Glavin: The world unites to support Ukraine — and none of it matters a damn

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NATO, the United Nations General Assembly, the EU — all oppose Putin’s bloodthirsty invasion. None can do much about it.

A giant flag in the national colours of Ukraine is waved ahead of the English Premier League football match between Arsenal and Liverpool in London. Never has the free world been so united, yet so helpless.
A giant flag in the national colours of Ukraine is waved ahead of the English Premier League football match between Arsenal and Liverpool in London. Never has the free world been so united, yet so helpless. Photo by IAN KINGTON /IKIMAGES/AFP via Getty Images

In the sustained ovation that followed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s televised address to a rare convocation of both the House of Commons and the Senate this week, it was all very uplifting. It was a rare and moving spectacle of Canada’s parliamentarians rising in unison for once, united around something that really matters, something almost sacred.

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It was perhaps a small event in the grand cascading scheme of epoch-changing moments that have been in motion since that one moment, Feb. 24, at about 9:30 p.m. in New York, when the United Nations’ Ukrainian ambassador told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council that Russia had just declared war on his country. But in Ottawa there was a moment in that chain of events, nonetheless.

We’re being asked to believe quite a lot of amazing things about what is actually happening. At around the same time that Zelenskyy was speaking from his guts about the catastrophe that has befallen his country in a tone and with a forthrightness that no one in his right mind would disbelieve, Qin Gang, China’s former vice minister of foreign affairs and current ambassador to the United States, was making a wildly incredible claim that he can’t possibly have expected anyone to believe.

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In the weeks preceding Feb. 24, owing to the overwhelming public evidence available from U.S. intelligence agencies and the first-hand eye-witness observations of everyone in the vicinity of Ukraine’s eastern borderlands, it was clear that Vladimir Putin was massing forces for his long-threatened invasion and war of conquest in Ukraine. And yet, here was Ambassador Qin, asserting that Xi Jinping had no idea this was going on. No clue at all, and furthermore: “Had China known about the imminent crisis, we would have tried our best to prevent it.”

Ever since Feb. 24, we’ve been invited to comprehend the gathering crescendo of momentous events with a sense of triumphalist reverence and awe. We are expected to be reassured as well, to have our faith restored in ourselves, to be newly confident that in the succession of watershed moments, it’s quite all right to be dismayed and a bit terrified, too: the Ukrainians are winning, Putin is losing horribly, and we must be exceedingly cautious to avoid a Third World War and nuclear armageddon.

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But those things aren’t easily believed either, because the accompanying flute music is pretty much exactly like the eerie sound you’d expect the “rules-based international order” to make if it were whistling past its own graveyard. Go over the sheet music, and this is what leaps from the page.

Putin’s outrages against common decency and international law have united the global community of democracies around Zelenskyy’s valiant cause. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, particularly, is united and strong. “Ukrainians are strong and courageous and standing up to defend their land,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared last week during his tour of Europe, united with a retinue of several cabinet ministers and senior communications operatives from the Prime Minister’s Office and various advisers and senior military officials and a lumbering entourage of press gallery personnel. “And NATO has never been more united and determined than we are now.”

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Rescuers remove debris from a building damaged by shelling in central Kharkiv on March 16.
Rescuers remove debris from a building damaged by shelling in central Kharkiv on March 16. Photo by SERGEY BOBOK /AFP via Getty Images

The United Nations General Assembly, in a nearly unprecedented show of rebellion against a UN Security Council veto holder, has sternly rebuked Russia in a vote that reaffirmed Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, and demands the complete and unconditional withdrawal of Russian military forces from Ukrainian territory. There were the usual abstentions, but the  vote was opposed only by Russia, Syria, Belarus and North Korea.

In the United States, President Joe Biden is generously credited with drawing Europeans and Americans together after the long and bitter estrangement of Donald Trump’s presidency. He has rallied an almost complete consensus among Democrats and Republicans around the restoration of American leadership in the world. The European Union, too, has never been this united, we are also told.

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Not since the EU was founded by the Maastricht Treaty of 1993 has a common purpose brought together the EU’s 27 member states in such a solid wall of steady resolve. Even little Switzerland has thrown off the shackles of neutrality that have bound the Swiss ever since the Treaty of Paris in 1815. The unpleasantness of Brexit is over and done with. Germany has burst from the 32-year straightjacket of its diplocracy’s anti-militarism. It’s really, you know, amazing. We are half expected to burst out in song.

And yet none of this has really mattered a damn.

Putin’s artillery and cruise missiles and cluster bombs continue to reduce Ukrainian cities to rubble, one after the other. Kharkiv, Mariupol and Kherson have been reduced to Aleppo, Grozny and Homs, and village after village after village razed to the ground. Hundreds of civilians have been killed, or perhaps thousands. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights says there is no way of knowing. Three million refugees have poured out of Ukraine in an exodus three times the enormity of the human river that poured out of Ireland during the famine years of the 1840s.

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The bravery of the Ukrainian people’s resistance is beyond imagining. Their own unassuming, diminutive president, not Joe Biden, is the leader of the free world, hands down. But listen to what happens when he tells the rest of us what Ukraine needs.

Speaking to Parliament, Zelenskyy said: “Can you imagine when you call your friends, your friendly nation, and you ask: ‘Please close the sky, close the airspace, please stop the bombing. How many more cruise missiles have to fall on our cities until you make this happen?’ And they, in return, they express their deep concerns about the situation.” The next day he said much the same in an address to the U.S. Congress: “Today, I can say I have a need. I need to protect our sky. I need your decision, your help.”

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And again, as from the beginning, there is a deafening roar of pretexts and the thunder of declamations involving dire implications, and of course this must mean a NATO-enforced no-fly zone, which of course would mean a direct confrontation between the U.S. and Putin’s Russia, which of course would necessarily mean the Third World War, by which we must expect nuclear war and the end of everything as we know it.

This is why Vlad the Destroyer has defeated NATO, and defeated the UN, and defeated the EU, and run his lumbering tanks across the rules-based international order. Putin will never conquer the great people of Ukraine, who would fight on with all the military hardware we’ve given them, or with molotov cocktails, or with their bare hands. Zelenskyy may be drawn into negotiations and concessions and capitulations both acceptable and inconsolably humiliating, or the people will fight, village by village, street by street, field by field, town by town.

The SWIFT banking sanctions will bite. Putin will be drawn deeper into the bosom of Xi Jinping. The yachts and the mansions of the oligarchs may go up for auction, and as with his most loyal ally and protégé Bashar Assad, the Butcher of Damascus, eventually there will be entreaties and the side-channel and shuttle-diplomacy obscenity of normalization.

That’s how things are shaping up at the moment, anyway. Putin is winning, and the rest of us are united in a quagmire of our own uplifting, heartwarming uselessness.

Terry Glavin is an author and journalist.

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