As one of America’s most reliable allies in our war on terror and in our peacekeeping missions for the last 27 years, Ukraine is far more than 45,000 pairs of boots, writes Victor Rud for defencereport.com
Ukraine’s independence is a sine qua non for not just American, but global, security and stability. Supporting Ukraine is the safest, most effective and cheapest strategy to stymie accelerating russian aggression, including its contemptuous subversion of America. Ukraine is the largest country in Europe, larger than England, Germany and Hungary, combined. With a democratic and civic tradition that russia never had, Ukraine produced Europe’s first constitution for a representative democracy, preceding Philadelphia by 77 years. It harbors a sense of individualism and a drive toward civil society that any American would recognize.
However, Washington’s Russo-centric DNA helix has always been tightly wound. Contrary to Washington’s importunities that it not do so, Ukraine’s reassertion of its independence in 1991 ensured the fall of the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” saving the West from an apocalyptic trajectory. We were no longer a button away from being reduced to nuclear afterglow. Anomalously, Washington abruptly pivoted and celebrated its own prescience in “winning the Cold War,” anchored by the very implosion that bizarrely we sought to prevent.
But if that was good, then ensuring that it remains that way is not just good, but paramount. But that was not to be. We hectored Ukraine into surrendering the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal (to russia, of all things), in exchange for America’s assurances of Ukraine’s sovereignty and national security. (North Korea and Iran took note. The impeachment hearings thus far have not.) We then also stripped Ukraine of its conventional weaponry, again betraying the victim and embracing the criminal. We guaranteed russia the USSR’s seat on the UN security council, placed russia into the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and a host of other organizations, and expanded the G7. Former russian Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev dismisses putin’s lament about being “humiliated”–” these ‘humiliations’ are just myths and lies which are convenient for the kremlin today.” Likewise, putin’s siren song about russia feeling “surrounded,” “threatened”, “insecure” and “unloved.” (This, from the largest country in the world, the quintessential terrorist state that laments being “treated like a loser”– did we hear the refrain from Nazi Germany?)
No wonder putin’s smug self-assurance. Since he goose-stepped into Ukraine in 2014, putin has been using Ukraine as a fulcrum to up-end the world order that has prevailed since WWII. Western fecklessness has been the lever allowing him to do so. Well into the sixth year, with less than 3% the size of russia, Ukraine is alone in battling the re-invading colossus to the North. Disemboweled infants, beheaded teenagers, tortured prisoners of war, 14,000 killed, 2 million refugees. With flaccid Western sanctions dissolving by the day, North Korea, China, Syria, Iran and Venezuela are taking copious notes of America’s flailing impotence as the international order we established implodes around us.
But our astigmatism about the strategic importance of Ukraine has a far longer history. The very lessons not learned have circled back with a vengeance to Capitol Hill and the first impeachment proceeding in America’s history implicating its foreign policy–or lack of it.
After WWI, there was no room for Ukraine in Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points.’’ Ukraine’s warnings at the Paris Peace conference about moscow’s impending threat to the West were stark–and were breezily dismissed. So were Ukraine’s pleas for surplus arms and medications in the face of concurrent onslaughts by russia’s Red and White Armies. Ultimately, Ukraine was dismembered, with the lion’s share tossed to russia.
russia’s ensuing reoccupation of Ukraine was pivotal to the formation and viability of the rebranded russian Empire, now the “USSR.” Stalin resolved Ukraine’s resistance to moscow’s reoccupation by simply starving the nation into submission in 1932-33. Not only were the borders of Ukraine blockaded but, tellingly, so were the heavily Ukrainian populated regions of russia itself. No people out. No food in. Millions were starved to death. Estimates begin at 4 million and rise to some 10 million. It was anomalous, and therefore hugely probative, that it was the larger number that was furtively whispered at the time by members of the Soviet nomenklatura. “Furtively,” because uttering the word “famine” was a capital crime.
In his May 31, 1933, report #474/106 to the Royal Embassy of Italy in moscow, Sergio Gradenigo, Italy’s Royal Consul in Kharkiv, Ukraine, wrote that moscow engineered its starvation of Ukraine “to dispose of the Ukrainian problem.” Gradenigo quoted a top OGPU (“KGB”) officer that the purpose was to “change the “ethnographic materials” of Ukraine” by massively resettling russians into a “cleansed” Ukraine. (Note–“ethnographic materials.” Hitler soon afterward implemented that same dehumanization, however, preferring untermenschen [sub-humans].)
moscow’s goal, said the OGPU officer, was “to dispose of the Ukrainian problem within a few months at a cost of 10-15 million souls.” The Italian consul continued: “However monstrous and incredible such a plan might appear, it should nevertheless be regarded as authentic and well underway . . . [It] will bring about a predominantly russian colonization of Ukraine. It will transform its ethnographic character. In a future time, perhaps very soon . . . Ukraine will become a de facto russian region.” Little wonder that Raphael Lemkin, father of the UN Genocide Convention, vehemently condemned as classic “genocide” both the resulting necropolis and destruction of Ukraine’s national ethos.
Ukraine’s keystone importance was described in the 1930s by a British journalist, Lancelot Lawton, to the British House of Commons:
“It would be hypocrisy to deny that an independent Ukraine is as essential to this country as to the tranquility of the world. . . . On the solution of the Ukrainian problem will depend the fate of Europe. . . .So great an event [as the independence of Ukraine] would most likely be accompanied by, or cause remarkable changes elsewhere. It would influence, if not determine, the fate of Bolshevism and the Soviet Union.”
