Ukraine and ultimately, the fictitious nature of the Ukrainian state as a whole. By the time the Russian leader sat down across a very long table — from the French President, Emanuel Macron, the conflict was already escalating well beyond the hypothetical. Less than two weeks after that, Vladimir Putin finally recognized the referendums that established the independent states of the Donbas, paving the way for Russian troops to move in as ‘peacekeepers’. By the time that fateful speech concluded on February 23, Russian troops, tanks, and artillery were poised and ready at three sides of the Ukrainian border. By the early hours of February 24, the invasion of Ukraine had begun. 

Vladimir Putin
Holodomor Memorial, Kyiv. Holodomor means, “death by starvation.” Photo:David Sasaki, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, via Flickr.

The simple answer

Back to the very long table. In the days leading up to the Ukraine invasion, that image circulated around the world as an example of absurdity, excess, and the almost cartoon-like villain that Vladimir Putin had come to personify. And we laughed. I laughed. Even Italian news agency Ansa got in on the fun, nothing that the surreal piece of furniture that separated Putin and Macron was made of Italian marble; there was no talk of sanctioning the quarry or banning further production. 

And why would there have been? The two decades that Vladimir Putin has exercised a stranglehold on Russian power have coincided with countless memes and fan sites. There is Putin with animals, Putin doing things, or Putin looking like a badass’: indeed, the internet’s irreverent corners have done more to push the strongman image around the globe than some of his more ferocious efforts to squash opposition to his regime. And there have been many, many of those. Long before he committed the war crime of aggression that we are currently witnessing, he busied himself by helping Russia cleanse itself’ of homosexuality, continuing the tradition of poisoning critics and dissidents, and repressing anyone who dared to speak against his absolute control. But then he rode a horse shirtless, or wrestled a bear, or kissed a fish. And we laughed. It is as if now, watching Ukrainians flee with their lives on their backs, we are somehow surprised that Vladimir Putin has turned out to be a bona fide dictator, an actual bad guy. 

Yet for the two decades that he has been in power, he has been a very bad guy. There has never been any doubt about that and there is no shortage of people who have given their lives to make the world aware of it. The malignancy of Vladimir Putin has expressed itself openly and in full view of the world, at a time when human rights violations go viral as quickly as shirtless memes. So yes, now we are appalled and appealing to our better angels, and it is very likely sincere. But we are late, and not because we weren’t invited. And while the invasion of Ukraine has drawn inevitable comparisons between Putin and Adolf Hitler, chess champion and actual badass Garry Kasparov — who has been making the comparison for a lot longerpoints out the more uncomfortable truth, the signpost we’ve followed on the road to Here:

“…contrary to the 1930s, this war has been prepared in plain sight. One of the problems today is that we call Putin’s decision irrational. But he doesn’t see it as irrational because for so many years, for two decades, he saw no consequences for his actions, which were actually crimes.” 

Consequences. The things we learn as soon as we have to cross the street alone, clean our own rooms, pay our own rent. Human beings face consequences as part of our collective responsibility to each other, and we levy them as the price for membership in the community of individuals that we have become. The notion of consequences was fundamental to Raphael Lemkin, who asked, “Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of an individual?” And then gave his life trying to right that terrible wrong. As a general rule, dictators are not fans of bearing consequences, though they do tend to love imposing them. It is given to the rest of us to hold them accountable, to force them to weigh the cost of belligerence over its benefit. In the case of Vladimir Putin, we have not done this, ever. As a global community that prides itself on sounding the constant beat of the drum of democracy, we have been willfully deaf to every entreaty to stop his aggression. 

When he told the world who he was and what he planned, in Munich in 2007, we did nothing. When he made good on those plans to remake the post-Cold War world with the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the world and all of our leaders demurred. When he annexed Crimea in 2014 in a clear violation of international norms, the international community remained largely benign, led by an Obama administration that had little appetite for entering into outright conflict. When Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2015, the response was a tepid call for a ceasefire by the US and EU, a response that US and NATO advisors now admit was a mistake. When the US Congress found that Russia had interfered with the 2016 presidential election under the direct orders of Vladimir Putin, he responded that he “couldn’t care less,” or that perhaps it was a cadre of “Ukrainians, Tatars, or Jews” who were behind the imbroglio. The world did nothing. And when he ghoulishly evoked the sacred term genocide against the very same country who lost millions in horrific crimes during the Holomodor of 1932-33 at the hands of the Soviet regime, no one even blinked. 

So, when US President Joe Biden asks in his own press conference, “Who in the Lord’s name does Putin think gives him the right to declare new so-called countries on territory that belonged to his neighbors?” he need look no further than himself, his allies, and his predecessors. And the rest of us. We did. Because while activists, journalists, and regular citizens have been shouting from the rooftops about the diabolical designs that Vladimir Putin has made and executed on the world around him, we’ve given him the right. That, simply put, is how we got here. We got here the same way we get anywhere. By running at full speed into a wall and refusing to stop even when we’d torn it to bits. By refusing to stop and ask for directions, paying no attention to all of the signs telling us to turn back. By refusing to believe that things were as they seemed. And now we’re here, and we’re shocked. We really shouldn’t be. 

