I spent almost a week writing this long essay. It was exhausting, and personally important. I’ve been betrayed by my intellectual tribe — parts of it, anyway.
Last August, I met former Belarusian Presidential candidate Yaroslav Romanchuk at a libertarian conference near Lviv, Ukraine. He was somewhat of a Ron Paul figure, a businessman-turned-politician advocating radical free market reforms in Belarus. The consequences for being a libertarian in or near Russia are much more severe than in the United States. In 1994 he faced pressure: to stay in business he’d have to either join the mafia or join the government. He ended up abandoning the import-export business he had spent years building.
We joked about America’s RT (Russia Today) news service — that the United States government should sponsor a Russian language libertarian channel in Russia and Eastern Europe. The joke, which for us needed no explanation, was that governments can invoke principles of freedom when they undermine a rival government, while simultaneously behaving like a savage tyrant at home. This should not be difficult to understand.
See the original article on The Daily Beast. It’s filled with links which I haven’t taken the time to post here.
I watched Putin’s March 19th speech celebrating Russia’s annexation of Crimea in a coffee shop in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv. I watched with a friend who’d been active in the establishment of the Ukrainian state in 1991 and then, as he puts it, decided to disgrace himself by entering politics for a brief period at the city level. He considers himself a patriot and was keenly interested in Putin’s announcement.
To both of us, Putin’s speech seemed disconnected from reality. Here’s one of the more glaring examples:
“I understand those who came out on Maidan with peaceful slogans against corruption, inefficient state management and poverty. The right to peaceful protest, democratic procedures and elections exist for the sole purpose of replacing the authorities that do not satisfy the people. . . . They resorted to terror, murder and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup. They continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day.”
None of this is true.
The major violence was sparked on January 20th when the Russian-backed Yanukovych government, without following legislative procedures, criminalized virtually every conceivable form of protest.
The accusations of Nazism, anti-Semitism and Russophobia have been actively and repeatedly denounced by Ukraine’s Jewish community, and by many Russians who took part in the Euro Maidan protests.
Regarding the persistent accusations of hooliganism, one can easily contrast the nature of the pro-Ukrainian protesters with the pro-Russian ones.
Two deaths occurred at the hand of Pro-Russian protesters in Kharkiv – raw footage here.
In Donetsk, pro-Russian protesters broke through police lines and stabbed to death two pro-Ukrainian protesters – the raw footage is here and here is a heartbreaking eye-witness account with subtitles. The victims were locals. It is widely believed that their attackers arrived from Russia. Ukrainian language books have been burned in Crimea and Kharkiv.
Also in Crimea, a Tartar, Reshat Ametov, was found murdered with signs of torture. His friends said he was going to join the Ukrainian military.
There has been no analogous violence directed toward Russians. The hypocrisy of the Kremlin propaganda is unbearable.
For weeks Ukrainians have been wondering how far the Kremlin will go and how they should prepare. Though I wouldn’t curtail any preparation for worst-case scenarios, to my friend and me, Putin’s speech, which condemned pro-Ukrainians as neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites, and attempted to put the invasion in historical context, seemed like a declaration of victory and an attempted consolidation of moral authority, rather than a pre-cursor to more Russian aggression.
It seems that Putin will only attempt to discredit and affect the government in Kyiv by covert means, as discussed by Forbes contributor Paul Gregory.
One can only speculate about Kremlin’s calculations, but here are four that may inform Putin’s future actions.
First, Russia had deep internal divisions. They’ve waged war on two occasions to prevent secession of Chechnya. The invasion of Crimea has sparked huge protests. Dissenters included included university professors, and a former Russian General. If the Russian army advances into new territories domestic unrest will likely increase. By stopping now, Putin will have made a point about Russian power and can turn his attention back to stifling dissent in Russia before the internal protest movements grow into a bigger problem.
For weeks Ukrainians have been wondering how far the Kremlin will go and how they should prepare.
