The day Russia attacked Ukraine, I had a visceral reaction watching people lining up at pharmacies and hunkering in subways. I thought of our need to always have food on hand or keep my son’s insulin cool. When I watched a crying mother of an infant with a brain tumor explain how her breastmilk had dried up while sheltering in the basement of Ukraine’s largest children’s hospital, I cried with her. Her neurosurgeon didn’t know if he could even perform the surgery.

The conditions of this war have been accessible in ways unlike any other. War on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. According to the UN, over 5.6 million people have fled Ukraine, and another 7.1 displaced according to the second Ukraine Internal Displacement Report. We’ve seen hospitals and civilian residences bombed, there is verified evidence of banned cluster munitions, women and young girls have been raped by Russian soldiers, and the massacre in Bucha laid bare the depravity of the Russian military, with dead bodies strewn in the streets like a scene from a horror film. Only this is a real-life horror story from which few Ukrainians escape.

I’ve been particularly engaged because I have a pen-pal in Ukraine. I purchased a hand-made wooden pill case online. The seller, Roman, asked me for a review. Afterwards, I wrote him concerned, and we’ve continued to exchange messages since.

Roman lives in western Ukraine and operates his own woodworking business. He is in his early 30s, married and dreams of becoming a millionaire, growing his Ukrainian business (his emphasis). The pride in his country permeates every message, which are often videos depicting beautiful images of Ukraine contrasted by devastation. Yet everything he writes reveals an optimism and determination that have become Ukrainian hallmarks. He never wavers, insisting, “We will definitely win the war, and we will become a great power, strong and courageous.”

His wife has stayed by his side. They have a small basement shelter but are also prepared to fight (they had brief pre-war military and medical training). Luckily, they’ve been fortunate to live in an area mostly free from attacks. However, free from attacks does not mean unaffected by atrocities.

So, I’ve asked myself, “Are we doing enough?”

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Economic sanctions have hurt Russians, but they haven’t stopped Putin. Putin is like Keyser Söze from “The Usual Suspects,” willing to kill his own family if they make him weak. His chief concern is financing his war, and Russia’s financial situation is strong. Its surplus is estimated at over $250 billion, so even if Europe cuts off energy imports, Russia will likely sell more energy to India or China.

What can we do? What prevents Russia from invading other sovereign nations? Putin rejects a rule-based world, unless forced to conform. What about the threat of nuclear war? This threat has always been present. But are we caught in a game of chicken with Russia, and have we swerved first?

As a civilian, I’m out of my depth. I was grateful to speak with retired U.S. Army Major General Dana J.H. Pittard, who offered valuable insights.

He outlined four ways to force Putin into a defensive position: 1) Declare western Ukraine a Humanitarian Assistance Zone (HAZ), “which would have a no-fly zone, air defense systems, and NATO peace enforcement units;” 2) Deploy Special Operations Advisors; 3) Push nations that are under Russia’s thumb to rebel; and 4) NATO could allow Poland and Romania to provide armed escorts for supply convoys leaving their countries and entering Ukraine.

Finally, Gen. Pittard insisted that we must send an unequivocal message, perhaps through backchannels, that any use of nuclear weapons, “even a one kiloton nuclear tactical weapon” would start a nuclear war. He admitted this message could have been delivered already, though Russia will always “keep that threat up.”

So where does this leave me? General George S. Patton’s words come to mind, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” If too many people are satisfied we’ve “done enough,” perhaps they’re forgetting to ask if we’ve done the right things.

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Gen. Pittard reminded me that we can provide military weapons, but without the “training or the knowledge as to how to employ them properly” they’re useless. (Special Ops Advisors could be utilized, and there’s precedent as we did this against ISIS. Key is they can’t engage in direct combat.) Exploring more strategies doesn’t mean we’re weak. It means we’re smart.

These ideas aren’t hawkish but a path toward peace. Zelensky called upon America to act as the “leader of peace” so Ukrainians may have the “right to live decently and die when [their] time comes and not when it is decided by somebody else.”

I want Roman to live in that world. And I want to know that my country helped make it possible.

Hilary Koch lives in Waterville.


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