I’m a child of the 1980’s. Born in the very late 70’s, I grew up in that last decade of the Cold War and everything that came with it. I remember seeing maps and globes of the world with “U.S.S.R” emblazoned on it hanging in my classroom at school. Before I hit my teens, that U.S.S.R. crumbled, and the Cold War was over. I remember seeing the images of joy coming from the Brandenburg Gate, seeing the families being reunified after so long part in a divided Germany and the reactions of newly independent nations in the Baltics, the Balkans and across Eastern Europe.
I remember how it appeared that the gulf between the East and the West was coming together. We saw star athletes in flooding west. I vividly remember the saga of Alexander Mogilny defecting to Buffalo of all places the arrival of the Russian Five in Detroit in the NHL. The silky-smooth play of Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc, Sarunas Marciulionis, Arvydas Sabonis and more changed the NBA game and became some of favourite players on the planet. These were the days before the internet, when we only saw these kinds of talents at rare international events, and it was hard to tell if they were more urban legend than real people. Yet there they were, thrust into careers earning life changing salaries that they only could have dreamed of before.
And for those in the East, the West started to come to them too. We saw in influx of media, music, movies and a much larger cultural exchange from the West that they had ever seen before. Vinal records and tapes that had to be smuggled into the country, at the risk of state punishment, were now just a part of everyday live. We saw the influx of other cultural influences come in as the people formerly hidden behind the Iron Curtain came to get a taste of what we had come to take for granted. Heck, we even saw this:
I’m sure there is some place in the cosmos where that Gorbachev Pizza Hut commercial is used to balance any karmic injustice that was created when Donald Trump made his own Pizza Hut ad years later. Anywho, what I remember of those days in my teens was that while there were still conflicts in the World and things to worry about, the big anvil of the Cold War that hung over our head was gone. It felt like there was hope for something greater on the horizon and surely, we would have learned from the previous 45 years of Cold War that gripped the planet and took us to the brink of nuclear annihilation too many times.
Yet here we are in 2022, and even though we aren’t even out of the second month of this year, it feels like this year should already be christened “The Year We Prove We Have Learned Nothing”. In the National Capital Region, we all just lived through that experience, proving we haven’t learned a bloody thing from what we’ve seen play out to our south for the past years. And within mere hours of ending emergency measures in that case, we have seen the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in a most malign and vicious way.
We’ve had over 30 years to reflect on the full lessons of the Cold War, and we’ve had almost 80 years to take stock of the same lessons that the Second World War brought us. Yet as we watch the invasion of Ukraine roll across our TV screens and social media in real time, I think many of us are left wondering if we’ve learned a damned thing at all. In the past two months building to this moment, and the last 72 hours of actions, any of that hope that I felt back in the early 90’s that remained disappeared. And maybe the most dispiriting part of it all, is that it all felt kind of inevitable.
The fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown himself to be exactly who we expected him to be is almost as comforting as it is frightening. We know his background, as a former KGB agent, as someone who has previously invaded parts of Georgia, annexed Crimea and more. He’s repressed his own people, jailed and murdered opponents, used vicious bioweapons on foreign soil in a G7 nation to poison those who stand up to him and again, more. He’s interfered in foreign elections, including in the United States and used cyber-attacks to upend his neighbours. He spent the last months lying to the World about preparing to invade Ukraine, all while visibly and easily verifiably preparing to do exactly that. In short, his actions are consistent with the person he’s always shown himself to be. Or to paraphrase the late, great Dennis Green, “He is who we thought he is”.
Yet too many political leaders around the World have spent the last decade or so, and particularly the past two months, acting as if Putin was some kind of rational actor that could be reasoned and bargained with. Part of witnessing this felt a bit like watching Neville Chamberlain working in real time, minus the signed paper and press conference on the tarmac as he waived it in the air. To be clear, I do believe that diplomacy had to be tried, but the more that we are seeing things roll out in Ukraine tonight, it is starting to feel like there wasn’t enough though given to what to do if/when that diplomacy failed. It feels like too many nations entered that diplomatic phase genuinely thinking they could talk Putin down, which has never been in his MO.
But to be fair to those political leaders, I can’t say that it could have been done differently. Clearly sending NATO forces into the Ukraine was never going to be an option in this case because of the risks that would come with that, so it’s not like world leaders had a full suite of options at their disposal. Yet it feels like they have been too timid in using the measures that they do have at their disposal.
