Yesterday, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, silence fell on the British Isles. The country was remembering those fallen in the First World War that ended on that day, to the minute, 104 years ago.
One casualty was Western civilisation, moribund for a long time, but now put in a coffin with the lid nailed shut. Thus that war was unquestionably evil and yet, paradoxically, its major participants weren’t.
They were misguided, irresponsible, pig-headed, perhaps deranged – but not evil. In fact, they all, with the exception of Russia, practised what is believed to be political virtue: democracy, in its various forms. And even Russia was making tentative steps towards some sort of constitutional arrangement.
Traditionally, on this day Britons pin paper poppies to their lapels, which flower is symbolic in two ways. First, a poppy can only live free. It instantly withers when picked, which makes it a perfect botanical icon of freedom. Second, poppies grew abundantly in the fields of Flanders, where millions paid with their lives for their governments’ folly.
That war was evil not only because it killed 17 million men, but also because it uncorked a bottle out of which three evil spirits burst: Bolshevism, fascism and Nazism.
Had the belligerents known in advance where they were pushing the world, their fingers would have slipped off the triggers. As I said, they themselves weren’t evil and neither were their intentions. Only the results of their actions were.
Compared to that momentous historic event, yesterday’s liberation of Kherson by the Ukrainian army lacks in scale, finality (the war is far from over) and, seemingly, global impact. Yet it’s symbolic that it fell on Remembrance Day, and the floral tribute to freedom is just as appropriate.
All the warring parties way back then depicted themselves as saviours of mankind, while demonising and dehumanising their adversaries. Yet in reality no clearly defined lines of moral demarcation existed.
In this war they do. Russia is a force of evil, and the Ukraine one of good – if only because she has shielded Europe from the triumph of vile hordes.
Free people have an in-built advantage in any confrontation with slaves, political or intellectual. In his 2001 book Carnage and Culture, Victor Davis Hanson builds an irrefutable historical case for this proposition, and the on-going war provides more evidence.
Kherson was the only provincial capital Putin’s bandits managed to occupy in the nine months of the war. This gateway to the Crimea was also Russia’s last foothold on the right bank of the Dnieper, and losing it came as a crushing blow to Putin’s dreams of rebuilding Stalin’s empire.
This is only an intermediate success, significant but not decisive in terms of military strategy. The Ukrainian army clearly has the initiative, but it so far lacks the means of pressing that advantage to an ultimate end.
For, if the Rubicon presented a psychological barrier for Caesar, the Dnieper is a formidable defensive one. Crossing it will definitely require more weapons, and possibly more men, than the Ukraine has at her disposal.
The Russians can entrench themselves on the other side and, if the First World War taught us anything, it’s the appalling cost of futile attempts to storm set defences.
Yes, the very fact that the Russians are preparing for defence spells a great turning point in the war, but it’s too early to tell how the carnage will end.
If the ultimate military aspect of yesterday’s victory is up for debate, its political and psychological impact is indisputable. The Russian propaganda effort can gloss over only so many crushing defeats, and this one just may prove to be one too many.
Putin’s hold on power is shakier now than it was even on 10 November, which may raise false hopes. For the only discernible opposition to Putin comes from the kind of circling vultures who make him look moderate.
They are the ones who call for apocalyptic measures, such as flooding Kherson by blowing up the dam upriver, using tactical nuclear weapons against Ukrainian targets or strategic ones against London and Washington. Putinism, in other words, may survive Putin, and in an even more virulent form.
Western intelligence shows that he himself was ready to escalate to nuclear, but was talked out of it by China, India and Turkey at the Samarkand summit in mid-September. Perhaps forbidden is a more accurate word: Vlad wasn’t the one calling the shots there. The great Asian powers treated him dismissively, not to say contemptuously.
Having said all that, the Ukraine remains heavily, perhaps totally, dependent on Nato support. Ukrainians are capturing a lot of armour from the Russians, a process they jokingly call “the Russian Lend-Lease”. But that’s a drop in the ocean. They need more and better weapons from Nato, along with financial and logistic support.
Referring to Western friends of the Ukraine as Nato implies unanimity among the 30 members of that organisation, a relative parity in the weight they carry. Yet this is far from being the case.
Britain has been the most vociferous and effective supporter of the Ukrainian cause in Europe, but that’s a wobbly frame of reference. For the US has so far contributed twice as much to the Ukraine’s defence as all European countries, including Britain, combined. And some Nato members, notably Hungary, are doing all they can to block supplies to the Ukraine.
This though the combined GDP of the EU plus Britain is slightly greater than America’s. Alas, the same can’t be said for their will to stop the triumph of evil.
