Back in 2014, in Pisky, a fancy village with pools and tennis courts for the upper-middle class who worked in nearby Donetsk, I was shocked by the number of dogs left behind by owners fleeing the hostilities.
Soldiers, like me, saved those pets when we could. The owners hadn’t meant to leave them to a lingering death, they just believed that they would return home someday soon. Because the war too would pass. Because everything does. Things will be fine.
Seven years later, at the end of 2021, that conflict was still going on, and the world was warning Ukraine that things were about to get even worse and that Russia would go all in. Ukrainians didn’t believe it. We mustn’t panic, Zelenskyy agreed, and described the upcoming spring of 2022 in one of his speeches, as a time of: “. . . sun, weekends, barbecues”. “Barbecues,” we happily nodded.
I realized that spring was not to be a lyrical season of warmth and ease as I sat on my friend’s couch in Frankfurt, where I was staying for the weekend. My little son was entertaining his grandma in Kyiv and I was preparing to fly back on Sunday night when my flight was suddenly canceled.
Lufthansa was no longer willing to fly to Ukraine in the evening so that flight personnel would avoid an overnight stay. And that, not all the intelligence warnings, was what hit me like a bucket of cold water. I quickly imagined the war starting that night, recalled how close Kyiv is to the borders with evil; recalled that I have my military uniforms and medals at home (a death sentence if found by the enemy); imagined having no cell connection and internet in Ukraine and how I would find my child — if he were lost and alive — afterward.
I did have a flight to Kyiv the next morning, surprisingly. But the flights soon ended altogether. Since then, I have never again refused to assume the worst.
It’s a natural human response, but it can be dangerous. “Everything will be fine”, we say to ourselves until our evening flights are canceled. Until all the flights are canceled. Or until drunk Russian soldiers knock down the doors to rape and kill.
The US is a very long way from Russia. And obviously, it isn’t at war – even at Cold War, many will say — with Russia.
But it’s a shame that Russian newspapers don’t have English versions. Because if they did, you would know: Russia truly believes that you, the American people, are the greatest evil. When they discuss their new weapons, they speak quite gleefully about using them against you. When they refer to US air patrols over the Black Sea, they talk of chasing them off and US forces “skedaddling” in fright.
“Right now, there are now talks in the USA about recognizing Russia as a terrorist state,” a leading Russian intellectual tells radio listeners. “It turns out that we will have to destroy the USA.”
Although a nuclear war probably won’t start tomorrow, it wouldn’t be a surprise for Russians. That’s what they love to talk about.
So while this does not necessarily show Europe is about to become a Russian-made nuclear wasteland, it does indicate how their senior people think. This means I can say this with confidence — when, and if, they wipe Ukraine from the map, they will then stand on borders that you (Americans and Europeans) are treaty-bound to protect.
If you don’t consider Russia a serious threat to NATO, then just listen to those of your allies (the Poles, Balts, Czechs, and others) who have experienced Russian tanks on their streets and Russian secret policemen running the government. They are terrified. They have reason to be.
There are a lot of advantages in defeating, or at least significantly weakening your enemy, but of course, it comes with a significant price tag. And yet there is no expectation among Ukrainians that you will send your young men and women to bleed with us or to be shattered like us by the weaponry of Russia’s imperial machine.
Right now, the lives being laid down are Ukrainian. We have no choice because if we don’t fight then we lose and if we lose then the Russians are at our door. Not figuratively, but literally. Our choice is to die with a gun in our hands so that at the very least we can leave a trail of dead Russians trying to make us a colony. That way, we have some dignity; we won’t die being raped and then shot in front of our children.
I understand that most Western people have busy lives and don’t have time to think about all this. You don’t have to. Give us the guns and we will keep fighting. The mess and the blood will be in Ukraine, not in your homeland.
But if you abandon us, this traveling circus will come to your homes, one way or another.
The Russian state tells its people that they are already at war with you. All the polling evidence says the people believe this message. They hate you, from the old to the very young, and they won’t stop because one war ends. And this feeling will not disperse like mist in the morning. Russian propaganda is way, way ahead of you.
It’s not new, of course. And it won’t just end. Ukrainians often say it’s an existential conflict, and it is.
But not only for Ukrainians. Dear reader, the bell tolls for you too.
Lera Burlakova is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) She is a journalist and former soldier from Ukraine. She served in combat from 2014-2017 after joining the Ukrainian army following the Russian invasion of Crimea. Her war diary “Life P.S.” received the UN Women in Arts award in 2021.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.