July 22, 2022

This weekend, 150 days will have passed since Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and started an all-out war that his flunkies assured him would last no more than three days. News from the ground is mixed. On the one hand, Russia now has a land bridge all the way from its own border to Crimea, controls the entire Luhansk region, and is rolling out the Donbas playbook in Mariupol and Kherson.

Local quislings have been installed, roubles flow in to replace Ukrainian Hryvnias, and locals are pressured into applying for Russian passports. Russia soon plans to hold sham referendums in which the region’s cities will “decide” whether to join the Russian Federation. What emerges, Moscow hopes, is a Vichy-on-Sea along Ukraine’s south coast.

On the other hand, Putin’s original plan was to march to Kyiv and capture the whole of Ukraine. This has emphatically not happened. The Ukrainians never stopped fighting. In occupied cities such as Kherson, resistance movements are springing up. Now, helped as ever by Western weapons, the Ukrainian army is hitting the invading Russians hard in the East. Last week, it blew up a Russian arms depot in the city of Nova Kakhovka, in the occupied Kherson Oblast.

What made the strike particularly important was the role of High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS). 150 days in, HIMARS — US-manufactured medium-range rocket systems that launch multiple precision-guided rockets — are the latest illuminating development in the Russia-Ukraine war. They are similar to Soviet rocket systems, which means the Ukrainians can get to grips with them easily, but they’re far more accurate. A small crew can operate them and load the missiles in minutes. What is really a game changer, though, is their range. The Ukrainians can fire the HIMARS from 80km away, safe from Russian reprisals.

From this distance, the Ukrainians are not firing at Russian troops or artillery or armour, but at supply lines — in particular warehouses containing ammunition and stores. Ukraine has reportedly blown up 12 Russian arms depots since the end of June. And this is important because it speaks to how the war has evolved.

The war began with tanks rolling towards Kyiv. Installing a puppet regime in the capital was Moscow’s goal. The weapon of choice for Ukrainians was the US anti-tank Javelin missile system; as the number of Russian tanks swelled, the UK’s much cheaper and easier-to-use NLAW anti-tank missiles came into their own. Then, when the Russians were beaten back from central Ukraine to the Donbas and parts of the south, it became a battle of artillery. The two sides shelled each other relentlessly, exhausting stocks of ammunition at rates not seen in Europe for almost a century.

From Kyiv to Odesa to the Donbas. From Javelins to NLAWS to HIMARS. This, after 150 days, is one story of the war in Ukraine — and it’s a visceral one. Over April and May, I travelled to all three frontlines for UnHerd, from Mykolaiv and the villages beyond in the south to the Donbas in the east and to Kharkiv in the northeast. Landscapes of burned-out vehicles, tank husks and endless shattered buildings spoke to the strength and scale of the weaponry strafing Ukraine. This is what we might usefully call the physical battle.

But there is another element, too — the metaphysical battle. When you strip away the endless analysis and social media cacophony, this is the story of a people defending their home against the return of fascism to Europe almost 80 years after the end of the Second World War. Above all, it is this that we must internalise if we are to most effectively help the Ukrainians win.

***

Like all fascistic ideologies, Putinism is based upon a historical lie. And like all fascist leaders, Vladimir Putin has elevated that lie to a fetish. “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, published on the Kremlin’s website a year ago this week, is a long, historically illiterate and obdurately tedious piece of writing, but it is instructive in its mendacity. In it, Putin spells out his unshakable belief that “Russians and Ukrainians were one people – a single whole”.

Seen like this, Putin’s deranged televised Security Council meeting back in February — in which he made the public case for war to his startled sycophants — was entirely predictable. We should have understood Putin’s essay for what it was: a political manifesto. Then we might have been more prepared for what was coming.

The battle for Ukraine is about geopolitics, resources, and so on, but it is also about something more profound that obsesses all fascists: identity, particularly one that they feel has trampled upon, disrespected, or otherwise besmirched by the modern world. 

When I read Putin, I am reminded of Spain’s General Franco, another “strongman” obsessed with a mythical past of his own making, and a “pristine” national identity that he sought to recreate through violence. Franco was obsessed with a unified Spain of ancient origin — his motto, remember, was Una, Grande y Libre. Standing in his way were not Ukrainians but Basques and Catalans, the latter of whom, like Ukrainians, inhabited resource-rich and industrial lands he needed for his imperial vision.

Franco revered Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic monarchs who united Castile and Aragon and took Granada from the Moors in 1492. But he felt a particular affinity with those who had become semi-mythical — most of all El Cid, the Castilian knight who captured Valencia from the Moors, and Fernán González of Castile, the man from whom he traced the emergence of Spain. For Putin it is, among others, St. Vladimir, who was both Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Kiev, and whose “spiritual choice” still “largely determines our [Russia and Ukraine’s] affinity today”.

When Putin looks at Crimea and cities such as Mariupol, Mykolaiv, Kherson and Odesa, he doesn’t see the Black Sea littoral of southern Ukraine but something else entirely. “In the second half of the 18th century,” he wrote, “following the wars with the Ottoman Empire, Russia incorporated Crimea and the lands of the Black Sea region, which became known as Novorossiya.”

