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.”
Now Ukraine is at war.
Over the past 36 hours, Russian rockets and missiles have rained down in night assaults all over the country, reaching as far west as 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. A capital city in Europe now looks set to resemble Madrid in 1936, with street-to-street and house-to-house combat and untold numbers dead. “¡Vivan los Rusos!,” grateful Madrileños shouted as the Comintern-run International Brigades arrived to help save their embattled Republic in the Spanish Civil War.
No such cry of welcome will be offered by Kyvians, much to the evident surprise of Vladimir Putin.
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. The result of his imperialist folly could well be seeing a European capital burnt to the ground. What unintended consequence might that have for his regime? A strange thing happened on the way to this war. Those highly skeptical that Putin would ever pull the trigger given the obvious disastrous consequences have started murmuring this week about unimaginable scenarios of palace or military coups.
Small cracks in the edifice are now dimly discernible. Thousands of Russians have taken to the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg and other cities to denounce the war, facing arrest, beatings or worse. Journalists and activists have signed an open letter to much the same effect. 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.”
Perhaps even more significant are reports that Russian diplomats have begun messaging journalists to relay how distraught they are by having to mouth flagrant 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). Might there be similar wobbliness within the Russian military and special services?
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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’s 74th Motorized Rifle Brigade in the city of Chernihiv. Their commander suggested his forces had been duped. “‘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. A leaky ship eventually sinks. 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. In the port city of Odessa, home to Isaac Babel and Leon Trotsky, synagogues are being shuttered and the Jewish community is evacuating for fear of what an estimated 190,000 heralded antifascists will do once they arrive. The twentieth century was marked by elaborate lies both big and small, but the twenty-first is just phoning them in.
The good news, at least for those who care about outmoded concepts such as truth and solidarity, is that independent Ukraine is not dead yet. Though it is still up against extraordinary odds and overwhelming firepower. The military is fighting more ferociously, according to the Pentagon, than its invading enemy reckoned with. As such, Russia’s advance into Kyiv had slowed somewhat. This may yet bring a more devastating folly of attacks and more body bags. 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. Take that with a pinch of salt, while still appreciating that Russia has sustained 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. And this haul is largely the rest of Western-supplied weapons such as Javelin and 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.”
And more materiel is on the way. Five NATO countries led by Great Britain have vowed to resupply Ukraine with mobile air defenses, anti-tank systems, drones, and ammunition. The other four, incidentally, are Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, according to a Western security source. 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. Nor would further arming Ukraine be arming an insurgency so long as conventional units are still intact. So far, west Ukraine, bordering Poland and Romania, remains uninvaded by land forces.
International sanctions, too, may take a bite out of the Russian economy and Russian market and billionaire confidence. 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.” And that notorious $1.4 billion dacha Putin built himself on the Black Sea? Built by an Italian architect and furnished by the finest in Italian rococo design, according to Navalny. 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.
They may despise the West, but they still want to shop there.
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. Civilians are instructed to prepare Molotov cocktails and arm themselves. Even Ukraine’s former president, Petro Poroshenko, told CNN he would fight, before brandishing his rifle on camera.
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When I was in Kyiv three weeks ago, I set out to determine for myself if this will to resist was mere bravado or sincere. I came away firmly convinced it was the latter and the irony is that it is wholly of Putin’s accidental making. When he stole Crimea in 2014, then started a dirty war in Donbas, he rallied a population that might have remained neutral, or at least permanently susceptible to Russian influence-peddling if not shadow control. Thank you very much, Ukrainians said, we have now rediscovered our history, our cultural patrimony and our peoplehood and because of you, we believe our future lies with Europe. 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. And Putin said he was protecting Russian-speakers. Well, what did he achieve? There will be none left.”
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