After all, we never really left. 

vladimir putin
Balance, painting by Ukrainian artist Yuriy Vakulenko, 2021. Photo: Paintgol, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Where we go from here

But the different question, perhaps the better question is, why? If every warning sign was there, why haven’t we acted in the noble pursuit we promised to defend, never again? It is another complicated yet simple question that will surely be answered in real time, a yellow brick road with cracks to avoid and trenches to dig or fill. In its essence the why is a matter of power, another sacred word whose meaning changes in life as in war according to the side you’re on when the dust settles. Dictators tend to collect and consolidate it. In this case, Vladimir Putin is at the seat of tremendous power in all forms, and the exercise of it has shaped the world in which we all live whether we know it or not. 

First, there is his economic power, particularly in energy markets. Russia is the world’s second-largest producer of gas and the third-largest producer of oil, in addition to leading the planet in coal and wheat exports along with the production of important resources such as palladium and ammonium nitrate. The Putin regime has been crafty in hoarding these resources, accumulating hundreds of billions of dollars even in the face of economic sanctions that have been in place since the Crimean annexation of 2014. Even with the halting of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and further sanctions, Russia could still deeply disrupt the global energy supply and drive prices higher than they’ve been in recent memory. The upshot could see the Russian economy grow as European economies shrink: indeed, The Atlantic reports that if gas prices stay high, Putin’s economy will overtake Italy’s and perhaps even France’s as the second in Europe behind Germany. With that in mind, it seems difficult to believe that sanctions, no matter how harsh, will be enough to stop Russian aggression. It may, however, be enough to break the rest of us. 

So why not send some boots on the ground, you ask? That too is a big question but eventually leads back to Putin’s nuclear power, which he has not been shy about alluding to in recent speeches and proclamations. Of course, nuclear weapons capabilities have never gone away: Russia still holds an arsenal of nearly 6,000, balanced against the United States’ supply of nearly 5,500. However, for the first time, this threat has been articulated. That Vladimir Putin may be suffering from a “despotic mindset” is far from comforting, but even if he is in full retention of his faculties it is impossible to say whether he would resort to nuclear weapons deployment in the event of foreign intervention. But the threat of such an all-encompassing and ultimately apocalyptic war is doubtless on the minds of NATO command and leaders from the US, UK, and EU, all of whom have ruled out sending troops. UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace summed it up best: “To do a no-fly zone I would have to put British fighter jets against Russian; Nato would have to declare war on Russia. I cannot and won’t trigger a European war but I will help Ukraine fight every street with every piece of equipment we can support them.” However, it remains to be seen if Putin will redefine what it means to “stand in the way” of Russian military operations as the conflict progresses. Whatever does happen, it looks to be almost a certainty that the West is unwilling to engage in outright conflict. This is a good thing, of course. But to a dictator who seems unconcerned with consequences, it may be yet another sign that he can do what he wants, when he wants. 

All of which points to Vladimir Putin’s other great asset, perhaps even the greatest of them all, his staying power. Not just the one that allows him to hold his seat until 2036, but the one that has made him an almost mythic figure. Thus far, Putin has seen the passage of five US Presidents, five UK Prime Ministers, three German Chancellors, and 867 Italian Prime Ministers. He has managed to appeal, at different times, to both the far right and the far left in international politics, with the center having to inevitably make allowances for him. He’s been invited to the White House and the Vatican; he attended Jacques Chirac’s funeral in Paris and the commemoration of World Holocaust Day in Jerusalem. He outlasted Angela Merkel, the only person who may have actually scared him (despite her own fear of his dog); indeed her departure, coupled with the global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, further division in the United States, and rising inflation around the world, created a perfect climate of instability for Putin to make his move on Ukraine. He has waited out the opposition, as his speech of February 23 made clear. He is, tragically, the only one who seems to have learned the lesson that Raphael Lemkin fought so hard to teach the world: words have power, and whoever uses them most effectively has the power to change the meaning of the world. 

Raphael Lemkin died in 1959, impoverished and exhausted by his efforts to stop the slaughter of mankind by the most horrific means. The word genocide didn’t exist when his entire family was exterminated by Nazis, and it wasn’t until 1988 that US President Ronald Reagan signed the UN Convention on Genocide, thereby allowing the word to enter our common lexicon. It was the end of an era: the Cold War was finally thawing, and the shining city on a hill seemed within reach of everyone. Lemkin didn’t live to see it, but he was a part of what made it possible. 

At the same time, a young Vladimir Putin was toiling away in a KGB office somewhere in Dresden, probably collecting the information that continues serving him, honing the skills that “never leave.” It is, in Hemingway’s famous phrase, pretty to think that he can still be outfoxed or that he wildly miscalculated. It is inspiring to see the face of Volodymyr Zelenskiy on the front lines, a true David in the face of Putin’s Goliath. But it isn’t a fair fight and no matter what the outcome, the damage and loss of life will be heartbreaking. This again will be a dark moment in our collective human experience. Zelenskiy was reportedly offered a safe haven in the United States, to which he defiantly responded, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” The truth is, the world is hardly even equipped to offer that. After all, we don’t even know how we got here. 

In memory of Dr. William Colaiace