Willed Madness

James Meek

Read the first of James Meek’s reports from Kyiv here.

I bought my son a present just before I flew out of Kyiv yesterday – yesterday? it seems weeks ago – a porcelain ornament of a little boy riding on the back of a swan. It was too fragile for a six-year-old, really, but he likes swans, and I thought the boy looked a bit like him.

By the time he came into the bedroom just after six o’clock this morning I’d been scrolling through Twitter for the best part of four hours. While I was away a storm left something rattling on the roof in the wind and when I woke up just after two, before I remembered I was home, I had an idea there was shooting in the distance. I reached for the phone, hoping for a pause in Putin’s tumble into infamy, but Ukraine had just closed its airspace. Soon the Russian leader was announcing his plan to invade Ukraine, to ‘denazify’ a country led by a man whose Jewish forebears died in the Holocaust. The rockets began to fall. It was spotted that Putin wore the same clothes as during his menacing Monday rant about Ukrainian history, suggesting the two diatribes were recorded at the same time. The more telling clue was not so much the identical clothes as the identical mood: a threatening, vengeful man waving a big stick made up of the bodies of other people’s children.

When the Ryanair jet lined up for take-off the day before, I looked out the window and saw Ukrainian military transport planes parked in a row next to the runway. I wondered if they would be there in the morning. I wonder if they’re there now. Russia has thrown tons of explosives at Ukrainian airfields and air defence bases in the past hours. As I write, there’s good reason to believe Russian ground forces have begun attacking Kharkiv from the east; moved deep into Kherson region in the south, capturing the head of the canal that until 2014 carried water from the Dnieper to Crimea; and are threatening Kyiv from two sides, from (Ukrainian) Sumy in the east and Belarus in the north. An airborne assault by Russian paratroopers using dozens of helicopters has seized a cargo airfield to the north-west of the capital. Ukrainian forces have fought back with the limited array of armour and missiles at their disposal. Aircraft have been shot down; tanks have been burned out; civilians killed and injured. In what so far seems like a pinnacle of willed madness, Russian and Ukrainian troops were reported to be fighting over control of the Chernobyl nuclear power station.

How might this play out? The most likely scenario is that things get worse, then worse again. Many Ukrainians will flee, either to the west of Ukraine, which has been attacked by Russian rockets and cruise missiles but so far has not reported Russian ground troops, or across the border into Europe. Most won’t, and some will fight. The Ukrainian army and even air force are standing their ground as best they can. On the Russian side, Putin has set the bar incredibly high for success: to ‘demilitarise’ Ukraine without occupying it, and to ‘denazify’ the country – in other words, to use Nazi/Stalinist methods to arrest, try, imprison or kill selected opponents. This would appear to mean a requirement to control the entire country, even the most nationalist areas. Given that his whole persona and reputation is built, now more than ever before, on the successful and merciless use of force, he cannot afford to retreat or lose any territory his benighted troops have won for him. In other words, the two sides are doomed to go on fighting: one to survive, the other for total victory. The most likely outcome is still a Russian win, at an enormous cost in lives and Russian prestige – and if it seems Russian prestige can’t sink any lower than it is now, stick around.

At the earliest possible opportunity, Russia will introduce a puppet government, which it will recognise. The former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych is still alive and, presumably, available. Russia never accepted his ouster in 2014; his involvement, even to sign over his powers to someone else, might lend, at least for Putin, a sheen of legality to the grisly charade. Even if parts of Ukraine were still defiantly holding out against Russia, the Kremlin presumably believes it could use this as a starting point to begin handing enforcement duties over to local surrogates. Certainly there are a number of Ukrainian citizens, and not only in the east of the country, who would happily become Moscow’s enforcers on the spot, for reasons of money, power and revenge. But how many? Large enough to hold down a nation of forty million people without a drainingly large Russian garrison?

Overestimating the eagerness of Ukraine’s population to go back inside Putin’s laager was the mistake Russia made in 2014. The country will be still less accepting this time round. Resistance from nationalists – but it’s wrong to call them nationalists, given that the biggest chauvinist on the current stage is Putin himself. Better to call them, borrowing terms from the related division in Ireland, Ukrainian republicans – those who value independence – and Ukrainian unionists: those who put ties with Russia above complete self-determination. Resistance from Ukrainian republicans would be inevitable, and in a situation where Ukrainian unionists and Russian troops act as joint agents of repression, the obvious target of the republicans would be the unionists – the collaborators, as they would see them. A spiral of ever increasing bitterness would follow.

