February 23, 2022
Today, Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky made a passionate plea to the people of Russia to avoid war. He gave the speech in Russian, his own primary language, and, reminding Russians of their shared border and history, told them to “listen to the voice of reason”: Ukrainians want peace.
“You've been told I'm going to bomb Donbass,” he said. “Bomb what? The Donetsk stadium where the locals and I cheered for our team at Euro 2012? The bar where we drank when they lost? Luhansk, where my best friend's mom lives?” Zelensky tried to make the human cost of this conflict clear. Observers lauded the speech and contrasted its statesmanship with Putin’s recent ramblings.
And yet, it will stand only as a marker. Tonight in America, but early Thursday in Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin launched a “special military operation,” claiming, quite transparently falsely, that he needed to defend the people in the “new republics” within Ukraine that he recognized Monday from “persecution and genocide by the Kyiv regime.” He called for “demilitarization” of Ukraine, demanding that soldiers lay down their weapons and saying that any bloodshed would be on their hands.
He also promised to provide for the ”denazification” of Ukraine, a harking back to the period after World War II when Nazis and those who had worked with them were purged from society. Putin has repeatedly referred to Ukrainian leaders as Nazis, a charge Zelensky, who is of Jewish heritage, has pleaded with Russians to reject, citing Ukraine’s losses in World War II and his own grandfather’s service in that war. Putin’s chilling word here suggests that he intends to purge from Ukraine all those who worked with the Zelensky government.
Putin warned: “Anyone who tries to interfere with us, or even more so, to create threats for our country and our people, must know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never before experienced in your history.” This sweeping and vague threat seems to encompass everything from massive cyber attacks to nuclear war, but at this point it seems mostly to be an effort to deter resistance. Russia’s economy is already taking hits from Putin’s decision to recognize the breakaway governments, and it likely cannot withstand a long war. Putin needs a quick win.
As he spoke in a video, wearing the same clothes he wore in the prerecorded meeting broadcast Monday, suggesting this message might have been recorded at the same time, the U.N. Security Council was holding an emergency meeting in New York City to implore him not to go forward with war. At the Security Council meeting, the Russian ambassador claimed his nation was not “being aggressive against the Ukrainian people, but against the junta in power in Kyiv.” Rather than a junta government that took power by force, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky was popularly elected in April 2019 in a landslide of more than 73%.
At 10:58 tonight, Eastern time, Ukraine foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted: “Putin has just launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Peaceful Ukrainian cities are under strikes. This is a war of aggression. Ukraine will defend itself and will win. The world can and must stop Putin. The time to act is now.”
By midnight tonight, Ukraine’s state emergency service said that ten regions were under attack.
Countries around the world condemned the attack. Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs Jeppe Sebastian Kofod said: “Denmark utterly condemns this horrific attack…. An abhorrent breach of international law. Russia bears full responsibility for this needless conflict[.] We will coordinate closely with allies, partners for strongest possible international reaction[.]”
In a statement, President Biden said, “The prayers of the entire world are with the people of Ukraine tonight as they suffer an unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces. President Putin has chosen a premeditated war that will bring a catastrophic loss of life and human suffering. Russia alone is responsible for the death and destruction this attack will bring, and the United States and its Allies and partners will respond in a united and decisive way. The world will hold Russia accountable.”
The administration increased sanctions today, adding the company building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and its corporate officers. Tomorrow, Biden will meet in the morning with the other leaders of the G7: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the U.K.—the world’s wealthiest liberal democracies. He will speak to the American people afterward to announce further consequences for Russia’s aggression.
Tonight, Biden reported: “President Zelenskyy reached out to me tonight and we just finished speaking. I condemned this unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces. I briefed him on the steps we are taking to rally international condemnation, including tonight at the UN Security Council. He asked me to call on the leaders of the world to speak out clearly against President Putin’s flagrant aggression, and to stand with the people of Ukraine.”
Zelensky told his people: “A minute ago I spoke to President Biden. The USA has started to unite international support. Today we need each of you to stay calm. If you can, stay at home. We are working. The army is working. The whole security and defense sector of Ukraine is working.”
Richard Engel of NBC News reported on this speech by Zelensky and in the report he noted that much of the Russian news flying around Ukraine appears to be false, designed to get Ukrainians to panic and give up quickly.
I’m cutting the news in this letter off at midnight, Maine time, to keep the record clear. And, while we’re at it, a lot happened domestically today, but I am holding it for the future. Today’s invasion of democratic Ukraine by authoritarian Putin is important. It not only has broken a long period of peace in Europe, it has brought into the open that authoritarians are indeed trying to destroy democracy.