The Ukraine’s fate thus depends to a large extent on the vagaries of American politics. In that sense, the mid-term US elections delivered a qualified victory to the Ukraine.
Many isolationist candidates trumpeted by Trump lost winnable seats. That happened largely because Trump had trumpeted them, but also because many of them indulged in rhetoric along the lines of “why should American taxpayers finance that war?”.
Global strategic shifts aside, the short answer to that lapidary question is “because, according to a recent YouGov poll, 81 percent of Americans considered Russia an enemy and 69 per cent support the Ukraine.” Bucking that kind of majority is seldom a promising electoral strategy.
Yet public support is fickle, and there are signs it’s waning. Pari passu, the volume of the shrieks emanating from negotiation-mongers is increasing. Those people coyly pretend not to realise that any negotiation, other than for Russia’s unconditional retreat from all occupied territories and subsequent payment of trillions in reparations, is a non-starter.
God only knows how this will all end, but the last time I talked to Him, He didn’t share that information with me. We know how the First World War ended though: all sides had run out of fight.
Thousands of soldiers wearing different uniforms were sticking their bayonets into the blood-soaked earth of Flanders, saying “No more”. Germany surrendered when her troops were closer to Paris and Petrograd than to Berlin.
Nothing like that will happen to the Ukrainians: their morale is boosted by love of freedom and hatred of Russian invaders. Nor so far are there strong indications that the spirit of pacifism will paralyse Russian troops or dampen the belligerent enthusiasm of Russia’s thoroughly brainwashed population.
However, as Western economies continue to flag, voices shouting “America [Britain, France, Germany etc.] first” will grow louder. But not yet, not today.
Today we celebrate the Ukraine’s victory, repeating Kipling’s iconic slogan “Lest we forget”. That’s what Britons say on Remembrance (formerly Armistice) Day. But the words are just as applicable to the current war.
Lest we forget that the Ukrainians are fighting and dying not only for their own freedom but also for ours. It’s a debt we can repay only with continued and growing support.
P.S. What’s with this ‘Dnipro’ business? When did the Dnieper apply for a name change in Britain?
We should resist the urge to change our language in response to fluid politics in foreign lands — regardless of our support for, in this case, the Ukraine.
Will the Dnieper revert to the English name it has had for centuries should, God forbid, Russia win this war? Will Kyiv? Will Kharkiv? Will the Ukraine and the Crimea regain their traditional definite articles or Odesa its second ‘s’?
I’ll tell you later, after I’ve sailed from Douvres in the general direction of Paree and then Bourgogne. That is, if this time I shan’t end up in Firenze, Roma or, God forbid, Moskva.
5 thoughts on “Historic date, twice over”
“One casualty was Western civilization, moribund for a long time, but now put in a coffin with the lid nailed shut.”
1. I have always thought the war was the start of the downhill slide. Before the ware the Europeans were confidant. After the war not hardly so much so. Continued slow decline after that.
“Crossing it will definitely require more weapons, and possibly more men, than the Ukraine has at her disposal.” [Dneiper]
2. And for the Russian even much worse. Those mobilized are going to correctly interpret this loss for the Russian as a bad sign. That bridge blown by the Russians in retreat too says they are not going back soon and they know it.
“What’s with this ‘Dnipro’ business? When did the Dnieper apply for a name change in Britain?”
3. I too have wondered about that. Russian spelling and pronunciation and opposed to the Ukrainian version. Odessa contrast with Odesa.
Mr Boot, your article deserves to be accorded superlatives to describe its content and wording.
When will Russia wake up from the ignominious nightmare into which it has drifted and despatch Putin and his acolytes to the gulag they so richly deserve?
Thank you for your kind words — and a question to which there is no answer. Other than that I’m not holding my breath.
Paris, Burgundy, Florence, Rome, Moscow. How much more aesthetically pleasing are the English names! Though I do think it a draw between the equally beautiful Firenze and Florence…
Fantastic news for the Ukraine, but an assault across a river is something no one can look forward to.
Conservative Republicans are still shouting/spouting their invective at Ukraine. Do they all have an interest in Russia companies? I’m tired of hearing that the Ukraine is corrupt and evil from what I believed to be conservative, intelligent, Christian sources.
When I hear or read about wearing poppies, I cannot help but think of former hockey player, coach, and commentator Don Cherry, who was fired in 2019 after he singled out immigrants in Toronto for not honoring the fallen. His comments made perfect sense to me. I suppose I should be fired, too. “You people… that come here, whatever it is, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey. At least you could pay a couple of bucks for poppies or something like that. These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada.” That statement was called racist and divisive. How so? He’s trying to unite all people in their respect for veterans. Division and hatred are only allowed when used on the side of the progressives.
Surprise, I’m off topic again. Another great article!