On 24 February, millions of Ukrainians in Europe woke up to news they couldn’t believe: our beautiful home is under attack.
I was doing my usual breakfast shopping walk, the streets of Berlin were quiet, the sky was blue and springlike, and people were going about their business - but all I really saw in front of my eyes were explosions.
Ukraine has been at war for eight years already. But for a while the military moves have been limited: the conflict became routine.
Eight years ago, I lost access to my hometown of Luhansk, situated close to the border with Russia after it became the capital of one of the separatist republics, controlled by pro-Russian rebels.
My mother moved to Kyiv, and we thought the worst was behind us and that we could rebuild our lives. But we were wrong. Now she is there, listening to explosions and watching the smoke rising over the military airport of Gostomel from the windows through which she normally enjoys scenic sunsets.
My mum, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian from Luhansk, one of those Putin believes needs protection from Ukrainian nationalists, cries – “it is so unfair. Russians have stolen my home once and now they are here to steal my home again”.
But Putin will not hear her and the more than a million other Ukrainians who fled occupied Donbas to continue their lives in independent Ukraine. He doesn’t care about reality. He doesn’t care about living people. He lives in an imaginary world where only continents matter (“geopolitics”, people such as him call it) and where it is all about power struggle. A boy playing at war, only with people dying for real.
What is astonishing is the depth of his ignorance of Ukraine. We are neighbours after all. Russians, many of whom have family ties to Ukrainians should know us better. But 20 years of dictatorship have apparently made some people deaf and blind. Putin and his confidantes seem to believe that Ukraine has a nationalist government, that its people long to reunite with their Russian brothers (first Putin, then the chair of the State Duma voiced such opinions).
They cannot comprehend that Ukraine has been holding free and fair elections for decades. This means that our government actually stands for what the majority of the population believes is right. It is not like in Russia, where Putin’s servants manufacture support for him and suppress dissent. We really do have a representative democracy. The idea that Russia can install a puppet regime in Ukraine comes from the same illusion. They think the population will tolerate whomever they put on the throne. Hardly. Ukrainians will resist, as we have for centuries.
We have spent long periods under Russian occupation or rule, but we don’t want this to happen again. We want democracy, we value freedom and we do not belong to a culture where one tsar decides everything for everyone. We belong to the pluralistic, European family. And now, more than ever, we need this family to stand by us.
Our European friends’ cautious deliberations have brought us to the point where Ukraine has been invaded. But we can make sure the occupation doesn’t last. For that, we need not just Europe, but the whole world to speak with one voice and say who Putin is. In the upcoming debates about Russia’s role in the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council, we hope to see people of Asia, Africa and Latin America speaking up against this aggression. It is in all of our interests to ensure that international law is the cornerstone of the world order and no country, no matter how powerful it is, can breach it. Putin is an aggressor and a criminal who is trying to occupy a peaceful neighbouring country. His place is in prison.
The moment Russian troops crossed the border of another country, Putin’s Russia should be crossed out from the list of all respectable international institutions. There is no place for Putin’s Russia in the Council of Europe, because no, this country doesn’t share a respect for human rights. There is no place for Russia in Interpol because you cannot collaborate with Russian security services pretending that your understanding of the rule of law is anything like the Kremlin’s. The status of Russia in the UN should be reviewed because it is not a peace-loving state as the Charter requires.
The global community should be united in imposing tough sanctions on Putin and be ready to keep them long term, at the same time helping Ukraine to sustain its army and mitigate humanitarian consequences for the civil population.
This is a war for values, for democracy against authoritarianism and we can only win it together.
Nataliya Novakova is a programme analyst at Open Society Foundations.