I woke up Tuesday morning to a live video of Volodymyr Zelenksy pleading with the European Parliament to please, please let Ukraine join the European Union as an emergency measure.

This guy of such small stature, the president of his country, is dressed in fatigues, speaking from God knows where, to the assembled leaders of the EU Parliament in what may well be one of the last days he is alive.

Vladimir Putin, desperate to restore some long ago vision of the Russian Empire, has turned the full weight of his military on his neighbor, determined to insulate himself and his kleptocracy from the creeping allure of democracy, flawed as it may currently seem to be in the West.

Watching Zelinsky as he refuses to leave Kyiv — turning down an offer of asylum and saying he doesn’t need transportation, he needs ammunition — is like being transported to some long ago speech by Winston Churchill. But this guy is from a weak country and he’s fighting this giant, while pleading, pleading for help. It’s like we’re watching live as someone drowns  across a large pond and he keeps calling to us, “Come, come, help me!”

But we are afraid.

We’ve ramped up the economic sanctions and have pledged more ammunition, but Putin has unbelievably warned us off further actions with a threat of nuclear annihilation.

The Ukrainians, however, and their determined leader are somehow undeterred. 

“Do prove that you are with us, do prove that you will not let us go,” Zelisnky pleaded to the Parliament members Tuesday morning as the English translator, himself choked up in tears, relayed the words. “Do prove that you indeed are European, and then life will win over death and light will win over darkness.”

It’s the Information Age, and I’m watching all this live in New Bedford at 6:30 in the morning, thinking it hardly seems possible that  a land war on the European continent can be happening in 2022. 

The television images over the last few days have kept getting worse — the body of a 6-year-old girl blown up as she rode her bicycle, a stately historic building in Kharkiv exploded in flames before a mobile-phone camera. Hand-to-hand scenes of urban combat as if some sort of reel from the broadcast television of my youth has suddenly become real again. Somehow 2022 has been transported to 1941 and it’s like World War II is once more before our eyes. 

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I’m wondering what all this can mean here in New Bedford for this long-struggling out-of-the-way corner of Massachusetts. At the very least it means that we too are seeing up close and personal like we never have before how close the world is to devolving into a new Cold War that doesn’t seem very cold.

Mayor Mitchell the other day, announced by way of a Tweet that the city will do whatever it can to accommodate Ukrainian refugees. I almost just wrote Afghani refugees, but that was what the city did just a few months ago. This is the world we live in.

Mitchell cast his tweet as reflective of the kind of place New Bedford is — welcoming to refugees. I don’t know if that’s always true. It certainly has not always been true in the case of undocumented immigrants. 

Mitchell said there are now seven families of Afghan refugees in the city. New Bedford is open to taking Ukrainians when they come, if they can find the landlords, he said. But he explained it is not easy to do nowadays with rising rents.

I’m trying to understand. Is there anything anyone can do?

I reached out last week to Dr. Brian Glyn Williams, the UMass Dartmouth professor of Islamic history, who also has expertise on Russia and Ukraine through the ages.

Williams has studied in Kyiv, Moscow and St. Petersburg and once worked for the CIA. He has written three books that relate to what’s going on in Ukraine. One traces the treatment of the Crimean Tartars by the Russians and Soviets, including genocide, and the other the literal obliteration by Putin-ordered bombing of Grozny, the capital of the Russian Islamic republic of Chechnya during the late 1990s war.

Brian Glyn Williams

I’ve known Williams for almost two decades and rarely have I seen him so emotional and intense as he is now about what’s happening in Eastern Europe. He explained at the end of our interview that he has dear friends in Kyiv who are terrified.

Personal feelings aside, Williams knows Russian and Ukrainian history cold, and in a compelling 40-minute video interview attached here on Zoom, he laid out what seems an indisputable case for helping this former Soviet republic in whatever way the U.S. can.

Ukraine — he took me back through the history — came into existence in the 1600s in opposition to the tyranny of Russian tsars. The name “Ukrainia” literally means “frontier,” he said, explaining that some Ukrainians are the descendants of the independent-minded Cossacks who fled south from Russia. He described them as “primordial democrats.”

The Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly in 1991 to break away from the Soviet Union, and over the past 30 years have had two revolutions — the so-called Orange Revolution starting in 2004 to overthrow a Russian puppet who had corrupted an election, and then in 2014 the Maidan Revolution, in which they overthrew another leader who had betrayed the country to Russia.

They are a people that the most conservative of Americans, including those who are fans of the Cold War warrior Ronald Reagan, should admire, Williams said.

“Vladimir Putin wants to crush them, break their spine, and bring them back into his dictatorship, into the darkness of his strict, anti-democratic, anti-free press, authoritarian rule,” he said.

The problem of Ukraine, with its long connections to Russia, is that if democracy is established there, it will stand as an inspiration to the people living as slaves in Russia to the Putin dictatorship, according to Williams. 

Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine. Credit: Maksym Diachenko / Unsplash

The UMD prof also echoes the fears of former Iron Curtain countries that Putin has violated the sovereignty of countries, and will do so again if he gains control of Ukraine.

“If we don’t show this dictator, this autocrat, this anti-democratic monster Putin that we’re willing to pay a price, for crushing freedom-loving Ukrainians, Ukraine will just be a first step,” he said. “Just like the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia was a first step for Adolf Hitler.”

Despite the overwhelming superiority of the Russian military, Williams said the Ukrainains have a chance if we can supply them with enough defensive weapons to fight the Russians. This expert on the war in Afghanistan then gave the example of Charlie Wilson’s War, in which the U.S supplied the Mujahideen with enough such weapons to fight off the 1980s Russian invasion. 

“We need to give the Ukrainians a fighting chance,” he said. “Give them the equalizers of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and Javelin anti-tank missiles to make the Russians pay a price for this occupation, just like they did in Afghanistan in the ’80s.”

After initial reluctance, both the U.S and Europeans have stepped up with greater numbers of those weapons since the invasion began five days ago. 

Early in his UMD career, Williams said he taught a class in Russian history, including on Ukraine. It was called “Russia from Ivan the Great to Putin.” He said he may update that class and call it something like “Russian Aggression: From Ivan the Terrible to Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine.”

“I like to calibrate my teaching at UMass Dartmouth to fit the needs of the day,” he said. 

Then this earnest academic — who is best known on the South Coast for his documentation of how America and Russia both became mired in wars in the dysfunctional society of Afghanistan — made the case for how the situation in Ukraine is different. The Ukrainians, he said, have proven they want democracy and are ready for it. Both by their actions in the Orange and Maidan revolutions and their determination to fight the invasion.

“We as Americans are the world’s greatest defenders of democracy,” he said. “We need as Americans to pray for Ukrainians, support them all we can, and certainly to keep the women and children and civilians who are dying in Putin’s bombs in their homes in our heats and prayers.”

I’m not an academic or an expert on either Russia or Ukraine. And Williams’ assessments may be one-sided or too easily discount historic Russian claims on some Ukrainian territory like Crimea. Mostly, however, I think they are right on, and Vladimir Putin’s violent invasion against these people who are simply yearning to have their own identity, their own country, their own freedom, is its own proof against Putin.

We do need to pray for Ukraine, and do everything we can to help them escape this coming slaughter.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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