As a pandemic-weary world watches Russia’s continuing attacks on Ukraine with horror and a sense of helplessness, there’s a lot to be learned from the stories we’re seeing of hope, optimism and kindness from the Ukrainian people and their nearest neighbours, writes Victor Perton, founder of the Centre for Optimism.
What makes me optimistic for Ukraine?
“Optimism is indispensable,” said Vitaliy Kim, the governor of Ukraine’s Mykolaiv region.
For me too. My optimism for Ukraine is rooted in my family history. My Lithuanian grandmother, a survivor of the Gulag, predicted the demise of Russia’s ‘Soviet Union’ long before the experts even gave it a thought. After the first 1980s democratic rally in Lithuania, she told me she would outlive communism. And she did!
What is optimism? It’s a belief that good things will happen and that things will work out in the end. The grief and the fear will pass. We must stand with Ukraine.
Optimism starts with leadership
The leader looks like the person in your mirror.
In a matter of days, we have a new global leader standing for democracy and taking up the mantle of defending ‘western values’.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will be remembered for his inspiring, realistic optimism, courage and commitment.
“The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride,” was his response to an American offer to evacuate his family and himself.
Beyond Zelensky, we see Ukrainians, young and old, men and women, taking up the cause to defend their nation. We hear of Ukrainians returning from safe western countries to take up arms and relief work. We see reports of thousands of people like us volunteering to fight for Ukraine.
We see small countries like Estonia, Sweden, Portugal, Lithuania and Latvia standing up to be counted, delivering military aid to Ukraine and taking in Ukrainian refugees. The people of Poland and Moldova deserve praise for stepping up.
In the end, it’s the people’s mindset that counts. Beautifully put by Richard Spencer of The Times, “As Russian armour massed to the west, Kyiv’s remaining residents prepared yesterday to defend themselves, relying on trenches, sandbags and relentless optimism.”
The military campaign
No one could have predicted how poorly the Russian military has performed in the field.
There must be brave soldiers amongst them; however, it appears the majority are conscripts, poorly trained, lacking the motivation to die for the cause and ill-equipped for a winter campaign.
I had the opportunity to talk with Uzbek veterans of the lost Soviet war in Afghanistan. I recall them telling me they were conscripted as teenagers, given six weeks of basic training and then trucked into Afghanistan. They were grateful to have survived that war and to see the demise of the Soviet Union.
It seems little has changed in training conscripts for Russian wars.
The English author Peter Jukes puts this well, “I’m an outlier in my optimism here. But I’ve been to Ukraine. I see how passionately these people will fight for their lives. I think Putin’s invasion has failed, is failing, will fail. I just hope the rout and retreat is days rather than weeks, weeks rather than months.”
Francis Fukuyama inspired me with his book The End of History, predicting universal Western liberal democracy. This week in Macedonia, he wrote, “Russia is heading for an outright defeat in Ukraine. Russian planning was incompetent, based on a flawed assumption that Ukrainians were favorable to Russia and that their military would collapse immediately following an invasion … The collapse of their position could be sudden and catastrophic, rather than happening slowly through a war of attrition. The army in the field will reach a point where it can neither be supplied nor withdrawn, and morale will vaporize.”
Shades of the end of the Soviet Union where one man standing on a tank, Boris Yeltsin, led the people in a stand-off with the mighty Soviet military.
A rebirth of ‘western values’
In his State of the Union address, President Biden said, “We see the unity among leaders of nations, a more unified Europe, a more unified West. We see unity among the people who are gathering in cities, in large crowds around the world — even in Russia — to demonstrate their support for the people of Ukraine. In the battle between democracy and autocracies, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security.”
In the context of the Ukrainians themselves, Olga Boicheck put it well, “In the face of such an existential threat, Ukraine has experienced profound social, political and cultural transformations. Over the past eight years of occupation, hundreds of grassroots volunteer initiatives have stepped up to help the country recover from the humanitarian crisis stemming from the long-running conflict and counteract a full-scale military invasion. This type of civil society activism is the cornerstone of democracies around the world. There is still a long way to go in Ukraine, but these emerging foundations can now be observed in nearly every aspect of public life.”
In Australia, we see young and old demonstrating in support of Ukraine physically and on social media. Australian governments – federal, state and local – are speaking out and lighting up their public buildings. The Australian mining company BHP has donated $5 million for humanitarian relief in Ukraine.
When I was fourteen, we marched protesting the Australian government’s recognition of the Soviet (Russian) annexation of the Baltic states. That decision was reversed a few years later through a change of government. Of course, 15 years later, the Balts liberated themselves amid the collapse of the Soviet Russian empire.
In Europe we see the European Union and NATO united for Ukraine and democracy.
Acts of kindness: Stories of optimism and hope
Two years ago, World Commerce and Contracting’s Diane Kilkenny told me, “What makes me optimistic? That random acts of human kindness come from the places you least expect them at the times you need them most!”
That has been a highlight: Ukrainians working together to look after each other in a humanitarian crisis.
It has been good to see people lining up at the Polish and Moldovan borders to look after refugees, cook for them, deliver medical aid, drive them across Europe to safe shelter. Watching the reports of people in Berlin, Paris, Budapest and beyond offering shelter in their homes to Ukrainian women and children displaced by the war.
What can you do?
We can’t all go off to fight or deliver humanitarian aid in Ukraine. We can donate money to the worthy people doing that. We can use our social media and communications skills to amplify the messages of hope and need for Ukraine.
In our case, at The Centre for Optimism, our Ukrainian members have asked us to do our best and keep the candle of optimism burning in the midst of the coverage of war crimes and the bombing of cities and people.
Says Mike Graffeo, CEO of Fluid Form 3D, “The biggest reason for optimism in Ukraine is purpose. The people of Kyiv share a common, existential purpose. You can’t say the same about their enemy.”
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