Christmas in Wartime

Remember Ukraine this year as Russia continues its homicidal campaign against the country.

Christmas tree covered in paper doves
The Christmas tree in St. Sophia Square in Kyiv (Sergei Supinsky / AFP / Getty)

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During the holidays, many of us look close to home as we remember the least fortunate among us. But don’t forget that millions of people around the world, including in Ukraine, are living not only with poverty and deprivation but under wartime conditions.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

A Violent Winter

This time of year, many of us dip some cash into a bell-ringer’s kettle or donate canned goods. We increase our giving to religious organizations or community associations. The better folks among us commit the most valuable commodity of all—time—to volunteer work. And so we should. (America is a wealthy nation and many of our pets have better health care than millions of human beings here and around the world.)

We should take a moment to remember that millions of people will not be wrapping presents or checking with the family to decide what to serve for dinner. Instead, they will be trying to stay alive. For many people around the world, survival is endangered by exposure or hunger or disease. The citizens of Ukraine will struggle with all of these challenges while also enduring a steady rain of Russian missiles whose sole purpose is murder. Ukrainians are going to sleep in shelters worried that they will find their children hungry or cold in the morning, or perhaps even blasted to pieces by criminals acting on the orders of a cowardly dictator.

This weekend, The New York Times published a detailed examination of the Russian war against Ukraine. It is a rebuke to every self-described “realist” and harrumphing geostrategist engaged in long chin-pulls about the weight of history, NATO expansion, the culpability of the West, and all of the other overintellectualized excuses for Russia’s campaign of brutality. This war is the product of a small circle of conspirators led by one man who is seized by nostalgia for the old Soviet Union, by the belief that he is the savior of a new Russian Empire, and by the conviction that he is a great historical figure.

Paranoid about COVID-19 and bunkered in his palace, Vladimir Putin hatched his plans for an invasion. “Mr. Putin’s isolation,” the Times reported, “deepened his radicalization, people who know him say. He went 16 months without meeting a single Western leader in person.” And the few people allowed into his presence have continuously fed his grandiosity and detachment from reality:

“If everyone around you is telling you for 22 years that you are a super-genius, then you will start to believe that this is who you are,” said Oleg Tinkov, a former Russian banking tycoon who turned against Mr. Putin this year. “Russian businesspeople, Russian officials, the Russian people—they saw a czar in him. He just went nuts.”

Instead of trying to talk Putin out of plunging into disaster, the Russian president’s circle of sycophants decided to indulge him. In the words of the Times report, they “had an incentive to cater to the boss’s rising self-regard—and to magnify the external threats and historical injustices that Mr. Putin saw himself as fighting against.”

We know what happened next. Perhaps Putin thought his troops would plant the imperial Russian eagle in Kyiv, maybe even in a ceremony drenched in the strains of the Russian national anthem (whose music Putin nostalgically recycled from the old Soviet national anthem). Instead, years of corruption and lies and decadence created a Russian army that couldn’t sprint a few hundred miles from Russia and Belarus to capture Kyiv, much less subjugate an entire nation of 44 million people spread out over an area larger than France. As the humiliations mounted in the field for Russia’s hapless military, they raped and tortured and murdered civilians. In Moscow, a bewildered and enraged Putin decided on a new strategy: The Ukrainians would be punished for their insolence, broken as a nation, starved and frozen until they begged the new emperor for mercy.

The Ukrainians, of course, have not been broken, and they have not surrendered. But the campaign of atrocities continues; over the weekend, Russia launched a barrage at crucial infrastructure in cities across Ukraine, including Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Zaporizhzhia. The holidays this year will be marked not only by shortages of power, heat, water, food, and medical care but by the constant fear that every night could end in carnage.

Russians who know Putin told the Times that the Kremlin dictator is willing to take untold numbers of casualties rather than abandon this war. (His butcher’s bill, according to Pentagon estimates, has already surpassed 100,000 Russian soldiers killed or wounded.) There will likely be another offensive in the east and perhaps another attempt to take Kyiv itself. There is not much we can do in the short term to alleviate the individual suffering of Ukrainian families, but the West must continue to help Ukraine defend itself. Indeed, it’s possible that this latest missile salvo was in response to America’s decision to send a Patriot anti-missile battery to Ukraine, showing yet again that no one makes a better case for aiding the fight against the Russians than Putin himself.

One thing we can all do is remember the Ukrainians, who are celebrating Christmas (and Hanukkah and the coming new year) under the guns and missile batteries of their Slavic “brothers.” We must not forget them. Putin certainly won’t.


Today’s News
  1. The House January 6 committee held its final public meeting and referred evidence against Donald Trump to the Justice Department for potential criminal prosecution.
  2. An arctic blast will hit parts of the country over the coming week. Christmas temperatures will likely be lower than they’ve been in almost 40 years.
  3. Elon Musk opened a Twitter poll last night asking his followers whether he should step down as CEO of the company (and pledging to adhere to the results). More than 17 million users responded; the majority voted that he should step down.


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Evening Read
An illustration using a rearview photo of a far-right militia member
(Erik Carter / The Atlantic; Getty)

Like Uber, but for Militias

By Antonia Hitchens

One problem with defining extremism in America today is how many people think the U.S. government is what’s extreme. In his 1995 essay “The Militia in Me,” Denis Johnson describes meeting two men campaigning for the 1992 presidential candidate Bo Gritz, a far-right former Special Forces officer. “Both men believed that somebody had shanghaied the United States, that pirates had seized the helm of the ship of state and now steered it toward some completely foreign berth where it could be plundered at leisure.”

This fall, I set out to meet today’s version of such alienated activists, who were looking for solace in a civilian defense group. On a street corner in West Covina, just outside Los Angeles, one of them, Vincent Tsai, told me: “We need to be armed and ready. We need to be our own self-defense.” After being suspended from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department for refusing to comply with mask and vaccine mandates, he was running for State Senate in November’s elections. (He didn’t win.)

In Friday-afternoon traffic, wearing yellow shorts, he stood with his 7-year-old son at the intersection of two congested thoroughfares, handing out flyers. His wife, Gigi, who teaches a free weekly exercise class called Patriot Pilates, was with him, collecting signatures on a clipboard for his campaign.

Read the full article.

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We can’t solve all the trouble in the world, but we needn’t feel overwhelmed. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, my father took me aside and showed me that he had joined one of the charities for children, an organization called Christian Children’s Fund at the time. CCF provided a photo and a biography of a particular kid and encouraged the donor to write to their “sponsored” child. My father was a sensible man and knew that his donations went to a large pool, but he liked the idea and told me that it was important for everyone who could do so to take responsibility for just one other person somewhere in the world. He kept a photo of his sponsored child near his desk. I knew my father donated to our church and to local charities, but I’d never seen this side of him.

In the mid-1980s, I got my first steady professional job. I, too, sponsored a child, and I have done so now for almost 40 years. CCF, in the early 2000s, joined a network of child-relief charities that all today go by the name ChildFund, and I have now seen at least four children grow to adulthood and leave the program. When my daughter was growing up, we sponsored a child together, and she wrote notes to another child (like her, an Orthodox Christian, but in Ethiopia); we still keep the picture of a sponsored child in our home. It’s a tiny thing, but somehow, I feel less helpless by doing it.

— Tom

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.