I came to the US from Kiev, Ukraine, in 1992. Like many of my fellow Ukrainians, I have been vigilantly following the events unfolding in my birthplace with a mixture of hope, desperation, frustration, and awe. Friends have asked me to write to explain what is going on. But how do I explain an extremely complicated situation that feels so personal? Mainstream media runs headlines about Ukraine right next to stories about Syria. And isn't that the bottom line -- how do we avoid another Syria?
I live in America, which, generally speaking, feels safe. Politics here is going to rallies and basically waving pompoms, smiling, laughing, telling jokes to people you trust. But delving into the politics of an Eastern European country feels like walking through a ghost town that still happens to have snipers. We know that fear can be passed down generation to generation. During the past century in Ukraine, people had to survive the First World War, Holodomor, the Second World War, communism, and the post-break-up economic free fall. In order not to get sent away or worse, people had to keep quiet and get with the program. Don't stick out your neck. Don't ruffle any feathers. In Kiev, I grew up in a relatively peaceful time. I had a good childhood. I danced, practiced judo, recited Ukrainian poetry in front of our first grade class on the first day of school ("Ykrainka ya malenka..."). The usual. Nobody told me not to say anything. But they didn't have to.
So, fast forward a little bit, and I went off to Georgetown. I loved it. And I liked that people loved to talk about politics. The shock came when America was thinking about invading Iraq. From a realist perspective, it just didn't make any sense to me. For the fist time in my life, I went to a rally. And you know what? It didn't matter. Millions of people across the world went to rallies and yet America still attacked Iraq. One of my high school classmates, the nicest guy, enlisted and then died. Why am I mentioning this? Because our country, America, invaded a sovereign country for weapons that didn't exist. And now we are upset because we told Russia not to invade a sovereign country and it did.
Yet, even after all these years, I went to another rally. I gave money. I wanted to support Ukrainians rising up against corruption, against a ruler that took money away from his people to build palaces (and why did he have to conference call with Putin on every major decision)? But as a mother, I understand that there are two sides to every story.
First of all, the EU didn't exactly woo Yanukovych with its trade deal. In fact, a former ambassador speaking at a luncheon said that the deal would have put in place reforms and limitations that were more severe than those placed on Bulgaria and Romania when they were trying to become full members of the EU, not simply trading partners. And here was Putin saying, guys, just stay exactly as you are and I'll give you $15 billion. Hmmm, which way was Yanukovych going to go? Which way would you walk if you were in his shoes? For a timeline of exactly how Yanukovych acted, please see here.
Second, the Ukrainian opposition was not entirely peaceful. The radicals within the movement did not respect truces (and it needs to be said that neither did the government, especially the special police unit the Berkut. Members of the opposition even attacked their own. I saw a video of a leader of the opposition movement, Vladimir Klitchko, sprayed by powder from a fire extinguisher. He was telling protestors that this was a peaceful movement and that's how they responded. At least they didn't send a Molotov cocktail his way. Though I never touched an actual leaflet, I heard of people talking about banderivetsi (the Right Sector, super-nationalistic) passing out leaflets in apartment buildings saying that 50 percent of your apartment must be available for the fighters for nationalism, you must provide them with a key to your apartment, and thank you for your understanding.
I am not judging the protestors. I know that Berkut, the riot police originally trained by Germany for keeping peace during the 2012 EuroCup, recently unleashed horrors on the protestors, torturing them, leaving them to freeze in forests, fun stuff like that. And I understand how silly my judgment would be given that I am living in America, and the closest thing to fighting would be my fierce punches at the Body Combat class at my gym. Yet I cannot fail to mention that the violence unleashed by the protestors really bothered me.
Third, we have the recording of the Assistant Secretary of State Catherine Nuland, bless her heart, telling the US ambassador, Geoffrey Pyatt, how the situation in Ukraine should play out and who should be in power. "Yats" (Yatsenyuk, a bespekeled German-looking Timothy Gietner) is in. "Klitch" (Klitchko, the boxer and most popular protest leader up to that point) is not ready to lead. And you know what happened not too long after? Yats was in. Klitch was out (presumably waiting to run for president in May). Now, I like Yatsenyuk (almost as much as I like Klitchko, let's be honest). He looks like a European leader. But what about free and fair elections? If we're talking illegality, possibly we should talk about the way Yats was given power. I've heard Ukrainians says, "Who cares if the West helps? Russia has been calling the shots for too long." But to Putin a conversation like the one mentioned above seems like the US orchestrated a coup, even if the Ukrainians on the ground totally agree with Nuland's assessment.
