In what may be one of the strangest anomalies of the Ukraine invasion, a viral video may have moved an entire industry.
Put sunflower seeds in your pockets…
The video of a Ukrainian woman telling a heavily-armed Russian soldier, “Take these seeds and put them in your pockets so at least sunflowers will grow when you all lie down and die here” definitely set the tone for Ukrainian resistance before Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s impressive show of resolve by physically taking up arms. It quickly became clear that the Ukrainian people were not going to take this invasion lying down.
Even the choice of flower was perfect—the sunflower is both the national flower of Ukraine and a symbol of motherhood. And because the world is now so weirdly interconnected, shortly after the video went viral, sunflower seed futures shot up 20 percent.
We can’t say for sure that the spike in sunflower seed futures has anything to do with that video. Correlation isn’t causation—but it’s hard to think of many other reasons for the sudden uptick in demand for sunflower seeds. It’s an interesting data point and metric for gauging public sentiment—and now a potent image of resistance.
Ukraine’s refugees are not being treated equally
This is delicate. There has been some concern about discrimination among refugees fleeing from Ukraine to Poland and Hungary. The governments are saying that because the majority of the country is Caucasian, and they are prioritizing women and children demographically, this is causing some inequity in evacuation and placement of refugees. Claims of discrimination persist.
That said, refugees continue to stream into adjacent countries, and many reports to the contrary say that foreigners and people of color are getting out. While a concern, any systemic fixes to the refugee process would likely take longer to implement than to just keep shoving everyone over the border as fast as they can.
Over two million people have now evacuated Ukraine. Those who are staying appear to be all-in on opposing the Russian invasion.
However, what I do find odd about the whole thing is the scope of support from the rest of Europe. It is good that everyone is opening their borders and homes to people displaced by Putin’s war. I’m glad people are willing to help. But when Syrians flooded the Greek border (also Russia’s fault, thanks) on their way to a closed Turkish border a few years ago, everyone seemed considerably more resistant to offering aid. That happened. Do you recall how vociferously the Conservatives opposed taking in Syrian refugees? As nice as it is that everyone is eager to help the Ukrainians, I can’t help but think that this exposes a racial bias we’ll need to explore further as an international community.
Total impact should start with Crimea
While the Russian invasion just happened, we shouldn’t forget that this conflict has been ongoing since the 2014 invasion of Crimea. Inside the US media bubble, consumed as it has been with our own problems unseating a would-be dictator, reporting has generally ignored the scope of the conflict up to now. In 2019, Radio Free Europe reported on a document from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights which put the death toll at 13,000. That was three years ago.
Ukrainian resistance molotovs are basically napalm
The video in the above tweet is both inspiring and heartbreaking. It also requires a quick tutorial for those of you who never read The Anarchist Cookbook.
Images of kids helping their parents prepare to defend their city with empty vodka bottles and rags are emblematic of the plucky-underdog narrative that has been bolstered by Ukrainian resistance. It comes across as almost wholesome. The fluffy white ground styrofoam gives the impression that these kids are working on an arts and crafts project.
What you’re actually seeing is a kid making napalm. When you mix styrofoam and gasoline the gas dissolves the styrofoam. What you’re left with is something that’s not only very flammable but also gooey and (more importantly) very sticky. This comes in handy when you’re trying to set things like tanks and supply trucks on fire. Fire is better when it sticks.
It shouldn’t be the case that little kids are helping to make improvised munitions. I look at that kid in the dinosaur hat, funneling polystyrene beads into a bottle, and realize he is not much older than my Ukrainian-American daughter. That brings it home.
Ukraine says POWs can go home
If there’s any advantage to electing an entertainer as a country’s head of state it’s that they know how to use media effectively. Zelenskyy hasn’t missed many opportunities to make defiant gestures, and the POW situation is no different.
In a release posted to Facebook on March 2nd by the Ukrainian ministry of defense, the country announced that they will release any Russian POWs. However, they will only do so if their moms come to Kyiv to get them.
I’m no psychologist, but I’m pretty sure that Putin won’t like that. He does not want the Russian army to have a reputation of being man-children playing at war until their mommies come to pick them up from detention. It doesn’t help that many surrendering Russian troops are saying they’re basically reservists who thought they were going on a paintball skirmish weekend.
Did Putin get George W. Bushed?
Reports from inside Russia suggest that Putin genuinely believed that Russia would be “greeted as liberators.” For those too young to remember the events following 9/11, this is the same thing U.S. President George W. Bush was led to believe about invading Iraq.
As you may recall, the Iraq war ended up taking eight years. We still left the place kind of a mess too. If Putin’s aim is regime change, even if successful, he may have bitten off more than he can chew. Can he sustain a puppet government while sanctions drain his resources and make almost any international trade impossible? Time will tell.
The Iraq war cost the United States about two trillion dollars. Russia literally cannot afford that. In January, the total supply of rubles in circulation was about 65.3 trillion. That means the total value of all Russian currency right now is only about $615 billion. Putin doesn’t have the budget for a long drawn-out war, even if everyone in Russia was on-board with this invasion.
Which they most certainly are not.
Putin’s shame could lead to escalation
While those of us in the West have been cheering on Ukraine, embarrassing Russian forces could backfire. Putin’s grasp on power in Russia is based on his image as a strong-man leader mastermind. Embarrassments like botched military operations make him look weak and stupid.
Since Russian politics is so vertically integrated, any shame brought to Putin is seen as shame for the whole nation. This isn’t new. During the Cold War, Russian Olympians were under extreme pressure to ‘bring glory to Mother Russia’. This is a deeply entrenched part of Russian culture, and it applies to heads of state just as much as athletes, performers, or soldiers.
This leaves Putin with few options but to continue to act like everything is going according to plan. He needs to save face; he can’t back down without looking like a weak leader. Nuclear saber-rattling is the only trick he has left up his sleeve to keep other countries from coming to Ukraine’s defense. An embarrassing loss in Ukraine could well bring his 20+ year reign as Russia’s top dog to a disgraceful end.
The question for the rest of the world: Do we call Putin’s bluff?
The embarrassment of Russian forces in Ukraine has left Putin more isolated than he already was. Even with his state-run propaganda machine working overtime, even pro-Putin Russians must be noticing by now that this conflict is taking longer than he said it would. International sanctions are starting to make life harder on his citizenry. According to some aviation industry experts, it will only be about a week before Russia’s commercial airline services will be functionally grounded as lack of parts and routine maintenance render planes inoperable.
Boeing announced that they’re not doing business with Russia. The Texas-based company that maintains their ticketing software said they will no longer be providing their services to Aeroflot. Adding to that, Russian commercial airlines that do fly out to international destinations are being seized by their leasing companies.
As pressure mounts, Putin needs to find a way to save face or risk a backlash in Moscow that could (however unlikely) force him to step down. But that won’t happen without a resounding defeat. Even if Ukraine manages to avoid being totally subsumed by Russia, a definitive annexation of Donetsk and Luhansk would likely be enough for him to maintain his grip on power and mollify his ambitions for a while. He could spin that as a victory. But I fear it would be a short-lived peace.
The ball right now is firmly in Putin’s court. We will have to wait and see if he escalates or tries to find an exit ramp that doesn’t impact his tough-guy image. It’s hard to imagine what that might be.