Volodymyr Zelenskyy was brought up in the grunt town of Kryvyi Rih, a Soviet-looking industrial city in the southeast of Ukraine that served as a centre of iron mining and metallurgy.
He knew about bullies before he left school. To survive among the town’s knife-wielding gangs, you had to have a sense of humour, chutzpah, and a bunch of buddies that had your back. Zelenskyy had all these things. No wonder he now finds that the buddies he needs to have his back are wimps; America and the UK in particular, who had promised – in writing – to protect Ukraine from aggressors.
That was in 1994, when Zelenskyy was just 16; Ukraine had agreed to hand over its substantial nuclear arsenal to Russia – yes, the same Russian Federation now murdering his fellow countrymen. The deal was this: hand over the nuclear arms – supposedly for destruction – and we’ll sign an agreement that assures Ukraine of security and protection against aggressors.
But Ukraine was conned.
The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland signed what is known as the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. It has six articles; three of which are directly relevant to Russia’s invasion:
- To respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.
- To refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.
- Will consult in the event a situation arises which raises a question concerning these commitments.
The fact that one of the signatories, the Russian Federation, broke its word, does not relieve the other two of its moral obligations. That the Memorandum has no legally binding ‘teeth’ is hardly an excuse. It is an agreement of intent on which Ukraine is entitled to rely.
In what world would we expect Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to play nice and abide by the agreement, even with ‘teeth’? With the invasion of Ukraine, Putin broke other international agreements, even those with legal ‘teeth’. Who is suing him? How have those signed documents saved a single mother, baby, or villager from rape, torture, and murder in the past 50 days? This grim milestone is too late for recriminations, as Zelenskyy keeps reiterating in all his messages to the free world. Don’t talk; act now, he pleads. He defied the bullies in Kryvyi Rih, now he has defied the bully in the Kremlin. Where are his buddies? That’s them over there, in a huddle, wringing their hands.
I am especially sensitive to this moral and cowardly failure of the free world because it brings back memories of how we all felt in Budapest, ironically enough, when the 1956 Hungarian Revolution promised us freedom from a Soviet Russia, whose tanks came to crush what was our own desperate battle for freedom. It seemed unthinkable that the Americans and/or the British would let us fall under the tank tracks after all their words and talk beforehand.
I would argue that Putin would have resisted his urge to forcibly glue Ukraine to Russia, had the Russian tanks in Budapest met with a military response by Western participants. As in 1956, the motivating power of national resistance had already given the Russians a bloody nose and after 19 days, there was regime change, making a Hungary free of Russian domination a possibility. The Kremlin could not allow that. Now, it should be the West who refuse to allow the Russians to crush Ukraine.
From the TV studio in a single leap to the Presidency, Zelenskyy is driven by neither nationalism nor ideology. His TV character in the satirical series Servant of the People morphed from the fictional President into the real-life President. It seems he had been typecast…
Speaking to the Australian parliament via video-link on March 31, he made a crucial point that underlines how early resistance to bullies is as crucial to world security as it is to high school boys:
‘We need to also enhance the capabilities of the international institutions, which were created to hold military war criminals responsible. Anyone who would commit such crimes, to have them punished by the solidarity of the whole world and not one country. Had this been done on time, life in this world would have been more secure…’
Andrew L. Urban is the co-author (with Chris McLeod) of Zelensky – The unlikely hero who defied Putin and united the world (Wilkinson Publishing)
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