NATO and the UN need to force a ceasefire around Kyiv- NOW
Opinion Piece by: Alexander Bishay
The Russian invasion of Ukraine began on Thursday and 36 hours later, their armies have entered the outskirts of Kyiv. The Ukrainian armed forces have been putting up a steady fight but as the war comes to the city of 3 million, a humanitarian catastrophe is looming.
The city of Kyiv is the 7th most populous city in Europe, with 2.9 million people. About 100,000 have evacuated the city so far, but the blitzkrieg nature of Russia’s invasion means that most civilians did not have the time or resources to evacuate the city before the tanks reached their doorstep. Bus stations and train stations are crowded, the roads are gridlocked, and Putin’s War Machine has approached the city.
The people of Kyiv are sheltering underground from the bombs. The city has been shelled continuously ever since the beginning of the invasion. Many are enlisting in the armed forces- Ukraine’s government is giving weapons to anyone willing to fight, and the president urged people to make homemade Molotov cocktails.
The city of Kyiv is preparing for a brutal urban fight, and that’s exactly what Russia is prepared to give it.
To rewind: why is Russia invading Ukraine? According to Russia, Ukraine has historically been a part of Russia, despite its distinct culture and language. This is technically true: Ukraine had been absorbed into the Russian empire at the end of the 18th century, (eastern Ukraine a century before that), and the Soviets held onto it. Ukraine only emerged as an independent country during the breakup of the Soviet Union, and Russia has wanted it back ever since.
Ukraine has a long memory; when the Russian monarchy fell in 1917, it fought for its own independence, but the Soviets quickly crushed their rebellion. Fifteen years later, they bore the brunt of the 1931-33 Soviet famine, when Joseph Stalin had their wheat crops seized for redistribution elsewhere, causing up to 8 million Ukrainians to die of starvation. This event is now called the Holodomor and is recognized as a genocide.
When the time came, Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for independence – by 90%- and have been an independent nation ever since. This is a direct rebuke to Vladimir Putin’s claims that Ukraine is an artificial creation rightfully belonging to Russia.
Putin spent the last several months playing mind games with the west and Ukraine, denying that he was planning an invasion, accusing everyone else of being provocative. Then, on February 21, Russia recognized two separatist-leaning regions in the east, and announced they were deploying a ‘peacekeeping force’. Less than three days later, they launched a full-scale invasion of the country from three different directions.
Now, the city of Kyiv is under threat and could be the worst urban battle since the second world war, exceeding the 2017 battle of Mosul, Iraq.
Russia has a long, brutal track record of war crimes, going all the way back to Afghanistan and Chechnya. 1 million Afghans were killed during the Soviet-Afghan war, and the Soviets obliterated their agriculture and infrastructure from the air. During the second Chechen war (1999-2009), the Russians besieged the Chechen capital of Grozny from December 1999 to February 2000. The fighting left the city ‘the most destroyed city on earth’ according to the United Nations, and up to 8,000 civilians were killed (more than four times the number of actual Chechen combatants killed in that city).
Since 2015, Russia has openly participated in the Syrian civil war, on the side of Bashar al Assad, and has been condemned repeatedly for war crimes and deliberately targeting civilians, by the UN, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International. The destruction of Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city in 2016 exhibits A.
And now they’ve brought their full military force on Ukraine’s capital.
The battle of Kyiv probably cannot be stopped, but it must be delayed as long as possible, to buy time for the civilian population to evacuate. Otherwise, the city will become the site of a humanitarian catastrophe. Notwithstanding the bombing and urban warfare, it’s a simple question: what happens to a city of 2.8 million once food and medicine run out, the power goes off, and the water pumps stop working?
The cities of Mosul, Raqqa, Kabul in the 1990s, Grozny in 2000, are testaments to what can happen.
The international community has been able to force ceasefires in Syria multiple times, we can and must do the same in Ukraine. If we cannot help Ukraine directly, the least we can do is to buy time to help them avoid a cataclysm.