When I travelled throughout the occupied East back in 2014, the pro-Kremlin separatists I met were adamant that I refer to the area as Novorossiya. If it wasn’t the Soviet era they were determined to drag their fiefdom back to, it was imperial Russia. Nostalgia-tinged violence in the service of denying Ukrainian sovereignty was the goal.

Like Franco, Putin warps tradition and perverts history. He is determined to burrow backwards into the future. When When I was on the Eastern Front in April, I drove to a Ukrainian army base with Dima, a drone operator. “Have you ever read Umberto Eco’s 14 General Properties of Fascism? He asked me. “All 14 of them are present in modern Russia.” Reading them now, it’s hard not to agree. “The cult of tradition.” Tick. “Disagreement is treason.” Tick. “Contempt for the weak.” Double Tick. “Fear of difference”, “appeal to social frustration” and the “obsession with a plot”. Tick, tick, tick.

“The way Russia is using the Second World War to militarise society is disgusting,” Dima told me as we roared through the Donbas. “Who the fuck dresses up an 11-year-old kid in a military uniform? It’s pure fascism.”

This much is as clear as the atrocities Russians soldiers commit every day in Ukraine. So why the general reluctance to talk about fascism? Admittedly, many do use the term, including high-profile figures such as the Russian dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky. But across the major publications in the West, the label remains conspicuous by its absence.

One issue, I suspect, is a problem of definition. In his 1944 essay What is Fascism?, George Orwell wrote: “In internal politics… this word has lost the last vestige of meaning. If you examine the press you will find that there is almost no set of people… which has not been denounced as Fascist during the past ten years.” Quoting Orwell on fascism might be cliched, but nobody wrote about it better; he could be talking about 2022. Today, the term “fascist”, like the word “disinformation”, has been emptied of all meaning, employed merely to mean someone or something we don’t like. It has been degraded, as Orwell wrote, to “the level of a swearword”. And when everything and everyone is fascist then nothing and nobody is.

The problem is muddied by the Russians themselves. Imagine the world of moral disorder you must need to inhabit to describe the military campaign to overthrow Ukraine’s Jewish President as “Denazification”. Yet there is a wider point here, too. The West, as Tom Holland has observed, is a largely post-Christian world, in which the founding morality tale of our societies is no longer the Bible but the Second World War, which is also the last time both the West and Russia enjoyed a decisive and clear moral victory. The enemies then were fascists, and their image squats as a perennial bogeyman in our collective consciousness. But to effectively battle something you must correctly label it; little is possible without semantic clarity from first principles.

***

Whenever I walk through central Kyiv, I inevitably pass one of the many statues of the poet Taras Shevchenko. Ukrainians revere him as the father of their modern literature. Throughout the 19th century, the Russians persecuted and imprisoned him for promoting Ukrainian independence, writing poems in Ukrainian, and mocking members of the Russian Imperial House.

Once more, Ukrainians are suffering for the colonialist delusions of a dictatorial Russian despot. Putin’s bombs and rockets rain down across the country. There is nothing like an air raid siren to transport you back in time — I’d only ever previously heard them in Second World War films. Everything about this war is atavistic.

It’s also eye-opening. It was in Ukraine that I began to understand 21st century conflict, and why this war was so different to those I had experienced before in places like the Congo. It was when I began to write regular dispatches and became, properly, a foreign correspondent. And it was when I began to understand something else, too: if I wasn’t exactly sure of everything I was for, I now knew exactly, in the pit of my stomach, what it was I was against: gratuitous violence, industrial lying and eye-watering corruption, all in the service of a fascist state. Perhaps most of all it is here that I understood that strong men are rarely strong. Putin has never fought in a war or even, to the best of my knowledge, been to a frontline during a time of danger. He is too scared to sit close to someone at a table, let alone visit the battlefields he created in Ukraine.

When I visit cities and towns and villages across Ukraine and speak to those who have been to the front and those who have lost people, I am reminded not just of the horror of violence but its tawdriness and total futility. So many young lives filled with so much potential snuffed out for no good reason. So many survivors shattered by torture. In early May, in a pub just by the Golden Gate in the city centre, I watch a presenter on RT not so much lie about the war as reinvent it. Moscow twists not just language but reality.

Ukraine is a place where the uncomfortable truths of our age are manifest. What I have seen emerge here — hybrid warfare, the weaponisation of information, oligarchic politics, and the catastrophic effects of kleptocracy, to name just a few — is the dark underbelly of the 21st century. And against that, there can be no retreat.

My thoughts return once more to Franco. Even though Ukrainians are defending their land from a foreign invader, this conflict is still the Spanish Civil War of our time. It certainly is for me personally (for what little that is worth). Putin is Franco Mark II, several times as powerful and many times as bloodthirsty. Opposing him though are not Communists, but ordinary Ukrainians fighting for the right to live in a free state.

Semantics matter. Words matter. Understand that this is fascism and it becomes harder for the West to stop helping Ukraine. And believe me, there are many in Europe who are growing tired, which is just what Moscow is banking on. Western fatigue means the flow of aid and political support will end. It means no more HIMARS.

So name this war for what it is: a struggle against fascism. For once, let the call to collective memory and to history be in the service of something good, not just for Ukrainians who are fighting for their lives, but for all who care about common decency.

Sign up to UnHerd's new weekly email, in which Will Lloyd selects the best (and occasionally worst) writing from around the web.

Free, every Friday morning.