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Terry Glavin: Biden and Europe are putting a ‘price’ on invading Ukraine instead of driving out Putin


To win the worldwide people’s war on Russia’s oligarchy, kill the body and the head will die

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It’s the breathtaking spectacle of their bravery that has earned the Ukrainian people the overwhelming solidarity of the world. It’s the David of Ukraine’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with his sling, and the monstrous Goliath of Russian President Vladimir Putin, with his massed battalions of soldiers and his columns of tanks and armadas of attack helicopters. It’s the dramatic asymmetry of the struggle, the unflinching devotion and sacrifice of everyday people risen to a just and righteous cause.

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To borrow an old expression, the Ukrainians are “shaking scythes at cannon.”

It’s the men and women in their winter clothes, unarmed, blocking a column of Russian tanks that had rumbled to the outskirts of Koryukivka town, in Chernihiv Oblast: No, you will not pass. It’s the hundreds of people who gathered to confront a column of Russian soldiers in the main square of the coastal city of Berdyansk, on the Sea of Azov, to sing the Ukrainian national anthem: Ukraine is not yet dead, nor its glory and its freedom.

It’s the people, armed. In the streets of Kyiv, it’s the clusters of women hurriedly gathering bottles to fill with gasoline and lengths of cloth to make molotov cocktails, packing the bottles carefully in little crates while their kids play nearby, steeling themselves against the fighting to come.

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The horrific injustice and violence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has awakened something ancient and decent in all of us. The latest Maru poll shows that while Canadians are split on whether Ottawa is doing enough, nine out of ten of us are with the people of Ukraine, and against Russian President Vladimir Putin. The polls are much the same in the other democracies. It’s something genetically hardwired in our common humanity, and we surprise ourselves with the shock that we are living in a genuinely historic moment. Our own leaders fail us in the effort to put it into words, although Deputy Premier Chrystia Freeland did well in her attempt the other day:

“There are moments in history when the great struggle between freedom and tyranny comes down to one fight in one place which is waged for all of humanity. In 1863 that place was Gettysburg. In 1940 it was the skies above Britain. Today in 2022 it is Kyiv.”

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That’s a rare kind of thing for a politician to say, and what’s striking about the war in Ukraine is that while it is a war between nation states, it’s very much a people’s war. The combatants are not only the Ukrainian people, but each in our own and separate ways, all of us. And so when we reach into the stories of past moments for the source of the echoes we’re hearing, the echoes may be the same but their origins are sometimes quite different. You notice this quite poignantly in the outpourings of solidarity for Ukraine that have arisen among Hongkongers, Syrians, Uyghurs, Iranians, Venezuelans, and quite a few other peoples who know the feeling of jackboots on their necks, and about the sound of bombs going off, and the mournful sound that air-raid sirens make.

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For myself, I hear the voice of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, reading his poem Requiem for the Croppies. “We found new tactics happening each day: We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike And stampede cattle into infantry, Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.” And it’s all very stirring, but you don’t need to go as far back as County Wexford in 1798.

There’s an echo in all this of the euphoria of Cairo, only 11 years ago, when hundreds of thousands of people occupied Tahir Square in the early innings of the Arab Spring. The excitement of the possibilities in Ukraine is reminiscent as well of the Syrians’ ecstatic Days of Dignity protests in Daraa, Deir-ez-Zor, Hama, Al-Hasakah and Banias, in the spring of 2011.

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But in the ghastly scenes coming out of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where Russian airstrikes over the past two days have reduced much of the city core to rubble already and 2,000 Ukrainian civilians have been incinerated, there are deafening echoes of Aleppo, “Syria’s Stalingrad.” That beautiful and ancient city was almost wholly destroyed by the Russian Air Force, and by the Syrian Arab Army, and Hezbollah, at the end of a four-year siege in 2016.

Heaney’s poem begins with such elation: “The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley. . . No kitchens on the run, no striking camp. . . We moved quick and sudden in our own country. But the story of the croppies ends this way: Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon. The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave. They buried us without shroud or coffin And in August the barley grew up out of our grave.”

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We can’t allow the Ukrainian resistance to end this way. Ukrainians cannot be made to fight this war, our common fight, on their own. We can’t allow Putin to do to Kharkiv and Kyiv what he was permitted to do to Aleppo. We have to remember that there is no bottom to the depths of Putin’s barbarism.

It’s all well and good what the NATO countries are doing, rushing arms to Ukraine — if the Ukrainian forces somehow obtain all the promised javelins and Stinger missiles and surface-to-air missile batteries in time, that will be as good as a NATO-enforced no-fly-zone without NATO warplanes that aren’t coming anyway.

The fierce financial sanctions that are battering Putin’s banks and his institutions and his oligarchs are all well and good too. Before the 2014 sanctions provoked by Putin’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and his proxy forces’ takeover of huge swathes of Donbas, you could buy an American dollar with 28 rubles. After 2014 a dollar cost about 56 rubles. As of Wednesday it was 103 rubles to the dollar.

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Ordinary Russians will suffer. So the prime targets have got to be among the roughly 500 Russian oligarchs, kleptocrats and Putin-connected industrialists who own as much wealth as the rest of the Russian people combined. These amassed fortunes amount to about $640 billion, and a great deal of that loot is invested in various properties and ventures in the United Kingdom, the European Union, Canada and the United States. That’s how to get at Putin. Kill the body and the head will die.

But we’ve been left to wonder if that’s really the point of the sanctions exercise. Before the Russian invasion last week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was saying Putin would pay a “high price” if he invaded Ukraine. Well, he invaded Ukraine. After the invasion, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz vowed that “very soon the Russian leadership will feel what a high price they will have to pay.” In his State of the Union address this week, U.S. president Joe Biden said he’d go after the oligarchs alright, and right smartly too. As for Putin: “While he may make gains on the battlefield, he will pay a continuing high price over the long run.”

This is beginning to sound a lot like, well, you can invade and conquer a European democracy if you feel you must, as long as you can afford to. Your payments will be “continuing,” and may be paid out “over the long run,” but you do have to pay.

That’s not good enough. Vladimir Putin has to be driven out of Ukraine. He and his entire regime has to be bankrupted, ruined, and finished. That’s how this story has to end. With a free Ukraine. That’s the decision we’ve yet to make. The story has to end with a world rid of Putin’s menace.

Not with dead croppies on Vinegar Hill. Not this time.

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