THERE ARE MOMENTS in history when the essential powerlessness of our leaders stands exposed for all their people to see. Moments when they are struck forcefully by the brutal realisation that they have no good options – only the least worse ones. The manner in which they respond to these moments is critical.
Volodymyr Zelensky, for example, presented with the reality of Russian forces rolling across Ukraine’s borders at multiple points, had to accept the reality that his worst nightmare was now upon him. The man who had campaigned on promises of peace, now faced war with an enemy the whole world expected to be rumbling through his capital city within three days.
The Americans famously offered Zelensky a ride out of harm’s way. He refused. Faced with no good options, he chose what was, morally, the least worse: he stayed where he was. Outnumbered and outgunned, he nevertheless vowed to defend his homeland and his people.
And the hearts of the peoples of the West beat a little faster. After the shame of the cowardly flight from Afghanistan, the spirits of Westerners were lifted. Everywhere, from the battlements of Edinburgh Castle, to the rooftops of Dunedin, Ukraine’s blue and yellow banners suddenly blossomed, like bright flowers of freedom.
To the immense relief of their elders, young people were presented with the inescapable reality of heroism. They saw Zelensky in his olive-drab T-shirts; they saw men and women their own age stepping away from their university studies; saying farewell to their workmates; and presenting themselves to be trained in the operation of deadly weapons. They learned that there are some things worth fighting for – worth dying for. They also learned how to say: Sláva Ukrayíni! – Glory to Ukraine!
How much easier it would have been: not only for Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation, but also for the West itself, if Zelensky had taken that ride. If Kyiv had fallen in three days and a puppet government subservient to Moscow had been installed. Diplomatically, the world would have been confronted with a convenient fait accompli. Western leaders, most particularly, President Joe Biden, would have huffed and puffed. Sanctions of a largely cosmetic nature would have been imposed. And that would have been that.
The waters of the world, briefly disturbed, would have returned to their former placidity. And the children of the West would have received yet more lessons from their leaders. That might makes right. That nothing is worth fighting for. That heroism is dead.
It has taken the example of Zelensky to make us understand, fully, the true political magic of Winston Churchill’s example in 1940. France had fallen, and those who purported to speak the language of realism argued that Great Britain was “irredeemably lost”. The world expected to learn, any day, of Britain’s surrender, confirming the irreversible advance of fascism across the entire globe. But, Churchill said “No!” Refusing to bow to the “inevitable”, he vowed that Britain would “never surrender”.
The flame of freedom, guttering, grew suddenly stronger and brighter. The darkness hesitated and drew back. Hope sang – like a nightingale in Berkeley Square.
So, what do we do now? Now that Ukraine is fighting for us all? Now that we can no longer afford to let her lose? What is the least worse option being offered to our own leader, Jacinda Ardern?
She may already have taken it.
Diplomatically and militarily the game is changing. Russia and China are already allies – and only likely to grow closer together. Against the fluttering complexities of liberty and democracy, they will offer the straight lines and sharp edges of authoritarianism. In place of the heady wines of freedom, they will offer the opium of security.
It would be most unwise to believe that this new Eurasian behemoth will not find friends. The wounds inflicted by the West still bleed in many countries. Among the victims of imperialism, the virtues of democracy and freedom are often obscured by tears.
But, if we would not shed tears of our own, then we must look to our own safety. At the end of this month, Prime Minister Ardern will attend the Nato Summit. Alongside Australia’s Anthony Albanese, she will hear plans for a great Western alliance extending the protections of collective security well beyond the North Atlantic.
Our least worse option.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 10 June 2022.
Reading this Athens, I'm reminded that Greece famously said "Ochi!" ( No!) when Italy demanded its surrender in 1940. Greece and Britain (with its empire) stood alone.
Maybe this war in Ukraine will end in a compromise "peace". In the meantime, we stand with Ukraine, as we must. The least worst option. Well said.
You remember the 40 km line of Russian tanks outside of Kiev? Put there as a fixing operation to prevent the Ukraine reinforcing its troops in the east. A great big fat target. Ukraine could have sent their air force in to bomb, or used missile carrying helicopters, or their long range artillery, or a pincer movement with infantry carrying shoulder mounted weapons. None of this happened.
