WARSAW, Poland — It was the tale of two Vladimirs — one noble, grim and stubbornly open to peace; the other angry, threatening and bellicose — on a day that seemed to presage the demise of the security architecture, consensus and arrangements that have kept Europe and the world, for the most part, stable and secure for three-quarters of a century.
As missiles and a sense of tragedy rained down on the great European plain early Thursday, the eve-of-war remarks of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin showed the starkly opposing poles of this conflict.
Putin, wearing the same clothing and in the same seated position of his history-twisting speech of Monday night, raising the likelihood that the remarks were prepared and taped two days before, announced that Russia is launching a special military operation supposedly in defense of the two breakaway districts of Ukraine that his government has recently declared sovereign.
That he was announcing an attack on a neighboring country and unilaterally abdicating the international agreement that national borders should not be changed by force was glossed over by him. Instead he insisted that Ukraine, the country he likes to call Little Russia, was an existential threat to Big Russia, and preparing to attack his country that is three times its size and vastly better armed.
And in a naked message to the rest of the world, he threatened any foreign country attempting to interfere with “consequences you have never seen.” Not since the time of Nikita Khrushchev has a Russian leader waved Moscow's nuclear sword so brazenly.
Putin's speech repeated a litany of accusations against the United States, which he called “an empire of lies," and included U.S. allies, or its “satellites" as he called them, part of that empire.
He denounced past U.S. military interventions in Syria, Iraq, Libya and the Balkans. He insisted that the ultimate U.S. end goal was to end Russia's sovereignty.
And he accused the Ukrainians of being a collection of neo-Nazis and far-right nationalists who, he claimed, are aspiring to get nuclear weapons. (In fact, Ukraine voluntarily eliminated the part of the Soviet nuclear arsenal that it controlled in the 1990s, along with Belarus and Kazakhstan.)
Instead of a war of aggression, he said the operation would be a defensive one to save the people of the region known as Donbas. “They left us no choice."
Zelenskyy, in a tailored suit standing in front of a map of Ukraine late Thursday, was not aggressive. He was pleading in a dignified way over Putin's head to the Russian people in their own Russian language: please stop this madness.
It was unlikely many Russians would see Zelenskyy's message. State broadcast media was long ago captured in Putin's Russia. Only those with internet access or who listened to foreign broadcasters on the internet would have heard him.
But they are not stupid. The reality that Russia is launching a war with unknown consequences was reflected in a crash of the Russian stock market and lines at ATMs of Russians eager to take out cash from banks that have been or may soon be sanctioned and cut off from the international financial network.
Nevertheless, Zelenskyy's address was moving. He said that he had tried Wednesday to call Putin directly. "The result was silence."
Instead he switched from Ukrainian to Russian to address Russians directly. He said it was absurd that Ukrainians harbored hatred for their compatriots in the breakaway regions, areas where he grew up and where his best friend lived. How could he be accused of being a Nazi, he asked.
Explaining to Russians who may not be aware that their joint 2,000-kilometer (1,200-mile) border with Ukraine was ringed with nearly 200,000 Russian troops, he said nobody needs a hot war, a cold war or a hybrid war. “The people of Ukraine and the government of Ukraine want peace,” he intoned somberly, speaking in a mild tone with the ease and directness of a former television actor.
He said that Ukraine would be ready for whatever is to come.
“But if we come under attack, if we face an attempt to take away our country, our freedom, our lives and lives of our children, we will defend ourselves. When you attack us, you will see our faces. Not our backs, but our faces,” he said.
Within hours, rockets and barrages began falling on military installations all across Ukraine.
Ironically, the forum created after World War II to resolve such threats of conflict, the U.N. Security Council, is currently chaired by Russia, one of the five permanent members that has veto power over any actions.
The emergency Security Council meeting, which was still taking place as Putin announced his intentions, soon broke up with angry words between the envoy from Ukraine and the envoy from Russia. Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia insisted that what was happening was not a war, bur a “special military operation."
“Lunatic semantics," responded the Ukrainian ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, outside the meeting.
But on the first day of the assault on Ukraine, everyone seemed to reckon that the world cannot go back to the assured détente and balance of power that kept the European continent mostly free of major warfare between nations since 1945, a long peace that has allowed millions of people to thrive and generations to grow up relatively unscathed by fear of a devastated future.
“Peace on our continent has been shattered," declared Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO, as reports of first casualties began to trickle in.
For the West, the immediate answer will be imposing harsh sanctions against Putin, his associates and the Russian state. President Joe Biden has ruled out a U.S. military response. But such sanctions will have an economic cost to Americans, Europeans and people around the globe.
What follows next, as many Ukrainians take to their vehicles to flee the country and others wait to be distributed arms by their government, and as NATO builds up forces in the countries that now face directly the Russian threat, from Estonia to the north to Romania in the south, is unpredictable as in all wars.
Governments are recalculating and internal European quarrels for now are being set aside to adjust to a new reality.
Anna-Lena Lauren, a columnist in Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, predicted that the attack may mean the end of the aging Putin's near absolute rule.
“The Russian dictator will not survive his catastrophically miscalculated decision in the long run. And history won’t be kind,” she said.
“A war that will not yield any results, that lacks the support of the people and that leads to bloodshed for a peaceful neighbor to which a large part of the Russians have emotional ties. The madness is complete.”