Editor’s Note: This Commentary is from Dr. Pagtakhan’s column, Medisina at Politika, in Pilipino Express.
April 1, 2022, Winnipeg: In his forceful and historic speech delivered on March 26 at the Royal Castle in Warsaw – a heritage site in Polish culture – before the leadership, guests and people of Poland in Warsaw – the Polish city “that holds a sacred place in the history of humankind’s unending search for freedom” – US President Joe Biden reaffirmed the united efforts of the Free World to support the people of Ukraine.
A historic declaration
“Be not afraid.” Thus began his speech by invoking the first public words of the first Polish Pope John Paul II when he returned to Warsaw after his election to the papacy. He closed, with an implied reference to Putin: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
Stirring words delivered off-the-cuff and straight from the heart of the leader of the free world! No doubt they reflect how President Biden was deeply touched by first-hand accounts from the thousands of displaced Ukrainians – children, mothers, grandparents – whom he visited at the National Stadium in Warsaw hours earlier before his centrepiece speech. No doubt they reflect his outrage at Putin’s war in Ukraine – unprovoked and unjustified – and its horrendous human consequences. Indeed, an impassioned ending in a historic speech!
And more importantly, this 9-word declaration – unscripted and straight from the heart – will be fondly remembered by many, including by this columnist, now and in the generations to come, particularly by the people of Ukraine.
Yet, there are critics
Some have lobbied criticisms of varied shapes: perhaps out of genuine concern and fear (could be construed as a call for regime change; could escalate the war; could make peace diplomacy more difficult); perhaps a wish to appease; and the obvious partisan shots – ‘a gaffe,’ ‘sign of old age,’ ‘should have stayed on script.’
That the declaration could be construed as a call for a regime change is not lost on President Biden. That is why he has abundantly made clear that it is not. He did say, “Putin can and must end this war” when appealed to the people of Russia in the body of his speech: “I refuse to believe that you welcome the killing of innocent children and grandparents or that you accept hospitals, schools, maternity wards that, for God’s sake, are being pummeled with Russian missiles and bombs; or cities being surrounded so that civilians cannot flee; supplies cut off and attempting to starve Ukrainians into submission. Millions of families are being driven from their homes, including half of all Ukraine’s children. You still have the memory of being in a similar situation in the late thirties and forties: the siege of Leningrad; train stations overflowing with terrified families fleeing their homes; nights sheltering in basements and cellars — these are not memories of the past. It’s exactly what the Russian army is doing in Ukraine right now. Putin can and must end this war.”
But I am appalled by the veiled voices of partisanship and appeasement disguised as voices of wise counsel.
It shall not be forgotten that direct Biden-Putin diplomatic dialogues before the invasion did not prevent it. Neither had continued negotiations after the invasion – between the Ukrainian and the Russian officials and via third-party interventions – produced an end to the civilian devastation. Just the evening after announcing during the day at the peace-talk table in Turkey it would scale-back operations, Putin’s army once again intensified its assault on Chernihiv (see “Colossal” attack below).
Peace, not appeasement – forget not the lesson of history
“All of us believe the world would be a better place without Vladimir Putin,” said one US politician and others similarly implied, but only US President Joe Biden had summoned the courage to say about Putin in unambiguous terms, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
Indeed, Biden’s declaration is a true mark of bold and genuine value-laden leadership.
Recall, too, the history regarding appeasement – “a diplomatic policy of making political, material, or territorial concessions to an aggressive power in order to avoid conflict. The prime example is Britain’s policy toward Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in the 1930s. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sought to accommodate Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and took no action when Germany absorbed Austria in 1938. When Adolf Hitler prepared to annex ethnically German portions of Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain negotiated the Munich Agreement, which permitted German annexation of the Sudetenland, in western Czechoslovakia.” Indeed, appeasement “encouraged Hitler to be more aggressive, with each victory giving him confidence and power. In fact, appeasement caused World War Two.”
