Unfortunately, geopolitical debates too often ignore very basic and far more important considerations. Arguments are invariably framed in terms of the interests of a single person or a small group of people. The global debate leading up to the current war in Ukraine has been a classic example.
The Russian authorities have talked endlessly about NATO’s encroachment into areas in eastern Europe that had previously constituted a part of Russia’s orbit. Putin’s primary grievance is that this expansion breached NATO’s commitments made to Russia, in the immediate aftermath of the cold war, not to stretch the alliance’s borders close to Russia’s. Putin further contends that because Russians and Ukrainians have a centuries-old shared history and are essentially blood relatives, Ukraine should never become a NATO member over Russia’s objections.
Putin may have complaints he views as legitimate, but the fundamental question is this: should any country have such a permanent veto on the ability of another sovereign nation to choose how it wants to exist and who it wants to associate with, regardless of present or future circumstances?
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the aspirations of citizens in each of the newly independent states were that their countries would be liberalized, politically and economically, to allow ordinary folks to enjoy the prosperous lives they had been denied for decades under Soviet rule. Living conditions did improve for citizens in a handful of places, such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, countries that managed the transition reasonably well. Unfortunately for citizens of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, and several of the other new states, life rather worsened. The Soviet communist regime was replaced in each of those places by kleptocratic and brutally repressive rulers.
I was in the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991. I lived in Kyiv for a year and spent another year in Kharkiv, before moving to Donetsk for the remaining four years. I am therefore intimately familiar with the eastern Ukraine region where Kremlin-backed forces have been terrorizing citizens for the past eight years. During my six years in the Soviet Union, I spent thousands of hours talking to tens of thousands of average people in the streets, homes, dormitories and classrooms in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Donetsk, as well as Moscow, St. Petersburg and numerous other cities I visited. Through those conversations, I developed a pretty good sense of what those ordinary folks thought about the political and economic system they lived under, and the relationships that existed among the various ethnic groups within the union.
The fact is, large majorities of the different ethnic groups within the Soviet Union at the time were reluctant members of the union. Even within the Slavic populations (Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians) that formed the core of the union, relations were not always altogether cordial. I witnessed the normal, low-grade tensions that exist in any society with different ethnicities, but by and large, ordinary folks coexisted peacefully and went about their daily lives quite well.
The Ukrainian and Russian languages, while close, are actually quite different. From my numerous conversations with Ukrainians and Russians, I heard varying views on the Ukrainian-Russian history that is so central to Putin’s argument. The facts surrounding that historical relationship have always been vigorously contested.
Putin is entitled to his own reading of history, but he cannot single-handedly decide what the truth is. Moreover, he has absolutely no right to determine the wishes of millions of today’s citizens of Ukraine. Even if his claims were true, it is the case that the tightest-knit families sometimes break up, with members choosing to go their separate ways. Fairy-tale romances do sour at times and couples divorce. Putin’s orchestrated attack on Ukraine is akin to an abusive ex-husband who barges into his ex-wife’s home, without invitation, and forces her at gunpoint to do whatever he desires at that moment in time. No civilized society tolerates such barbaric behavior.
As a student in the Soviet Union, I was allowed to freely travel overseas. I used that opportunity to travel extensively throughout western Europe and through that, saw the stark contrast between life on either side of the Iron Curtain. Unfortunately for ordinary Soviets, they were denied that privilege to travel. And because they couldn’t learn much about the outside world via their newspapers and television programs due to tight state control over what was published, it was mostly through foreign students like me that they got a sense of what life was really like elsewhere. They realized, for example, the considerable gulf between the quality of consumer goods like clothes, shoes, and electronics that we brought back from our travels, and what was available to them in their stores. Those who could afford to often gave us money to buy goods from the West and bring back for their enjoyment.
The reality is that even in those days, vast numbers of ordinary Soviets didn’t quite believe in the communist project. That is why the union fell apart so quickly at the first opportunity folks got to break free.
I made frequent visits each year to several of the Western embassies in Kiev and Moscow because I had to obtain visas for my travels. Until 1989, those visits were rather uneventful. On each occasion, there were only a handful of people in line, no matter what country’s embassy it was.
