The Russians can still conquer Ukraine. But Ukrainians have shown in recent days that they will not let them hold it.
Less than a week after the war, it seems increasingly likely that Vladimir Putin is heading for a historic defeat. He can win all battles, but still lose the war. Putin’s dream of rebuilding the Russian Empire has always been based on the lie that Ukraine is not a real nation, that Ukrainians are not a real people, and that the people of Kiev, Kharkov and Lviv long for Moscow’s rule. That’s a complete lie – Ukraine is a nation with over a thousand years of history, and Kiev was already a big metropolis when Moscow wasn’t even a village. But the Russian despot has told his lie so many times that he apparently believes it himself.
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Putin could count on many well-known facts when planning his invasion of Ukraine. He knew that Russia is militarily eclipsing Ukraine. He knew that NATO would not send troops to help Ukraine. He knew that Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas would make countries like Germany hesitant to impose harsh sanctions. Based on these known facts, his plan was to hit Ukraine hard and quickly, behead the government, establish a puppet regime in Kiev and overturn Western sanctions.
But there was one big unknown about this plan. As the Americans learned in Iraq and the Soviets learned in Afghanistan, it is much easier to conquer a country than to keep it. Putin knew he had the power to conquer Ukraine. But would the Ukrainian people just accept Moscow’s puppet regime? Putin bet they would. After all, as he has repeatedly explained to anyone who will listen, Ukraine is not a real nation and the Ukrainians are not a real people. In 2014, people in Crimea barely resisted the Russian invaders. Why would 2022 be any different?
With each passing day, it becomes clearer that Putin’s gamble is failing. The Ukrainian people resist with all their heart, win the admiration of the whole world – and win the war. Many dark days lie ahead. The Russians can still conquer all of Ukraine. But to win the war, the Russians would have to hold onto Ukraine, and they can only do that if the Ukrainian people allow them to. This seems increasingly unlikely.
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Every Russian tank destroyed and every Russian soldier killed increases the courage of the Ukrainians to resist. And every Ukrainian killed increases the Ukrainians’ hatred of the invaders. Hate is the ugliest of all emotions. But for oppressed nations, hatred is a hidden treasure. Buried deep in the heart, it can resist for generations. To restore the Russian Empire, Putin needs a relatively bloodless victory that will lead to a relatively hateless occupation. By shedding more and more Ukrainian blood, Putin ensures that his dream will never come true. It won’t be Mikhail Gorbachev’s name on the Russian Empire’s death certificate: it’ll be Putin’s. Gorbachev made the Russians and Ukrainians feel like brothers and sisters; Putin has made them enemies and has ensured that the Ukrainian nation will henceforth position itself as an opposition to Russia.
Nations are ultimately built on stories. With each passing day, more stories are added that Ukrainians will tell not only in the coming dark days, but also in the decades and generations to come. The president who refused to flee the capital and told the US he needed ammunition, no lift; the soldiers of Snake Island who told a Russian warship to “fuck yourself”; the civilians who tried to stop Russian tanks by getting in their way. This is the material from which nations are built. In the long run, these stories count for more than tanks.
The Russian despot should know this as well as anyone. As a child, he grew up with tales of German atrocities and Russian bravery during the siege of Leningrad. He now produces similar stories, but casts himself in the role of Hitler.
The stories of Ukrainian courage give a solution not only to the Ukrainians, but the whole world. They give courage to the governments of European countries, to the American government and even to the oppressed citizens of Russia. If Ukrainians dare to stop a tank with bare hands, the German government could dare to equip them with anti-tank missiles, the US government could cut Russia off from Swift, and Russian citizens could resist this pointless war.
We can all be inspired to dare to do something, whether it’s making a donation, welcoming refugees or helping in the fight online. The war in Ukraine will determine the future of the whole world. If tyranny and aggression are allowed to win, we will all suffer the consequences. It makes no sense to remain just spectators. It’s time to stand up and be counted.
Unfortunately, this war is likely to last a long time. In various forms, it can go on for years. But the most important thing has already been decided. The past few days have proved to the whole world that Ukraine is a very real country, that Ukrainians are a very real people and that they absolutely do not want to live under a new Russian Empire. The main question left open is how long it will take for this message to penetrate the thick walls of the Kremlin.
By Yuval Noah Harari @ theguardian.com. Yuval Noah Harari is a historian and author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind