Ukrainians break some mental chains

The shock of the invasion also led to a shock about Ukraine’s response, which has included a helpline for Russian families seeking information on their soldiers.

A Ukrainian soldier walks past a burning military truck in Kyiv on Feb. 26 after Russian troops stormed the capital.

Ukrainians were shocked not only by Russia’s invasion, but also by their own response. Millions have put up a vigorous and unified defense against a powerful Russian military. They admire President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for not fleeing the country and for his courage in standing up for its independence. Look more closely, however, and you can see other moments of a sudden mental turnaround.

The invasion showed Ukrainians how much they have embraced the values of the European Union, a bloc of democracies they seek to join. One good example is a humanitarian outreach to the Russian people, not as enemies but as allies in a universal cause about the rules of warfare.

Soon after the invasion began, Ukraine set up a hotline called Ishchi Svoikh (Look for Your Own) to help the relatives of Russian soldiers find out if their loved ones had been taken prisoner or killed. The phone number has received hundreds of calls. In addition, a website shows images and videos of captured soldiers. (Russia has blocked access to the site)

The goodwill gesture to Russians – over the head of President Vladimir Putin – may already have had one effect. On Feb. 27, four days into the full-scale invasion, the Russian Defense Ministry finally admitted that its troops had suffered casualties, although it didn’t say how many. Another possible effect: Russian soldiers in Ukraine might decide not to fire their weapons knowing how much the country they’ve invaded cares about their families back home.

Ukrainians are not the only people to experience a rapid shift in thinking as a result of the invasion. Germans, too, had an aha moment about Mr. Putin’s intentions toward Europe. Russia’s invasion of a sovereign country has led Germany to provide lethal aid to Ukraine and to decide to raise its military spending, upending decades of being a more passive player in Europe’s defense.

“This is a turning point, possibly similar to what happened after Sept. 11,” German parliamentarian Axel Schäfer of the Social Democratic Party told Der Spiegel. “We always reached out to Moscow with an olive branch – now Putin is responding with a clenched, armed fist.”

Historic events, such as 9/11, the 2011 Arab Spring, and now the Russian invasion, often result in a mass awakening. People suddenly wonder why they believed what they once did. Such moral leaps drive human progress. Yet they are inspired by insights, frequently triggered by tragedy, about the power of truth and, in the case of Ukraine, love for one’s apparent enemies.

“Many Russians are worried about how and where their children, their sons, their husbands are,” explained a Ukrainian official about the initiative to reveal information on captured or slain Russian soldiers.

Despite worries about losing their country, Ukrainians are experiencing a  breaking of mental chains. In at least one case, they have turned fear into kindness.


Editor’s Note: Since this editorial was published, the Ukraine government has uploaded graphic images on various Internet sites allegedly showing killed Russian soldiers that, according to a Washington Post news story, “could be interpreted as a violation of the Geneva Conventions.”  The government website mentioned in this editorial, which claims to help Russian families get information about the fate of their soldiers in Ukraine, does not show such images.

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