MOSCOW — After weeks of urging calm despite the world’s fever-pitched fear of a Russian invasion, Ukraine’s president is at long last girding for war.
And it appears one may be coming immediately, as Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine Tuesday night, even as a UN meeting condemning such an attack was underway.
Earlier in the day, Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared a state of emergency in his country in response to Putin sending Russian troops onto two separatist enclaves on Ukraine’s sovereign soil.
The declaration gives Kyiv the power to impose curfews, to order civilians into military service, to beef up protection at sensitive facilities, to restrict movements and search people, packages and vehicles.
That which may be necessary to defend the country and its citizens, the economy and its workers as Putin appears to be inching closer to a full-out invasion.
But before war comes rolling across Ukrainian borders, Zelenskyy made one last desperate appeal, in his own native Russian language, to avert what seems inevitable.
He said he had tried to initiate a telephone conversation with his Russian counterpart but was met only with silence. In desperation he decided to address himself directly to Russians.
“We know for sure that we don’t need a war. Not a Cold War. Not a hot war. Not a hybrid war. But if the troops launch an attack against us, if our country is taken from us, you take away our country, our freedom, our lives and the lives of our children, we will defend ourselves. Not advance, but defend ourselves,” he said. “When you come in you will see our faces. Not our backs, but our faces.”
They are bold words for a country that is outnumbered and outgunned. Bold, too, for a young democracy, a country still hobbled by corruption. But Zelenskyy seems determined to take the high road, resolved to come out of his country’s looming clash with Russia bloodied but unbowed.
In that sense, it seems significant not just that Ukraine has gone on a war footing, but that the first weapon deployed in the defence of the country was the law.
Not, perhaps, the long-shot appeals from the Ukrainian parliament to have Russia expelled from the United Nations, the Council of Europe or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
But a bill, for example, allowing civilians to legally bear arms. First introduced last summer, it returned before the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, on Wednesday for an initial vote, along with measures to increase fines for violators and create a national gun registry.
The changes proposed in the bill felt suddenly urgent, but the legislated constraints and controls were a small but firm retort to Russian claims that the west has pumped Ukraine full of weapons and is pushing it into war.
“In the face of the threat of the Russian Federation, this is the path that Ukraine should follow, so that everyone who has a desire legally has a weapon,” said Roman Kostenko, a member of the Voice faction, told Ukraine’s public broadcaster.
Kostenko, who last April suggested Kyiv should aim long-range missiles at Russian nuclear facilities, isn’t an exemplary member of the level-headed-response unit.
But the time for keeping cool has definitively passed.
The American military was warning again, for the third — or thirtieth — time, that a full-scale invasion is hours away. The Russians reportedly have 100 per cent of the necessary troops and weapons assembled, with 80 per cent of them deployed to attack positions within five and 50 kilometres of the Ukrainian border.
Some reports have the Russians headed for the capital, Kyiv, or Kharkiv in the west, just 50 kilometres from the Russian border. The truth is that the Russian forces have Ukraine surrounded on three sides and can go nearly anywhere they wish.
The Ukrainians seem to sense that something bigger is in the offing.
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The breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk sent written pleas to Putin Wednesday asking for Russian military assistance repelling Ukrainian forces, according to RIA Novosti, the Russian state news service. Many see the requests as a potential pretext to call in the invasion force.
The Ukrainians in turn requested a meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss what Kyiv says is a “further escalation of the security situation.”
That meeting, the fourth of that body to discuss this situation in recent weeks, opened following a script that is growing familiar, with pleas and condemnation directed at Russia, and open fears the words would go unheeded. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres opened the meeting with a direct appeal: “I have one thing to say from the bottom of my heart. President Putin, stop your troops from attacking Ukraine. Give peace a chance. Too many people have already died.”
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said this attack on Ukraine is “tantamount to an attack on the United Nations and every member state in the chamber tonight.” She said that at every stage so far, Russia had acted in exactly the way the U.S. had predicted it would. “Back away from the brink before it is too late.”
It may already have been too late. Almost while she was speaking, Putin reportedly announced a “special military operation in Ukraine.”
Ukraine warned Wednesday night of a chemical plant in the Russian-controlled Crimean town of Armyansk, five kilometres from Ukrainian territory, that had been identified by the country’s Defence Intelligence agency as the site of “probable provocations.”
The entire night shift of the plant was evacuated from the building, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.
“Moscow seems to have no limits in attempts to falsify pretexts for further aggression.”
Kuleba’s insinuation was that the Russians would stage an attack to blame the Ukrainians for attacking the Russians, providing cover for the Russians to attack the Ukrainians.
It’s a sickening knot. A twist of words, an exchange of accusations, that only serves to thicken the impenetrable fog that has built up in eastern Europe.
Surprisingly, European leaders have followed the plot and kept their steely resolve to punish Putin’s Russia.
Germany cancelled the $11-billion Nord Stream-2 pipeline, despite threats of extortionate energy bills. And the European Union’s package of sanctions suggests countries are serious about finally confronting and isolating Putin, his inner circle, his friends and the banks and enterprises that do his bidding in return for his favour.
Reports say Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu is among those who will be sanctioned, in addition to top Russian military commanders, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova and Margarita Simonyan, the head of Russia Today, and Vladimir Solovyov, the journalist widely seen as Putin’s uncritical mouthpiece.
Wednesday was a holiday in Russia, Defender of the Fatherland Day. It’s a day of tribute to the service and sacrifice of the Russian military. Putin laid a wreath and made brief comments in a video address.
“Our country is always open for direct and honest dialogue, the search for diplomatic solutions to the most complex problems,” he said. “But I repeat: the interests of Russia, the security of our citizens, are conditional for us.”
It seems like diplomacy’s day has passed. A meeting planned for Thursday between U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was called off. Moscow also began evacuating its diplomatic staff from its embassy in Kyiv and three other Ukrainian consulates.
There can be no diplomatic solutions without diplomats, and right now there are none willing to sit across the table from one another. The only envoys Russia seems prepared to send forth now are its soldiers, more than 150,000 of them massed on the Ukrainian border.
But soldiers, following orders, use force. Negotiating peace is not in their arsenal.
With files from the Associated Press
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