November 1989. I am overseeing the make-up of the world news pages in the old Herald Sun building in Melbourne for the short-lived Sunday Herald.
The Berlin Wall has fallen and I’ve had the privilege of writing history as it happens, well, at least the headlines.
The editor, an old Murdoch hand, reads the page and turns to me, “We’ve won!”
I was thinking more of relief and renewed hope that the Iron Curtain and the awful shadow of mutual annihilation were lifting. That peace really was being given a chance and that the world could finally move forward.
Looking back, that triumphalism has been the West’s undoing. Instead of taking Russia by the hand as a genuine friend, the West gloated and saw another market opportunity.
Should we be surprised that the Russia that emerged from the free-for-all after the Soviet Union collapsed should come to be dominated by oligarchs and a strongman, who just happens to be an embittered former KGB officer?
We may be shocked by the horror of another war in Europe and a democratic Ukraine being invaded as if it were 1939 all over again.
But can we really be surprised at Vladimir Putin’s actions, which come straight out of the Great Dictators’ playbook?
All the signs were there leading up to this: Chechnya, Georgia, international assassinations, Syria, eastern Ukraine, Crimea – yet they were ignored until we now face the full implications of Putin’s ambitions.
I won’t go into Putin’s state of mind or his ramblings about mythical Mother Russia, only to say that diplomacy is a waste of time and his kind only ever respond to one thing.
And that is the bind the West is in because there is no appetite in the US or Europe for NATO to join the fray and incur the loss of life this would mean.
And Putin, megalomaniac or gangster, sits on a nuclear arsenal that he seems willing to use.
So it is right and proper that Australia joins the rest of the world, except for the notable exception of China and, more surprisingly, India, in condemning Russia and isolating it diplomatically and economically.
But let’s not kid ourselves that Australian sanctions will have much impact or overstate what sanctions generally will do, considering Putin has been preparing for this.
Nor should Australians believe that the Prime Minister’s rhetoric, which extends to calling out China for throwing an economic lifeline to Russia but not Quad partner India, is aimed anywhere but voters ahead of the coming election campaign.
The Ukrainians say words are pointless. They want the world to strangle the Russian economy, including oil embargoes and removal from the SWIFT international payments system, and to send material support to help them repel the invaders.
Thankfully, that’s what is happening with Australia to finance lethal aid through NATO, joining the US and some European countries, including significantly Germany, that are sending arms to Ukraine, and the US and EU excluding select some Russian banks from SWIFT.
What the West, including Scott Morrison, needs to tell its people is that if we really want to help Ukraine, there will be a cost, perhaps not blood, but economic pain that will come from fully isolating Russia.
And why it is worth doing despite that pain.
Australia will also be called upon to take its fair share of war refugees spilling into Ukraine’s neighbours.
The country needs real leadership to guide it through these precipitous times, but real statespeople are in short supply.
Our Prime Minister’s instincts seem hopelessly wedded to extracting political mileage out of the increasingly fraught security situation.
Wars are unpredictable beasts. No one really knows what the consequences will be.
However, it is likely that Ukraine will eventually be overwhelmed, but Russia could get bogged down in an occupation marked by an ongoing guerilla war.
There is the terrible potential for other European countries to be drawn into the conflict.
And as China observes the West’s response, an emboldened President Xi may be recalculating the risks of restoring Taiwan to the Motherland by force.
The situation also shows Australia’s exposure to world events and the need to become more self-sufficient and less dependent on oil, an area where the country has been dragging its feet.
Australia also needs to spread its risk by diversifying its export markets away from China.
For now, we are back in the age of the Great Dictators, and Australia, along with the rest of the democratic world, is being challenged to again reassert its values and stand together against tyranny.
History, indeed, repeats itself.