Midnight in the Battlefields of World’s War of Z’s

Partha Chakraborty-

Partha Chakraborty

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.

It is midnight in the battlefield between good and evil. There are few lights atop the broken skylines of Kharkiv, Mariupol, Severodonetsk in eastern Ukraine, to capital city Kyiv in the middle, to Zhytomyr farther west. Amidst rubbles of what used to be apartment blocks, schools and playgrounds, adults light fire in the open for warmth and food, people melt ice to drink, hospitals have moved critical patients to the basement. Roaming the streets are ordinary civilians – doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers, teachers and so on barely three weeks back – in camouflage and flak jackets armed newly with Kalashnikovs and raw grit. Nighttime is especially hard as you fight sleep while praying not to be hit by missiles that light up the sky.

Death is a spectacle of fireworks against the dark in Ukraine. Death is also very near. Over six hundred civilians died in Ukraine so far, over fifty of them children, while casualties on the Russian side have mounted to over six thousand. Over two and a half million people fled the country, with Poland receiving a million and a half. This has been the “fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II,” according to UNHCR Commissioner Grandi. It looks like we’re just getting started. Russian forces are digging in for a long fight that evokes the siege of Stalingrad while devastations across Ukraine are already looking like those in Chechnya. But there are a few nuggets that shine from underneath.

The last three weeks have been an amazing David versus Goliath story. Nobody, not the West, not even Putin, could foresee the emergence of a people who are so united in opposition to the Russian menace. People returned home after decades abroad, families dropped off the vulnerable at the Polish border to come back and train for the fight, people gathered in whatever underground location during air raid to scamper out shortly afterward to find survivors, grandmas are lining up against apartment block windows armed with Molotov cocktails to drop on advancing Russians. Groups are running exfiltration campaigns within meters of Russian tanks, and while being shelled. People are walking straight up to Russian grunts and giving them a piece of their mind, getting shot in return at times. Farmers are scampering off with armored vehicles tied up to their tractors! Stories of resistance remind the European existence under Nazis, including in Russia. Leading all of these on the streets of Kyiv, not hiding, is the Defender in Chief – President Zelenskyy.

We also saw the extent of Russian miscalculation. It is common knowledge now that Putin was told Russians would receive a heroes’ welcome, resistance would fall within three days, agent-provocateurs would topple whatever remains of the Ukrainian government, so on and so forth. As a result, Russian forces, even if vastly superior in number, consisted largely of conscripts – poorly trained and lacking the discipline to face an urban war. Advancing Russian columns are woefully supplied, running out of fuel in the middle of nowhere waiting to be picked on by Ukrainian drones resupplied by the West. Three weeks into the fight Russia is bringing in battle-hardened forces, including from puppet states of Chechnya and Syria in an attempt to force a siege unto death. Russia may have come up short in battle preparation, they will not be lacking in bloodthirst and vengeance against hapless civilians.

Inhuman, you say? You’re welcome, says the KGB Colonel.

The biggest story emerging from the devastation is a positive one – that of Western unity and leadership. The West had the daunting dual objective – reduce the suffering of the Ukrainian people and prevent a nuclear holocaust. Working the West are humanitarian efforts, supply of defensive weaponry and intelligence to Ukrainian fighters, and financial sanctions against Russian state operatives and its biggest benefactors. So far it looks like a great success story that exposed Putin’s miscalculations.

The West dropped a financial nuclear bomb on the Russian state early on– sanctioning the Central Bank of Russia that effectively rendered null and void USD 640 Billion reserves the Russian state amassed over the years precisely to face sanctions. Another devastation was wrought by severing much of Russia from SWIFT, thereby rendering useless proceeds Russia may get from sales of energy. Global companies followed suit, including Visa / Mastercard, Goldman Sachs, Coke, McDonald’s and so on, even Western energy behemoths are divesting of Russian assets. Target of sanctions included the biggest benefactors of Putin, the Oligarchs, many of whom lost access to their playgrounds in the west, and access to their foreign bank accounts. Russian middle class are now suffering from bank runs, free-falling Ruble, sudden loss of little pleasures of life. The biggest Russian bank, Sberbank, with almost 60% of consumer deposits, still escapes sanctions, if only for now; even it has seen a bank run like never before. US embargo on Russian oil lacks teeth simply because the amounts are so minuscule, but EU, which consumes over 40% of Russian oil exports, is actively looking to cut Russian energy import by a third in a year.

On the military side, the West has been scrupulously avoiding escalation that gives Russia an excuse to go nuclear, for real. This week saw a little drama as the US stood firm in refusing to accept Polish largesse of Soviet fighters to turn over to Ukraine. US and NATO refused a no-fly zone over the skies as that would surely result in downed jets from either side. On the ground, the spunk of Ukrainian civilians is given a leg up with Western defensive arms supply, including Javelin missiles that are wreaking havoc on marauding Russian columns. On the humanitarian side, the peoples are picking up the mantles. Throngs are gathering at train stations in Germany, e.g., carrying hand-drawn banners indicating how many people they have room for, mothers are leaving behind baby carriages at train stations and bus depots so incoming parents get some relief, strangers from abroad are renting rooms in Poland and elsewhere – not for themselves, but for refugees they’ll never probably meet in person, daring souls are running exfiltration forays deep inside the country to pick up those especially vulnerable. Despite there are over two million refugees there is no need for a refugee camp, yet, as ordinary citizens took it upon themselves to shelter the unfortunate.

Despite what it looks like on the ground in Ukraine, the West is winning this round. Putin knows it, and he knows that so does everybody else. There lies the big unknown known. What will Putin do? Last few weeks we have seen Putin the feeble foist, a role he absolutely detests. In Chechnya when he leveled the land, just because he hated appearing weak. Last time there was no tangible opprobrium, nor was a lasting impact on his people. This time is different. Is it so different that it makes Putin mad enough to test MAD? We do not know.

I am reminded of the 2013 Zombie epic “World War Z” where Brad Pitt, “Gerry” in the movie, fights armies of humans-turned-ogres across the globe, starting at his city of brotherly love, Philadelphia. The letter Z does not appear in the Russian alphabet. Still, the letter has made a near-ubiquitous appearance in Russian military vehicles, athlete’s accouterments, propaganda videos and sympathetic social media, becoming a symbol of support for the invasion. Another Z, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is facing the specter of Z at his doorstep, is on social media every day, walking the streets, visiting soldiers in hospital, addressing the House of Commons via videoconference, haranguing and beseeching world leaders – and above all, refusing to move himself or family out of harm’s way. Our Z is an icon of virtuous resistance, inspiring his people and volunteers abroad. Our Z is a leader who rises above the ruins defending the country, freedom, democracy, and dignity of his people against forces of evil. Their Z is a symbol of pusillanimous hate, aggression subjugation, denial of right to speak, and right to love, among everything else.

Ukraine is World’s War of Z’s, but no World War. Yet. I am praying that neither a miscalculation nor willful lunacy, does make it so.