I was working on several items closer to home but events in Ukraine overtook me.
Last week was one of confusing and contradictory news. First, Russia was conducting military training exercises on the borders of Ukraine. Then it was withdrawing its forces. Then building them up. President Biden said he expected an invasion. Nevertheless, he and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken hoped for a diplomatic solution while threatening severe sanctions.
Then they said that any sanctions would be proportionate to the incursion, and we would never put American boots on Ukrainian soil. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to the West for help. French President Emmanuel Macron went to Moscow to try to reason with Putin, but couldn’t get close. Putin gave an angry and belligerent speech complete with a lecture on his version of history and a veiled threat of nuclear retaliation against anyone who dared to come between him and what he views is rightfully his. On February 24, he invaded Ukraine and attacked many of its cities with missiles. As I write this, Ukraine appears to be weathering the onslaught.
No one should have been surprised.
Here’s what I think.
Vladimir Putin is a former KGB agent, a bald-faced liar and a ruthless thug. He believes that the downfall and dismantling of the Soviet Union in the 1990s was a travesty, not progress. His ambition is to reconstitute it, rule it with an iron fist and extend its reach. He has been working toward that goal for years, and he doesn’t hesitate to eliminate anyone who stands in his way.
He wants Ukraine back because it is fertile, it has vast natural resources and it offers access to the Black Sea, Mediterranean and beyond. It is a country of 44 million people, the eighth most populous in Europe and the second largest in terms of land mass.
Unfortunately, we contributed to Putin’s rise to power by botching the opportunity created by Mikhail Gorbachev, glasnost and perestroika in the 1980s. Gorbachev’s reforms were prompted by the economic failure of communism in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Block countries.
Those were optimistic times for the West, exemplified by the success of Lech Walesa and the Solidarity shipyard labor movement in Poland. We should have worked together with our allies to do more to stabilize the former Soviet states and help them develop good governments. Instead, we watched crony capitalism run amok. In Ukraine’s case, we brokered a deal in which it gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for our assurance or their security.
We repeated the mistake of lacking the resolve to see our values realized in Afghanistan (2001-2021), Iraq (2003-2011), Egypt (2010), Libya (2011) and Syria (2011).
In me, it bred discouragement. In Putin, it bred contempt.
Putin became president of Russia for the first time in 2000 and started taking things back. He declared illegitimate the president of the breakaway Chechen Republic, with which Russia had been in conflict for years, and invaded. He arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky for fraud. (At the time, Khodorkovsky was thought to be the richest man in Russia, and one of the richest men in the world. He and his company, Yukos, controlled several Siberian oil fields.)
It’s also suspected that Putin is responsible for numerous actions taken against those critical of his leadership. In 2006, defector Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with tea laced with radioactive polonium. Russian journalist, human rights activist and Putin critic, Anna Politkovskaya, was shot and killed in her apartment building in Moscow.
In August of 2008, Putin invaded the Republic of Georgia, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, using separatists there as a pretext to invade as peacekeepers. In 2014, Putin invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula, again using separatists there as a pretext.
In 2018, Putin critic Nikolai Gluchkov was killed, and defector Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, were both poisoned. All were living in England at the time. In 2020, opposition leader Alexei Navalny was also poisoned.
What should we do in the face of such ruthless ambition? We must stabilize our foreign policy apparatus so that we only pursue policies that have the lasting bipartisan support needed to see them through to completion.
Volodymyr Zelensky is the antithesis of Putin. He is a former actor and comedian. He became president of Ukraine by satirizing the corrupt regime that was running the country. In the 2019 election, he beat the incumbent by over 73%. He had been trying to combat corruption, improve the economy, unify the country and control the pandemic when Putin invaded. Putin has made him the number one target.
When offered the opportunity to evacuate, he responded that the fight was in Ukraine; he needed ammunition, not a ride. That’s the kind of leader people get behind.
In this, Zelensky echoed other stories of Ukrainians defying Russian power, enlisting in the military and fighting for their country, freedom and independence. Like the border guards who sacrificed their lives in defiance of Russian invaders.
They deserve our support.
Photo: President.gov.ua, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons