Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain, and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own.
“4am Kyiv is bombed”: That’s how the German bombardment of Kyiv in 1941 was announced on radio. Fifty years later, at 5:00 AM of February 24, 2022, the Russian President announced a “special military operation” into Ukraine; minutes later missiles rained down on Kyiv. Seventy hours later, Kyiv is still standing tall and proud, even with almost two hundred dead and over a thousand injured all across Ukraine.
Kyiv is a beautiful European city, but these days it reminds more of the European resistance during World War II. Roads leading out of town were choc-a-bloc with traffic leaving mayhem for safer regions westward. Better even, they are heading by train or by car to neighboring countries, including Poland already accepted over 100,000 refugees. Inside Kyiv, right by the side of missile fragments snake a line into a recruiting office for Territorial Defense Forces – a ramshackle army of volunteers raised almost overnight in the rubble. Groceries are still stocked in an act of defiance – and the WSJ reports stores are still accepting Apple Pay – and bars are open till 5 PM curfew. Subway tunnels are filled with anxious residents fleeing air-raids; weary ordinary citizens carry out lessons in handling firearms and making Molotov cocktails right outside of (still open) cafes.
Ukrainians may be outnumbered and outgunned, but they are still fighting. President Zelenskyy is in front of a camera inside the Presidential compound, taking calls, haranguing world leaders out of their stupor and cowardice, and giving rousing speeches for his people – he needs ammunition and coalition of the willing, not a ride out of the capital. Outside on the streets, Zelenskyy the Hero of the People is milling about in camouflage and a bullet-proof vest, despite being the Target #1 for Russian soldiers and saboteurs who have just destroyed a dam near Kyiv. After the initial shock and awe, Russian army is stalled outside Kyiv, a pitched battle with regular and volunteer Ukrainian forces left a trail of burned Russian personnel carriers, weapons and dead bodies. Elsewhere in Ukraine, Russian columns have run out of fuel and food, Ukrainian forces still maintain command and control architecture, control of air over the capital city has not ceded to the rampaging marauders. Vlad the barbarian may have met his match in Volodymyr the cheeky comedian.
It is difficult to read the tea leaves because the samovar is too hot and the water keeps churning. But a few takeaways jump out.
First, this war is not just one made for TV, it is also fully telegraphed in advance. For weeks the US has been announcing Russian plans as gleaned from intelligence sources, it almost looked like they were acting as a spokesperson for the Russian military. The tactic behind is age-old, let your enemy know that you know what they are thinking, thereby implying that you have prepared a counter. Assuming you are truly readying a counter, and assuming you are confident that the enemy does not know the fullest extent of your rear-guard actions, publicly announcing enemy’s latest playbook can be a very powerful psyops tactic.
Except that the West was not. Ukraine was largely left to fend for itself. Sanctions against Russia rarely ever bite, a fact the West should have learned in 2014 but did not. There was no move to extend Article V guaranty over Ukraine, military assistance largely was symbolic – bolstering their “defensive” capabilities and small arms. There is no talk of stopping energy import from Russia, though certification of Nord Stream 2 is stalled indefinitely. Europe cannot dare to shut Russia out of SWIFT, the backbone of the global financial system controlled by the West because that would effectively cancel energy contracts in situ. On Saturday US, UK, France, Germany, Canada and Italy, the consortium that runs SWIFT, did announce four unnamed Russian banks are being denied SWIFT access, details are not yet clear. There is no talk of seizing assets held in Geneva, London or New York, e.g., by the Russian plutocrats, or of canceling “student” visas of oligarch’s children, wives, and mistresses. Those would be akin to using the nuclear options, as the thought goes, and the doctrine of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) prevents their exercise.
The premise of MAD is simple – you may use a weapon of mass destruction, e.g., a nuclear weapon, only to unleash a torrent of similar weapons upon yourself, invoking retaliation, then retaliation of the same, and so on. MAD implies complete and total annihilation of human civilization as a consequence of a first use amongst nations with thousands in stockpile – thereby use of one becomes utterly illogical but for the most deranged psychopath. MAD has held for over fifty years, the world saw purveyors gather tens of thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles in their silos, only to never use one.
