An Immigrant’s Perspective on the Situation in Ukraine
My American friends keep asking me to comment on the situation in Ukraine. I don’t know what to say. Just because I was born in Kharkiv, doesn’t mean I have anything valuable into add to the conversation. Still, I’d like to try and share my thoughts. These are split along two lines; the existential and the tactical (a cold-blooded attempt to peer into Putin’s mind). In this essay, I’ll delve into both perspectives.
Existentially, I feel a cosmic horror; how can this happen. Now?! In our modern society, in the 21st century? I was born in a city barely survived the horrors of WW2 only to rise from the ashes to become a modern European metropolis renowned for its universities and its nightclub scene. Now, middle-age beauticians in my city practice their urban warfare skills while 25 miles away, across the border the Russian army uncoils itself to strike. And then that horror leads to an even more dreadful realization; there’s nothing original or unique about the situation. It’s just history repeating itself, like clockwork. We as a society simply forgot how history works. Or, we chose to look the other way.
Albert Camus one wrote in his prophetic novel The Plague “Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.. When a war breaks out, people say: “It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.” But though a war may well be “too stupid,” that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.” The only reason the invasion of Ukraine now seems so shocking is because we’ve been way too full (fool?) of ourselves. Why are we so shocked at this happening in a region far from where where tanks treaded through Grozny in 1994, and bombs fell on Belgrade in 1999? Where rockets struck Georgian hospitals in 2008, and drones mowed down Armenian troops in 2021? Where conquering soldiers marched through Prague in 1969, and tanks blasted Hungarian civilians in 1956. For that matter, how is Kharkiv or Kiev any different from Aleppo or Kabul? Or 32,000 British troops in New York Harbor? History is merciless and brutal. We choose not to acknowledge this, until by force we cannot look away.
Yet deeper still, lies an even more potent dread. My earliest memories are of good times with my childhood buddies in Ukraine. We were dressed like soldiers and playing a boisterous game of “kill the Nazis” in the shadows of a city that had witnessed some of the worst atrocities of WW2. The question lingers; what if there’s something in our blood, our culture, and our childhoods that draws us back to barbarism and butchery? To glory and destruction? Everyday I’m thankful for my mother who had sacrificed so much to bring me from Ukraine to the US, because she couldn’t bear the thought seeing her son with Kalashnikov in hand, in khaki colors and military boots. Still, I can’t help but think; where would I be now had she chose to stay? Based on my childhood conditioning, it’s easy to imagine myself volunteering for the front; a romantic gesture turned to literal shit and blood at the first burst of enemy artillery. After thinking such thoughts, the guilt seeps in; survival guilt, my ego accusing me of cowardice. And then that aching realization; what if there’s something fundamentally with me and my post-Soviet people as a whole? What if the first step to end the endless cycle of violence is for me to become a better person? And what if this simple task cannot be done?
But enough of these existential questions. Let’s get to the tactical analysis. I’ll skip over the points already being regurgitated nonstop in podcasts, twitter-feeds and the news. Instead, I’ll focus on several personal theories and insights that are worth discussing and (as far as I know) have not yet been discussed.
Much have been said of the 50,000 expected Ukrainian casualties in the Russian invasion. It’s a gut-wrenching number. American and European commentators are up in arms. How can Putin proceed with the invasion when he knows the death-toll will be so high? Few commentators put this number in the context of the thousands who are already dead. 14,000 Ukrainians have perished since the war began in 2014. 3,000 of these have been civilians. The war is unceasing, ongoing, nearly 15K people lost their lives. And Europe looked the other way. The USA looked the other way. Putin knowns that he can get away with slaughter at that scale because…well because he already did. With 15,000 casualties already, why fear a few dozen-thousand more? Especially with a Europe so willing to forgive and forget? Putin has seen for himself that the adage of his predecessor rings as true today as it did in 1930: “One death is a tragedy. One million deaths is a statistic.”
Much has been said of the fierce resistance that the brave Ukrainian are put up. Putin, we are told, should expect a quagmire and massive drop in people’s support as 18-year-old conscripts are shipped home in body-bags to Russian mothers. It’s true; that fighting will be brutal. The Ukrainians will fight despite the overwhelming odds, because their freedom and their homeland is at stake. How can Putin proceed with the invasion knowing the human cost to the Russian people? Does he underestimate the cost of the coming conflict? I believe that the answer is No. He has made a calculated bet that the Resistance and the toll on the Russian people will not affect him in the long-run. Because he’s been seen these circumstances play out before.
