Ukraine I: The Occidental Bully

A highly simplified crash course on the situation in Ukraine

First, let’s get one thing straight: it’s Kyiv and, yes, it’s that Kiev. But it’s pronounced KĒĒ-ĕv rather than the Russianized kēē-ĚV. For what are probably obvious reasons, use of the Russianized pronunciation (and spelling) is strongly discouraged these days. Just hit the first syllable rather than the second and you should be good to go.

While we’re on the topic of Ukrainian cities, Lviv is the Lvov you might be familiar with, which came from the Polish Lwów and was once even the German Lemburg. Why does this matter? Because it’s important to understand that Eastern Europe is built from inextricably interwoven histories that are complicated, messy and impossibly nuanced. Without detailed academic study — and maybe not even then — it’s impossible to gain a full understanding of the region’s centuries-old disagreements, jealousies, entanglements, rivalries and bitternesses.

The spelling and pronunciations of Ukrainian cities offer a glimpse of the complicated nature of Eastern European history and politics. Let’s start with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s perspective.

Putin claims Russia and Ukraine share a historic unity — he’s not entirely incorrect. The two nations do share some history but that history will differ, depending on who you ask. Putin will tell you Ukraine was created by Bolshevik Russia when Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev set Russian land aside to form several disparate but Soviet states in an effort to woo “the most zealous nationalists” across the Soviet Union — an exercise in forced unity at the expense of the historic romanticized idea of Russia. To Putin, Ukraine is an inseparable part of the motherland. Putin’s unhinged rhetoric — de-Nazification, genocide, demilitarization — is bizarre but clearly brands the Ukrainian government and leadership as illegitimate.

Thus, the immediate goal in Ukraine is regime change, the installation of a vassal leader who will effectively return Ukraine to the Russian fold.

Putin will see this action through — he will not back down in the face of unexpected resistance, mounting casualties and overwhelming public opinion. Further, as he is made a global pariah like the Dear Leader of the hermit kingdom, he won’t change his mind. Putin may have serious regrets later, but not today.

When we consider the not-insignificant sanctions levied against Russia and certain Russian citizens, we should be cognizant of a couple factors. First, some of the pain the sanctions will inflict will take time to be felt. Second, the coterie of Russian oligarchs on which the sanctions are hung are largely possessed of the same ideological determination as Comrade Putin — when you’re a true believer, you’ll suck it up and bear the burden for the cause.

Ah, yes, the cause. What’s the larger goal? What the hell is Putin thinking?

Now we have to understand Putin the man and Putin the product of the Soviet Bloc.

At first glance, Putin envisions a sort of Soviet Union 2.0, albeit without the communism and its accompanying ponderous, self-defeating bureaucracy of failure. No, this is empire revival to the core. Part yearning for glories past, part pining for unquestioned might, part legacy-building, Putin is known for taking off his shirt and preening. Now he’s preening in a massive and dangerous way but this speaks to all the major factors making Putin Putin: his KGB career, his lifetime schooling in Soviet thought, his very domineering Russianness.

For the Western mind reared in Western ways, it’s difficult to quantify the Eastern European brain. While we Westerners place great value in fair play, the old Soviet Bloc mindset placed the penultimate value in winning at any cost. Do Russians know they cheat? Of course, they know! It’s built into the old Eastern Bloc mentality which will take a generation or more to shed. They know they cheat and when they win, they pat themselves on the back for cheating better than anyone else, thus rightfully earning their prize.

Russians will never admit being anything less than the best but, in truth, Russia has historically lagged behind the west in nearly all areas: culture, academia, technology, style, everything. And Old Russia was a jealous and covetous land. Now, this is not to say Russia didn’t produce some exceptional music, art and innovation, even beating the free world once in a while. But for what they lacked, they usually turned their envious eyes westward — if they couldn’t do it themselves, they’d steal it. The win is everything in the Eastern Bloc mind.

Putin knows he’ll never be able to recreate the U.S.S.R. of the cold war — and he has no desire to restore the communist police state the world knew. His people first tasted Western-style freedom, then embraced their peculiar 20-years-behind version of it enthusiastically. The aforementioned Russian oligarchs are a product of that early perestroika and they’re currently firmly behind Putin. We’ll come back to all this in a moment — the Russian people might be key.

