International Politics

Voices of War

On Thursday February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin took the decision to mount an unprovoked attack on his neighbour Ukraine. Will Putin regret his Ukrainian invasion or are we at the start of a war that will engulf Europe and beyond?

A member of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces stands inside a supermarket, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, in the town of Bucha in the Kyiv region, Ukraine February 28, 2022. REUTERS/Maksim Levin/Alamy

It might have started like any other working week for mother of five Iryna Tsvila. The primary school teacher from Brovary, an eastern suburb of Kyiv, would have organised breakfast, got herself and her offspring ready for the day ahead.

A scene repeated in many households across Ukraine on Monday, February 21. Ordinary people rising for work, preparing lunch boxes, looking out clean shirts for the office, fresh overalls for the factory.

They would have checked television news broadcasts, watching the feed come in from around the country, eager for the latest updates regarding the huge Russian military build-up on the country’s northern, eastern and southern flanks.

This strange and eerily calm, business as usual, atmosphere would have rapidly evaporated on Thursday, February 24, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of this independent, democratic European nation.

Would anything ever be the same again?

Less than 48 hours later Iryna Tsvila, mother, teacher and veteran of the ‘Sich’ Battalion (4th Company), part of the National Guard Response Brigade of Ukraine, lost her life defending Kyiv.

“My friend was killed today,” Volodymyr Yermolenko wrote poignantly in a tweet. “Iryna Tsvila.  Incredibly brave and kind person.”

He went on to say that Iryna had been a volunteer in the Donbas since 2014 and had contributed to a book, ‘Voices of War. Stories of Veterans’.

Illia Ponomarenko also tweeted about Iryna. “She was killed repelling a Russian armoured assault outside Kyiv,” he wrote.

It struck me how representative Iryna Tsvila was of the Ukrainian people.

“I have been saying for a long time,” Yaroslaw Tymchyshyn, a teacher from Bolton with family in the west of Ukraine, told me sounding sombre, “To my colleagues at work and people who wanted to listen… that he (Putin) wouldn’t be fighting the Ukrainian army but he would be fighting 44 million people!”

The Americans had offered Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky passage into exile but he turned them down. Reportedly telling them: “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.” 

Many Ukrainians, male and female, made the decision to remain in their cities and help defend their country while hundreds of thousands of women, children and older people fled to bordering countries; Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova.

“Absolutely distraught,” Yaroslaw, who is also Chairman of the Bolton branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain, told me of how he felt about the Russian invasion. “Absolutely angry, frustrated over what has happened.”

Ukraine is not a member of the European Union or NATO and, therefore, has been forced to fight alone against Russian military aggression.

Meanwhile, the other nations of the world have been mere battlefield spectators and can only look on as the fighting intensifies

Like Zelensky, Ukrainian MP and leader of the opposition political party Holos (Voice) Kira Rudyk, decided to remain in Kyiv.

In an interview with Mary Nightingale of ITV on Saturday, February 26, she spoke of turning up at her local police station to pick up a Kalashnikov.

“If you had told me three days ago,” she had said in the interview. “I would tell you I would never bear arms!”

Rudyk went on to say that taking her children to the bomb shelter and trying to explain what the sound of the siren means made her so angry she wanted to be doing something to stop Putin, describing him as a tyrant who wants to  “deny the Ukrainians the right to live.”

These are powerful words spoken with a sense of anger, a sense of injustice, a sense of patriotism and pride, and the Ukrainians are not a nation to be underestimated.

On January 21, 1990, for example, 300,000 of them formed a human chain between Kyiv and Lviv (541 km -336 miles – east to west) in a show of strength for independence. By August 1991 the Ukrainian parliament had adopted the Act of Independence and on December 1, 1991, 92.3 percent of Ukrainians voted for self-determination in a referendum.

Neither the break-up of the Soviet Union nor Ukraine’s autonomy, however, has sat well with Vladimir Putin.

Putin, who came to power in 2000, has always been a thinly-veiled unapologetic advocate of a Greater Russia. In Ukraine, he has shown a total disregard for the democratic principles of the modern state using force to try to get what he wants.

