A plague on both these years. Ilya Shablinsky on the second anniversary of Russia’s fullscale war against Ukraine

24 February 2024

by Ilya Shablinsky

Source: Spektr.press


Today marks two years of this savage, senseless, absurd, fratricidal massacre — the bloodiest since 1945.  A war that in Russia they strictly recommend you not to call a war, but something else entirely.

Forbidding calling a war what it is — I don’t think we’ve seen this before in history.

Here’s another important point. The Russian Federation is once again acting as a brazen and malicious aggressor. This is far from the first time — we saw it in Georgia in 2008. What’s new this time is the scale at which things are happening. The scale is comparable to the Second World War: a long front of around 2,000 kilometres, and around a million combatants on both sides.

Two years ago, around 5 AM, Russian TV channels were still broadcasting Putin’s speech about his decision to start this “special military operation.” Russian rockets, meanwhile, were already striking airfields, bridges and residential buildings in Kharkiv, Kyiv, and Chernihiv. It seemed unimaginably ridiculous — even absurd — to hear the names of these well-known cities in such spine-chilling phrases. We said then, and we say now, that this is ridiculous, it’s savagery! But we’ve almost gotten used to it, to the savagery.

And how did the dictator justify attacking a people considered “brothers”? Those who listened to his speech will remember that Ukraine was only mentioned at the very end. The main message was that NATO is moving east. Ukraine is being pumped full of weapons. Finally, Donbas: It’s a nightmare and there’s genocide, and the “people’s republics” turned to Russia for help. Those are the dictator’s main arguments.

The falseness and baseness of all of these arguments as they relate to the intention stated at the end must be obvious to everyone in the world. But Putin’s Russian audience isn’t being addressed here. It would be useless to explain seemingly obvious things to the Russian audience. For example, that NATO “expanded” for the last time when it accepted the persistent (and quite reasonable) requests of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in 2004. And for the 18 years that followed, Vladimir Putin not only ignored this fact, but also actively promoted, let’s say, the work of the NATO-Russia Council. And at the end of 2004, he participated in joint naval exercises. He didn’t really even have anything against NATO — he even sent Rogozin to them as a treat — until… he decided to take a bite out of Ukraine. That’s putting it bluntly and honestly. So, Russia then considered it had a sovereign right to cooperate with NATO. Ukraine, realizing its own sovereign right, and knowing the ways of the Russian dictator, purchased weapons from its various partners all the subsequent five years. Did it not have that right?

Finally — and we could call this a fun fact if that road didn’t lead straight to hell — it was the “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk that asked Putin to be “saved from genocide.” The territories that were under the control of Putin and his intelligence services for the past eight years. The parts of these regions under Ukrainian control didn’t ask Putin for anything of the sort. In Sloviansk, they hadn’t forgotten Girkin’s gang and their reign.

The dictator’s speechwriters neglected to mention this absurdity since they had been instructed to use the biting word “genocide.”

Moreover, Putin didn’t talk about the threat of a “NATO attack” either. Go listen to the speech, anyone! The opposite happened instead. The dictator threatened Ukraine’s allies — if you try to interfere, you’ll have to contend with certain consequences… Well, this became part of his style later — threatening the nuclear button.

But any experienced listener could catch all of the dictator’s primary intentions in this speech: take control of Kyiv and seize as much territory as possible. In his language this is called “giving people a free choice to determine their future.”

History buffs will recall that dictators from previous eras, when about to attack, liked staging costumed performances near borders and firing loud volleys from cannons prepared in the bushes. What followed was news about the latest provocation and reports that patience was running thin.

Putin made do without these performances. Everything he needed he started back in 2014, when he sent Girkin’s group to capture Sloviansk.

I remember well that at the very beginning of the war, many experts and politicians — not amateurs — gave it a few months, a year at most. They had understandable reasons for these estimates. Many believed that the Ukrainian army, unable to withstand the invasion, would end up demoralized and distraught. People believed that it would end quickly with Putin’s armour-clad convoys entering Kyiv. Others guessed that the Ukrainian government, having withstood the first strike but facing further terrible losses, would quickly make the concessions Putin needed.

