Nataliya Gumenyuk: The Saddest Irony of Putin’s War on Ukraine

From a Washington Post column by Nataliya Gumenyuk headlined “The saddest irony of Putin’s war on Ukraine”:

Nataliya Gumenyuk, the founder of the Public Interest Journalism Lab, is a Ukrainian author and journalist specializing in foreign affairs and conflict reporting.

KYIV, Ukraine — Russians and Ukrainians actually understand each other well. That is perhaps the biggest and saddest irony of this perverse, unnecessary war.

We know each other’s mentalities. We understand each other’s languages. We share a Soviet past. And yet this sense of familiarity underlines just how different our two countries are.

We have watched Russian President Vladimir Putin give an angry, hateful speech denying our existence as a country. We have also watched Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky address Russians in their language, explaining to people across the border that we have no quarrel with them, expressing the willingness to resolve our differences and lay Russian fears to rest. And even as Russian missiles hit Ukrainian cities, he hasn’t expressed hate, instead calling upon Russian citizens to take to the streets to protest the war. The contrast could not be more stark.

Here in Kyiv, we can watch Russian television, allowing us to see Moscow’s version of events. For now, the Russian media is allowed to describe the invasion only as “a special military operation in Donbas” — Orwellian language apparently dictated by Putin himself. (That reluctance to use the word “war” shows that the authorities understand that the attack might not be popular with ordinary people.) Ukrainians can track the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns and compare them with the reality we see on the ground. Russian TV, for example, broadcasts stories of fake Ukrainian soldiers surrendering to Moscow’s forces — even though we all know firsthand that our soldiers have been offering bitter resistance.

Russian colleagues have been bombarding me with apologies for the actions of their government. But most of them can’t say that publicly — because they know they’ll be arrested, like those who were detained by police when they tried to protest the war in the center of Moscow. Some Russians have succeeded in showing their opposition, demonstrating on the streets of St. Petersburg. Celebrities have managed to register veiled criticism. But there is only so much they can do in Putin’s police state. Some of us have relatives in Russia who’ve been warned by the authorities not to express their views on the war — just like in Soviet times.

Here at home, by contrast, it is heartening to see how people are taking on the responsibility for the defense of our country. People are doing their best to support one another, to help. A British TV reporter asked me on air whether looting has been going on in cities attacked by the Russians. The comment irritated me because it missed something very fundamental about our state of mind. To Putin, democracy means chaos. He is desperate to depict us as a failed state. We’re determined to prove him wrong.

The shops are open. The hospitals are working, taking care of the wounded and injured. Firefighters are staying on duty despite the risk of falling bombs. The national postal system is maintaining service. The Ukrainian railways have evacuated thousands of people from the front-line towns in the east, adding new routes and trains in the west. The banks are doing their best to keep going despite intense (presumably Russian) cyberattacks.

To be sure, there are long lines in front of some ATMs, where people are trying to withdraw money, but those waiting do so with dignity and good humor. Yet the lines to donate blood or sign up for military service are even longer. People have been voluntarily donating to the armed forces. Cities in western Ukraine are offering shelter to the displaced.

Ukrainians have a long tradition of disrespect for the government. Criticism of the authorities is in our blood. Now, people are putting that aside. Before the invasion, President Volodymyr Zelensky met with the leaders of political factions, who have pledged to work together. Top business leaders have rallied around the state. The Kremlin is eager to divide and conquer, to destabilize the country. But the more Putin pushes, the more united the country becomes. We have to do everything we can to resist.

No one is telling me or my journalistic colleagues what to report. We’re just doing our jobs. My colleagues are doing live reports from every regional capital, reporting on casualties, providing advice and warning about gullibly accepting bad information. We don’t need to be told what to say.

Don’t misunderstand me: People are afraid. This is a vicious war, and we haven’t seen the worst of it yet. Many are trying to move their families from Kyiv to safer places in the western part of the country. I don’t blame them for that at all. The Russians have already shown that they don’t care about civilian casualties.

The whole idea behind Putin’s invasion is to deprive the Ukrainian people of our right to choose — our government, our allies, our media, our future. He hasn’t succeeded.

Ukrainians are doing what they can — as soldiers, as firefighters, as doctors or just as people willing to open their doors to those they don’t know. It’s also a way of showing that we are not ready to accept a world driven by madness, hatred and military force.

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