Given these developments, one can understand how Putin would be a little pissed off. I mean, Mishka's tears haven't even dried yet, and you guys are doing this already? What, is the US still upset about the medal count? Suddenly, Putin had to shift gears from benevolent overseer of the Olympics to revenge-seeker (you can almost here Putin saying, "I was putting on such a beautiful show for you and this is what you guys were doing in the meantime?"). Putin doesn't really need Crimea. Crimea has the fleet, but really, it's been economically stagnant. Moreover, it competes with Sochi for top resort destination. Putin has to act somehow in response to what he thinks happened in Kiev. You -- the West -- orchestrated a coup (for natural gas, or for whatever reason), so now I will take Crimea. Tit for tat. And truthfully speaking, Crimea is composed of ethnic Russians who think it should be Russian anyway, as Anna Reid elaborately explains in Borderland. The people are nostalgic for the good ol' days of being part of the USSR. In a recent referendum, they voted overwhelmingly to join Russia. What if Ukraine loses Crimea? The world will not end. The Ukrainian government agrees because it's pulling out troops from the region. Now that it got a measure of revenge, Russia could help the situation by urging pro-Russian fighters who seized a naval base to release hostages, including a Navy captain. So far, these pro-Russian fighters (and probably some Russian "friends" who have come to help) have ignored deadlines set by the Ukrainian government. In addition, Stratfor is reporting that Crimea is now asking Tatars (an ethnic minority with historical ties to the region) to get out of the area. Is this the response to perceived ultra-nationalism in Kiev? Who in Kiev was asking the ethnic minorities to literally leave? Clearly, the Ukrainian crisis is not over.
Last two points. Putin's aggression actually helps the Ukrainian cause. The West finally woke up to the fact that they need to help Ukraine, which has been Russian's busboy for as long as Yanukovich has been in power. Ukrainians are sick and tired of the corruption that led them to this state of bankruptcy. They want to work hard and live like Europeans while maintaining ties with Russia. This is a difficult goal. As George Friedman writes in Stratfor's Borderlands, Europe doesn't want to help because it has its own economic troubles. It can't take on another "economic weakling." The US is doing well if you are looking at the stock market, but still struggling if you walk on Main Street. No one wants to send troops. Did the US provoke Russian into Crimea to rally financial assistance to Ukraine ("Don't do it, Putin. Keep out, Putin. Don't even think about going into Crimea, Putin." I mean, this line of rhetoric even makes me want to go into Crimea). It's not clear. What is clear is that Ukrainians need help (and to continue to believe in themselves).
The bottom line is, the Ukrainians stood up to corruption. They literally walked into the streets and voiced their frustration. They must have been very unhappy to overcome their fear and political apathy after a century that taught them to keep quiet and carry on. They were fed up with politicians stealing their money. That was the initial feeling -- enough already. And then Yanukovych tried to force them out of the main square, and the feeling turned to -- let's get rid of Yanukovych, the epitome of a corrupt leader. Fighting broke out between the police and the protestors and people died. Truthfully, I was surprised by how quickly it happened, and even more surprised by how quickly Yanukovych fled. I felt like the West did something behind the scenes, and that's how Putin felt, too. Of course, I want the West to help, and he doesn't. And regardless of what happens, it's the Ukrainians who suffer. Who were out in the cold and are out in the cold again, figuratively speaking. An "economic weakling" that wants to transform itself and chart its own course? Why the heck not?
I hope we have the patience and courage to help while also having some understanding for (gasp!) Putin's position.
I leave you with a poem from the Ukrainian bard, Taras Shevchenko:
Dear God, calamity again! ...It was so peaceful, so serene;We but began to break the chainsThat bind our folk in slavery ...When halt! ... Again the people's bloodIs streaming! Like rapacious dogsAbout a bone, the royal thugsAre at each other's throat again.