Ukraine: Notes from a War that is No Longer News

Oleg Yasinsky
redes sociales rusasIn recent months it has been difficult to make balanced analyses and projections of events, for it must be admitted that with all our arrogance and a supposed understanding of the logic of the Ukrainian-Russian absurdity, we failed to predict anything at all. We denied seeing what we feared so much, as our consciousness often denies our mortality, we denied recognising the inevitability of this war. We are discovering the hardest thing about civil wars, what literature keeps silent about: the most painful deaths are sometimes not those of those closest to us, but of those former friends who, through the madness of circumstances, are left in the opposite trench, and with whom there will be no more reconciliation, no more future jokes about these mad times.

It is also hard to be a pacifist; hating hatred and war, it is not difficult to understand that the current carnage in the heart of the former Soviet Union is not the product of any hatred, but of pure political calculation and professional media work, generous in handing out medieval beliefs and very poor in any rational expression. It seems to me hypocritical to talk about the hope for peace and to wish the negotiations success, when the partner does not exist. Ukraine has been a NATO and paramilitary base for 8 years and has always used all the agreements with Russia and the rebel republics of Donbass to build up its forces, arm itself, repress internal dissent and continue to provoke its neighbours. If Russia stops or backs down, it loses the war. If European governments stop supporting the Ukrainian government and allow it to fall, opening up the possibility of political, economic and military unification of the three Slavic states of the former USSR, NATO will have to concede defeat, which would nullify the new imperial ambitions of the US, burying forever its dream of destroying China.

I am in Moscow and my former co-worker in a Ukrainian TV programme, which we had before the war, is a refugee in Germany with her daughter. Her younger brother, only 19 years old, was a Ukrainian volunteer and died in the fighting in Mariupol. When the war started, in the early days, he left his poems and his guitar and signed up as a volunteer in a nationalist battalion. He acted as he felt it was his duty, as young Ukrainians were taught for the last 8 years, with anti-Russian and anti-communist slogans. It is the nationalist battalions that commit the most heinous crimes in this war. Their ideologically well-prepared political commanders are Nazi commissars in charge of the Ukrainian troops. They carry out orders from Washington and London. Was that boy a Nazi? What could I tell his sister? What good will my words or my silence do her? Now she is promoting in social networks Ukrainian Nazi groups who for her are the “heroes of the motherland”. Her parents live in Crimea, they always felt Russian and next to the Orthodox icon they had a picture of Putin cut out of a magazine.

…And in the opposing trenches, Russian and Ukrainian soldiers listen to the same songs…

Russia is as full of contradictions as ever. We know that the origins of Putin’s government are no different from those of the Ukrainian government and that afterwards the sad outcome of the fraud called Perestroika, what Russia sought most was to integrate into the capitalist Western world, applied to join NATO, accepted secondary roles to avoid conflict, remained silent for decades in the face of NATO’s expansion and its permanent denigrating treatment by the Western media. The turning point came with the coup d’état in Ukraine, when the West brought to power far-right, radically anti-Russian forces, which, faced with the massive disagreement of the population of its eastern regions, bordering Russia and culturally much closer to Russia than to western Ukraine, decided to start a military operation with bombings in the cities of its own country.

In response, Russia supported economically and militarily the Ukrainian territories that proclaimed themselves independent republics and took back the Crimean peninsula, where the population always felt more Russian than Ukrainian. Although today Ukraine claims so much for the return of Crimea, during the years when it was part of the country, it was in total neglect by the central power and at that time in 2014, it was threatened by armed nationalist gangs promising to “send to Crimea the friendship trains” (a sarcastic expression meaning the sending of paramilitary thugs). Crimea is also home to Russia’s most important naval base with access to the Mediterranean, which at the time, with NATO’s increasing war activity in the region, was a very important factor. It seems that in this period, the Russian government began to understand that it had no friends or allies in the European Union and that Russia alone would have to defend its interests as best it could.

When the Russian army attacked the Ukrainian military installations on 24 February, it seems that in those early days there was an absurd hope of avoiding a confrontation between the troops… it is hard to believe, but it seems that the Russian leadership thought that the Ukrainian army would defeat Zelensky’s puppet government, outlaw Nazi groups and expel US and NATO advisors from the country, which would immediately halt the Russian military operation. Most Russians were shocked by the news. Almost all of them have relatives or at least close friends in this neighbouring country that is so close to Russia mentally and culturally. Many of them rushed to write to the Ukrainians that they were wrong, that they were hurt, that they did not support the war, that those who decided it were crazy. And in response, many of them received photos of the corpses of mutilated Russian soldiers and anti-Russian insults of all kinds. This changed the mood of many.