Immediately after Putin came into power, he launched his invasion of Chechnya. His intent was to force the break-away republic to heed to Russia; no matter the cost. And that cost was horrendous. Chechens have always been renowned as fierce, committed fighters, who don’t surrender no matter how slim the odds. For nearly a decade the war went on. A brutal insurgency went on. Russian conscripts were blown-up and butchered in ways that are too terrible to imagine. Chechen terror-attacks rocked the beating heart of Moscow. The war seemed endless. No soldier or civilian felt safe. Atrocities were committed on both sides. At-least 8,000 Russian soldiers lost their lives. These numbers are fuzzy; the independent Russian Committee of Soldier’s Mothers estimates the kill-count to be much higher. Subsets of the Russian population were not happy with this general situation. Especially the conscripted soldiers’ mothers. Journalists spoke out against the war. Some of these journalists came to an unhappy end. Putin had the means to control the media and the message. In the end, Russia’s costs of the war mostly played out in private; thousands of isolated tragedies played out in private, like plague deaths hidden beyond hospital doors. The costs of war were not enough to change its course.
Eventually, Russia’s military might and Putin’s Will proved too much for the Chechens. He wore down the resistance while aligning with like-minded thugs in the Chechen leadership to impose Russia’s hegemony upon the territory. A decade later, Putin was more popular than ever. Through-out their history, Russian people loved a winner. Putin has seen first-hand that the Russian populace will support him if he:
A) Suppresses dissent.
B) Eventually wins.
I believe that Putin’s nuanced bet is that “Costs(Ukrainian Insurgency) <= Costs(Chechen Insurgency)”. And the cold-blooded logic dictates that Putin will once again come out on top. All he has to do is win the war, which he’s poised to do based on sheer numbers. The cost to Ukrainian freedom-fighters will be enormous. As will the cost to regular Russian families. But Putin has seen in his life-time that history forgives and forgets; as long as you win. Yeltsin pulled back from Chechnya, not willing to pay the human and material costs of war. History now remembers him as a drunken loser. Putin did not pull back; and Russia praised him for the Win. Empress Catherine got her moniker “The Great” by spilling blood in her conquests of Crimea while imprisoning intellectuals who chose to dissent. Putin’s aiming for the moniker of “Vladimir the Great” and his path to it lies straight through the center of Kiev.
Finally, I’d like to discuss why the West sometimes fails to understand the true depth of the duplicitous cynicism present in Putin’s messaging. For example, much have been made of Russian claims of genocide in Eastern Ukraine, and how ridiculous they are. What commentators fail to grasp is they are meant to be ridiculous! Putin’s intended message is “Of course there is no genocide, that’s just something one says when asserting their power in Eastern Europe!”. That messaging has a much more sinister subtext that echoes back to late 20th century history, which has already been forgotten by many Americans. But not by the Russians. When NATO, under US leadership, bombed Belgrade back in 1999, they leveraged accusations of genocide to justify the bombing campaign. This was a campaign that:
1) Represented the first arial attack on a major European capital since the end of WW2.
2) Led to the deaths of multiple civilians, the destruction of a Chinese embassy, and the explicit arial targeting of a Serbian media station because it was promoting “propaganda”.
3) Was clearly illegal under international law because it did not receive the approval of the U.N. Security Council.
Let me emphasize that last point. The US-led attack on Belgrade was in violation of established international law. Which made it a war-crime. Claims of NATO efforts to stamp out genocide were used to justify this war-crime. Of course, the Serbs were no angels, and their leader was an evil man. Terrible atrocities were committed by Serbian forces. Thousands of Albanians were butchered. Yet genocide, that most terrible of words, has a very unequivocal definition. The 1994 slaughter of a million Tutsis in Rwanda was genocide (which the US did nothing to curtail because it had no vested interests in the region). The ongoing mass imprisonment of Uyghurs in Western China is clearly a cultural genocide (which the US does nothing to curtail because China is too powerful to mess with). In 1999, the US accused Serbia of genocide (in weak, war-torn region in which the US had vested interests going all the way back to the Cold War). One year later, the Washington Post reported that any evidence of genocide in Kosovo prior to the bombing campaign was questionable at best. It’s very possible that the US violated international law while leveraging a false justification. The ramifications of this action still resonate today; they a form a dark prelude to the crisis in Ukraine. To quote Lawrence Douglass, Professor of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought at Amherst College, “Laws apply to them but not to us’ is not the way a legal regime works. The air war in Kosovo made international law look like a farce. It applies only to the weak.”
Putin has taken this lesson to heart; he’s asserting his strength. By making claims of genocide in separatist Donbas he’s echoing back to separatist Kosovo. Essentially, he’s saying, “My claims of genocide as legitimate as NATO’s, and if they’re not believable, too bad. I’m simply following NATO’s playbook. If I choose bomb a European capital, it’s justified since NATO set the precedent. I’m not doing anything that NATO has not done before. The only difference now is that the USA is weak and Russia is strong.”
Putin’s strategizing from the perspective of pragmatism and power, from a Bismarkian viewpoint of Blood and Iron. And we in Western Society are all equally guilty because his deadly logic is self-consistent. It rings true because our world is a comprising, transactional, yielding-to and bowing before power. Hypocritically, we sweep our crimes under the rug, while making claims to moral superiority. Putin, ever the troll, openly calls us out on our own bullshit. Perhaps we cannot truly resist until we acknowledge our own moral compromises and make a concentrated effort to uproot them. To become better people. Is this even possible? 🤷♂