Sunday, March 29, 2015

My reflections on outsiders who don't understand what is happening in Ukraine

Living here in Ukraine, I look to America and am often confused by what I see. On the one hand, many people here think of the United States as a world leader. On the other, I hear many Americans say that the US should not be involved in international affairs at all. They want the US to stay away from Ukraine. They say this is Russia's backyard. They feel guilty for their country having started so many wars abroad in the past. To them, I have this to say: It's one thing to disagree with some things the American government does. It's another to disagree with absolutely everything about it. I suggest you try and help the government make what you think is the right choice, not prevent them from making any choices at all.

In 2003, for example, I was a cadet at an American military academy. I took interest in the news and was skeptical during the build up to and subsequent invasion of Iraq. It wasn't easy to be against the war in that environment. Many of my classmates never uttered a word about Iraq before March of that year, but they suddenly became war hawks after the invasion. I could not understand their reasoning, if they even had any.

I am glad that I thought for myself at the time. It was an important learning experience for my eighteen year old self. Twelve years later, I still think that it was wrong to go into Iraq and that America did so under false pretenses.

As an American living in Ukraine during a Russian invasion, I am shocked how few Americans care about what is happening. I hear many people say that it was wrong to get into Iraq, and we shouldn't get involved in any other countries because of that. I agree that America has made mistakes in its past, but does that justify doing absolutely nothing internationally because of that? Anyway, if you were against going into Iraq because of false pretenses, shouldn't you be against Russia invading Ukraine for similarly fabricated reasons?

As an example of the kind of people I'm talking about, take two blogs that I used to follow--those of James Howard Kunstler and John Michael Greer. The former blog is about American culture, and the latter is about cheap oil and the end of the industrial era. Neither of these writers is an expert on Ukraine, and I doubt if either of them have actually been here. But all of a sudden, they sure had a lot to say about the country.

Here's a particularly sloppy argument that Kunstler makes (and callers to talk radio make all the time):

"War hawk kibitzers on the sidelines (e.g. The New York Times) are making a big deal of the 40,000 Russian troops marshaled around the border of eastern Ukraine. So what? That’s just a few thousand more than the 33,000 US troops deployed to Afghanistan, America’s current “nation-building” project."

In short: America does bad things, why can't other countries do bad things? Inherent in Kunstler's argument is the idea that what Russia is doing is wrong, he just doesn't care. In another post, here's how he characterizes Ukraine:

"Really, the best outcome for western Europe would be a return to the prior condition of Ukraine as a mute bearskin rug with oil and gas pipelines running through it to the oil and gas starved West."
About a year ago, when I was still a reader of his blog, I suggested in the comments section that Kunstler was getting basic information about Ukraine wrong. I also saw little evidence of original ideas in his posts about Ukraine. Most of what he was saying was simply regurgitated from Kremlin propaganda. It was strange for me to have someone sitting in New York tell me what was happening in my own country.

I normally wouldn't write in the comments section of a blog so disconnected from reality, but I was a follower of the blog up until that point. I commented because I was disappointed to see someone who I respected as a thinker get so many things wrong about a subject I obviously knew more about. A couple people responded reasonably, but I was told by one person, "You people should watch out because Russia will take all of the country--even western Ukraine."

Of course, many Americans don't even think it's possible that Ukrainians were responsible for the revolution. John Michael Greer is against helping Ukraine in any way because America actually did all the work here:

"The current Ukrainian regime, installed by a US-sponsored coup and backed by NATO, means to Russia precisely what a hostile Canadian government installed by a Chinese-sponsored coup and backed by the People’s Liberation Army would mean to the United States." (source)
What a glib assessment of what happened here! Ukrainians didn't stand for months on end on the Maidan. They didn't get tortured, beaten and executed by the police. A hundred protesters weren't shot by snipers in the middle of the eighth most populated city in Europe. America did it! Where's our thank you, you good for nothing peasants??

Quite honestly, I'm so sick of the smug attitude many Americans have about Ukraine that I can't even think about it anymore. Here is how things appear to me. As the protests were heating up through the winter of 2013 into 2014, there was very little American news coverage of the protests (save for On Point with Tom Ashbrook, a daily radio news program from NPR and WBUR). When the revolution reached a crescendo, I was deafened by the silence of American media. I wrote to many of my favorite radio shows and asked, "Um, do you guys know there is a revolution happening in Europe right now? Are you not aware of it or are you purposefully ignoring the events?" To their credit, Wisconsin Public Radio did do a show on Ukraine a few days after I wrote to them. I'm not sure if it was because of me, but either way, I count that as a good thing.

