A Tsar Is Conquering Ukraine: Don’t Ask for Whom the Bell Tolls.

Volunteer fighters waiting to be deployed through Kyiv on Saturday. Credit: Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Liberty is like the air; you don’t notice it until you don’t have it anymore. To live in a country without liberty is to live an asphyxiating life.

To understand the reason behind the extraordinary resolve of the Ukrainian people, we need to put ourselves in their position. When the alternative that you have to save your life is to surrender yourself to be a second-class citizen of the Russian empire, just like your parents, your grand and great grandparents were, you begin to consider that dying for the cause of liberty is not an option, it is the only option.

No Man is an Island

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
MEDITATION XVII
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
John Donne

John Donne’s poem is as relevant today as ever, when the Russian self-proclaimed Tsar, Vladimir Putin, following the totalitarian example of some of history’s most obscure and infamous tyrants, unleashed his country's mighty military power upon an infant democracy looking for self-determination. The Ukrainians are ill-prepared to fight against the biggest invasion of an army after WWII, which is equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry and is prepared to rerun in the XXI Century, Hitler’s blitzkrieg invasion of Poland in 1939.

Today, the whole world watches live the horror of such a mad act. We are witnessing as it happens, the suffering and heroism of a civil population that is being fired upon indiscriminately by the Russian army. All of this happens while the western leaders scramble to react in a tragically improvised fashion. Just like in Gabriel García Marquez's novel, “Chronicle of a death foretold”, everyone in the world saw the writing on the wall, but the western leadership.

In the article, Munich: A Reflection on the Future Based on the Experiences of the Past, I asked “Will Our Present-Day Leaders Rise to the Challenge of Tackling the Edge of War?”. As a liberty-loving citizen of a tropical Russian puppet republic, I truly wanted to find reasons to hold on to, which gave me hope that Vladimir Putin’s full invasion of Ukraine was going to be contained. Not only did I find none, but what I did find was a story of blunders, deceptions, lack of vision, and to say it blandly, a series of actions and decisions made by different leaders of the west during the last twenty years, that prepared the soil for what we have been witnessing in the last few days — the rising of a new tsar in modern Russia.

The War on Terror

The world has progressively morphed into something more complex and potentially dangerous during the last twenty years because there were no clear lines between ideological blocks. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the world was in a sort of unstable equilibrium until the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. As a result of that attack on US soil, the US and its allies declared “The war on terror”, which lasted two decades, and spread all over the globe.

One characteristic of that war is that there were no clear enemies and no clear battlefields either, except for Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. In that war, anyone could be a target, as both, the terrorist attacks on most European cities, and the civilian casualties caused by the western allies’ attacks on countries where the terrorists hid have shown. Since it started, “The war on terror” has taken close to one million lives, mostly of civilians, has displaced 38 million people, has cost eight trillion dollars, has spread to 85 countries around the world, and still goes on.

The Downhill Slide of a World Leader — The United States

George W. Bush

It started with the invasion of Iraq by US and British forces on the grounds of its supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction, a declaration that was never confirmed by intelligence. Moreover, later on, The Financial Times published the cost of Iraq's reconstruction, calculated at $139 billion. A subsidiary of Halliburton, which was once run by Dick Cheney, vice-president of George W. Bush, was awarded at least $39.5bn in federal contracts related to the Iraq war. GWB showed the world not only that the US could attack any country without a just cause, but also that it was good business to do so. That’s a hell of moral ground to sustain a war for 20 years.

Barack Obama

President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden, on May 2, 2012. Not in Afghanistan, but Pakistan. Expectedly, he de-escalated the war in Afghanistan, implementing the progressive withdrawal of troops, which at the end of his presidency amounted to 10,000 soldiers. However, he showed an unexpected lack of strategic vision, when implementing his “Charting a new course on Cuba” for two reasons. By signing his new policy, he granted the Cuban government a free ride to continue oppressing the Cuban people. But that issue is secondary to the fact that during two years of negotiations, Obama completely missed the point that Venezuela, an oil-rich strategic ally of the US since the 1920s, had been turned into a de facto colony of Cuba, which had been a puppet state of the Soviet Union, and was a close Russian ally. Consequently, Obama, innocently, handed Venezuela in a silver platter to Putin. Today, Venezuela and Cuba are Putin’s strategic beachheads in America.

