It was the warble of a lone robin that did it. Not like the brash chortle exalted by the North American species of the same name, a member of the thrush family, it was more of a melodic aria.
Staring at my Remembrance Day television screen I caught a sight of the little maestro wearing its impeccably preened, and adorable, red waistcoat. Set against an intimidating November sky, lowering and dark, it was an impossibly ecstatic embodiment of beauty.
As I watched a seemingly immortal Queen lay a crimson wreath upon the base of the cold, geometric, Cenotaph — Britain’s war memorial — its valedictory, “The Glorious Dead,” collided with the robin in my consciousness.
I realized, for the first time, that there was a direct connection between the songbird’s unbridled tranquility and the harsh granite that it serenaded. Sitting in a cozy boarding school common room, it poignantly hit home that those sacrifices, that had for so long been elusively abstract, had afforded me the aforementioned appreciation of my world. In my chest I felt an overwhelming, if not slightly guilty, surge of gratitude — one that was far overdue.
Less than a week ago the people of Ukraine were faced with a similar choice to those encountered by successive generations of young men and women, memorialized in the centre of London, during the twentieth century. They had to choose whether to cede to the megalomania of a botox-indulgent tyrant or fight for the freedom that so threatened him. To his surprise, and indeed the surprise of many so-called allies in the West, they chose to fight.
Even as I compose these thoughts, on a redeye flight through Europe, their courage is stubbornly repelling Putin’s failed blitzkrieg, miles away and below. They are safeguarding the liberty, and subsequent diversity, that was birthed during the Euromaidan of 2013-14. This hard earned reality has, since its conception, aggressively confronted the authoritarianism that grips the neighboring Russia.
Whilst the powerful, and luxuriously free, West resigns itself to snip at Putin’s pursestrings, tales of extraordinary grit are coming from the eastern frontier. Despite the presence of multiple death squads hunting not just him, but his wife and young children, the nation’s president — Volodymyr Zelensky — has emerged as an unwavering torch of bravery and resolve.
Just over a week ago a New York Times op-ed sneered that this man, not all that old, was ‘over his head.’ Boy were they wrong. The comedian-turned-freedom-
Since escaping Putin’s USSR 2.0, Ukraine has slowly but surely developed a tolerant, prosperous and peaceful society. Whilst the country is far from perfect, the progress made has proved irresistible to the extraordinarily brave legions of Ukrainians who remain unbowed by their occupiers. As Zelensky’s fearlessness demonstrates, the dream of forty-four million free Ukrainians living in their own sovereign state is certainly worth fighting for.
Despite this ongoing drama, one that will undoubtedly go down in history as one of European democracy’s greatest, the West has done pathetically little. Recent sanctions, which were surely anticipated by the Russian state during its decision to invade, will do little to prevent the plight of Ukrainians in the short term. They may take weeks, months or perhaps longer to swing into effect.
In dolling out what is ostensibly two dollars of punishment for a multi-million dollar crime, liberal democracies are setting a terrifying precedent; invade those that threaten you, and get away with it. China is undoubtedly salivating over Taiwan with extra fervor after recent events.
So what is the alternative? Well, I’m not a foreign policy expert myself and I eschew the jingoism that reliably accompanies more hawkish lines of argument. A direct conflict with Russia would obviously be catastrophic for all states involved. Equally, I believe the path we currently find ourselves on to be comparably perilous. Perhaps, then, what is needed is a not so “happy” medium.
Troop deployments that fall short of the Russian advance would afford Putin the opportunity to claim a success in his laughable “peacekeeping mission” whilst preventing the full annexation of Ukraine. It would cede the land already lost to Russia’s aggression but it would prevent a deterioration to a wider conflict. It is a morally iffy option, but one that could potentially ensure the survival of a diminished, yet nevertheless sovereign, Ukraine. A deal in which no party is happy is, after all, a good deal.
These musings are just food for thought, and may not even be practically feasible. What is clear as I scroll through Twitter, and view countless Russian atrocities as well as many more acts of Ukrainian humanity, is that we are not doing enough. We cannot just sit idly by, resting on the past triumphs of those who sacrificed for the way of life we enjoy today. If we do, our own freedom will soon be under threat.
Watching President Zelensky standing rock solid behind an emblazoned podium, with increasingly saggy but determined eyes, I feel in my own heart the same admiration that John F. Kennedy must have felt visiting Berlin in 1963. The Berliners, like Ukrainians today, stood up to an ugly autocratic system. Thank God they did. Where would the world be without a free, capitalist Germany?
All free people are citizens of Ukraine. An attack on their liberty is ubiquitous. More then, is needed than cute Instagram stories and whispers of outrage around kitchen tables. Our leaders should feel forced to be bolder, be braver — to look to the streets of Kyiv and Kharkiv as examples of an appropriate defense of our ideals.
The comedian has set his stage, it is time for us to act.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.