The present invasion has links to November 2013 when pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych rejected the Ukrainian-European Association Agreement. Instead, he decided to look east, openly favoured closer ties with Russia and took a loan from the Kremlin.

His actions led to protests and the occupation of Independence Square in Kyiv, as west-leaning Ukrainians railed against their president in what came to be known as the ‘Euromaidan’. By January 2014 there were violent clashes between police and protestors across the country resulting in many deaths and injuries. Yanukovych eventually fled into exile in Russia under the protection of Vladimir Putin.

In February 2014, Russian backed militias then took large swathes of the area known as the Donbas in south-east Ukraine and Putin annexed Crimea.

On February 22, 2022, after eight years of ongoing battles between these militias and the Ukraine army, Vladimir Putin made the unilateral decision to make these south-eastern regions of Ukraine – Luhansk and Donetsk – independent republics.

Two days later he ordered his military forces to cross into Ukraine and the countries were at war.

Outraged by his actions the USA and Europe have placed increasingly punitive sanctions on Russia and have sought to punish Putin and his regime economically. They have frozen the assets of Putin and his ministers – including 351 members of the Duma (The Russian Parliament) – as well as oligarchs close to the president and removed some Russian banks from the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) system of global money transfer. SWIFT is used by over 10,000 financial institutions and companies around the world and in almost every nation on the planet. Subsequently, the rouble has dropped by 40 per cent (March 1) against the dollar while the Russian airline Aeroflot has been banned from British airspace.

In sport, the European Champions League final due to be played at the Gazprom Arena in St Petersburg has been moved to Paris, while UEFA has also cancelled its lucrative sponsorship deal with Gazprom.

Meanwhile, around the world, efforts go on to support the Ukrainian people.

Yaroslaw Tymchyshyn and his organisation are fundraising for foodstuffs and medical supplies which will be bought in Ukraine.

“There are reasons for that,” he said. “It is a lot cheaper in Ukraine…and we can get them very quickly to the people that need them. There is no bureaucracy and no transportation costs. We are currently working with the World Health Organisation and the Ukrainian Red Cross.”

Increasingly isolated, Putin is now facing difficulties at home. Over 2000 anti-war demonstrators were reportedly arrested across the country on Monday, February 28, while there were reports of Russians trying to flee to the west before foreign airspace and borders closed.

On Saturday February 26, as the expected Russian advance into the Ukrainian capital Kyiv failed to materialise Zelensky told his people in a broadcast, “We successfully fought off enemy attacks. We are defending our country, our land- future of our children. Kyiv and key places near the capital are under our control. The occupiers wanted to capture our capital and install their puppets like Donetsk. We broke their idea.”

We have to hope that Zelensky’s upbeat comments are not premature, because what happens in Ukraine is pivotal to what happens to us all in the coming days, weeks and months.

If Putin takes Ukraine, there are fears that he will then aim his sights on the Baltic states in an effort to bring them back into Russia’s sphere of influence. An attack on Lithuania, Estonia or Latvia, members of NATO since 2004, would bring other nations to the frontline including the USA, UK, France and Germany.

Defeat in Ukraine, however, is unthinkable for Vladimir Putin and his actions could prove a massive and costly gamble for the Russian President. How long he will continue to have the support of those closest to him or, indeed, his own people when they are facing hardship and the most extreme of privations is questionable.

By sheer determination, patriotism and courage the Ukrainian people have, so far, held the bigger, more muscular bully at bay. Certainly, longer than many analysts would have thought possible.

Neither Ukraine nor the world can ever be allowed to forget the sacrifice of people like Iryna Tsvila. She died defending the principles of democracy and freedom and the things most of us hold precious.

But make no mistake, the future of all our lives, good or bad, now rests with the outcome of this brutal conflict in eastern Europe.


Sergio Burns is a journalist whose work has appeared in serveral newspapers and magazines including Mail On Sunday, Sunday Herald and In These Times(USA). He now works as the Editor of AM Magazine in Scotland. 

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