“I had the feeling I was inside a parallel reality, that I was dreaming,” Olena Zelenska has said of the morning of January 24 when she woke in Kyiv to distant gunfire and her husband already dressed and about to leave for the presidential compound. She was describing the moment when normal life was interrupted, for her family and her country.
And, as it will probably turn out, the disruption from the unthinkable Russian ferocity unleashed that day, for no good reason, on a civilian society that’s worked harder than most for its own dignity, is probably going to touch every corner of the world before it’s over.
Since then, we have seen the best and worst of human behaviour that contrasts with the inertia of a shiftless global hegemony that can be held to ransom by a single despot. Internationally, ignoble defeatism is never far from the surface and “Ukraine fatigue” is a huge risk if the seemingly unstoppable horrors slide down the news slots and we let vicious behaviours become normalised.
The UN is missing in action. The Security Council hamstrung. France is reminding us of what happened in Vichy and Germany doesn’t want to get its feet cold. The US waves eyewatering sums of money around but four months on, the Ukrainian military is trying to stop tanks with their bare hands and the raw determination of people fighting for their country’s very existence.
The US president has castigated Ukraine’s president for not heeding his intelligence warnings but, even four months later, the US doesn’t have vital supplies in place for timely action against blatant infringement of the international rule of law.
Without ammunition for weapons already inferior to Russia’s, Ukraine cannot even defend its own airspace, let alone wage war on their enemy’s supply lines across thousands of kilometres of border that are open to the second largest military machine on the planet.
It’s not stopping them trying.
The most elementary rules of war are flouted in the treatment of captured and deported soldiers, civilians and children, while Putin’s strangulation of Ukrainian grain shipments inflict starvation on a growing portion of the Southern Hemisphere. The short supply enables him to play favourites and extort allies and influence in unallied countries.
Ukraine has suffered an estimated $100 billion of infrastructure damage while Putin’s own domain remains shielded by nuclear threats.
“It is monstrously unjust that one side in a conflict should exercise a licence to wreak havoc on the other, while itself remaining physically impervious,” said Bloomberg opinion columnist Max Hastings, former editor of the Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard.
“Russia’s war is becoming a larger struggle of good against evil and Europe must do more or evil may triumph,” he said.
It is hard to see an outcome of the catastrophe that punishes Putin and his nation as they deserve, or one that restores to Ukrainian people the security and prosperity to which they are entitled, he said.
Ukraine’s history is littered with successive struggles for sovereignty and national identity, most often at the mercy of aggressive Russianisations including the man-made Holodomor genocide and famine under Stalin in 1932 that killed between 3.5 to 5 million people in the breadbasket that is rural Ukraine.
I grew up in the long shadow of the Second World War and the fierce mid-century intention of ending world war.
“I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones,” Albert Einstein had said and we were all too aware of it.
The small but strategically placed island of Malta between North Africa and Sicily featured in both my parents’ war years and a 1950s posting there. It is about the size of Waiheke and swept by sandstorms from Africa and every dynasty to rise and fall around the Mediterranean’s cradle of western civilisation for 4000 years.
In 1565, the Ottoman Empire amassed an armada of 180 ships and 40,000 men and prepared an invasion. The four-month siege was counted the most savagely contested encounter of the day and ended after a brutal atrocity by the invaders was met by an equally ferocious retaliation from the far-from-meek religious and military order of the Knights Hospitaller of St John.
For the Ottomans, this was their worst reversal in more than a century and it gave Christian Europe hope that Turkish expansion could be halted.
The Maltese received admiration and funds to build stronger defences. The arts and culture flourished and the crowned heads of Europe travelled to Malta’s hospital with its famous school of anatomy and surgery.
I too was pole-axed on 24 January when Russia’s attempted blitzkrieg was announced but, as with all the other existential crises we are facing, there is hope in the evidence that the tides of fortune can be turned by a handful of unlikely leaders with vision and courage. • Liz Waters