Donald Trump

The US-led western alliance suffered an inflection point during Donald Trump’s presidency, characterized by his particular style of fighting and undermining the authority of traditional US allies, specifically, NATO and the EU. Furthermore, he also eulogized dictators around the world, “falling in love” with Kim Jong Un, declaring himself a ‘big fan’ of Turkey’s leader Erdoğan, and saying that Xi Jinping is a “very good man.” Moreover, he had in his private business, possible conflicts of interest with strongmen around the world, like Rodrigo Duterte, Philippines, Xi Jinping, China, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey, and more importantly, Vladimir Putin, Russia. The next day after the invasion of Ukraine began, he said about Putin: “I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius.’ Putin declares a big portion of Ukraine, Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful”.

Donald Trump not only undermined the US role as a world leader, but also the democratic system of his country, leaving the presidency with a grand finale, the attack on the Capitol Building.

Joe Biden

America’s image abroad rebounded with the transition from Trump to Joe Biden. Nevertheless, Biden’s leadership capacity came under public scrutiny with the disastrous and poorly planned US retirement from Afghanistan, which de facto declared the war's victory for the Taliban, and spearheaded the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with twenty million people on the brink of famine in that country. Biden, faced with the Ukrainian conflict, received a world-class leadership lesson when he invited Volodimir Zelensky, the Ukrainian President, to be evacuated out of his besieged country. We all know Zelensky’s answer.

The Empire Strikes

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine found the western leaders of the world with their pants down, literally. Although Putin is repeating in Ukraine the domination playbook that he wrote in 2009 with the invasion of Georgia, a small democratic, former soviet republic, and again in 2014, with the invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, the proverb “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”, is appliable to two generations of western leaders.

Putin, this time around, encountered a feeble leadership from the US, a divided EU, and a weakened NATO, in which Germany, who had denied weapons to Ukraine and had prohibited the overflight over its territory of NATO planes carrying supplies to the besieged country, now scrambles to ship weapons there. No wonder, Putin dared to invade Ukraine. He knew that his mighty army wouldn’t have any military response from the west. The western response to Ukraine has been too little too late. Shame on the western leaders.

“Russian Ship, Go F… Yourself!”

But the Tsar did not count on the Ukrainian people's resolve to be free. A widely viewed video, shows 13 Ukrainian soldiers, members of the Snake Island garrison, who most probably lost their lives after answering to the Russian ship that was asking for their surrender, “Russian ship, go f… yourself!”. That answer catalyzed the resolve of the nation and became a slogan for the battles ahead.

President Zelensky, who has been a source of inspiration not only to his country but also to the world, denied an invitation of the US to extract him from Ukraine, saying “I want to fight! Give me the weapons, not a ticket!”. Another example of resolve was given by the ex-president of Ukraine, Petrov Poroshenko, who handed guns to a group of civilian self-defense units.

Zelensky decreed a general mobilization of 90 days, and immediately, thousands of Ukrainians, according to most news outlets reporting from inside the country, lined up to receive guns, willing to give their lives instead of becoming second-class citizens of the Russian empire. The will of the Ukrainian people shows everywhere, from protesting before a town hall taken by the Russians, to standing in front of a main battle tank, to molotoving an armored vehicle from a passing car.

The problem with civil resistance is that it is voluntary, poorly organized, and consists mostly of scattered groups of civilians holding small arms and Molotov bombs. As courageous as it might be, it is expected that when the bulk of the Russian battle units reach the main cities, they would probably, as shown on Snake Island and other places throughout Ukraine, will fight those ill-trained militia units with heavy guns and tanks, causing widespread mayhem.

Before this conflict is over, the price that Ukrainians are going to pay for their freedom will most probably rise enormously, especially in civilian lives. There is already a humanitarian emergency taking place, as Ukraine’s health minister reported that 352 people, including 14 children, had been killed and around 1,684, including 116 children, have been wounded during Europe’s largest land war since World War II. Additionally, more than half a million refugees have left Ukraine in four days, and the EU is preparing to receive millions of them soon.

Liberty is like the air; you don’t notice it until you don’t have it anymore. To live in a country without liberty is to live an asphyxiating life.

To understand the reason behind the extraordinary resolve of the Ukrainian people, we need to put ourselves in their position. When the alternative that you have to save your life is to surrender yourself to be a second class citizen of the Russian empire, just like your parents and your grand and your great grandparents were, you begin to consider that dying for the cause of liberty is not an option, it is the only option.