Second, Ukraine has been a tentative ally of Moscow and a huge trading partner,fourth in imports and sixth in export to Russia. Influential oligarchs who have interests in both countries would be harmed by the all out war, which would likely ensue if Putin pressed too hard. Perhaps he also hopes he can keep Ukraine as a borderland instead of having it join NATO.
Third, though Peter Pomerantsev has argued that Russia’s ruling elite may actually have been enriched by recent market turbulence, perhaps Russia is feeling the pressure of investor flight, and, separately, the newly announced sanctions which target influential Russians appear to be significantly more severe and impactful than the last round.
Lastly, Crimea was the easiest target. It is geographically defensible, and had the highest percentage of people who wanted to join Russia: 41%, according as reported by Ukrainian News Channel 24 last month. Substantial, though certainly not the 97% indicated by the referendum.
The subject of Crimea’s considerable Russian minority has been discussed since Ukraine gained independence, and was frequently polled. The 41% reported by Channel 24 is consistent with USAID sponsored polls from 2009, 2011 and 2013. According to them, 40-45% of Crimeans considered themselves Russian, 23-33% believed Crimea should join Russia, and 12% rated relations with Russia as one of the top three issues from a list of 17. Interestingly, it also found that in 2013, 40% of Crimeans do not use the internet.
Channel 24 reported that Ukraine’s Eastern regions had smaller, though still significant Russian minorities. Donetsk 33%, Luhansk 24% and Kharkiv 15%.
The world provides plenty of examples of multi-ethnic regions existing on the border of two countries who claim them. History shows that it’s often only after blood has been shed by both sides that peace is reached, and that the most stable arrangement for these disputed border lands solution seems to be local autonomy (which, incidentally, Crimea had according to the Ukrainian Constitution).
Right now, Ukrainians feel slighted and wary about the future. They want to fight for every inch of their homeland. I hope Russians take this feeling seriously enough to not press further. I hope the anger subsides and local autonomy is granted and diffuses tensions where large ethnic minorities exist. Lastly, I hope that Ukraine’s strategy for self defense includes a determined effort to create a country freer and more prosperous than their tyrannical neighbor. A contrast in standard of living would be the best long-term defense.
The attitude among Ukrainians is promising. The sense of civic duty is soaring, at least here in the Western part of the country. One friend of mine who was on Maidan during the worst days returned to organize his neighborhood, which sits on the outskirts of Lviv. He helped make a call list of volunteers and a plan to address potholes and dumpsters. Another friend of mine, the owner of a small software company, is designing an online corruption-reporting platform. I hope they get a better future and the chance to pursue it in peace.
A peculiar aspect of Ukrainian identity has been the perceived need to prove our own existence. I vaguely remember some sort of heritage day in grade school at PS 229 in New York City. The teacher corrected me when I described myself as Ukrainian—I was Soviet, she said, or Russian. That was fine with me at the time, though I also remember a look of horror on my mother’s face when I relayed the episode.
Looking back at the history of Ukraine, a country whose name is usually translated as “border land,” one finds instances of Poles referring to Ukrainians as “Eastern Poles” and Russians referring to them as “Little Russians.” I’m grateful that as of about a week ago, I will forever be alleviated of the long-standing need to prove Ukrainians exist.
Since the Mongols sacked Kyiv in 1241, the territory of today’s Ukraine has been the border between the agrarian civilization of the west, and the nomadic cultures of the steppe. Its aristocracy vanquished, Ukraine became largely a peasantry, and home to a very complex and evolving “Cossack” culture, which represented different things to different people—from an alternative and viable social order to, a Medieval feudal arrangement, to an unpredictable menace. The Cossacks remain very much part of Ukraine’s national myth.
At different times in history, Cossacks allied with Tartars to sack Moscow, allied with Poles to fight an invading Turkish Army, and made a treaty with Moscow to enable a rebellion against the Polish monarchy. Ukraine was a battleground on the border of empires, and seemingly remains so.
Understandably, most coverage of Ukraine’s ongoing crisis focuses on the geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West. The Ukrainian diaspora among whom I was raised are entirely on the side of the West.
