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  • Jan Flynn

Bringing War Closer

Suddenly Ukraine isn’t far away

Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash

A time has come I never thought I’d live to see

As Russian forces massed on the borders of Ukraine and Putin ginned up justifications for an unprovoked invasion, I hoped he could be edged back from the brink. I listened to President Biden’s near-daily warnings of an imminent attack on Kyiv with dread, sure, but also the hope that the repeated call-outs, the strategic intelligence spills, the warnings of sanctions, and the growing outcry among European leaders, would bring the Russian leader to his senses.

My cautious hopes sank along with my stomach as Putin laid claim to two of Ukraine’s regions where a minority of Russian-backed insurgents provided him with justification as thin as a wet tissue.

“Wouldn’t this be like Mexico forcibly annexing parts of southern Texas and California, claiming a historical connection?” I asked my always well-informed husband. He nodded mutely and returned to his newspaper while I thumbed through Google News. We’re back to doomscrolling again, but no longer about Covid.

By the end of the week, the foreseeable yet unthinkable had happened: war in Europe. A belligerent authoritarian regime is attacking a sovereign democracy, using its vast military might to make right out of baseless, criminal aggression.

Yet some Americans can’t see why we should care

Maybe it’s because we have a short collective memory, or attention span, or both. Maybe our grasp on history has slipped, and we somehow can’t form the connection between current events and 83 years ago when Hitler invaded Poland. Or maybe it’s because too many of our elected officials have forgotten what Senator Arthur Vandenburg, a Republican, said in 1948:

“Politics stops at the water’s edge.”

I’ll refrain from a rant here, but I am appalled at the members of the House and Senate who are using this crisis as an opportunity to further undermine our national unity, lobbing more criticisms at the President than they do at Putin. Meanwhile, the odious Tucker Carlson is trying to walk back from his previous cheerleading for the Russian president, even as he broadcasts his characterization of the Ukraine invasion as a “humiliating defeat” for Joe Biden.

And then there are the obscene remarks from our former President (AKA The Man Who Would Be King), who praised Putin’s actions in Ukraine at a fundraiser last week at Mar-a-Lago, using words like “pretty smart” and “genius” to describe what he said was “walking in and taking a vast, vast location . . . with lots of people” and just taking it over.

For Trump, land and people are fungible tokens, there for the taking by anyone with enough force and disregard for the rule of international law to do so.

I said months ago I’d stop writing about politics

But I never said I wouldn’t write about history, and at the moment we are right smack dab in the middle of history being made. And while I understand the pain of feeling helpless, we must pay attention.

I know Americans cherish free speech (well, most of us anyway — maybe not every school board in Texas), and I am never in favor of squashing dissent. But there’s a time to pipe down with the backbiting and remember what team we’re on, and that time is now. We’re at the water’s edge.

Because Putin isn’t just making war on Ukraine: he’s making war on democracy. A power-greedy strongman in the 20th Century mold, he’s the leading edge of a wave of authoritarianism that has been rising in the world — including, frighteningly, within our own ranks. And Putin sees the polarization and growing division in the US, which he’s done all he can to cultivate, as an opportunity to attack the type of liberal democracy that he and his ilk cannot tolerate.

Our bathroom’s been retiled over the past few weeks

What in the world does that have to do with anything, you may well ask, and I don’t blame you. But this is one of those instances of the global becoming the personal.

The two men who have been setting our tile are exquisite craftsmen. We’d seen their work at another site and been blown away at their skill and the quality of their work. In the interests of safeguarding their privacy, I’ll call them Andriy and Dmytro.

They are both from Ukraine. When they started the job, we were interested to learn this, and communicated our concern for the mounting tensions there. They were surprised that my husband, who did most of the conversing with them, knew the major cities in their homeland, that the Dnieper River flows from there into the Black Sea, and that he’d been to Russia himself many years ago.

As the weeks and the job progressed, we kept exclaiming over their artistry and telling them how impressed we were with their work. They seemed pleased, although I wonder if we overdid it a bit. It was hard, as the news got worse and worse, to know what to say to them. There was an elephant in the middle of the bathroom: an elephant with the face of Vladimir Putin. And Andriy and Dmytro are stoic, resolute guys with a job to do. Based on what we’re seeing in the news of the stalwart courage demonstrated by the Ukrainians, maybe this is a national characteristic.

But as the days went on, they admitted to rising worry even as they sought to reassure us. Dmytro didn’t volunteer information about his family’s situation, so we didn’t ask, but Andriy’s family had gotten out of Kyiv and headed west to Lviv, close to the border with Poland. For now, they’re safe.

They finished up the last details yesterday, and we said our goodbyes. We thanked them again and made clumsy but heartfelt statements about how sorry we are about what’s happening in their homeland.

“Thank you,” said Dmytro.

“Pray for us,” said Andriy.

So we do, and we will. But it hardly seems enough.

I agree with President Biden that engaging in a shooting war with Russia is a distant, last, perilous resort. But when it comes to sanctions — I’m going to email the White House and my elected officials and tell them I’m willing to pay $10 or more for a gallon of gas and take other hits to my wallet if it means getting tough with Putin and isolating him further.

If the Ukrainians can make Molotov cocktails in their basements, I can do that much. In the long run — for me, maybe, but for my children and grandchildren — it’s a good investment. Pretty smart, in fact.

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