Lamenting an old England disappearing under modernity, Philip Larkin wrote in his poem Going, Going:
Most things are never meant.
The irony of unintended consequences has manifested sharply over the past week, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine has seemingly brought about the obverse of what was feared and predicted by most.
When Putin unleashed his troops into Ukraine for a mélange of increasingly mendacious justifications awash with the stamp of the low hypocrite (such as that he was trying to de-Nazify Ukraine – a country whose President is Jewish and whose first Prime Minister was Jewish), most thought that Ukraine would collapse quicker than Afghanistan after the American withdrawal.
And there are good reasons to suppose so.
Firstly, the differences between the engaging military powers are vast. Ukraine’s military has just over 200,000 active personnel and a budget of about US$6 billion. The Russian military, on the other hand, has over a million active personnel with another two million in reserve and a budget that’s ten times that of Ukraine.
Secondly, most people did not expect great leadership from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Zelenskyy has a shaky political pedigree. He is only 44 years of age, spent most of his life as a comedian and actor, and whose experience with politics up to the point of becoming President in 2019 involved playing the President on a TV show. Many thought he would flee Ukraine; after all, the former Afghan President, the much more ‘qualified’ Ghani (who was previously a World Bank academic with a doctorate from Columbia University in New York), ran away from Afghanistan with four cars and a helicopter full of cash without even trying to put up a fight.
Finally, the West appeared to lack the resolve to aid Ukraine and to stand up to Putin. This is a likely reason why Putin chose this time to invade. Europe is dependent on Russia for energy, a self-inflicted trap as it chased the mirage of Net Zero emissions. It is made more inevitable by the actions of the Biden administration, which reversed energy independence achieved under Trump and actively failed to support alternative energy supplies through the Eastern-Mediterranean pipeline, which would carry gas from ally nations Israel and Cyprus to Europe. The West is also going through paroxysms of self-flagellation regarding racism, micro-aggressions, and pronouns.
But the biggest show of weakness is perhaps the American surrender of Afghanistan (in the most chaotic fashion possible) to the Taliban, abandoning American citizens and Afghan allies, while allowing a whole generation of educated Afghan women and girls to be dragged back to the 7th century.
Then something remarkable happened. Zelenskyy, contrary to all expectations, stood tall. His moving speeches and crystal spirit – to borrow a phrase from Orwell – acted like a beacon that amalgamated the pride and tenacity of the Ukrainian people.
He said, from Kyiv, rejecting an offer by America to evacuate: ‘I am here. We are not putting down arms. We will be defending our country because our weapon is truth, and our truth is that this is our land, our country, our children, and we will defend all of this.’
Going back to Larkin’s poem:
Things are tougher than we are, just
As earth will always respond
However we mess it about.
Putin’s invasion, rather than escalate latent ethnic tensions in Ukraine as he had hoped, unleashed an elemental energy that – magnified and transmitted through Zelenskyy – unified Ukraine, which is putting up a tougher-than-expected resistance to his forces.
Although America, the supposed leader of the Free World, seems happy to lead from behind under Biden – Zelenskyy’s clear morals, courage, and the often lyrical pluck of the Ukrainian people has inspired Europe’s leadership, shaking it out of the ennui it busily enshrouded itself in. Europe, after weeks of mere words, has finally started to give lethal aid to Ukraine and impose serious sanctions on Russia. Even unlikely countries such as Switzerland and Sweden have become openly partisan. Germany, Europe’s largest power, has dramatically increased its military spending and revived its natural gas import plans to be less reliant on Russia. The UK, which was one of the fastest to respond to the invasion with sanctions, has increased its troop presence in Ukraine’s neighbours.
Against the increasing cohesion of the West, Putin is facing internal strife. Russians have protested the war across the country, despite governmental crackdowns. Even powerful oligarchs, many of whom have had their assets seized by the West, have joined the chorus of protestations. The Russian economy is recoiling from the international sanctions. Even the morale of the Russian soldiers appears to be low.
While the conflict is far from over, and much more sorrow and deaths are to be expected, this remarkable episode goes to show that even in the face of an apparent consensus, it is individuals – with some moral fortitude, with some principles, and with courage (the cardinal virtue) – who can change the landscape of the moral universe.
Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people have lived up to the writings of Mark Twain:
When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move. Your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth and tell the whole world:
‘No, you move.’
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.