I am reminded of the recent statements from US Rep. Mike McCaul, a ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who was visibly touched by the video that was played during Ukraine President Zelensky’s address to the US Congress: “We need to help Ukraine, give them everything they need to fight this war; the video we saw was very reminiscent of Nazi Germany. And history will judge us. What did you do when the maternity hospitals were bombed and the pregnant women were taken out — blood, children? This is not a time for partisan rhetoric; this is a time to unify the nation behind Ukraine against one of the evillest forces we have seen since my father's war — and that's World War II, Adolf Hitler.”
Shall we appease Putin? The Russian forces have intensified the war to heighten fear.
The bombing and siege of Mariupol to engender fear
The devastated city of Mariupol – residence to about 400,000 people – remains besieged without essential services after weeks of bombardment. On March 28, the Mayor reported: “All civilians – 160,000 civilians are still trapped in the city – must be evacuated to escape a humanitarian catastrophe.” Recall that on March 16, two bombs hit the Drama Theatre where over a thousand residents had taken shelter, thinking it was safe since the word “CHILDREN” in Russian letters are painted on two sides of the ground and is large enough to be visible from the sky. Some 600 had been rescued but 300 killed were killed.
Below are satellite and photo images of the Drama Theatre after being hit by the bombs on March 16; compare them to the image taken on March 14 before its bombing as shown above.
The civilian death toll has surpassed 1,100, including nearly 100 children. The wounded have numbered close to 1,800. The Russian forces had bombed 23 hospitals and other healthcare facilities, 330 schools and 27 cultural buildings, and 900 houses and apartment buildings and had killed 12 and injured 34 healthcare workers.
At least 1,500 civilian buildings, structures and vehicles have been are destroyed.
Over 4 million or almost 10% of Ukraine’s pre-war population and at least 200,000 third-country nationals have fled the country to Poland, Romania, Moldova and Hungary.
Peace prospects and “colossal” attack
On March 29 – the 34th day of the war – Ukraine and Russia held new face-to-face peace talks in Istanbul, Turkey [N. Qena, Y Karmanau: Associated Press. Mar 29, 2022]. In his welcome remarks, Turkish President Erdogan is quoted: “We believe that there will be no losers in a just peace.” The last peace talk in Turkey was 19 days ago.
Later in the day [Tim Lister: CNN News.March 29, 2022. 12:28 PM EDT], CNN News headlined “Talks offer a roadmap to a truce – but one that passes through a minefield” and reported that the atmosphere for a peace deal is “a great deal more positive and the outlines, however faint of an overall settlement, began to come into focus (and) included the future of Crimea and the Donbas region, Ukraine’s neutral status protected by international security guarantees, a notable pull-back of Russian forces currently north of Kyiv (Chernihiv and the Ukrainian capital Kyiv), and even the prospect of a meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky.”
On the future of Crimea, an adviser to Zelensky is quoted: ‘It was agreed in bilateral format to take a pause for 15 years and conduct bilateral talks on the status of these territories…that during the 15 years while the bilateral talks take place there will be no military hostilities.”
As this Commentary goes to the press (March 30), Russia's claim of yesterday, unfortunately, has been breached as shown with this breaking news [CNN News: L.Isaac and L.Kolirin. March 30, 2022]: ‘Chernihiv under "colossal attack" despite Moscow’s claim of scale-back in operations.’
The city's mayor is quoted: "they’re saying reducing intensity, they actually have increased the intensity of strikes. Today we have a colossal attack on the center of Chernihiv. Twenty-five people have been wounded and are now in hospitals. They're all civilians. So, whenever Russia says something, this needs to be checked carefully."
Naturally, we welcome peace prospects and ultimately peace. Meanwhile, may there be no more breach. Let there be an immediate ceasefire across Ukraine to allow urgent attention to humanitarian needs.
Acknowledging that nothing about the battle for freedom is simple or easy, President Biden invoked Pope John Paul II – “Be not afraid” – when he reminded us at the beginning of his speech about the great battle for freedom: a battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression.
Invoking “Be Not Afraid” once more as he concluded his Remarks, he shamed Putin’s imperial dream – “a dictator bent on rebuilding an empire will never erase a people’s love for liberty.”
Then he offered a promise – “a brighter future rooted in democracy and principle, hope and light, of decency and dignity, of freedom and possibilities.”
Spontaneous, he ended with a deep sense of humanity: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power!”