I was in the middle of trying to unsubscribe to a wellness – or as they say in old parlance, a health and beauty – newsletter on 24 February when Russia invaded Ukraine.

My effort to unsubscribe was triggered by the sudden onslaught in an article I was reading of the gross term ‘vagina owners’. I think there was also a ‘people with penises’.

Needless to say, because I am a news junkie, I abandoned this personal, little (but not meaningless) battle against the dark forces of woke language and the irrationality of the gender/sex wars, to turn my attention to the real physical war that threatens all of us and our well-being.

Apparently one must fix these historic moments in history with what one was doing at the time, however mundane it may be. What were you doing on the day John F Kennedy was shot, the wall came down in Berlin, Nicolae Ceaușescu was toppled, Nelson Mandela was released?  

It so happens that on all of those I was either listening to the radio or, in the last instance, reporting on it. So I will recall in future, if I and the world are still around, that I was embarrassingly fiddling on my phone, not even looking at Twitter, when Vladimir Putin began the destruction of the lives of millions of ordinary Ukrainian people, who were possibly, like me, going about mundane, pointless things as the Russian army invaded.

I’m no Russian expert or Putin tracker but I was never really taken by the line that Putin is bluffing.

This conflict, as the toadying, abstaining South African government calls it, but which most democracies see as an imperial war aimed at extending territory and power, has astounded me with the emotive partisanship it has unleashed across Europe and the Western world, and with the way it has ignited pusillanimous Europe, along with Britain the US and other Ukraine supporters, into harsh punitive sanctions.

They make those imposed on pre-ANC South Africa and Zimbabwe look like jokes. Within a couple of days Russia has acquired a pariah status even South Africa failed to achieve under its previous government.    

To be honest, it’s refreshing to feel so righteous in support of a country defending itself, to see Europe actually putting, if not its military forces, at least a joint effort into the economic strangulation of Putin and his oligarch enablers.

The aggressor of this war clearly doesn’t live by the norms of modern democracy.

No justification

It’s also rather a rush not to have to ‘understand’ his motivation, ‘lived experience’ or arguments devoid of facts. There is no justification for this act.

As Jonah Goldberg put it: ‘…even if you don’t much care about the democracy stuff, any remotely defensible definition of nationalism should not only respect Ukraine’s nationhood, it should respect the desires of the Russian people.’

Certainly they didn’t show much sign of being keen on this war when it started.

This is Slav fighting Slav because one of them wants something the other has and is probably nostalgic for the old USSR and keen to resurrect it before he pops his clogs.

So no naughty corner will do. It’s time for a good beating – back, at least.

Activist, author and politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes in Unherd that Europe’s dependence on soft power strategies has left it divorced from reality. Trade, aid and diplomacy tools, ‘are honourable and pragmatic’ at times and even for resolution of conflict,’but evil men cannot be stopped by soft power alone’.

Especially, Ali stresses, if they, like Putin, use refugees as a tool of war. According to Ali, 1.5 million Ukrainians fled Crimea when Russia invaded in 2014. But they only fled to other parts of the country. Now several millions are on the move into the rest of Europe.

Over the past 10 days I have watched, in disbelief, as Ukrainians and other residents poured over the border into Poland. They have puffer jackets and they had lives just like mine. They are ordinary people who went to the ATM to draw cash, argued with children over how much Lego they could take with them, pushed onto a train or climbed into the family car, together with their pets, to flee. They have left fridges and microwaves, and maybe an exercise bike in the front room. 

I caught a glimpse of one in a cellphone image, endlessly repeated on TV channels, weirdly upright in a shattered building with blown-out windows and crumbled walls.

They are not the only ones scared. Fires and destruction at nuclear power plants and our knowledge that Putin has a nuclear arsenal, haunt all of us to some or other degree.

I am back in the 60s, a child with an active imagination, diligently reading through the back pages of the Cape Town telephone directory containing instructions on what to do in the event of nuclear attack.

Concept of nationhood

The sovereignty of a country, the concept of nationhood, are the big issues, the notions being roused by this war. So are emotions. Will they lead us to supporting things that may be indefensible when we look back on them?

There is a worrying tilt towards the tool of cancellation when it comes to communication which leaves free speech absolutists anxious (and I am, very nearly, one of them). Did someone really propose Russian scientists be barred from publishing in scientific journals? Should Elon Musk be asked to block all Russian news sources? Are we encouraging the demonization of all Russians?  Does the end justify the means? All those familiar debates are back in play.

Is it illegal what Putin is doing? Yes. Is he committing war crimes? Probably.

I have no idea who actually has the biggest body count at present, or how many tanks are now in the hands of happy Ukrainian farmers: it is a war, so both sides will put out their own propaganda to the best of their ability. But unlikely hero Volodymyr Zelensky and his people were clearly winning this aspect of the war even before Russia Today got gagged (and before Putin clamped down on his own media dissenters and his soldiers ambushed a team of broadcast journalists).

It doesn’t do Ukraine any harm that there is consensus among many women war watchers that the compact Ukrainian president is rather appealing on video in his tight military green t-shirt, with his appropriately defiant, reasonable arguments.

American writer Kat Rosenfeld has described him as a ‘bit of a snack’. Other women, closer to home, concur.

I remind them that we must guard against hero worship and hormonal urges at all times. But there’s a definite gung-ho attitude out there, among Ukraine supporters.

The Ukrainian people themselves, with their cellphone videos and sound bites, seem dab hands at putting across a resilient, brave, compassionate and apparently unorchestrated image.

But will their country still exist when next I write? Will the dragon Putin, finally, be vanquished in Europe?

Upbeat ending

The Christian Science Monitor several decades ago frequently expressed the hope that its correspondents would be able to provide a positive, upbeat ending to their stories from troubled countries or conflict zones. I don’t recall John Battersby or myself (me working for Monitor Radio) and reporting from South Africa managing this feat often if at all.

But I’ll give it a go now.

Russian-British comedian and political commentator, Konstantin Kisin, (what’s with this sudden rush of comedian politicos?) thinks there is a face-saving (an important consideration when it comes to Putin) compromise deal to be made that could resolve this war. It’s worth having a look at what he suggests at @konstantinkisin if you’re on Twitter.

I will sign off while you do that.

Long live Ukraine, long live.

[Image: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/putin-the-president-of-russia-2972184/]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Paddi Clay spent 40 years in journalism, as a reporter and consultant, manager, editor and trainer in radio, print and online. She was a correspondent for foreign networks during the 80s and 90s and, more recently, a judge on the Alan Paton Book Awards. She has an MA in Digital Journalism Leadership and received the Vodacom National Columnist award in 2007. Now retired she feels she has earned the right to indulge in her hobbies of politics, history, the arts, popular culture and good food. She values curiosity, humour, and freedom of speech, opinion and choice.