That was when we all knew Ukraine had lost and the allied Christian/Muslim army had won. Since then Zelensky has knowingly sent troops to certain death for no purpose other than to please his US masters who are mad enough to want to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian.
Zelensky had years to implement the Minsk accords, but prefers a career as a drug addicted war criminal. He'll take his 800 million dollar fortune and British passport and retire in luxury leaving behind a ruined country.
Meanwhile Europe is about to find out it can't exist without Russian raw materials, but Russia can manage without Europe.
We can live in hope that New Zealand doesn't join Nato's circular firing squad.
Who could possibly imagine reading this that at the commencement of this Russian invasion if Ukraine, there was a Ukrainian army of some 150 thousand men already assembled in the Donbass region next to Russia's border about to launch a decisive assault to complete the conquest of this breakaway region whose people had refused to go along with the US Nato orchestrated coup 8 years earlier, of the government they had voted for , and which an ongoing 8 year long war had already claimed 14000 lives mostly of the Russian linked people of this region. Remember the Donbass people and the people of Crimea never got to vote in subsequent Ukraine elections , and who knows what the orientation of the Ukrainian government might be today if they had. It would presumably be of a similar persuasion as the last Government that was elected by the whole of Ukraine , and there would have been no war with Russia.
D J S
Least worse? Really? Even you fail to see the context of this wretched war where the Russians fell for the American trap they were set in 2014. Once Russia is pacified, China will be next up with TaIwan instead of Ukraine as the bait. WW3 and we all one by one, swallowed Washingtons line as we set off to fight the last war ever. I really didnt think it would be so easy to fool so many people. Pinter was right. Its a mass hypnosis. I feel terrified for my grandchildren.
An alternative view is that Zelensky effectively started the war by not abiding by the Minsk agreement and stepping up the shelling and bombing of the Donbas region.(14,000 Civilians died)
Massing some 100,000 troops to invade the Donbas. Targeted to begin at the end of February.
Also Zelensky was naive enough to believe the US deep state, when they conned him into believing that they would get him in to NATO (they had no real intention). Just an opportunity to ""stick it"" to Russia.
If he had followed his 3 day Political campaign before the election, then the Russian Invasion would never have happened.
He certainly should not be mentioned in the same breath as Churchill.
There is no comparison whatsoever.
Funny how everybody and his dog is all tender over Ukraine - just about the most corrupt nation the planet has to show; and yet for eight solid years, not a whisper of concern about the Russians and Russophones in the Donbass who came under attack by the Kyiv government. Not a murmur about the 14,000 Russian and Russophone deaths in the Donbass in that time; not a squeak about the atrocities committed against them; not even a mention of the hundreds of thousands of Donbass refugees accepted by Russia even before 24 February 2022.
This war, so called, did not begin on that date. This war began at least eight years before: February 2014 - if not before even then. Now, has anybody here thought to ask: 'why did the Russians wait so long to intervene?' Why was no action by the UN brought to end it at any time before then.
Speaking of the atrocities committed in Ukraine, I will make this prediction. Any 'investigation' into the matter will -
(1) Deny any and all Russian involvement in the investigatory process;
(2) Deny all right to Russia's presenting evidence;
(3) Deny all right to Russia's presenting a case.
It will be the MH17 farce all over again, the outcome of which neither the Malaysia Government nor Malaysian Airlines bought for a second.
Ion A. Dowman
I had a feeling that Chris T might receive a sceptical response or two. So I was keen to be first to congratulate him on an excellent column, and did so. (That "Anonymous" was me.) I'm also very heartened to hear that plans will be presented at the NATO summit for a more complete and comprehensive role for NATO. Ideally, the UN should be able in practice to protect the sovereignty of its members. NATO could be the basis of a new world order that can meet the aspirations of the UN founders.
Perhaps, the next best option to full un reform, that Helen Clark hoped to engineer, had she been elected Secretary General?
