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“Pain, Blood, Mud, and Death”: Putin Attacks Ukraine

“Silence,” then bombs—President Volodymyr Zelensky’s dignified last-minute appeal is ignored.
by Jim Swift
February 24, 2022
“Pain, Blood, Mud, and Death”: Putin Attacks Ukraine
(Composite by Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Vladimir Putin launched his new war on Ukraine early Thursday morning local time (late Wednesday night EST). Sanctions and weeks of nearly universal condemnation failed to deter the Russian dictator from his unprovoked invasion.

Just hours before Putin’s long-anticipated attack began, the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, made an appeal to the Russian people in remarks delivered in Russian. He noted that on Wednesday he tried phoning Putin—who has four telephones next to his formal desk—but “the result was silence.” You can watch Zelensky’s speech here (and can turn on YouTube’s far-from-perfect live translation function):

Президент України – про посилення обороноздатності держави

Zelensky’s speech was dignified and somber—an appeal to Russia’s people, to Russia’s reporters and civil society, and to Russia’s artists and actors and stand-ups (Zelensky himself was an actor and comedian before turning to politics).

Yet Zelensky knew that “this speech of mine won’t be shown on Russian TV”—since, even aside from the lateness of the hour (the speech aired after midnight local time), Russia and Ukraine have been fighting a digital war for years now, banning various television stations and broadcasts. Moreover, Zelensky knows that in Putin’s Russia, civil society is in tatters.

But anyone who does watch the speech will see a serious man speaking words of peace and honor:

We are separated by more than 2,000 kilometers of mutual borders, along which 200,000 of your soldiers and 1,000 armored vehicles are standing.

Your leadership has approved them to move forward onto the territory of another country. . . .

This step could become the start of a big war on the European continent. . . . You are told that this flame will liberate the people of Ukraine, but the Ukrainian people are free. . . .

“War,” said Zelensky, is “pain, blood, mud, and death.” It is “a grave tragedy, and that tragedy has a great cost in all senses of the word.”

The first shots were fired not long after Tucker Carlson, by coincidence, finished his most recent pro-Putin rant, calling Ukraine not a democracy, but a “[U.S.] State Department client state.” Putin subsequently released what may have been a pre-recorded speech (he appears to be wearing the same outfit and sitting at the same desk as he was in remarks from earlier this week) announcing the invasion, a “​​special military operation”:

In the most rhetorically moving portion of Zelensky’s speech, he asked—in response to Putin’s propagandistic accusation that Russia is expecting Ukraine to attack in the Russian-occupied Donbas region—asks “what would we be attacking?”:

Luhansk? The house where my best friend’s mother lives? The place where the father of my best friend is buried? . . .

This is our land. This is our history. What are you fighting for and with whom? . . . Many of you have been to Ukraine. Many of you have relatives in Ukraine. Some have studied in Ukrainian universities. Some have made friends with Ukrainians. You know our character. You know our people. You know our principles.

Zelensky, who pointedly never uttered Putin’s name, closed his speech with stern determination:

We know for sure we do not need a war—not a cold one, not a hot one, not a hybrid one.

But if these forces attack us, if you attempt to take away our country, our freedom, our lives, the lives of our children, we will defend ourselves.

Not attack—defend. And in attacking, you are going to see our faces. Not our backs, our faces.

In the coming hours we will see the degree to which Zelensky’s proclamation that the Ukrainians will stand and fight proves possible. We’ll see whether Zelensky becomes a martyr, or a leader in exile.

And we will see how the United States, NATO, and Ukraine’s allies respond to this attack from a dictator hellbent on restoring the greatness of the Soviet Union.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.