Washington was nonplussed, and on November 16, 1933 extended diplomatic recognition to moscow. It seemed inexplicable: (a) we declared legitimacy and approval of the regime sworn to our demise, (b) concurrently with that regime’s genocide of the very nation that was our biggest asset in ensuring against that very demise. Both (a) and (b) advertised that we were bereft of any strategic sense. But explanation there was– business, money, trounced our national security imperatives. “Corruption.” American capital fed the Third Horseman in Ukraine. Fortunately, we at least had the kremlin’s take-it-to-the-bank promise “to refrain from . . . any act overt or covert liable in any way whatsoever to injure the tranquility, prosperity, order, or security of the whole or any part of the United States, in particular, any agitation or propaganda.”
Ten years later, during WWII the Lend-Lease program of the Roosevelt Administration (itself massively penetrated by Soviet agents) allowed moscow to crush resistance movements in Ukraine and the Baltics. If that wasn’t enough, it was the Ukrainian underground that warned our Office of Strategic Services of Stalin’s plan to assassinate General George C. Patton. The warning was intercepted by a Soviet agent, Duncan Lee, the top assistant to OSS head “Wild Bill” Donovan. Washington then turned on the Ukrainian informants, tipping off NKVD Maj. General Davidov at the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force in Frankfurt, Germany. Add to that our “Operation Keelhaul,” where American GI’s joined with the same NKVD General in the forced repatriation to the Gulag of Ukrainian famine survivors and other Soviet refugees in post-war Europe. It was a bloody dragnet of the truthtellers. Lest there be any doubt of our bon homie, American troops confiscated several thousand copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, translated into Ukrainian by one of the refugees and for which Orwell had written a special introduction. We delivered the copies to the same NKVD General.
Why does any of this matter today? One answer is our surreal legacy in Ukraine. Today, Ukraine is dealing with the offal of a system that we abetted, both politically and through the decades financially and economically. It left a legacy of war crimes, death marches, homicidal russification, atrocities, recreational torture, arson, plunder, assassinations, predation, massacres, kidnappings, pillage, rape, executions dungeons, ethnic cleansing, murder quotas, slave ships, stupefying terror, thoughtcrime, and . . . forced starvation.
The other answer is that our failure to connect the dots, our self-inoculation against our own experience with russia, are spiraling us down a strategic sinkhole. Globally. How, for example, do we think the credibility of our denuclearization efforts around the world will be impacted if we do not stand by our security assurances to Ukraine?
Whatever the outcome of the impeachment process, American support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be unbending. An independent Ukraine as the anchor of democracy is the only realistic counterweight to russia in the region. Geopolitically, sitting atop the Black Sea, and then entry into the Mediterranean and the Middle East, Ukraine is also the necessary alternative to a maverick Turkey. With China rising, our national security and defense studies ring the alarm about our ability to deal with both China and russia. Read the assessment of The National Defense Strategy Commission, National Security Strategy, the Worldwide Threat Assessment, the Institute for the Study of War’s “Confronting the russian Challenge: A New Approach for the U.S.“ and the Defense Department’s “russian Strategic Intentions.” Ukraine is the most consequential factor in securing America’s security posture vis a vis russia and, by extension, our security interests globally.
But what of President Trump’s reported “loathing” of Ukraine, its ” horrible, corrupt people” and that he “doesn’t give a s–t about Ukraine”? The Trump Administration having previously provided more military assistance to Ukraine than the Obama Administration, why now the about face? Who implanted the thought in his mind that it was Ukraine, and not russia (as our intelligence community unanimously and consistently warned), that invaded our 2016 elections?
And “Ukrainian corruption?” Of course, it exists, but progress has been huge. putin has repurposed sanctimonious cries about “Ukrainian corruption” into a Pavlovian dog whistle for “toxic.” It was the de rigueur catechism in the impeachment hearings. putin’s purpose is to supplant our understanding of Ukraine as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, thus immunizing ourselves against our predictive capacity. “Corruption” is also the blood-brain barrier to our understanding that it is the kremlin’s very occupation of Ukraine in the 1920s–that we officially recognized and for which we were an artificial life support system–that begat that very corruption. What of russian corruption? And what of our own corruption? Why do we think putin keeps his money in our banks? Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just been indicted on multiple “corruption” charges. So? We withhold military aid and betray Israel because of “corruption”?
If it is established that President Trump in fact sought to barter security assistance to Ukraine for political dirt on Vice-President Biden as his anticipated rival in 2020, what does it tell putin about our comprehension of our own vital national interests, our seriousness of purpose, our grip on reality? There is no one-word answer, but there is an analogous question: What would Iran conclude if a parallel bazaar were played out against the background of our having Israel’s back? Or of any other ally?
As we celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November, on the fourth Saturday of November Ukrainians will commemorate the “ethnographic material” scythed out of existence in 1932-33. If we again condemn Ukraine to the coffin air of Lubyanka, if we again toss that “ethnographic material” under putin’s tanks, we will forever justify a tyrant’s strutting contempt and the deserved internment of who we are and what we represent. putin’s wannabee’s around the world are in tow, and our security will vaporize. It is, after all, our Republic that is the ultimate prize. To prevent that, bi-partisan support for Ukraine must increase. The predicate is to absorb Leon Trotsky’s aphorism –“You may not be interested in the war but the war is interested in you.” In that war, we need Ukraine as much as Ukraine needs us.
Victor Rud is a board member of the Ukrainian American Bar Association and chairman of its Committee on Foreign Affairs.