How Putin has already lost in Ukraine, regardless of how Dr Strangelove this conflict gets
My thoughts on how scary this world can be, yet how collective will and effort can turn this nightmare situation into a major humanitarian opportunity
When I look back and reflect on the scariest moments of my early life, witnessing world events, there are two moments that stand out viscerally in my memory. Both happened within a year of each other and impacted my fragile spirit as a teenage kid. Growing up in Munich, Germany, I still distinctly remember my favourite past time being playing football in the nearby park. Every opportunity I could find, I would head out to the Neunerberg in Planegg, a suburb outside Munich to play football or just hang out with my friends. It was April 1986, I was 11 years old and we were playing a pick up game, when it started raining. One of my mate’s mothers came running down to the field, screaming at the top of her voice, telling us all to go home as quickly as possible and to stay away from the rain.
It’s raining Uranium
When I got back home on my bike, drenched from the rain, my mother told me that something horrible had happened in Ukraine and that I should go shower and clean myself. I didn’t really fully understand what a nuclear meltdown meant, but I knew that it affected people all over Europe due to some kind of “poison” traveling through the air. This “poison” was fall out nuclear radiation that affected the rain and soil health in countries as far away as Iceland. I remember not being able to eat mushrooms, we used to go pick them in the nearby forest, for months after the event. My mother also remembers buying bulk milk powder and sharing it amongst our neighbours. It was a pretty unsettling time for everyone back then, as the event was unprecedented and the nearest thing humanity had to compare was the nuclear fall out over Hiroshima and Nagasaki after bombs were dropped there.
And we all knew the results of that radiation poisoning. Increased birth defects, sickness, as well cancer and miscarriages on a huge scale.
Terrorist bombings over Scotland
Fast forward one year to December 1988, four days until Christmas, when Pan Am flight 103 from Frankfurt to Detroit was hijacked over Lockerbie, Scotland and blown up mid flight. 270 people died and I’ll never forget watching the television footage and being really, really scared about how dangerous the world is. Wreckage had scattered over Lockerbie town and destroyed dozen of houses as well as killing 11 people on the ground. Watching the scattered wings and fuselage of this plane, I tried to understand why people would do this. Why would people willingly kill innocent people and themselves. Why? Supposedly it was revenge by two Libyan security agents for the 1986 US bombing spree in Libya. People from 21 countries died on that flight, for the life of me I couldn’t understand how that act of senseless violence could somehow make people feel better about something that had happened in the past. It didn’t make sense to my young brain, the lack of morality and compassion confused me.
And just like Chernobyl, it made me scared of living in the world. One that was so replete with dangerous hazards and mad people hellbent on hurting each other.
What the hell is going on?
When Russian soldiers invaded Ukraine last week, I felt the exact same fear in the pit of my stomach. Like some hidden trauma response that had embedded itself in my somatic body. The chaos of the world rearing its ugly head again. Actions by people that I couldn’t understand let alone rationalise. “To denazify Ukraine and unite the Russian and Ukrainian people once again” this was the reasoning Putin gave for this military action. To denazify Ukraine? The leader of the Ukrainian people is Jewish and some of his relatives lost their lives in the Nazi led gas chambers of Treblinka and Auschwitz. It didn’t make any sense. Putin’s mother was from the Ukraine and he has this bizarre romanticised notion that the Ukraine and Russia are one country.
As the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari remarks in a very poignant video message a couple of days ago, this story of a unified Russia is fictitious and plain wrong. For one, Ukraine is much older than Russia, Kiyv was a major metropolis city before Moscow was even anything remotely resembling a village. as Harari points out.
People have always wanted a piece of Ukraine
Over its 1000 year history, Ukraine has been invaded and conquered several times, from the Mongols, to the Ottomans, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and so on - its borders have been been redrawn several times in the last couple of centuries, but the Ukrainian people have always somehow found their way back to their own unique identity, culture and language. Then 104 years ago, when the last pandemic was plaguing the Earth, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the Soviet Union, annexed Ukraine with plans of using this resource rich country as a form of breadbasket for the entire republic.