In the first week of the war, thousands of people in Russia came out in protest. About 3,500 were arrested across the country, but afterwards, after brief interrogations, they were released. The West expected an explosion of protests and brutal repression. Protests were being promoted on all networks and screens, and going online from Russia, from the first hours of the war, an anti-war campaign was more planned and more funded than ever before. The Russian government passed draconian laws against anyone spreading “fake news about our army”, but never enforced them. “The strictness of the laws is compensated by the non-enforceability of their enforcement,” say the Russians. The brutal economic sanctions and the even more brutal global campaign against Russian culture definitely united most Russians against the West.

The Russian army continues to advance slowly. They try to avoid urban clashes, attacking only military targets, but the weapons have no intelligence or mercy and there are many civilian casualties. Between 300 and 500 Ukrainian servicemen are also killed every day. The Ukrainian army, retreating, responds indiscriminately by firing indiscriminately through the residential districts of Donetsk and the towns taken by Russian troops, leaving every day only civilian casualties that since 2014 are of no interest to the Western press. The value of Ukraine’s military support from the West will soon exceed the value of the entire Russian military budget. In the hypothetical case of Ukraine’s military triumph, this means an unpayable debt, with interest in the millions until the end of time.

In Russia, there are thousands of questions among civilians and military personnel. It seems that a large part of the government has the same questions. How can a government, which so recently felt part of the Western world, pretend to win a war against the system that decided to destroy it? Can the profound social change that Russia needs be supported by at least a part of its government? If the government is definitely incapable, who would take charge, in a people with such communitarian values, but without any social organisation?

A few days ago, there was an exchange of prisoners of war. Among those returned to Ukraine were several members of the Nazi Azov battalion. Earlier, various Russian government officials had repeatedly assured that ALL members of the far-right military organisations would be tried and, unlike ordinary military personnel, none of them would be exchanged. This generated enormous annoyance in the Russian civilian and military world and strong criticism of the government, which post-factum, with its usual clumsiness, justified itself by saying that the exchanged Azov fighters were investigated, that they did not commit any crime against the civilian population and that they are all in a very bad state of health, amputees and unable to return to combat.

An official report says that 95% of the former Russian military prisoners were tortured with electricity by the Ukrainians. In general, the clumsiness and ineptitude of official Russian propaganda in the face of an efficient global information war is one of the enigmas of these times. The media war in Russia is waged by volunteers, bloggers and the military, while government spokespersons spout incoherent ramblings that quickly become memes. Thus, when under fire from new artillery installations recently handed over to Ukraine by France, Russian troops had to leave an island in the Negro Sea, the defence ministry said that Russia did so “as a gesture of goodwill”. If everything in Russia was done in the same way as the official media war, the country would probably no longer exist.

Meanwhile, from Ukraine, the terrible news continues to come in. Intelligence forces and paramilitary groups are still searching for the internal enemy. There are thousands of prisoners, torture and hundreds of unofficial executions of civilians. Former militants of the long-banned left are rushing to denounce their former comrades in order to deserve forgiveness. Russian literature has been removed from school curricula and Russian-language songs are legally banned throughout Ukraine, although 70 per cent of the country speaks Russian as a native language. Throughout the country, all Soviet monuments and monuments dedicated to Russian personalities continue to be demolished. A new law was passed allowing the state to expropriate all property of persons suspected of “supporting the aggressor”. In a small northern town, the entire organisation of young writers was arrested, accusing them of being agents of the Kremlin, as they wrote only in Russian and nothing patriotic.

A close friend, a poet and publisher, who was never involved in political issues, recently called me from a third country: his flat in Kiev was raided by state security services and he was accused of treason for representing “an enemy culture” and “the Russian world”. With only what he was wearing, he got into his car and left the country. He was lucky, he was able to leave because he had a medical certificate of invalidity, because men up to the age of 60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine. He does not reveal any more details, as he has children and grandchildren left in Ukraine. I know dozens of such stories at first hand, and not all of them have happy endings.

Because there are so many casualties, more and more cannon fodder is needed on the front lines, and the authorities continue to hunt down the young and not so young. Yesterday on a beach in Kiev, police handed a young man sunbathing in the sun an order to join the army. He jumped into the river and swam away.

The Immortal Regiment, Moscow, 9 May 2022

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