It was also clear that Putin was counting on a “Blitz-Krieg”. He saw Ukraine as very easy prey. That is why he spoke and acted so brazenly. 

The most important outcome of the first stage of the war was obvious. The Ukrainian state withstood the first terrible onslaught and gave a worthy response. The many kilometres-long columns of Russian tanks were cut off and defeated – which brought to mind the beginning of the Finnish campaign almost 85 years ago. Russian paratroopers in Gostomel, over which the fighting went on over many days, were destroyed or dispersed.

The fundamental error of Putin’s intelligence agents was the extraordinary underestimation of the strength of the Ukrainian army and the motivation of Ukrainian soldiers, even without any real allied help at the time.

For several more months, Putin apparently failed to realise that his initial crazy plan was unrealisable. He was forced to realise reality by the actions of the Ukrainian armed forces. At the end of August 2022, Ukrainian troops were able to launch a counter-offensive and liberate almost the entire Kharkiv region. And by November 2022 they had pushed the invaders out of Kherson and in general from the entire western bank of the Dnieper.

But Putin’s troops continued to control about 18 per cent of the territory of Ukraine, captured in the first two months of the invasion. And they did not intend to leave. Yes, many people saw that the dictator had been hoping for a blitz-krieg and it was not clear what he would do if this plan failed. What strategy would he be forced to choose?

And what he chose was a strategy of protracted and difficult war to wear the opponent down. He decided that he would go on fighting, condemning hundreds of thousands of people on both sides of the border to death.

He took a decision that had seemed unthinkable in February 2022 to order a mobilisation. The dictator could no longer count on his so-called professional army.  There was little left of it. More than 300,000 mobilised men were used to fill up the front line from the north of Luhansk region to the south of Zaporizhzhia region. And some of them were given the specific task of entrenching themselves and building insurmountable barriers along the borders of the occupied area that had been partially destroyed but which Putin wanted to see his own.

What’s more, he had already written it into his constitution, as an experienced burglar enters into his notebook the results of cleaning out a spacious and well-stocked apartment: neatly, by category – so much in currency, so much in jewellery, and silverware, of course, as well as furs, it goes without saying … The inhabitants of his country (I mean the population that adores its dictator) will approve the robbery and rejoice at what’s been acquired. That’s clear.

But it also sometimes happens that if the thief is annoyed by something, he may shit in the apartment he has already cleaned out. Even in the most literal sense. And if the theft is large-scale, then it is necessary to make an even bigger mess: for example, by blowing up a dam, by flooding huge areas….

The year 2023 was harder for Ukraine than the previous one, despite the fact that aid from allies finally started to arrive. Thanks to this assistance, the Ukrainian military organised a summer offensive, but it did not bring the anticipated results.  The offensive ran into the defensive lines of Putin’s army in the south, which last year was more adapted to defence than to attack.

That is probably why Putin had to reassess the situation and reformulate the goals of the war. Apparently, the original plan was to liquidate the government in Kyiv, to expel or capture the country’s leaders (or kill them – depending on how things went), give power to Moscow’s proxies (such as Medvedchuk and Tsarev, who had already made a start, even if slowly), and, with their “authorisation”, to seize vast territories in the east and south from Ukraine. All these goals had to be abandoned, making do with appropriating what had been seized in February-March 2022. It seems that at the moment the main purpose of the war for Putin remains the occupation and annexation of territories captured in the course of hostilities. And the more the better.

