Russia’s use of force in the Ukraine represents perhaps the greatest challenge to Western democracies since the end of the Cold War. It is clear that Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin intends to effectively annex the Ukraine as part of the Russian orbit, making it a neo-Soviet state under the thumb of Moscow’s dictatorship.
Anyone surprised by the recent events in the Ukraine haven’t been paying attention. A former KGB leader, Putin has long sought ways to resurrect the former Soviet Union and return Moscow to what many inside the Kremlin consider the nation’s rightful place in world affairs as a major superpower. Moscow has been meddling in the affairs of its former republics since the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, always with the intent of keeping its former empire under Moscow’s control.
Some 28 years ago, I spent a few days in the Ukraine as part of a larger swing through the vast realm of what was then the Soviet Union. It was an era when Ronald Reagan was president and hated by the Soviets, but also the time when Mikhail Gorbachev first came to power and brought the first inklings that he would be a different kind of Soviet leader.
Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, was the most beautiful city I saw in the Soviet Union during my three weeks traveling there in 1985. The city was more open and attractive than the drab Soviet buildings we saw in Moscow and Leningrad. Open streets and trees in Kiev were in contrast to the starkness of those cities. As several commentators noted during the recent uprising in Kiev, the city is one of Europe’s most attractive.
And the people in the Ukraine were more open and friendly in 1985 than the unsmiling Soviet robots who trudged the streets in other Russian cities we visited. In my notes from that trip, I commented that the people in Kiev “look more European” than what we had seen in other Soviet cities. I think it was more from their facial expressions than ethnic backgrounds.
The store fronts in Kiev also displayed more food in their windows than we had seen previously, a sign at that time that the Ukraine was more prosperous than many other Soviet regions where food was scarce and people stood in lines for hours just to buy basic goods.
We visited a lot of fluff cultural places around Kiev: A marriage palace; a kindergarten where little girls wearing white bows sang and danced for us; several churches that had been turned into museums; and lots of World War II monuments.
It was at one of those monuments I asked our Soviet guides an impertinent question about Stalin and Ukranian history: “Where are the monuments to the millions of Ukrainians that Stalin killed during the man-made famine of the 1930s?” I asked.
Our guides were not amused by the question, saying there were no such monuments and dismissed the murder of millions as simply a “bad time in the past.”
Indeed, the Ukraine has seen many bad times. Over the centuries, it shifted from one empire to another with only small periods of independence. During WWII, some Ukrainians fought both the Soviets and the Nazis in a failed bid for Ukranian independence from both dictatorships.
From Kiev we flew to Odessa on the Black Sea where we saw more bland Soviet war monuments; another show-place kindergarten where portraits of a fatherly and smiling Lenin loomed over the classroom; and more churches that were not being used for anything but tourist showplaces.
One night we went to an opera in what was supposed to be one of the world’s great opera houses, but I left after the first act and penned in my notebook, “long and boring.”
From Odessa, we flew to the Crimea where we met with a number of Soviet propaganda officials who blathered against President Reagan and claimed that 1985 was the “most difficult time in Soviet-American relations.” (I guess they forgot the Cuban Missile Crisis that nearly led to World War III.)
We had a two-hour drive from the airport in Crimea to Yalta, where we toured the famous palace where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt met to carve up the world post-WWII.
The Crimea was a beautiful region full of orchards and vineyards and small houses on hillsides. The town of Yalta overlooks the Black Sea and reminded me of a Greek village spilling down into the ocean.
While mostly occupied by people of Russian ethnic background, there were 28 nationalities living in the Crimea in 1985. But it was not clear then, just as it’s not clear today, if the Crimea is really part of Ukraine or Russia. Both have some historical claim to that land, although Putin’s recent comments that he moved Russian military into the Crimea to protect Russians is suspect. So far as anyone knows, there were no threats against Russians in the Crimea by Ukrainians, or anyone else.
All of my old reminiscing, however, does not really address what’s happening in the Ukraine today or why it’s important for the U.S. and other Western nations.
In a nutshell, it’s this: The Ukrainian people have suffered under the jackboot of Russians and other conquering powers for centuries. But there is a spirit there, just as it is in many of the other former Soviet republics, of people wanting to be free to choose their own destiny. Those people look to the West, the U.S. in particular, for inspiration and support in their quest to free themselves of the Russian thugs who have been looting their homeland through corruption and political acquiesce to Moscow.
If the West stands by silently in the face of Moscow’s aggression into the Ukraine, it will only be the first act in a larger plan by Putin and his ilk to conquer all of the former
Soviet republics and put them back under Russian hegemony. That would destabilize the world as we know it and create a second Cold War of dangerous proportions.
For the U.S., our response to this provocation will be a test of our government’s will to be a player in key world affairs. So far, the Obama Administration has been nothing more than a paper tiger on the world stage where red lines melt away and where appeasement has replaced resolve.
What’s happening today in the Ukraine is a proxy battle for what will happen for years to come in the former Soviet sphere.
Let’s hope the West and the U.S. will not abandon the Ukrainian people in their time of need.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers, Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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