Having grown up among these refugees who narrowly escaped forced repatriation into the hands of Stalin (see Operation Keelhaul for a dark and little known chapter of WWII history), I understand the resentment of Russia, the terror, humiliation, and the long shadow of the artificial famine 1932-1933 which killed millions of Ukrainians. I inherited this history. It still lives in my family and others like us. So I understand why I’m getting emails from old acquaintances urging me to contact my elected representative and demand Western intervention. But they’re making a mistake. Forceful intervention by the West is not what’s best for Ukraine
Ukraine’s Ethnic Mix
1) The Ukrainian immigrant community that left the country in the 1940s and 50s is made up mostly of western Ukrainians. The reason? After WWII, western Ukrainian refugees were able to claim Polish birth, thus avoiding forced repatriation into the hands of Stalin (again, see Operation Keelhaul). So the immigrant community as a whole often doesn’t appreciate the ethnic gradient of Eastern Ukraine. The country’s ethnic mix is not a black and white issue, or one defined only by hostilities. The fact that so many Ukrainian citizens are Russian or of mixed heritage is already pacifying this conflict. There have been gestures of peace and kinship from both sides.
Relying on Western help in response to every Russian aggression leaves Ukraine in a position of permanent dependence on allies who may be understandably hesitant to venture so far east.
When Has the West Not Forgotten Ukraine?
2) The Ukrainian-Russian border is 2,295 kilometers long. However this conflict is resolved, Ukrainians and Russians will continue to be neighbors. Relying on Western help in response to every Russian aggression leaves Ukraine in a position of permanent dependence on allies who may be understandably hesitant to venture so far east. Ukraine, whether through diplomacy, threat of force, or force itself must find its own solution to this conflict. In the words of Lord Byron, “he who would be free must himself strike the first blow.”
If my fellow Ukrainians accuse me of suggesting the impossible, I would tell them that they are expecting the impossible. When has the West not forgotten Ukraine? After WWI, how eager were the western powers to stand up for Versailles’s “self-determination” in the borderland. Few non-Ukrainians remember the Western Ukrainian state which formed in 1918—not surprising given that it lasted for all of three months. The Ukrainian People’s Republic which formed that same year in Kyiv was similarly successful. And Operation Keelhaul is all anyone needs to know to understand the extent of Western “help” after WWII. Asking the West for support invites Western powers into a confrontation that (arguably) is against their self-interest, and against historic precedent. Unfortunately, there are no easy roads in the borderland.
3) Russian President Vladimir Putin, for all his barbarity, is completely reasonable to want a buffer in between himself and the Armies of NATO. Reliance on foreign militaries for its own integrity changes the status of Ukraine from a buffer to an antagonist. The more neutral Ukraine remains, the better it retains sovereignty.
The Economic Solution
4) The long battle is an economic one. If Abkhazia (the territory disputed by Russian and Georgia) is any indication, the corrupting influence of Russian kleptocracy leads to economic morass. If Ukraine’s new government focuses on fighting corruption and dismantling their outrageously corrupt, bloated, ineffective, hyper-centralized bureaucracies, it will create a foundation for economic success. A stark contrast in quality of life would pull disputed territories back into Ukraine’s sphere of influence, this is particularly true of Crimea which relies on mainland Ukraine for food and electricity.
Successfully forging an alternative to Russian kleptocracy would not only have the most lasting effects in terms of national security and quality of life, it would also be the fulfillment of Ukraine’s national myth. In his wonderful book The Cossacks, Shane O‘Rourke writes:
“The symbolic importance of Cossack culture cannot be overestimated for the oppressed masses of Poland-Lithuania and Muscovy. To see or even hear about a boyar or great lord treated with contempt by a Cossack demonstrated to those masses that an alternative and viable social order did indeed exist. This was to prove far more threatening to Poland-Lithuania, Muscovy and the Russian Empire than Cossack swords and muskets on their own could ever be.”
Ukraine needs to embrace its historic role, not to mention its strategic reality, as a borderland. Within that narrative, it needs to find a way to build a free and prosperous society, which will serve as a powerful example for its neighbors and any territories that may remain disputed in the years to come.