As has always the case the first casualty of war is the truth.
I was reading a story yesterday of senior Ukraine government people buying very costly properties in Switzerland. Wonder what influence this would have on front line troops.
There are many reasons why the Ukraine and Russia dislike or even hate each other - not the least are the 6 million Ukrainians that Stain and Krushev starved to death in 1938.
I think the best thing that NZ can do is stay the hell out of getting involved again in European affairs - its not helped in the past.
DS and oneblokesview,
The 14,000 killed were almost all killed in the Donbas civil war of 2014. I note that the UN has said that 3,000 of the 14,000 were civilians. Given that the separatists were advancing in 2014, a lot of those civilians would have been those who identified as Ukrainian and were leaving the Donbas. Basically ethnic cleansing by the separatists.
What credible evidence is there that the Ukraine army was about to invade the separatist Donbas in February 2022. Not even Putin was claiming that in any serious way.
Hardly surprising that the Donbas separatists and the Crimeans were not voting in subsequent Ukraine elections. To all and intents and purposes, those areas were under Russian control.
Churchill was a great orator. He was a great prime minister. He was a colossus of the twentieth century.
He was also a crap military strategist. What kind of idiot sends two infantry divisions and one armoured brigade to defend Greece from the might of the German Army back by overwhelming air power? These forces could have been used to destroy the Italian army in Libya before Rommel arrived. The North African campaign should have been all over in April/May of 1940, instead of dragging on until May 1943.
Amazing that the British found 150 tanks to fritter away in Greece, but could not find one for Malaya. The fleet that should have been sent to Singapore was either in a drydock or at the bottom of the Mediterranean thanks to Churchill's dingbat decision to go to Greece and try to hold Crete.
If you believe the story that the Greek campaign fatally delayed the German invasion of the USSR, then you have been deceived. The invasion was delayed by unseasonably wet weather.
As for the Battle of Britain, the country was in no danger of invasion. And Churchill knew it. In September 1940 Germany's operation surface fleet consisted of one heavy cruiser, three light cruisers,and six destroyers. They could not invade the Isle of Wight.
@ Wayne M
Some of the evidence is that that's where most of the Ukraine forces are now, and have been since the start of Russia's operation.
To get hard evidence personally I would have to be there myself and even if I was i could hardly provide anything that you would accept as evidence. Even if I produced photographs you would claim they were taken elsewhere or at some other time. We all have to read what we can and reason out what we believe and what we don't believe. The choices of what is claimed as evidence are as mutually contradictory as can be imagined.
But I happened to get to watch Putin live on the 22 February with the breakaway leaders of Luhansk and Donetsk in the room announce the recognition of those state's independent statehood at their desperate imploring . The duma had already approved the recognition a week earlier but Putin had till then declined to approve it. The reason for the change of his position was the failure of the Minsk agreement and the imminent attack that the Donbass breakaway leaders were watching being lined up.
As I had been following developments there since the 2014 coup it seemed to me to be very unsurprising, although I must say that I thought at the time that Russia's recognition and announcement that Russia was prepared to defend the Donbass would be sufficient to secure them in their reduced occupancy of their original jurisdiction , though it would not I imagine have persuaded Ukraine to relinquish control of the 2/3s of the Donbass they a had already taken back.
What Putin referred to as being a factor in taking the action he has was Zelinsky's suggestion that Ukraine should renounce the undertakings they made at the breakup of the Soviet Union that they would not ever develop nuclear weapons. As he noted in his announcement it was no idle threat as much of the Soviet era nuclear development took place within Ukraine and the pool of necessary knowledge remained intact within Ukraine.
Putin did quite clearly and seriously claim that that invasion was about to take place. I watched and heard . ( live translation obviously).
Cheers D J S
A good column Chris. I'm appalled at the commenters here who have deluded themselves with Russian lies. Or perhaps they are actually Russian trolls. OSCE monitors show hardly anyone killed in the Donbas for years before the Russian invasion, and pretty equal transgressions of the ceasefire by both sides. Russian troops were already there, notably when they shot down the Malaysian aeroplane. Still lying about that. Russia is acting just like Germany when it attacked Czechoslovakia and then Poland in the leadup to WW2, and for the same reasons.