Negotiating alone with a Gun to His Head

Protests chanting Not to war! have taken place in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Minsk, Novosibirsk, and Belarus, showing that Putin´s control of his country is not monolithic, but they are being severely repressed by the police. Simultaneously, President Zelensky accepted to talk with Russia, and Ukraine-Russian talks got underway on Belarus, while rockets slammed on Kharkiv, and hundreds of Russian military vehicles containing fuel, logistics, armored vehicles (tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, self-propelled artillery), were on the move, 40 miles away from Kyiv. Who can negotiate without any support from the world, while his country is being brutally razed by the largest conventional military attack the world has seen since WWII? Expectedly, after the first day of talks, they agreed to keep talking.

The New Iron Curtain

This is not the first time that the world is under the shadow of a military conflict, but the brutality shown by Vladimir Putin has not been experienced since WWII. Here is a man who is menacing the world with the use of nuclear weapons after invading with a massive army a smaller and weaker neighbor. His campaign is not getting the quick military victory that Hitler’s Blitzkrieg produced with the invasion of Poland in 1939, and he seems to be frustrated about it, so much, that he seems to be now much more dangerous than he was before.

In the words of Condoleezza Rice, former US Secretary of Estate, “He was always a “calculating and cold” former KGB operative, but today, he seems erratic.” “There is an ever-deepening, delusional rendering of history,” she said. “It was always a kind of victimology of what had happened to them, but now it goes back to blaming Lenin for the foundation of Kyiv in Ukraine. So he’s descending into something that I personally haven’t seen before.”

Alexander Vershbow, a former ambassador to Russia who was deputy secretary-general of NATO from 2012 to 2016 says “The next stage may be the scorched-earth tactics that we saw in Chechnya and Syria, which would mean much more death and destruction, I don’t think they have too many scruples when it comes to this.”

Those words bring chilling memories of tyrants of the past, who, when confronted with results that they did not expect in their delusional dreams, made decisions that brought widespread suffering and changed the world permanently from thereon. Independently of how the war in Ukraine ends, the world order as we know it has been brought to an abrupt halt by Putin. A new world is emerging, one that has been cut down by an Iron Curtain drawn by a self-proclaimed tsar.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

My mother, in her memories book, narrates how his father used to go after work to her hometown's central square to comment with his friends on the latest news about WWII, which they read in the day’s newspaper. Most of the time, the news was a week old, today, the world gets flooded with news from the battlefield, instantaneously transmitted to the world, providing us with real, raw data. It is up to us to make sense of it. When I see the news from the front, I remember John Donne’s poem and feel in my heart the toll of a bell, and I ask myself: for whom the bell tolls?

The bell tolls for the people of Ukraine. Today, they are suffering the anguish of surviving another day, only to become second-class citizens in Putin’s empire… while the rest of the world stands by, watching… tweeting…

The bell tolls for the liberty-loving citizens of Russia, Belarus, and other countries led by tyrants, who are chanting “No War!”. I know how they feel because I am a citizen of one of those countries. For the first time in my life, I feel that I am on the wrong side of history.

The bell tolls to wake up the world’s sleeping leadership so that they take action on important long-term matters that will bring not only wellbeing for their citizens, but also the rest of the world. Instead of seeking power and personal gain, or letting their countries fall hostages of a madman for economic gain.

The bell tolls for a dying imperfect world that gave us challenges and opportunities. It was not better or worse, it was only as it was, a home for imperfect human beings striving to live a better life. Today, the whole world is under the menace of mass extinction by the delusional dreams of a madman. Covid-19 was a wake-up call, which we did not hear. Now we have a louder call. Are we going to listen this time? or do we still need an even louder one? don’t you see that we are running out of time?

The bell tolls to mobilize us, the citizens of the world, so that we do the job that needs to be done to have a better world for all.

If not us, who? If not now, when? we are the ones we are waiting for.

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Executive & Team Coach & Mentor. Cultural Transformation Change Agent & Consultant. Twitter: @hborgesg. Instagram: @heboga. FB: helio.borges.35. Uriji: @hborges

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Helio Borges

Helio Borges

Executive & Team Coach & Mentor. Cultural Transformation Change Agent & Consultant. Twitter: @hborgesg. Instagram: @heboga. FB: helio.borges.35. Uriji: @hborges

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