The response of 13 Ukrainian border guards stationed on Snake Island just south of Odessa in the Black Sea to the demand of a Russian naval officer to surrender or suffer the consequences has become legendary. The officer declared, “This is a Russian warship. Lay down your weapons and surrender to avoid bloodshed.” After a brief discussion among themselves, the border guards responded with, “To Russian warship, go f**k yourself!”
Thus began Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” nearly two weeks ago. It harkens back to Anthony McAuliffe’s famous response to a Wehrmacht ultimatum to surrender Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge just days before Christmas, 1944. McAuliffe, acting commander of the 101st Airborne Division, told the Germans, “Nuts!” McAuliffe, of course, held Bastogne until George Patton’s reinforcements arrived.
Variations of the border guards’ response have popped up everywhere and become a rallying cry for Ukrainian resistance. They include an invitation to Russian trains, planes, tanks, missiles, troops, officers, and, one would assume, Putin himself, to follow suit as in the phrase, “Russian train, go fuck yourself!” What’s impressive about this–beyond its cheeky defiance–is the speed with which it has spread throughout mainstream and social media. That the phrase already appears on billboards in metropolitan areas in Ukraine ought to tell you something.
Even more impressive is the domination of social media by President Zelensky and the Ukrainian government, including regular YouTube updates and interviews of captured Russian soldiers, who often appear to be little more than boys left by their commanders to scour the countryside for food and shelter. YouTube is filled with videos of them calling their mothers and sobbing. It is obvious that they have been ordered to follow a script by their Ukrainian captors, which is evidence of just how much more adept the Ukrainians are than their Russian counterparts at the narrative war. The Ukrainians even invited Russian mothers to Ukraine to take their captured sons back home.
Unlike Putin, who is running a conventional campaign, both militarily and in the media (neither one well), Zelensky and his government have focused on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram to get their message across and win supporters. Their efforts even helped convince Germany to send military supplies to Ukraine through Poland and increase NATO defense spending. No small feat, that.
Social media has rallied the world against Putin and what some claim is his dream of establishing a pan-Slavic, neo-Soviet empire in eastern Europe. Who knows if that’s what he really has in mind, but add Russia’s nuclear arsenal to the mix and suddenly we’re back in October, 1962. Putin has already mentioned the nuclear option. Given the poor performance of his troops thus far, he’s liable to conclude that nuclear is his only option, as frightening as that sounds. If he starts waving his shoe in the air à la Nikita Khrushchev, we’re in trouble.
This makes the border guards’ response even more poignant. By including the profanity, they cut Putin and his invading force down to size and showed how ludicrous his “special military operation” is. Telling the warship to go fuck itself had a decidedly “emperor’s new clothes” effect, exposing the futility of the invasion.
Putin already works in something of a castle and sits at a ridiculously long table out of fear of being assassinated. During a recent visit by Emmanuel Macron, Putin made the French president sit at the other end of a table the length of a shuffleboard court. The boyish Macron apparently looked menacing enough to keep at bay, although he could easily have been placed at the kids’ table. The only thing missing from the scene was a jester in a pointed hat with bells.
Humor alone won’t repel the Russian invaders. Still, it reflects a rebellious spirit that just might win the war for the Ukrainians. Well, that and several thousand Javelin anti-tank missiles. I think I know what the Ukrainians will write on them.
Image credits: feature, Snake Island by Фотонак, own work (CC BY-SA 4.0); top, guided missile cruiser Moskva by George Chernilevsky (own work, public domain); middle, patrol boat Vasily Bykov by Mil.ru (CC BY 4.0); bottom, billboard by Alex Blokha, own work (CC BY-SA 4.0). Both ships pictured were involved in the Snake Island attack.
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Very scary times.