Most of the people I know in Kyiv are safe for now, as far as I’m aware. One family, whose home was close to a targeted base, planned to head west, risking the massive refugee traffic on the E40 highway; another had waved off their grown up children, again to western Ukraine, and planned to wait things out. Iryna was in the shelter; Artem, her husband, was getting ready to return to the army.

I’m glad to be home, and guilty to be home. I think perhaps the best way to imagine what Ukrainians are going through is not to try too hard to project your thoughts onto a place you’ve probably never been but to think about the familiar small routines of your own day and how they’d be affected by an invasion. Are you or your family sitting by the window? Mightn’t it shatter in an explosion? Are you seriously going to drop your child off at school with missiles falling? You were going to have coffee with a friend, but it says on Facebook there’s a gun battle going on near the place you were supposed to meet up. You pop into the Co-op for groceries, but they’re only taking cash, and there’s a line around the block for the ATM. Your covid test comes out positive, but you live alone, and there’s nobody out there to deliver food to you. Among all the awful aspects of what’s going on, Russia invaded Ukraine while both countries’ heavily unvaccinated populations are still enduring a harsh phase of the pandemic. On the day it began killing Ukrainians, and its own young soldiers, Russia lost 762 people from Covid.

Read on: ‘In Ruins'


  • 25 February 2022 at 4:08am
    Harriet says:
    Can anyone name a more brutal and murderous species than the human being? Not only will the human species foul its own nest, it will lay waste to all other species that stand in its way. Humans, forever determined to proceed with death and destruction will in the end, destroy its planet, it fellow humans, animals, and all sentient life. And for what?

    • 25 February 2022 at 1:57pm
      Reader says: @ Harriet
      This despair may seem like wisdom, Harriet, but I think you are mistaken. Humans as a species are not brutal and murderous. Individual humans are all that and more, but the great majority just want to get on with their lives in peace.

      The trouble with your attitude is that it gives Putin, Trump and the other powerful sociopaths who are trying to dominate us, an excuse to carry on behaving as they are. So no, we are not 'determined to proceed with death and destruction'. I am not, nor probably are you, so let us stop sinking into a warm puddle of self-pity and start working, actively, to get rid of these pests.

    • 25 February 2022 at 3:10pm
      Rory Allen says: @ Reader
      Well said, Reader. Harriet's quietism is just fine by Putin, Trump and the rest of them. While we wring our hands, they will wring our necks.

  • 25 February 2022 at 6:56pm
    nlowhim says:
    It is a damn shame, willed madness indeed. Still surprised that Putin decided to go to Kyiv. It would seem he's asking for an insurgency (how quick is he hoping this war will be?) and I don't see how people outside of the Eastern part of the country would be welcoming. Any puppet government will be hard to maintain. To that end, did you find any people with positive reactions to what Putin was doing? Even second hand?

    That being said, why talk about the likes of the far right (and actual Nazis, from all my reading) that do play a role in current Ukraine like it's non -existent? No one is giving Putin an excuse, but when there are still articles about laws against the Russian language, that would seem to matter, wouldn't it?

    Here in the states, the internets are filled with people who are certain to shout you down if you mention the expansion of NATO and said Nazi elements. Even if we don't back Putin and think the invasion is morally criminal. Once again, the need to see every situation as 1939, as binary as can be, is infecting the discourse.

    • 1 March 2022 at 10:13am
      Lexa Hypatia says: @ nlowhim
      No doubt I am very ignorant of these things besides you men, but I can't understand how NATO comes into it. Perhaps you can explain to me, nlowhim, given that Ukraine is not actually a member of NATO. Then I can get back to my embroidery.

  • 26 February 2022 at 9:12pm
    Dr Paul says:
    James Meek makes the pertinent point that a Russian occupation of Ukraine will be necessary if Putin wishes a new regime in Kyiv that is loyal to him to last for any length of time, and this will almost certainly raise all manner of problems for him. I recall reading an article by Isaac Deutscher in which he cited a German expression, ‘Man kann sich totsiegen’ — ‘You can drive yourself victoriously into your grave.’ One suspects that this might well be the case for Putin.

    • 27 February 2022 at 7:24pm
      Gardiner Linda says: @ Dr Paul
      This is what we call in English a Pyrrhic victory: 'One more victory like that and we're done for'. But Putin is a lot smarter than Pyrrhus, even if the Western press is convinced that he must be both stupid and crazy. Unfortunately, he's neither; he just wants something that we don't want (for some unspecified value of 'we').

  • 27 February 2022 at 10:45pm
    Eamonn Shanahan says:
    Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after, / And the poetry he invented was easy to understand; / He knew human folly like the back of his hand, / And was greatly interested in armies and fleets; / When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter, / And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

    (Epitaph on a Tyrant)

Read more