Another show I wrote to, On the Media, also finally ended up covering Ukraine for a few minutes of their hour long program. However, most of what they said focused on "right wing" groups involved in the protests. Again, as someone living here, I was confused. They only gave a few minutes to Ukraine and when they did, they talked about the right wing in Ukraine?? In the elections that followed the revolution, neither of the right wing parties got the 5% of the vote they needed to pass the threshold and gain seats in Ukraine's parliament. On the other hand, France, the darling of many American liberals, has been moving in a much different direction. The leader of France's xenophobic right wing party, Marine Le Pen, would win the country's presidential elections if recent polls are correct.

To sum up, I watched the American news media largely ignore Ukraine for as long as they could. When Americans finally started talking about the events, they got basic information wrong, insulted the country, and made bad arguments.

I look at Americans, the people I used to live among on a daily basis, much differently now. I wonder what they think of Yulia and I as Ukrainians. What kind of crazy, misinformed notions do they have of us? How many people have we known who would rather Ukraine just be crushed under Putin's heel? It's a strange feeling, but like I mentioned earlier, I read and respected the thoughts of two intellectuals (even linked to their blogs on our page here) only to find that they could care less about the place we call home.

Thankfully, not all Americans are so clueless. In my opinion, Timothy Snyder, an American historian, is forming a new way of thinking about the changes happening in Europe--both in the EU and outside of it. Here's what he had to say at a recent conference in Germany (He starts speaking at 17:05):

"The propaganda which has been loosed upon you, and, with which the German press and German intellectuals have so earnestly engaged in the last year, is meant to be contradictory. It's meant to make it impossible to think. If I say, as Russian propaganda has said, that there is no Ukrainian state, but the Ukrainian state is oppressive; there's no Ukrainian nation, but all Ukrainians are nationalists; there's no Ukrainian language, but Russians are being forced to speak it; and if I'm a pro-fascist anti-fascist, I am filling your minds with things that contradict, and the worrying thing is how little we have noticed this."
I think Snyder is out ahead of the pack here, and it may be some time until everybody else catches up. To hit the point home, he concludes by pointing out just how successful the Kremlin has been in the EU and what an utter failure it has had in Ukraine itself:

"In the last year--and now I believe I'm speaking from the Kremlin's point of view...things have gone much worse than expected. Kharkiv is still in Ukraine. Odessa is still in Ukraine. Even a good deal of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts are still in Ukraine. There's no way the Russian offensive was about getting bits of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and the Crimea. It was much, much more ambitious than that. Things have gone, for the Russians, worse in Ukraine than they've expected. But the propaganda tactics that were applied to you, that were applied to Europe, these have worked much better than expected...So Europe has proven to be a softer target than Ukraine."
It's been a while now since I've been in the US. And it's been even longer since I've been to western Europe. But from my perspective here in Ukraine, I do get the sense that the West has been had. I get the sense that Ukraine is a much more exciting place to be living right now. I think it's at the forefront of some big changes that will effect not only it, but all of Europe as well. The West still has its money and comfort, but it has taken on a sluggish complacency along with it. I look forward to positive change on the horizon for us in Ukraine, and we will know that it has been hard fought. It may even lead the way for the rest of Europe in the future.


  1. Excellent blog. I agree with what you have to say. The main reason that the U.S. invaded Iran is OIL. Sure they had other reasons for the "bubas's" but as a local radio talk show host from the area here he stood by his main reasoning for the invasion and it was OIL. One needs to remember the so called invasion of Kuwait, which sparked the very first Gulf war, it was all about OIL. The P.R. folks did a great job in convincing the public that it was a justifiable war.

    1. The main question now is how to learn from past mistakes and make better decisions in the future. I think dwelling on the past and feeling guilty is not the right path to take. The world has changed a lot in twelve years. How is the West, for example, adapting to a democratic revolution in one European country and reacting to the rise of a dictator in another? How will governments who want nuclear weapons respond to the US or UK when they urge them against doing so? The US, UK, and Russia promised the territorial integrity of Ukraine after it gave away its nuclear arms. How will this now effect their efforts to encourage others to disarm? What will happen to the rest of Europe if Russia takes more territory in Ukraine? What if it decides Ukraine is not worth it and decides to go for softer targets in Europe?