As Russian tanks and helicopters rushed across the border into Ukraine last Thursday, European politicians haggled over sanctions proposals to give the impression that they had a moral stand – while secretly hoping no one would realize how little they were risking were ready . Belgium wanted a spin-off for diamonds, Italy for “luxury goods”. There were expressions of the usual platitudes – deep concerns, thoughts and prayers – but there was little desire to cut Russia off from the international financial system or to upset the oligarchs whose relatives shop in London and Paris and whose luxury yachts dock at ports from Monaco to Barcelona to Hamburg . The general Western military and intelligence consensus was that Moscow would probably control Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, within one to four days, and few leaders seemed willing to risk their posts.COVID Savings on what seemed like a foregone conclusion.
Meanwhile, in the Black Sea, a Russian warship was approaching the tiny Ukrainian outpost of Snake Island, a mostly empty, twenty-two-acre rock near the Romanian border. Thirteen Ukrainian border guards and marines were stationed there with no significant weapons or prospects of holding the line. “Lay down your arms and surrender to avoid bloodshed and unnecessary deaths,” the ship’s announcement instructed them. “Otherwise you will be bombed.”
“Russian warship, fuck yourself,” the Ukrainians replied, setting the tone for the next few days of the war. The Ukrainian government announced that they were all killed, a claim that turned out to be false. Nonetheless, Sunday night’s line reflected – unlikely but unmistakably – Europe’s new de facto stance on Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Every war has its legends and its heroes, but it’s rare that they take shape on day one. That same afternoon, Russian helicopters took over Hostomel Airport near Kyiv. But by evening, against all odds, the Ukrainians had recaptured it. Across the country, civilians took up arms, and tales of unpredictable bravery and self-sacrifice began to trickle out of isolated villages and towns. An elderly woman approached a Russian soldier and told him to put seeds in his pockets so sunflowers would grow where he died. Ukraine’s military said one of its soldiers volunteered to mine and blow up a bridge to stem Russian advances – and had no hope of surviving the blast. For his part, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned that he could be killed at any moment – and indeed, American officials have reported that Putin’s aim in this invasion is to “decapitate” the Ukrainian leadership and install a new regime. Despite this, Zelensky refused to go. Standing with his closest advisers in the dark of night in central Kyiv, he repeated his exhausted but absolute defiance. “We are here.”
Courage is contagious and by the end of the second day, Ukrainian forces had continued to repel Russian attacks. Some Ukrainian wartime propaganda – like the existence of a fighter pilot ace named Ghost of Kyiv – turned out to be pure fabrication. But every hour that Kyiv didn’t fall was an hour that Ukraine still won. Videos and photos surfaced on Sunday showing Russian soldiers apparently looting grocery stores and currency exchange offices. Tanks and other armored vehicles lay abandoned by the roadside – some in smoldering rubble, others simply without fuel. Ukrainian civilians were ordered to remove street signs so Russian soldiers would be lost. When a Russian tanker ran out of fuel, a Ukrainian civilian asked if he wanted to be towed to Russia.
Seventy-two hours represents something of a magic window into the world of logistics and military planning, and before that time was reached it was obvious that Russia had screwed up its invasion. More images emerged showing captured and dead Russian soldiers – in many cases teenagers – hungry, tired, scared, confused, unsure of their mission, unmotivated to die for it. Tyler Hicks, a photographer for the Times, captured a picture of a dead Russian soldier, his face and body covered in snow. The soldier’s anonymity elevated the particular to the general; no Russian mother with her son on assignment and unreachable could look at the front page of the newspaper and be sure he wasn’t hers. At this point, the Kremlin had not recognized any casualties; soon after, it restricted access to Twitter and Facebook on Russian territory. The UK announced that the Russian army could send in mobile crematoria to burn their own dead. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government set up a website aimed at Russian families and released the identity cards of dead and captured young men.
European politicians had now understood that it was no longer just about Ukrainian self-determination, but about the principles of bravery and truth. A number of European countries announced they would supply deadly weapons to Ukraine; Online, Ukrainians celebrated their new defender “Saint Javelin”, named after an anti-tank weapon system that has destroyed scores of Russian vehicles and killed an unknown number of troops in recent days.
Still, Ukraine was outgunned and outnumbered. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said negotiations could only begin after Russia “restores democratic order” in Ukraine. A Ukrainian parliamentarian, asked for his reaction, turned to the camera and said, “Fuck you, Lavrov.” On Sunday afternoon, a Russian ship in the Black Sea ran out of fuel and radioed a nearby Georgian ship for help . “Go and fuck yourself!” the Georgian skipper replied gleefully. “Use oars.”
Go fuck yourself – a new anthem for Europe, a redefinition of its economic and defense policies against Putin’s regime. Suddenly that defiance was more important than selling diamonds and handbags. A series of new sanctions cut Russia out of the global financial system, sparking a panic in Moscow as citizens’ savings disappeared and the ruble collapsed. As Putin’s central bank governor put it, the Russian banking system faces a “non-standard situation.” Letterbox companies and yachts can be confiscated; Private jets are not allowed to take off.
Isolated, angry and humiliated, Putin is now raising the prospect of nuclear war. “Our submarines alone can launch more than five hundred nuclear warheads, guaranteeing the destruction of the United States – and all countries in the United States Nato for a good measure,” said a Russian presenter on state television. “The principle is: what do we need the world for if Russia won’t be there?” At the same time, Putin’s air force has reportedly begun resorting to illegal tactics it has practiced in Syria for years. Earlier today, Russian warplanes bombed civilians in Kharkiv, a Ukrainian city near the Russian border, with what appear to be illegal cluster munitions, footage leaked online shows. Kyiv could be next.
The war is only five days old and the prospect of further Ukrainian military victories remains unlikely. Satellite images show a forty-mile column of Russian vehicles heading toward the capital. The civilian death toll is rising and half a million Ukrainian refugees have poured into neighboring countries. But so far, Putin’s primary success has been strengthening himself Nato and to unite the rest of Europe – not in which Europe is, or even what it stands for, but what it stands against: him. In just five days, Sweden, Finland and Switzerland have jettisoned decades of neutrality, and Germany’s new chancellor has pledged to double its defense budget. “The world has changed,” Lithuania’s foreign minister posted on Twitter. “Instead of just hoping and praying, it’s time for Stingers and Javelins.”