This is an approach the world has not really encountered since the end of World War II. Yes, some dictators over the last fifty years have dared to seize other countries’ territories – the Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein was particularly distinguished in this. For him, by the way, it was not so important to gain territory as such, it was the oil-rich territories of Iran and then Kuwait on which he had set his sights. Everything, however, ended in failure. In the case of the Russian dictator we now have an example of seizure for the sake of seizure. What is most of this territory? Areas of burned-out steppe with destroyed towns. Perhaps some of Putin’s loyal audience are glad to see Mariupol levelled. A city by the sea. They have already built a neighbourhood of four-storey houses on the outskirts. That is also a goal of the war. Especially considering how ‘few’ empty regions there are in the Russian Federation itself.

Meanwhile, the hard, exhausting positional war did not change its character. But by the third year it became more obvious that for the present the advantage in terms of forces – in men and equipment – is on the side of the aggressor. It became clear that Ukraine’s Western allies were unprepared for war on such a scale and duration. They are now forced to rethink the whole situation, to persuade themselves to take on a whole new approach. This is the impression we get.

Moreover, they seem to be beginning to realise that the evil that confronts them is a danger not only to Ukraine, but to Europe as a whole. Those who are slowest to accept this idea are to be found among the conservatives in the US. Their religiosity seems merely for show when they are ready to praise their main candidate, Trump, who glorifies ‘self-interest above all else’, forgetting about the destroyed Ukrainian cities and their residents who were burned alive.

Nevertheless, the Western leaders are gradually coming to terms with the new reality of war in the long term. The gigantic machine of the consolidated military-industrial complex of several major economies is beginning to turn with a creak. Slowly, very slowly.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian army is experiencing an increasingly acute shortage of artillery and ammunition, combat drones and much more. They are finding it increasingly difficult to hold back the onslaught of Putin’s troops along the extremely long front line. Ukrainian troops have been forced to withdraw from Maryinka over the past three months, and recently from Avdeevka.

Russian state propaganda trumpets the fanfare. Piles of smoking ruins – what is left of the two Ukrainian towns mentioned above, but also of Volnovakha, Mariupol, Severodonetsk, Bakhmut, Rubizhne, Popasnaya and so on – are being offered by excited propagandists to gleeful viewers and listeners as the most desirable gift for the public holiday – I don’t know which one, for 23 February or 8 March… I think it will do for both.

Yes, this is a war at the personal evil whim of a dictator. It is the main and terrible result of the convulsions of his sick vanity, which no one has been able to curtail. Such a thing has happened many times in history.

But it turned out – something also familiar to us from history – that millions of people were ready to accept and recognise this whim. Not only the servants and immediate entourage of the dictator, but also ordinary Russian workers, ‘sofa fans’, those who are regular guests on TV shows on state channels, grocery store sales personnel, taxi drivers, kindergarten teachers, and so on and so forth. A fair portion of what we call the Russian population. The people of Russia.

They, too, are suffering losses, but they doesn’t feel it. They have almost lost their sensitivity.

And their leader, still an old thief, flies round his plague-ridden country in an old bomber (one is 71, the other about 43), looking round with dull eyes at its submissive towns, from which he will soon demand new recruits. And tomorrow he will send his missiles and drones stuffed with the same plague against Ukrainian cities. The plague will gather its victims on both sides of the border. The day after tomorrow, the minstrels of war and plague will glorify the ruins and blood as usual from all TV screens.

The defenders of Ukraine, gritting their teeth, will still continue to defend their country, counting every shell. Their allies will be thousands of kilometres away slowly shipping these shells from giant warehouses, periodically counting the cost.

Each new turn of history is unpredictable. Sometimes it can happen that, as a result of a certain configuration of forces and planets, as well as good lighting, the outlines of the immediate future become visible. For example, by February 1943, the outlines of February 1945 had become discernible. That is not the case now. There is lighting. But it still needs to be directed at something. And more strength is needed.

In the third year of war, what do I feel? Pride for the men and women of Ukraine. They are the ones who need strength, in the first place. Also shame for my own country. And again: hope to survive all this. That, in general, is the order of things.

Two years have passed since that morning. It’s night now. But a new morning will surely come.


Translated by Nina dePalma and Simon Cosgrove

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