How mad can you be without invoking MAD in your opponent? That seems to be the question the Russian President, a KGB Colonel, is asking. Assume for the moment that Russia is successful in annexing Ukraine, toppling the democratically elected government – likely executing President Zelenskyy – and replacing it with a pliant puppet. Will the West shut Russia out of SWIFT and freeze assets? Most likely not. Russia’s own SWIFT is not ready for primetime yet, but it exists and Russia has the technical know-how to make it competitive. Very likely Russia will update and make it palatable not just for itself, but also for willing autocrats waiting on the wings to be unshackled from western dependence for basic survival. Chinese SWIFT is already capable, though a fraction in size of SWIFT, and it is conceivable that China allies with Russia to create a formidable competitor to SWIFT, thereby robbing the West of a key leverage. Russia can dare to be rogue without the West lobbing nuclear options at them. Ditto on the battlefield – Russia can be ruthless and rapacious in Ukraine but never touch NATO countries, thereby escaping invocation of Article V. Obviously, Russia is using MAD as a leverage.
Who can stop the Russian rampage then? Ordinary citizens.
Like Hlib Bondarenko, a computer programmer, waiting in line to get weapons. This is the first time he ever touched a gun, and looks too impish to be taken seriously – “I am just a regular civilian, I have basically nothing to do with war or any other thing like it”. His resolve echoes across the plaza with Zakhar Nechypor, an actor – “Who else but us?” he says. Olena Sokolan, a business manager, heard explosions in her apartment complex, and tricked in – “It’s my responsibility” she says. Ukraine’s ballooning popular resistance is the biggest mistake in Russia’s calculation and dreams of a swift decisive victory. It negates a Russian talking point that Ukraine is led “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis who settled in Kyiv and took the entire Ukrainian people hostage.” [Zelenskyy is Jewish and grandson of a survivor of Nazi pogrom] “We won’t retreat or surrender,” says Leonid Ostaltsev, a Pizzeria owner, “Together with the police, veterans, cultural figures, civilians and our army—we’ll show the world what UKRAINE is.” “Welcome to hell Russian invaders,” he adds in English. There is a viral video where Ukrainian soldiers at a naval establishment on Snake Island told Russians to “go f**k yourself” upon being given choice of surrender or else – they all were obliterated minutes later. Examples of such courage abound.
They are fighting for their country, their free society, their democracy. Russia has nothing to offer them.
Compare that with what happened in western capitals last few weeks. Germany, who shut down their nuclear power plants last year, could not afford to incur revenge of the Russian bear in the middle of the winter – they need gas and coal because the promise of renewables is but a mirage right now. Stalling certification was a show, it was not expected till much later this year anyway. 35% of Russian energy exports go to Europe, Europe cannot sever the cord that sustains the continent surreptitiously as she marches, very publicly, on a Green Energy push. The US lost its credibility after the Afghan fiasco when it announced its pullback almost post-facto, resulting in NATO countries scrambling, not to mention the humanitarian catastrophe that still unfolds. [Even the Taliban urged all parties to show restraint in Ukraine…touche!] It is almost a miracle that NATO stood united in response to Russian aggression, if only because losing Ukraine will rob the alliance of its last buffer. Voices within these countries were shamefully repeating Russian talking points, to the point that Ukraine was deemed aggressor and Russia was declared a “genius” when almost two hundred thousand strong Russian militaries encircled the country from three sides.
It remains to be seen how the story ends. I hope the MAD world learns how to handle a madcap who is moving the goalpost closer to Armageddon but not quite. Chinks in Russian armor are already visible, initial shock and awe might mean nothing in the end. My money is on Volodymyr who may just emerge from the rubble as the savior of his people. The gust of freedom seemed to penetrate the iron curtain even, a thousand protesters against the war were scooped up by Kremlin’s thugs inside Russia in the last few days. Will the winds of change sweep the expanse from Kyiv to Moscow? If Russia loses this expedition, there is a fighting chance.
The West is comatose with an abundance of perverse self-loathing, indulgent debauchery and double-speak, while Ukrainians are ready to sacrifice themselves for ideas of democracy and self-determination. Let us stop our cacophony and rise to celebrate Ukrainian anthem lines of which sum up the mood on the ground aptly.
“Ukraine is not yet dead, nor its glory and freedom,
We’ll not spare either our souls or bodies to get freedom.”