In the early hours of Feb. 23, Liubov Tsybulska, an adviser to Ukraine’s government and military, woke from a terrible dream. “I was screaming but my voice was gone,” she tells me over Signal. “When I woke up and saw Putin’s order to attack,” she says, her voice trembling, “my heart sank.”
The war is now in Ukraine.
The Russian missiles, rockets, and aircraft have been hurling night-attacks across the country over the past 36 hours. Some of them even reached Lviv (near the Polish border) They have struck not just military targets but residential buildings and hospitals, including a cancer ward in Melitopol near the Black Sea, and, according to Ukraine’s foreign minister, a kindergarten in Sumy in the northeast. Last night, social media was awash with images of Kyiv’s blackened sky transformed into brilliant orange as what looked to be either an aircraft or missile was taken out by an air defense system as Russian forces are descending on the city on multiple axes.
The U.S. intelligence community’s warnings of a worst-case scenario—an all-out invasion of Ukraine with the goal of overthrowing a democratically elected government—has turned out to be eerily prophetic. Now, a capital city in Europe looks like Madrid in 1936. There is street-tostreet and house tohouse fighting and many dead. “¡Vivan los Rusos!,” grateful Madrileños As the Comintern’s International Brigades arrived at the Spanish Civil War, they shouted.
Vladimir Putin will not be surprised if Kyvians do not offer such a welcome cry.
Last summer, in a chauvinist and historically revisionist screed, Putin telegraphed his intent to become an tsarist in-gatherer of the Slavic lands, stating incorrectly that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people.” Well, he certainly has treated both the same, with murderous contempt. His imperialist folly might have resulted in a European capital being burned to the ground. It is possible that his regime will suffer an unintended consequence. Strange things happened along the road to war. Since the apparent disastrous results of the war, those who doubt Putin will pull the trigger have been muttering this week about impossible scenarios such as military coups or palace rule.
The edifice is now barely visible, with small cracks becoming apparent. Many thousands of Russians took to the streets in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities to protest the war. They were threatened with beatings and arrests. To the same end, journalists and activists signed an open letter. Even the imprisoned leader of Russia’s hollowed-out opposition, Alexey Navalny, a man for years the Kremlin has tried to paint as a terrifying ubernationalist in a fine twist of Freudian projection, has tweeted his disgust from confinement in a labor camp, noting that this campaign is a distraction from Russia’s rot within. “Putin and his senile thieves,” Navalny wrote, are the true enemies of Russia, “and its main threat, not Ukraine and not the West.”
Even more important are the reports that Russian diplomats began messaging journalists to express their dismay at having to tell falsehoods. Others appear on television interviews looking uneasy and anxious and certainly acting as if they don’t believe a word of what they’re saying (or in some cases, reading). Could there be similar wobblyness in the Russian special and military services?
Learn More What the West Can Do to Stop Putin
According to the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, a Russian NGO, a good number of servicemen were deceived into fighting; some were beaten if they objected. “We’ve had a flurry of calls from scared mothers all over Russia,” the deputy chairman of the Committee told a Russian news outlet. “They are crying, they don’t know if their children are alive or healthy.” Ukrainians captured an entire platoon of the reconnaissance unit of Russia’sThe 74th Motorized Rifle Brigade, Chernihiv. The commander claimed that his troops had been tricked. “‘Nobody thought that we were going to kill,” he said. “We were not going to fight—we were collecting information.” On Telegram, another captured Russian is shown ringing his mother back home on an iPhone. She seems surprised to discover her son is in Ukraine—as does he. He tells her he was only following orders and when she asks why he got caught, he answers, “Mom, I don’t know the territory.”
Burton Gerber, a former CIA Soviet section chief who revolutionized asset recruitment in the Warsaw Pact and U.S.S.R. zones, told me this week he thinks Putin’s Russia is an even more auspicious hunting ground for Western spies because, as he put it rather euphemistically, “a society that has loosened for a certain extent and then doesn’t progress in that loosening creates more disappointment.” So maybe that’s how America knew Russia’s detailed war plans more or less as they were being drafted. Leaky ships eventually sink. And Putin, a former KGB case officer, is no stranger to the self-cannibalizing paranoia of counterintelligence, especially if he feels his services have sold him a bill of goods about “cakewalks.”
