The History Channel is broadcasting live. The US commentator who made that quip meant that events currently unfolding in Ukraine will be remembered for many decades to come, that future generations of schoolchildren will be called to memorise the date of 24 February 2022. But it’s true in another, darker sense too. For this is a grimly retro war. Russian troops marching across an international border, closing in on a European capital? Families sheltering in underground stations, children parted from their fathers, civilians donning uniforms and reaching for rifles, vowing to fight to the death for their homeland? An actual invasion of one European country by another? Footage of such events looks strange in colour: it should be in grainy black and white.
Because Europe was meant to have left such events behind, if not in the 1940s – when the Nazi bombardment of Kyiv began at 4am one day in 1941, rather than the 5am hour chosen on Thursday by Vladimir Putin – then later in the 20th century, when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968. Instead, history is back – confronting us with a choice we imagined we’d made long ago.
The choice was set out as starkly as it could be, by the leaders of the two countries now locked in uneven combat. Putin spoke twice, his first address repeatedly described as rambling and incoherent, but no less chilling for that. Between the two appearances, Putin set out a justification for invasion that, naturally, rested on lies. He claimed Moscow had to invade, to save eastern Ukraine’s Russian speakers from a genocidal threat that did not exist. He would rescue Ukraine from rule by “neo-Nazis”, an odd way to describe a country whose president and recent prime minister are both Jews, both democrats.
But underneath the spurious defences lay the Putin worldview. His objection was not, as Putin’s western apologists on the far right and far left would have it, merely to Nato expansion, but something rather more fundamental. Putin argued that Ukraine was not a proper country, implying that of the states born out of the collapsed Soviet Union, only one was real and legitimate: Russia. All the rest were confections, whose right to exist was hazy and to be determined by Putin himself, by force of arms if necessary. Taking him by his word and by his deeds, Putin believes he has the right to redraw the map of Europe, and to do so in blood.
Not long afterwards, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskiy also addressed the Russian people, and he too spoke in Russian. It was a speech for the ages, one that deserves to be read now and long after this crisis is over. For it did not just plead his people’s case, though it did that: “Lots of you have relatives in Ukraine. You know our character, our principles, what matters to us.” It did not just make the case against all wars: “People lose their loved ones and themselves.” It specifically set out the principle at stake: “international law, the right to determine your own future”.
This, then, is the choice. Do we want to live in the world described by Zelenskiy, where democratic states are protected by an international system of rules, however flawed and inconsistent that system might be? Or do we want to live in Putin’s world, governed by the law of the jungle and where the only right is might?
We think we know which side we’re on. We want to stand with those bleary-eyed children, clutching their colouring books as they bed down in a Kyiv subway station. We tell ourselves we stand with them and against Putin and his war of aggression.
But do we? Because Putin had hardly kept his worldview secret until now. On the contrary, he had acted on it at least three times in the past 15 years, each time paying little price. He seized a chunk of Georgia in 2008 and of Ukraine in 2014, to say nothing of his decision to adopt the Assad regime’s murderous war against the Syrian people as his own a year later. We may have forgotten about all that – the Russian dissident Garry Kasparov laments the “amnesia of the west” – but Putin had not. He noted the western shrug that greeted his annexation of Crimea: how, just four years later, Russia was cheerfully hosting the football World Cup. There was no beefing up of Ukrainians’ defences, so that they might protect themselves against this moment. There was no clearout of oligarch money from Londongrad. Putin understood the signal: it was a green light.
And what are we proposing to do to stop him now, even as he invades his neighbour? The latest rounds of economic sanctions are hardly crippling, not when Moscow has friends, starting with China, that are willing to soften the blow. But even if the measures were stronger, there’s no guarantee they would work. Both Bashar al-Assad and the regime in Tehran have faced sanctions for years; they’re still standing, their behaviour barely changed. The problem is an obvious one: Putin does not care if his people suffer. He’s priced in the hit to his oligarch pals, just as he’s priced in the loss of Russian military lives. For him, conquering Ukraine – and removing the example of a democratic neighbour that might show Russians a different life is possible – is worth it.
But if confronting Putin economically is ineffective, confronting him militarily is barely plausible or palatable. The Russian dictator was at pains to remind the west that his is a “powerful nuclear state”. Analysts say that Putin does not see Russia’s nuclear capability as theoretical: it is absorbed into his military strategy. No one would want to tangle with such a man, not least as he seems to drift ever further away from stable rationality. Apparently modest options – perhaps enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine – run into the same problems: it would mean Nato being at war with Russia.
We can hope for a palace coup against the tsar. We can send our solidarity and admiration to those Russian anti-war protesters brave enough to take to the streets, hoping they might somehow topple the autocrat ruining so many lives. But these are no more than wishes. The grimmer prospect is that Putin understands something about the 21st century few of us want to face: that this is an age of impunity, especially for those who have a vast and deadly arsenal but no shame.
That is what’s at stake in this moment. Beijing understands it: if Russia can take Ukraine, why can’t China snatch Taiwan? Kseniia understands it too. She is the young Kyiv resident who, after a night in a subway station, told the BBC: “We are like a shield for Europe and for the world. We fight for the freedom of the world.” She is right – and yet she, and her country, are terribly alone.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist
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• This article was amended on 25 February 2022. An earlier version described Ukraine as “a country whose president and prime minister are both Jews”; this should have said “recent prime minister”.