I'm encouraged that so many commentators with this piece believe there is a more to the story of Ukraine than a Churchillian figure "fighting for us all" Chris.
It's no accident that "Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!" was also the official slogan of Stepan Bandera's Nazi aligned OUN-B.
Up until December, the BBC and other western media outlets regularly reported with concern the rise of Azov in Ukraine. Here we can watch an Azov youth camp chant "Glory to Ukraine, Glory to the Heroes, Glory to the Nation, Death to Enemies, Ukraine above all".
After the violent overthrow of Ukraine's elected government in 2014 by the openly neo-nazi Right Sector and Azov Regiment groups, more than 39 protestors were burned alive by these brown-shirts at the House of Trade Unions in Odessa. Azov, along with its Nazi Wolfsangel flags and burning torch rallies was formally incorporated as a wing of Ukraine's state defence force after that time.
Zelensky was elected with 73% of the vote on a platform of peace and reconciliation with the Russian speaking populations of Eastern Ukraine. He had pledged to review the Azov backed laws of his predecessor and to halt the fighting that had killed thousands of Donbas civilians since 2014. None of this occurred.
In under two years of his presidency, he used his authority to ban the broadcasting of media outlets owned by opposition leader Taras Kozak. To put the media bans in context, those outlets employed 15,000 staff. Zelensky also introduced new law banning any print media in Russian. He simply banned all political parties opposed to NATO membership including the Communist Party, Progressive Socialist Party, Union of Leftists and the parties that won the elections in breakaway areas of Luhanshchina and Donetsk. Some of this will be behind his appalling 27% approval rating at the start of this year. Zelensky’s government also shut down the Human Rights Directorate stating that human rights “were no longer a priority” for the work of the Ministry of Justice and introduced legislation for banning “homosexual and transgender propaganda” last year.
Whatever Zelensky represents, it isn't democracy.
Hi Chris, I've been getting "error has occurred" messages after trying to comment. Is all OK at your end?
Wayne Mapp: I fear that you do not know as much about the situation in the Ukraine - most particularly in the Donbass - as you think you do.
"Given that the separatists were advancing in 2014"
The Ukrainians were advancing into rebel territory from April. They occupied areas encompassing Slavyansk, Kramatorsk, Mariupol and Severodonetsk.
"Basically ethnic cleansing by the separatists."
No. As to ethnic cleansing, it's the Ukrainians who frequently expound on how in their opinion the inhabitants of Donbass are 'biomass' and 'useless' and mostly need to be exterminated.
They laughed at stories of Donbass children hiding in cellars from Ukrainian shelling and called them 'mole children' - well now that they are watching all their male friends and relatives get blasted by Russian artillery and missiles, while their houses come crashing down on their heads... they are not laughing now.
"What credible evidence is there that the Ukraine army was about to invade the separatist Donbas in February 2022. Not even Putin was claiming that in any serious way."
He claimed exactly that.
As to evidence, you have:
1. Massive concentration of Ukrainian forces along the contact line, ballistic missiles stocks undergoing maintenance
2. Massive artillery bombardments on a scale not seen since February 2015, attested by the OSCE
Not purely random terror like usual either, highly concentrated in several areas - focused on the zones where Ukrainian forces planned to advance.
4. Record numbers of attempts by Ukrainian recon and sabotage groups to breach rebel territory.
5. Large quantity of Ukrainian marines assembled in Mariupol with gunboats and landing craft, evidently in preparation for a landing behind rebel lines in the Novoazovsk area.
"Hardly surprising that the Donbas separatists and the Crimeans were not voting in subsequent Ukraine elections. To all and intents and purposes, those areas were under Russian control."
The Crimea had made good its escape from the Ukraine in 2014, having made two previous attempts since independence in 1991, so no: it had voted to return to Russia, and thus its citizens weren't voting in the Ukrainian elections.