No, Putin wants the states of the historic Soviet sphere of influence to back Russian leadership without question, a pro-Russia federation of states rivaling the power of the old Soviet Union — and commanding the accompanying respect and glory. The last thing he can accept is Ukrainian membership in the E.U. or NATO. If either were to occur, he’s lost Ukraine forever. To Putin, keeping resource-rich Ukraine is a moral imperative.

Put another way, keeping Ukraine is worth starting a war.

But Putin underestimated the will and ability of the Ukrainian armed forces and citizenry. Even Western intelligence missed the mark on this one. Instead, Russian losses have been surprisingly large and now, the Ukrainian people are united behind their Churchillian leader, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. They’re determined like never before to defend their motherland to the death — they’re fighting for something more precious to them than life itself. Putin’s misjudgment has now guaranteed an endless guerrilla war after he “wins.”

Likewise, Putin failed to see the rallying cry his invasion would sound around the globe. He mistakenly (if understandably) banked on the fractured nature of public opinion in North America and assorted domestic distractions in Europe. What Putin didn’t see coming was the unity his move to war would immediately inspire: NATO and the free world are united like they haven’t been in decades, bound by shared outrage over Putin’s outrageous invasion.

But neither the determination of the Ukrainians nor the outrage of the West will change Putin’s mind. Even if he could be swayed, he stands to lose serious face if he backs down now. No, he will see this through.

Make no mistake, Putin will win his war whether that’s today or next week. He has massed overwhelming resources on the Ukrainian frontier — he can act as he wishes, to a point. Even in war, he can’t be seen exterminating a civilian population and he has, so far, exercised some restraint. But he will eventually take Kyiv and thus, the country.

Sanctions, economic penalties, Ukrainian resistance and world outrage will not change Putin’s mind but one thing probably will: massive unrest and dissatisfaction at home. If the Russian people rose up in outrage at their leader’s actions, Putin would have a problem.

The Russian government put its jackboot down — it forbade the Russian press from using terms like “war,” “invasion” and pretty much anything that could make Russia look bad. But while the Russian government can muzzle its domestic press for the moment, it will not be able to control a populace devoted to its no-longer-Soviet way of life — an angry populace embarrassed by the belligerent chest-thumping of its leader. Russians are tired of being looked at like Europe’s backward hicks and bumpkin bullies.

So what now?

At the end of the third day of the conflict, the U.N. confirmed the deaths of 240 Ukrainian civilians. Reportedly, Russian deaths are substantially higher. Yesterday, near Kyiv, Ukrainian forces wiped out a Chechen special forces unit that included a column of 56 heavy tanks. The show’s not over yet.

For the first time ever, NATO activated its Response Force. The activation puts NATO members on notice that they may be asked to provide military support to the NATO mission. In terms of stopping a war, the activation means little.

Speaking of NATO, would a NATO membership at this late hour change anything? Probably not, although it likely would’ve served as a strong deterrent last week. NATO membership comes with certain expectations — Ukraine had been working toward meeting NATO criteria but had not yet reached minimum standards. Membership requires ratification by the 30 member nations for approval.

What about the E.U.? At least three former E.U. member leaders — Poland, Estonia and Sweden — think it should happen immediately. They say embracing Ukraine as a full member of the E.U. would constitute “…a bold, courageous and meaningful political statement.” But would it muster the military power of Western Europe?

Donald Trump, much to his credit, roundly condemned Russia’s attack when he took the podium at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida on Friday evening. Trump — self-avowed bosom buddy of Vladimir Putin — didn’t hold back when he spoke. “The Russian attack on Ukraine is appalling. It’s an outrage and an atrocity that should never have been allowed to occur,” he said. “It never would have occurred. We are praying for the proud people of Ukraine. God bless them all.”

Trump managed to get in a couple of shots at President Biden, but that would’ve been weird if he’d left those out.

Mitt Romney summed it up beautifully. “That’s what we’re seeing — a small, evil, feral-eyed man who is trying to shape the world in the image where, once again, Russia would be an empire,” Romney said.

Putin put his nuclear “deterrent forces” on alert Sunday morning — but with luck, this was done with the intent to use it as a bargaining point in upcoming negotiations.

For the moment, pretty much everyone is behind Ukraine, in spirit and otherwise. Let’s hope it’s enough. Let’s hope the Russian people stand up and decry their despot of a leader.

Photograph © 2022 Kevin Schmid via Unsplash

This is part 1 of a 6-part series. Click here for part 2. Click here for part 3. Click here for part 4. Click here for part 5. Click here for part 6.

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