In Australia, our choices can often be slippery. In Ukraine, choices are as hard and sharp as the spiky steel tank obstacles they call ‘porcupines’.
Australians can learn from the individual and collective decision-making we are currently seeing from the Ukrainians as they mount a determined defence of their homeland. It is, at the very least, a reminder of how much we are morally glib about in terms of our social structures and norms.
Whether it’s Australia or other anglophone democracies, many have suggested that our wealth and our wellbeing has dulled us in some ways.
We sometimes slip into our personal choices about education, careers, purchasing, and voting without significant consideration.
We rely on habit and are hardly ever confronted with the fundamental ethical choice between good and evil.
The consequences of getting something wrong – practically or morally – are so limited that our consciousness regarding behavioural choices has become limited too. And, thereby, so has our acuity and ability to positively protect our values.
During this visit to Ukraine, I’ve met many people here who have made significant choices during Russia’s full-scale invasion of their country. At the most obvious level, they have chosen to change their personal and professional lives to become active participants in Ukraine’s military defence. This is bravery.
But other choices they’ve made to their worldview are less obvious but more profound and with a longer legacy.
Kateryna Halushka, 25, is a combat medic with Hospitaliers Ukraine, a volunteer-based medical evacuation unit attached to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Under fire, her team extracts injured soldiers from conflict zones and gets them to hospital care. She’d previously worked in a United Nations women’s rights program.
Kateryna is a digital native with a love of history who grew up planting potatoes in a village near Poltava. She spoke to me from a base near the Donetsk/Luhansk frontline. It was one of her only breaks in three straight days of med-evac runs.
‘I’m certainly not a hero. No one forced me or my colleagues to do this. We have made a choice to do a necessary job so that another generation doesn’t have to make that choice,’ Kateryna said.
Sasha Yabchanka, 41, is soldier with the attached Honor Batallion of the Territorial Defence of Ukraine, which has signed up 120,000 volunteers since February. They have a deep reconnaissance mission in the hottest part of Donbas in eastern Ukraine, which is on the other side of the country from his homely hometown, Lviv. He was previously a pediatrician and health policy advisor.
‘As a doctor, it’s my purpose to protect and save life. Right now, serving in this unit on this front is the most effective way for me to do that. From the time of the Maidan Revolution, it’s been more important for me to live in a free country than to be professionally comfortable,’ Sasha said.
Dima Sherembei, in his 40s, is a non-titled leader of another voluntary battalion, the 207th, of the Territorial Defence. They took part in the Battle of Kyiv. There are reports that they ran an intricate special operation to ensure Ukrainian fighters had battlefield connectivity – such as the ability to deploy drones – via Elon Musk’s donated Starlink transmitters. Before the war, and even now, Dima runs Ukraine’s largest HIV-related medical and social services provided.
‘We saw the invasion coming and wrote the contingency plan. It got my staff to safety; it continued our service delivery from outside Kyiv, and; it enabled myself and others to literally grab some weapons from the military and head to the front in the first days. Now, the routine is: do a patrol, run 100 per cent for Life, and advocate to the West. Eight hours for each one,’ Dima said.
They recount these choices and changes in a matter of fact way. There’s no acknowledgement of the personal risk, sacrifice, or significance. Instead, they give the classic ‘it is what it is’. The ‘why’ is what I push for in conversation. I ask about what their choices are contributing to.
Dima, who is a Russian speaker, said:
‘We’ve raised the standard of bravery. We didn’t just beat the orcs at Kyiv. We defeated the myth of Russian power. We’ve shown the world that modern Russia is an open sewer and that Putin is a political paedophile who preys on those he thinks are weaker. Therefore, there needs to be total operational, economic, and emotional defeat of Russia. Otherwise, it cannot recognise its own paralysis, cannot pay its penance, and cannot change for the better. For its part, the West needs to choose between cheap energy and dead Ukrainian civilians.’
Sasha, whose smile never leaves his face as if he was in one of Lviv’s many chocolate-obsessed cafes, said:
‘We were attacked by a virulent strain of evil. The events in Bucha and Irpin are examples of the impact of that disease across all the occupied territories. This is a virus from which Ukrainians are curing ourselves, but really all of humanity needs to develop a vaccination against Russian fascism. Perhaps, the civilised democratic world is waking up from its apathetic dream and realising it needs to actively choose between good and evil.’
‘I worked for the UN. I saw myself as a globalist and a humanist. But I became disillusioned. Russia cynically exploits that whole system… So, I started to work for the Armed Forces of Ukraine in strategic communications while also training and volunteering in tactical medicine.’
Sometimes, those who have made choices in Ukraine have no opportunity to speak. After our interview, as I was looking at Kateryna’s social media, I saw that her boyfriend had been killed in battle two months ago.
Or, others who have fallen. While in Kharkiv on Thursday, young volunteers and I were on the scene of a lunchtime artillery attack on some neighbourhood shops in Ukraine’s second largest city. Two rounds, probably fired from 20 plus kilometres away by retreating Russian forces. They killed one man and injured at least eight other people, including a young florist in a bright yellow top who had opened her shop.
They all made a choice. To buy a coffee and some lunch. To sell or buy a bouquet. To get something from the pharmacy after weeks of closure. To be normal in a context where normalcy is basically defiance.
Perhaps, the next time we’re doing something totally normal – like scrolling The Spectator Australia – we might remind ourselves about choices. Such as those we can personally make for a free world for others.
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