Not only is Ukraine the largest country in Europe, it is also one of the richest countries in terms of natural resources - boasting huge reserves of coal, iron ore, natural gas, manganese, salt, oil, graphite, sulphur, kaolin, titanium, nickel, magnesium, timber, and mercury - to name but a few.
So beyond Putin’s romantic ambitions of reuniting the “brothers and sisters” of Ukraine and Russia, there are obvious financial incentives too. The Russian economy is pathetic. It is outdated and has nothing to offer the world besides oil and natural gas. Russia is the largest country in the world, it has 11 time zones and over 17 million square metres of land - twice as much as the US. Yet the Russian economy is smaller than that of Italy. So obviously this invasion is an existentialist one for Putin as well, he knows his country is failing and is trying to use the oldest trick in the book to increase the wealth, by conquering another sovereign country. Because with the increasing trend toward renewable energy, Putin knows that the significance of his country’s resources are dwindling, fast.
A major miscalculation
In some backward way, his brain thought the Ukrainians would lay down their arms when the Russian tanks came in and would welcome the soldiers with open arms and flowers. Little did he know that instead of flowers, the people would be chucking homemade Molotov cocktails at the invading army, and instead of open arms, old women would be taking up arms to fight them. A major miscalculation.
Also an aside here, if you hear of anyone criticising the West and especially the US in their response to this invasion, citing Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam as major military trigger points enacted by the US and the west, then it is important to point out that, the US never intended to occupy any of those countries, however flawed, their motivations were ideological in nature, Putin’s are not. Since Iraq tried to invade and occupy Kuwait nearly 30 years ago, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, this is the first time a major country has invaded another sovereign country. So there is no point in comparison or even white washing or morally relativising this deliberate hostile act by the Russian government. There is no point in doing that, they are not the same thing. Not at all.
The speed at which the EU instigated sanctions against Russia was incredible, within hours of the invasion they had decided to confer special status to Ukrainian refugees leaving the country - by now over 1 million - and extending these privileges over 3 years. The German military has also vowed to increase military spending by over 100 billion Euros over the next year. This is astronomical considering Germany’s history and reluctance to take part in any overseas military conflict. They also broke a 70 year promise to not supply arms to another country at war. In many ways this conflict in the Ukraine has united Europe more than ever. From the governing bodies down to the people themselves.
News of people driving from Germany, France, Holland and even Spain to go and offer to pick up refugees scattered across all neighbouring countries has been heartwarming. As well as offering sanctuary, people are donating sleeping bags, mats, clothes, toys, toiletries, food and funds. Over $1 million dollars in AirBnB bookings in Ukraine have been made by people overseas wishing to help Ukrainians. The German train agency Deutsche Bahn has pledged to allow Ukrainian refugees to board any of their trains around Europe for free to bring them to Germany. Once they arrive in the major cities, there have been Germans with posters saying “room available” and “welcome” to greet the frightened Ukrainians. Not only have people been offering donations, they are also offering up empty houses and apartment rooms to the refugees. The German government has pledged to allow Ukrainians to work and even receive unemployment benefit whilst in Germany. I was speaking to my sister in Berlin last night and she is even considering offering one of the rooms in her small apartment to someone from the Ukraine. She said people are gathering in large groups to come up with ideas of how to help the situation.
Finding some beauty in tragedy
So, as much as it is a scary point in human history right now and a really unprecedented time in our species’ existence, the compassion and willingness to help and sacrifice comfort to help others, has been absolutely beautiful. And it is something that we should all focus on as a collective. Yes it may take only one madman to upset the world balance, but believe that as a people, we can fix whatever is unleashed in this conflict. If everyone in the world works together to help those displaced, then at least one tragic aspect of this conflict can be mitigated. In a world that increasingly seems unbalanced, unhinged and out of control, these things at least, are in our control. Our ability to come together as one people to help Ukrainians.
Here are some ways that you can help:
Thanks for reading and if you can, please try to reach out and help.