The Russian president says he has come to “de-Nazify” a country with a Jewish president and defense minister. The port city Odessa is home to Leon Trotsky and Isaac Babel. Synagogues have been closed and Jewish communities are evacuating in fear that the 190,000. antifascists who arrived will cause havoc. While the 20th century was full of elaborate lies big and small in many ways, this twenty-first century will be remembered for its simplicity.
For those of us who still care about old concepts like solidarity and truth, the good news is that Ukraine’s independence is possible. It is up against overwhelming odds, but it’s still fighting. According to Pentagon reports, the military is fighting harder than the invading enemies. As such, Russia’s advance into Kyiv had slowed somewhat. This might bring more death and destruction, as well as more bodies. Even if Russia wins, it won’t do so easily.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense has put out a figure today of upwards of 2,800 Russian dead. While you should be careful to not take that as a definitive statement, it is important that Russia was subjected to heavy casualties. Verifiable images of charred or snow-covered corpses lying next to snarled heaps of metal—what remains of Russian tanks or armored vehicles—are now all over social media, if not acknowledged by Russia’s Orwellian Ministry of Defense. This haul includes a lot of Western-supplied weapons like Javelin or NLAW anti tank systems. “In 2014,” one Ukrainian military official told me, “when we defended with RPGs, it was difficult to take out T-72 [tanks]. Now it is not a problem.”
There is more material on the horizon. Great Britain and five NATO nations have pledged to supply Ukraine with anti-tank, mobile, aerial defenses, drones, ammunition, and other equipment. According to Western security sources, the other four are Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Lithuania. That means that today’s struggle for “the West” is being 80% spearheaded by former Eastern bloc nations, not a bad piece of symbolism if you credit President Joe Biden when he says Putin’s endgame is restoring the Soviet empire. As long as existing conventional units are intact, arming Ukraine is not considered an arming of insurgency. West Ukraine is bordered by Poland and Romania but has not been invaded yet.
Learn More Putin Does Not Want to Revenge Ukraine, But Also The U.S. And Its Allies
The Russian market, billionaire confidence, and economy may also be affected by international sanctions. However, these may not have quite the same effect as the announced U.S. and EU asset freezes of Russia’s leadership. So far targeted are Putin, allegedly the “world’s richest man” and his waspish foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. And similar sanctions against Putin’s inner sanctum and siloviki (security hawks), as well as their children in C-suite positions at state companies who act as “wallets” for their parents’ stolen wealth, are also being enacted.
These may seem empty gestures, until you recall that the U.S. Treasury Department in 2014 accused Putin of having investments in Gunvor, the world’s largest independent commodities trader headquartered in Geneva, where he “may have access to Gunvor funds.”The famous $1.4billion dacha Putin built on the Black Sea. Navalny claims that it was built by an Italian architect. It is also furnished using the most exquisite in Italian Rococo design. Lavrov’s mistress, meanwhile, is a former employee of the Russian foreign ministry and has a daughter who somehow owns a $5.9 million apartment in the tony London district of Kensington.
While they might hate the West and not want to shop in it, they do still love shopping in it.
Meanwhile, the accused “Nazi junta” led by two Jews stands firm from besieged Kyiv. Zelensky and his war cabinet appeared in a remarkable video last night announcing to the world that they’re not going anywhere and will fight to the end. Instructions are given to civilians on how to make Molotov cocktails, and how to arm themselves. Even Ukraine’s former president, Petro Poroshenko, told CNN he would fight, before brandishing his rifle on camera.
Volodymyr Zelensky tells Ukrainians he will remain in Kyiv
It was three weeks ago that I visited Kyiv and set out to find out if the will to resist is just bravado, or genuine. I came away firmly convinced it was the latter and the irony is that it is wholly of Putin’s accidental making. He took Crimea and started the war in Donbas in 2014. This made it possible for a populace to remain neutral or be more susceptible to Russian influence-peddling, shadow control, or both. Ukrainians thanked him for his efforts to reclaim our past, cultural heritage and identity. We now believe Europe has our future. Always suspicious of those in charge at home, Ukrainians’ flagging approval of their leadership—President Volodymyr Zelensky was elected with 73% of the vote, but his numbers had dipped to below 30% in recent months—has by no means translated into a desire to be ruled by a foreign dictator.
“There is absolute and total hatred now,” Tsybulska told me. “People who speak Russian are switching to Ukrainian. Putin claimed he was protecting Russian speakers. He accomplished what? There will be none left.”