Today was a great example of this, as countries across NATO and beyond put more sanctions in place against the Russian government, officials and people attach to Putin’s entourage. While some of those sanctions are serious, they still didn’t go right to the max. Russia still has access to the SWIFT payments system, the Americans have yet to level any sanctions directly against Putin himself and his oligarchs still have access and use of some of their prized assets. I’m left befuddled by that because I’m left asking this question as a result; what exactly will it take for NATO members to throw the entire sanctions toolkit at Putin? Bombing and invading an innocent, sovereign nation should have been a pretty clear red line, especially the invaded nation borders four different NATO members and the invading nation borders another four.
You would think that blasting through such a red line would trigger that approach, yet that didn’t happen. Russian banks still can move funds through SWIFT, continuing to benefit from a privilege that protects Russia from serious financial damage. Putin’s oligarchs still have access to properties, assets and privilege in G7 nations, like Roman Abramovich, the owner of one of the world’s best and richest football clubs, Chelsea FC. If the UK was truly throwing the kitchen sink at Russia to try to avoid war, Chelsea and other assets would be ceased by the state and Abramovich would not be allowed to enter the country. And of course, Putin himself remains untouched by sanctions.
I guess what I’m getting at here is that it feels like we are slow ambling towards a third World War, except this one with thousands of nuclear weapons in the mix. Nothing the West has done so far has spooked Putin, and I think its clear that half-measures never will. I agree that it can be a mistake to escalate things too quickly, but I would argue that the moment those missiles started to fall on Ukraine early this morning, that concern faded away. Putin is counting on the West not wanting to fight and he’s right on that front. He believes that there won’t be an unacceptable price to pay for invading Ukraine and trying to depose its duly elected government. Does such a price exist that doesn’t involve combat? There may very well be. But we won’t know until all those measures are used. The fact is that sanctions that worked in the case of Iran, like the move on SWIFT, remain unused. Again I ask, what exactly will it take for the remaining sanctions in the toolbox to be used? I guess the days and weeks to come will tell us.
If I am looking for any hope tonight, I can find it in a few places. You can see it in the streets of Russia, as everyday people truly risk their lives protesting against the actions of their President. You can see it in the resolve of the citizens of Ukraine. But you can also see it in the person of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. This man was never a politician before he was elected. He was a comedian, who played the President on TV. In the short time he has been President of his nation, he’s been under constant aggression from Putin. He found himself being used as a political football by the previous US President, with whom because of their past television careers drew some comparisons.
Yet unlike that former American President, Zelensky hasn’t ridden or wilted in the face of this danger and aggression. He’s rallied his nation, pushed for the international community to support them and continued to persist. Tonight in an address to his nation, he clearly noted that he knows that for Russia, he is “target number 1”, and his family are “target number 2”. In the face of that, he’s not running away. He’s staying to fight for his country, even though the odds are not in his favour and his allies are only willing to go so far to back him.
There are two things about President Zelensky that just sticks with me in this moment of peril. First, he is a comedian, an actor. Just think of the invectives that are thrown at our political leaders in this country, having that kind of profession being used as a slur, as some kind of sign that they aren’t serious or worthy of the job they were elected to. Yet here is this actor, this person who used to play a President for the audience, acting like more of a true leader in this moment than any professional politician or diplomat out there right now. It shows that anyone, even the most inexperienced, can rise to the moment while those with the most experience can utterly turtle under the same pressure. Maybe the world might have been different if Neville Chamberlain had taken up acting instead.
But secondly, I can’t help but reflect on the fact that Zelensky just turned 44 this year. Later this year, I’ll turn 43. We were born a year apart and came of age in that same period of hope and promise post Cold War. Even though we experienced these things from different perspectives, I’d like to think that we all saw the hope of better days ahead of us and that we would never make the same mistakes that the past taught us. More importantly, as parents of children who are now around the same age as we were when the Cold War ended, I’d like to think we thought we’d hand to our children a world that would be better than when we found it. That period of hope might have been fleeting or maybe even a mirage, but it’s clearly gone as we have marched ourselves to this point. Things will not be the same after this, and the sooner our leaders in the West get their heads around that, the better the chance we’ll have of not repeating all of those past mistakes and avoiding some potentially worse new ones.