Amid fog of this weird war, a day to honour the dead

Published by The Daily Mail (21st February, 2022)

The sun was shining as families walked down the street in Kiev, passing trees festooned with paper angels and flowers dotting the ground. Children clutched red carnations and candles, placing them beside a series of stark portraits running along the wall. 

The black-and-white images showed young and old faces: Ivan Horodniuk, 29, choreographer; Vladysym Zubenko, 22, railway worker; Bohdan Kalyniak, 52, entrepreneur; Antonina Dvoretska, 62, pensioner.

These are the ‘heavenly hundred’ – pro-democracy protesters slaughtered on this spot eight years ago in mysterious shootings before Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

Galina, a 68-year-old pensioner, brought tulips to place before the memorials to five men she had seen murdered in news footage, saying she came every year because ‘it felt like I lost my own sons’. 

These brutal events – which I reported on in 2014 and recalled yesterday as I walked alongside those who came to mark the massacre – were the start of Moscow’s war on Ukraine that continues to this day.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky visited with his wife Olena to lay flowers, saying the victims gave their lives ‘for the right to live in an independent state, in the family of European nations’.

His words were a sobering reminder of what is at stake in the struggle between democracy and dictatorship as Russian forces mass on Ukraine’s borders and Boris Johnson chillingly warns that we might be on brink of ‘the biggest war in Europe since 1945’. 

The West’s rhetoric over Ukraine might often sound inflammatory. Yet yesterday’s commemorative events serve as a tragic warning of what Russia’s brutal President Vladimir Putin can do.

But even after five weeks in Ukraine, visiting 12 cities and frozen trenches on the frontline, I find it hard to see through the fog of this weird war, let alone to discern what might be in Putin’s malevolent mind regarding his menacing military machine.

Some things, however, are clear.

We know Russia invaded Ukraine eight years ago resulting in a war that has left 14,000 people dead – and still directs events in the breakaway Donbas ‘republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk, including with it military forces. 

We also know that the Kremlin – which yesterday preposterously claimed that Russia has never attacked another nation – repeatedly lies. 

As a former KGB operative, Putin has pioneered an Alice in Wonderland approach to diplomacy in which he bends or flips the truth so brazenly that it can be hard to counter for his foes.

Putin has lied from the start of his presidency: over deadly bombings in apartment blocks that boosted support for war in Chechnya; over Moscow’s links to the 2014 downing of a Malaysian airliner over east Ukraine; over the 2018 poisoning of former agent Sergei Skripal in Britain; over the hounding of political rivals such as jailed Alexei Navalny. 

Now we see the propaganda machine turned up full blast again over the Donbas with a blizzard of fake stories about attempted assassinations, genocide, mass graves and even the supposed shelling of sovereign Russian terrain.

This is a nightmare for Ukraine and its Western allies to fight: Kyiv is being undermined both politically and economically.

Indeed, as Ukraine’s currency crashes due to market uncertainty, Russian cyber attacks hit banks, shipping is disrupted, capital is withdrawn by foreign investors, jobs are lost and energy prices soar, it is possible that a key part of Putin’s current strategy has been economic damage.

Talk of invasion has had dire impact, and this has an added advantage for the Kremlin: It corrodes support for both Ukraine’s democratic leaders and its system of government.

But this brings me to the third thing we know: Politicians in Washington and London seem to have a clearer understanding of Putin’s approach and are confronting it by sharing intelligence widely and talking in graphic terms about his possible intentions. 

It is a dangerous strategy. It allows Putin to paint the West as hysterical and risks forcing him into a corner after his unprecedented build-up of military forces. Yet it has also resulted in a largely unified response from Nato. It has bolstered support for Ukraine. 

And above all, it has blunted Putin’s propaganda efforts that rely on spreading confusion and disinformation, while stymieing any Russian hopes of stealth attack.

I am most definitely not a fan of Boris Johnson, but his government has played its hand well in tandem with President Joe Biden on this conflict and deserves credit on this front at least. 

Britain, although still facing fierce criticism over its failure to tackle dirty Russian money, has become rather popular as a result in Ukraine. Putin is waging a long hybrid war, fought on many fronts and using weapons from bullets and missiles through to cyber attacks and disinformation. 

A terrifying full military assault may be next. But it is good to see the West trying to respond to Putin’s deceit and trickery at last.

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