The March of Evil (redux)
Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine is an attack against everyone who cares about democracy and believes in the right to live free from violence and repressive leaders
This was originally published on February 25, the day after Vladimir Putin’s troops marched into Ukraine. As I concluded then and am more convinced now, “In the battle for democracy and the survival of sovereignty against a rogue dictator determined to expand a world of violence and heartbreak, Zelensky’s resolve should be a source of nourishment for everyone who believes in freedom.”
There’s a scene in the film The Unbearable Lightness of Being, based on the novel of the same name by Milan Kundera, when we hear the sound of tanks rolling across cobblestone streets. This follows romantic, sexual, deeply human scenes involving a Czech doctor played by a young Daniel Day-Lewis. That sound—the cold crush of industrial metal on stone—is heartbreaking because it demarcates the end of personal freedom and the easy, tender humanness of life. It also foreshadows the depressingly cruel military occupation of the Soviets and a closed-down world without escape. That was, of course, based on the true story—the sweet promise of the Prague Spring of 1968 and the dark years of Soviet control. It was over two decades before that Soviet invasion was relieved by the Velvet Revolution, playwright Václav Havel’s election as president, and the first democratic elections since 1946 (with over 96 percent turnout).
That heartbreaking moment came crashing back Wednesday night with the news that Vladimir Putin’s violent invasion into Ukraine had begun. As reporters stood near the center of Kyiv, with a backdrop of eerily empty early morning streets, we could hear the percussive rumble of explosions on the outskirts, soon followed by air raid sirens signaling that the capital was under attack. There was the terrible, unavoidable sense that life would never be quite the same again.
Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia and an NBC News analyst, struggled to control his emotions as the dawning reality unfolded. He was determined to speak with accuracy, and that meant stripping away the usual nuance that can cloud the visible truth. “This is an evil act by an evil man against innocent Ukrainians that do not deserve this,” he said. “We need clarity. There is right and wrong. There is evil.”
For several weeks, the amassing of Russian troops and tanks along the Ukraine border made clear that it was just a matter of time before the increasingly belligerent and untethered Kremlin leader would move beyond a bombardment of words to trigger the real thing. His taped assertion that Ukraine required “demilitarization and denazification” laid waste to those who still harbored the belief that Russia’s murderous dictator was a coldly rational actor.
His grievance-filled determination to unleash the hounds of war against a peaceful neighbor and a democratically elected government—led by a man whose grandfather fought against the Nazis and who is Jewish—underscored his hunger to reestablish the Soviet empire. He has called the unraveling of the Soviet Union, ending in December 1991, the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
As the Russian march toward war accelerated this week, grimly reminiscent of Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Putin could count on the sycophantic adoration of the former occupant of the White House. Trump called Putin’s description of invasion as peacekeeping “genius” and “very savvy.” In recent weeks, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added his gushing praise, broadcasted repeatedly on Russian state television: “I have enormous respect for him…He is a very talented statesman. He has lots of gifts.”
Of course, Tucker Carlson further emboldened the Russian president, minimizing the planned incursion as a border conflict and questioning why Democrats vilify Putin. But the worst of it was reserved for Trump, who used his airtime on Fox Wednesday night—as the attack was unfolding—not to question the invasion of a sovereign nation and its democratically elected government, but to criticize the “weakness and incompetence” of the Biden Administration.
No, that’s not a surprise, coming from the man who spent his time in office slavishly praising the Russian dictator and assisting his desire to undermine democracy. But as we see this vengeful ruler take his country to war, we should be reminded once again of the duty of anyone who steps near the Oval Office.
Putin’s fictional pretext for invading Ukraine—“to defend people who for eight years are suffering persecution and genocide by the Kyiv regime”—stems from his embittered insistence that Ukraine’s government has been illegitimate ever since the 2014 Euromaidan protests that tilted to the West and toppled pro-Russian Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych. Putin’s invasion and annexation of Crimea happened soon afterwards.
And the full-scale invasion now? “Our policy,” Putin ludicrously asserted this week, “is based on freedom of choice for all to determine their own future and that of their children.” He also insisted that Ukraine will be “responsible for bloodshed” if it doesn’t lay down its arms.
But the sounds and consequences of war are already escalating, as over 137 Ukrainian soldiers have reportedly lost their lives and another 316 have been injured. Hours before the first strikes, President Volodymyr Zelesnky noted the tragic price thrust upon his countrymen. “War takes away guarantees for everyone,” he said. “No one will have any kind of guarantees of security. And who will suffer from that the most? People.”
Just after the invasion began, President Biden addressed the “unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces” and promised heavy sanctions. “President Putin has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering,” he said. “Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring, and the United States and its allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive way.”
Across Russia yesterday, thousands of upset Russians took to the streets to demonstrate against the war, even though their country’s leader threatened arrest and some 1,700 were arrested. In Kyiv, meanwhile, Zelensky called for martial law and urged his people to remain calm. "No panic. We are strong. We are ready for everything," he said. This was no mere platitude, not when he understands that the battle for Ukraine’s freedom includes an adversary hellbent on removing the head of state and installing a pro-Putin puppet. “The enemy has designated me as the target number one, and my family as the target number two,” Zelensky said last night.
Confronted by the march of evil, in the battle for democracy and the survival of sovereignty against a rogue dictator determined to expand a world of violence and heartbreak, Zelensky’s resolve should be a source of nourishment for everyone who believes in freedom. May we continue to hear his calm voice for many years to come.
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