Last Thursday, as Russian tanks and helicopters stormed across the border into Ukraine, European politicians haggled over sanctions propositions, eager to give the impression that they were taking a moral stand—while quietly hoping that no one would notice how little they were willing to risk. Belgium wanted a carve-out for diamonds, Italy for “luxury goods.” There were expressions of the usual platitudes—deep concern, thoughts and prayers—but there was little appetite to cut Russia off from the international financial system, or to disturb the oligarchs, whose relatives shop in London and Paris, and whose luxury yachts dock in harbors from Monaco to Barcelona to Hamburg. The general western military and intelligence consensus was that Moscow would likely control Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, within one to four days, and few leaders seemed willing to risk their post-COVID economies on what looked like a foregone conclusion.
Meanwhile, in the Black Sea, a Russian warship approached the tiny Ukrainian outpost of Snake Island, a mostly empty forty-two-acre rock near the Romanian border. Thirteen Ukrainian border guards and marines were stationed there, with no substantive weapons or prospect of holding the line. “Lay down your arms and surrender, to avoid bloodshed and unnecessary deaths,” the ship’s announcement instructed them. “Otherwise, you will be bombed.”
“Russian warship, go fuck yourself,” the Ukrainians replied, setting the tone for the next days of war. The Ukrainian government announced that they were all killed, an assertion which turned out to be untrue. Nevertheless, by Sunday night—improbably, but unequivocally—the line had come to reflect Europe’s new de-facto stance toward Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Every war has its legends and its heroes, but it’s rare to see them take shape on Day One. That same afternoon, Russian helicopters took over the Hostomel airport, near Kyiv. But by evening, against all odds, the Ukrainians had won it back. All through the country, civilians took up arms, and stories of incalculable courage and self-sacrifice began to leak out of remote villages and towns. An elderly woman approached a Russian soldier and told him to put seeds in his pockets so that sunflowers would grow where he died. The Ukrainian military said that one of its soldiers had volunteered to mine and detonate a bridge in order to halt the Russian advance—and had no hope of surviving the explosion. Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, for his part, warned that he might be killed at any moment—and, in fact, American officials have reported that Putin’s objective in this invasion is to “decapitate” the Ukrainian leadership and install a new regime. Still, Zelensky refused to leave. Standing in central Kyiv—with his close advisers, in the darkness of the night—he reiterated his exhausted but absolute defiance. “We are here.”
Courage is infectious, and, by the end of the second day, Ukrainian forces had continued to repel the Russian attacks. Some Ukrainian war propaganda—like the existence of an ace fighter pilot known as the Ghost of Kyiv—turned out to be total fabrication. But each hour that Kyiv didn’t fall was an hour that Ukraine was still winning. By Sunday, videos and photographs emerged showing Russian soldiers apparently looting grocery stores and cash exchanges. Tanks and other armored vehicles lay abandoned on the side of the road—some in smoldering ruins, others simply out of fuel. Ukrainian civilians were directed to remove street signs so that Russian soldiers would become lost. When a Russian tank driver ran out of fuel, a Ukrainian civilian asked if he’d like a tow back to Russia.
Seventy-two hours represents something of a magic window in the world of logistics and military planning, and before that time had been reached it was obvious that Russia had botched its invasion. More imagery surfaced showing captured and dead Russian soldiers—teen-agers, in many cases—hungry, tired, scared, bewildered, unsure of their mission, unmotivated to die for it. Tyler Hicks, a photographer for the Times, captured an image of a dead Russian soldier, his face and body covered in a dusting of snow. The soldier’s anonymity elevated the particular into the universal; no Russian mother whose son was deployed and unreachable could look at the paper’s front page and be certain that he wasn’t hers. By that point, the Kremlin had acknowledged no casualties; soon afterward, it restricted access to Twitter and Facebook in Russian territory. The United Kingdom announced that the Russian Army might send in mobile crematoriums, to burn their own dead. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government established a Web site, directed at Russian families, and published the identity cards of dead and captured young men.
By now, European politicians had grasped that what was at stake was no longer a matter only of Ukrainian self-determination but of the principles of bravery and truth. A number of European countries announced that they would provide lethal weapons to Ukraine; online, Ukrainians celebrated their new defender, “Saint Javelin,” named for an antitank weapons system that has, in recent days, destroyed numerous Russian vehicles and killed unknown numbers of troops.
Still, Ukraine was outgunned and outnumbered. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, stipulated that negotiations could begin only after Russia “restores democratic order” to Ukraine. A Ukrainian parliamentarian, asked for his reaction, turned to the camera and said, “Fuck you, Lavrov.” On Sunday afternoon, a Russian ship ran out of fuel in the Black Sea and radioed a nearby Georgian vessel for help. “Go fuck yourself!” the Georgian skipper gleefully replied. “Use oars.”
Go fuck yourself—a new anthem for Europe, a redefinition of its economic and defense policy toward Putin’s regime. Suddenly, this sense of defiance mattered more than the sale of diamonds and handbags. An array of new sanctions cut Russia out of the global financial system, causing a panic in Moscow, as citizens’ savings evaporated and the ruble collapsed. As Putin’s central-bank director put it, the Russian banking system is facing a “non-standard situation.” Shell companies and yachts may be seized; private jets may not take off.
Isolated, angry, and humiliated, Putin is now raising the prospect of nuclear war. “Our submarines alone can launch more than five hundred nuclear warheads, which guarantees the destruction of the U.S.—and all of the countries of NATO for good measure,” a Russian presenter said, on state television. “The principle is: Why do we need the world if Russia won’t be in it?” At the same time, Putin’s Air Force has reportedly begun to resort to the kinds of illegal tactics that it practiced for years in Syria. Earlier today, Russian warplanes bombed civilians in Kharkiv, a Ukrainian city near the Russian border, with what appeared to be banned cluster munitions, according to footage circulating online. Kyiv may be next.
The war is only five days old, and the prospect of continued Ukrainian military victories remains improbable. Satellite imagery shows a forty-mile-long column of Russian vehicles heading toward the capital. The civilian death toll is mounting, and half a million Ukrainian refugees have entered neighboring countries. But, so far, Putin’s primary success has been in strengthening NATO and uniting the rest of Europe—not in what Europe is, or even what it stands for, but in what it stands against: him. After only five days, Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland have cast aside decades-old policies of neutrality, and Germany’s new Chancellor has pledged to double the defense budget. “The world has changed,” Lithuania’s foreign minister posted to Twitter. “Instead of just hopes and prayers it’s time for Stingers and Javelins.”