So, the tortuous suspense continues as we wait to see if European history is going to be wrenched off its current post-Cold War axis and thrust into an unforeseen direction.
On the eve of World War I, then British foreign minister Earl Grey somberly told a hushed House of Commons: “Last week I stated that we were working for peace not only for this country, but to preserve the peace of Europe. Today, events move so rapidly that it is exceedingly difficult to state with technical accuracy, the actual state of affairs.”
What is the actual state of affairs now?
The people I spoke with in Kyiv do not seem certain.
Sunday was an emotional roller-coaster of a day — like so many preceding. We have gone up and down on a stomach-churning journey of just a few hours.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized again that all signs suggest Russia is on the brink of invading Ukraine, but he vowed to pursue diplomacy until the moment the tanks roll and planes fire to try and avert a full-blown conflict.
“Everything we are seeing suggests that this is dead serious, that we are on the brink of an invasion. We will do everything we can to try to prevent it before it happens,” he said.
His bleak view seemed validated when Belarus announced that the large-scale military drills its forces have been conducting with Russia would be extended past their deadline of Sunday, adding to worries that Kremlin war planners indeed may have their sights on Kyiv itself, if the guns of February roar.
Then worries were moderately allayed when the Élysée Palace announced, after nearly two hours of phone talks between French President Emmanuel Macron and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, that the pair had agreed to work toward a diplomatic solution “in coming days and coming weeks.” And French officials said the two are endeavoring to secure a cease-fire in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Moscow forces have intensified shelling to a level not seen since 2015 and 2016 say independent monitors.
The Kremlin’s take on the Macron-Putin talks was much more circumspect and enigmatic though, continuing Russia’s tactic of keeping everyone guessing and on tenterhooks. And by the end of Sunday, the White House announced President Joe Biden was ready to hold a summit with his Russian counterpart — as long as Russia had not invaded before the proposed meeting.
So back full circle then to the overarching question — is Russia going to invade?
The high-stakes, back-and-forth geopolitical drama is starting to take its toll on Ukrainian friends. The international media has focused on the resilience of Ukrainians and their calmness while under the gun. Children go reluctantly to school; the morning commute remains busy.
Some of the calmness is public-facing defiance; and anyway what are people meant to do, they have no influence to shape events.
But more Ukrainian friends privately confide anxiety is getting to them, and even the most reluctant are starting to think through practical wartime contingency plans. They are also sensibly drawing more cash out from their bank accounts and stocking up on durable food and bottles of water.
The shift in some ways came last week, an accumulation of scares and alarms. An edge has started to creep into voices and there are more mentions of “what ifs.” I go and visit old friends of mine. I nearly stumbled over the stacks of bottled water piled high in the hallway of their apartment right in the center of Kyiv.
They have seen history unfold before. They watched from their apartment for weeks the drama unfolding below them in 2013 and 2014 when a mass uprising toppled Putin ally Viktor Yanukovych in the revolution of dignity, an upset the Russian leader blames on the West and doesn’t accept was an expression of the popular will.
My friends breathed in the acrid fumes of the fires below from burning tires and from buildings aflame, and they heard the crack of sniper bullets and saw protesters stumble and fall when struck almost eight years ago to the day. Now they feel they’re on the edge again of another vertiginous precipice.
My friends’ eldest son — a finance student — was thrilled with the speech Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy delivered Saturday at the Munich Security Conference in which he urged Western powers to not wait to impose a fresh wave of crippling sanctions on Russia in a bid to prevent war, and not implement them after the event has taken place.
The eighteen-year-old tells me that new sanctions should be imposed “every day in stages, to prevent the Russian ruble regaining some of its value,” underlining to ordinary Russians how painful the economic fallout will be from war for them. “It is important to impose sanctions every day in stages over five days and force ruble rate to dollar to at least 120. Products and goods will either disappear or rise in price catastrophically, which will cause internal non-acceptance of war,” he confidently announces.
I heard one American commentator saying the other day Ukrainians are not paying that much attention to reports on the dizzying events. That is not my impression — people are constantly sharing the latest snippet, meme, or video on messaging Apps, from WhatsApp to Facebook, Telegram to Signal. Sometimes with trepidation, and sometimes ridicule.
Mockery greeted a disinformation released a couple of days ago from Moscow’s proxies in the Donbas modeled on a graphic Britain’s Ministry of Defense put out full of arrows showing possible Russian invasion routes. The proxies announced they had secured the secret documents of the Ukrainian military outlining plans to invade Donetsk and Luhansk, the two self-proclaimed pro-Russian breakaways in eastern Ukraine. It too was full of dramatic arrows. But there was one eye-opening slip-up — the plans were in Russian, not Ukrainian!
At dinner, I glance over Kyiv’s skyline from a rooftop restaurant. I can see the golden domes of St. Michael’s Monastery reflected in the lights of nearby buildings. Maidan’s anti-Yanukovych protesters took refuge from the bone-crunching batons of the Berkut riot police there.
Nearby is the bell tower of Saint Sophia Cathedral. I can spy the figurine of Berehynia, the Slavic female spirit and hearth mother, holding a guelder rose branch atop the 61-meter monument in the middle of Independence Square. And there is the towering Ukrayina Hotel, from where Yanukovych’s snipers fired on protesters. It seems inconceivable that this cityscape could look so very different if war does break out.