Ukraine must remain a Borderland

My Essay on The Daily Beast:

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.

Putin’s Reasonableness

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.