The Donbass, on the other hand, wasn't under Russian control. It had declared its desire to separate from the Ukraine, but this wasn't accepted by the regime in Kiev, which promptly attacked it. Russia negotiated the Minsk accords, which Kiev refused to implement. In any event, the Accords would have offered a degree of autonomy, but citizens ought still to have been able to vote in the elections.
We have extended family connections into the east of the Ukraine, and into the Donbass. We're well aware of how bad things have been there the past 8 years. There have been thousands of deaths, along with many refugees fleeing into Russia. In NZ, the RO church has been collecting donations, so as to send aid to the affected peoples.
The Donbass had for many years been pleading with Russia for assistance. Russia finally gave it official recognition as a separate territory, just before coming to its rescue. And not before time, in the view of many of us.
"The man who had campaigned on promises of peace..."
Which is why so many citizens voted for him. But he succumbed pretty quickly to fascism, much to the disgust of the citizenry.
"...he stayed where he was."
Ha! No he didn't. In the early days, he fled to Poland. He was "rumbled" by a number of commentators, who recognised his surroundings when he was giving interviews. He was there for quite some time, though he's apparently now back in Kiev.
Right. The slogan of the fascists. Never in my life did I expect to hear a NZ prime minister utter those words in our parliament. And now we have the even more unedifying spectacle of a NZ government giving aid to a fascist regime. For shame!
"Now that Ukraine is fighting for us all? Now that we can no longer afford to let her lose?"
What? I'd assumed that you were aware of what was actually happening, but it appears not. Certainly, this is what the US and NATO want us to think, but nobody should believe a word they say. This is a proxy war. The US will fight Russia to the last Ukrainian. The US has been up to its fetlocks in the Ukraine, ever since it sponsored the fascist putsch in Kiev in 2014.
NATO and the US are not our friends. We need to stay out of anything to do with them. But I'm not hopeful that our PM and her government will have the wit to realise it.
"Our least worse option"
When I was at uni, that expression was "least worst". Utilitarianism, if I remember rightly.
Chris. Thanks - one of your finest essays yet.
There is no glory in war. Of that I am certain.
I lived 2 years in Moscow in the early 90s and spent a little time in Kyiv more than a decade ago. I never thought it would come to this, a brutal nihilistic outrage against humanity and common sense.
And we are incapable of solving this.
David Stone: "But I happened to get to watch Putin live on the 22 February with the breakaway leaders of Luhansk and Donetsk in the room announce the recognition of those state's independent statehood at their desperate imploring."
Indeed. We also watched this. It's a pity that more people in NZ didn't see it. Including the PM, of course.
Shane McDowall: your assessment of Churchill is right on the button. And yes, Britain was in no danger of invasion. Even if Germany had had the wherewithal (that it didn't was well-known at the time), Hitler reportedly harboured an affection for the English and didn't want to invade.
Loz: thanks for your comment. Despite its usual bias, the BBC reported pretty impartially on the 2014 putsch in Kiev, and on the subsequent departure of the Crimea to Russia. I've been pleasantly surprised at its reportage of the rise of neo-Nazi groups in the Ukraine.
I note your reference to the atrocity in Odessa in 2014. Last I looked, nobody has ever been charged over it. But Russia has said that it knows the identities of the perpetrators, and would eventually bring them to justice. We noted with interest that, almost immediately the SMO began, a group of Russian soldiers was reported to be in Odessa. I've seen nothing further about that, but we hope that the purpose of that lightning raid was to grab the perps before they had a chance to decamp, and take them back to Russia for trial.
Odessa: that most Russian of cities, I've seen it described. It was a late relative's favourite city in the Ukraine. Those who've read Edmund de Waal's account of his Jewish ancestors (The Hare with Amber Eyes) will know that they fled the pogroms of Galicia (western Ukraine), and settled in Odessa, where they made their initial fortune.
"Whatever Zelensky represents, it isn't democracy."
That's exactly right. The situation there is so very much worse than most westerners realise. Readers here ought to go check out the appalling language laws, fairly recently passed under his watch. I have a link somewhere, but will have to dig it out. He's reported to have also recently banned the letter "Z", much to the amusement of commentators and observers. On comment threads, he's frequently referred to as "Elensky". Heh!
Trev1: "There is no glory in war."
Yes. And Russians of all people know the trauma of war only too well. But sometimes, when diplomacy has failed in the face of fascist intransigence, as has happened in the Ukraine, fighting is the only option. Chamberlain also found this out with regard to Hitler.
Another interpretation the crisis in Ukraine is to view it as a crisis caused by super-colonialism. The old colonial powers have acted in unison for expanding their cultural, economic, political and military sphere against a Russian ethnicity population.
Maidan in 2014 was a successful putsch against a democratically elected government. The government had resigned and announced fresh elections as a result of the protests but armed militias ideologically aligned to the Bandera movement continued their armed insurrection which resulted in a successful coup.
We have to remember that Ukraine has always been split down the middle in terms of ethnicity and culture. East Ukraine are Russian speaking, Russian Orthodox, Russian Federation focused while West Ukraine are European aligned, Christian, Ukrainian speaking people. The seat of government is in West Ukraine which was the armed overthrow of the East Ukrainian preferred government.
The new laws enacted after 2014 supported the goal of a truly fascist movement in suppressing the culture of East Ukrainians. The martyrs of the putsch are celebrated as the “heavenly hundred”, Russian was dropped as an official language of Ukraine, the political parties supported by East Ukrainians along with progressive and socialist parties were banned. News media critical of the government (the three major new networks) was banned, the leader of the opposition pas placed under house arrest. It became a crime not to recognize Bandera and his Nazi collaborators as heroes. The special police SBU with extra-judicial powers started disappearing and torturing pro-Russian sympathizers and Azov as an armed political militia has operated since as an extension of the state on the streets enacting violence against what it considers undesirables. The parallels with 1930’s Germany are horrific.
After the coup, 1,000 Azov militia herded hundreds of anti-government protestors into the trade union building in Odessa and set it alight. Shortly afterwards the Eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence from Ukraine but for 8 years these ethnically Russian populations have been subject to continual shelling by the Bandera militias (which are now formally part of the Ukrainian defence force).
Ukraine has just announced new laws, banning print media in Russian language, as well as Russian music, art and culture too.
The government of Kiev has been attempting to ethnically cleanse East Ukraine and use military force to reclaim lost territory while placing the people of those regions under laws that ban their language, culture and any political expression that is critical of the Kiev government. When one group uses force to ban the language and culture of another while exercising claim to the land of the other its colonialism and this variant is certainly fascist.
This conflict is viewed by colonial populations as a battle of freedom and enlightenment against barbarism. No one questions why that the only countries arming Ukraine and bringing sanctions against Russia are the colonial powers while the rest of the world views the conflict differently.
NATO has been training and arming Ukraine’s militia for 8 years specifically to fight Russia and in spite of that, Ukraine is suffering heavier daily losses that the US did at the height of the Vietnam war. The tragedy is that overwhelming number of Ukrainians voted for Zelensky on the pledge that he would de-escalate the conflict against its Russian ethnicity population but instead, all men were conscripted into the military for a fight they cannot win.
Without a single significant news source critical of the daily coverage of what "Zelensky says" it’s no surprise that our leaders parrot the fascist slogan of Glory to Ukraine instead of calling for the peace Ukrainian people deserve.
Loz: an excellent summary of recent events in the Ukraine. I do hope that you've sent this to the Prime Minister, who obviously has no idea of what's been going on there. I could not - still cannot - believe that she and her government would assist in any way a fascist regime such as that in Kiev. Glory to Ukraine indeed! Never did I expect to hear those words in our democratic parliament.
"Maidan in 2014 was a successful putsch against a democratically elected government."
And for those of us watching in disbelief at the time, the presence of American politicians among the protesters in the Maidan told us everything we needed to know about both the involvement and the perfidy of the US. Another colour revolution.
For those of us with extended family connections into the Donbass, and into the east of the Ukraine, along with those who know this history, the Russian SMO wasn't before time. My hope is that Russia liberates those areas, and takes them under the protective wing of the Russian Federation.
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