Everything changed starting in 1989, when ordinary Soviets were allowed to travel overseas. It was astonishing to watch the sea of people I found at each Western embassy I visited. It felt as if entire cities were packing up and leaving the Soviet Union.
I went to the American embassy in Moscow in early 1991 to apply for a visa and I instantly knew, given the size of the crowd, that I would have to spend days in line. I decided to take a train to St. Petersburg to try the consulate there, hoping the lines would be shorter. To my dismay, they were even longer. I ended up getting stuck in the city for three days, with nothing to show for it in the end. I returned to Moscow, where I spent another couple of days before ultimately obtaining the visa.
It was clear to me then that tens of thousands of ordinary people were already voting with their feet to leave the Soviet Union. They had heard that life was better elsewhere, and were determined to have a taste of it. I’ve therefore been baffled by all the talk about NATO making efforts to draw these post-Soviet states into the alliance. If anything, it’s the other way around. Those ordinary Soviets, including large numbers of Russians, who were applying for exit visas needed no invitation. They were trying to move in their thousands to live in places where they could enjoy the air of freedom they had heard so much about.
That yearning to live in a rules-based system was what was on display during the Maidan protests in Kyiv in late 2013 and early 2014. Everyday Ukrainians were fed up with the off-the-chart levels of corruption that had effectively bankrupted their country and generated untold human suffering within their society. The thousands of people who gathered in that square in freezing temperatures for months were pushing their leaders to steer their country towards the West, because they believed it was only by doing so that there would ultimately be any semblance of dignity and normalcy in their daily lives. Anyone who suggests that the Maidan protests were engineered by some nefarious external actors seriously misreads what was at stake.
Of course geopolitical events by their very nature will always have other tangential factors associated with them. However, it is highly disrespectful of the real people whose interests should be paramount, for outside observers to rather make those tangential factors the primary focus. People like me have chosen to leave our homelands and our families, however painful those choices were, to make lives for ourselves in other lands. We have in essence chosen to align ourselves with places and peoples that, in our calculus, will offer us better chances to live the lives that we desire for ourselves and our children. No one has the right to deny anyone that opportunity, if the destination country is willing to accept him or her.
Too often we hear talk about the tendency of America to interfere in other countries’ affairs. There is no question that American foreign policy can be quite hypocritical at times. And, it is also true that America nakedly factors its national interest into many of its foreign policy decisions, sometimes undermining its moral standing in the process. But, it must be said that America intervenes in global affairs so frequently simply because the supranational body that is supposed to shoulder that responsibility, the United Nations, is woefully ineffective. That is not necessarily an indictment of the people in charge of the UN. The ineptitude is mostly due to the flawed structure of some of the body’s most important institutions, particularly the Security Council.
All kinds of atrocities and human rights abuses in the world would go unpunished, and would occur repeatedly, if America and its NATO allies were to decide to mind their own business. The Srebrenica massacre in 1995 remains a prime example of how despots could act with total impunity and get away with it without a counterbalancing force like NATO. A world without the stabilizing force of America and NATO would likely be a dangerous jungle, with bullies preying on the powerless all the time. That is a nightmare scenario that no one should wish for.
Given America’s enormous economic wealth and military power, it is only natural that it will have a greater say in pretty much every global affair, be it economic, political or military. The 27-member EU bloc has a combined GDP that is only 78 percent of America’s GDP. Russia’s GDP is just about 7 percent of America’s. The only single country that comes anywhere close to America in terms of GDP is China, with GDP that is approx. 73% of America’s. Even then, on a per capita basis (which is the metric that really matters), the average American is currently about seven times wealthier than the average Chinese.
Russia may see itself as a military superpower, but the colossal disparity in wealth, even considering America’s alone and ignoring the EU’s, is why Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is extremely foolish. It will do enormous damage to the Russian economy. His country is now completely isolated, and meanwhile Europe is frantically working to diversify its energy supply sources away from Russia. Because Europe is the largest market for Russia’s energy products, that is ultimately going to deprive Russia of a critically important source of revenue. Millions of innocent Russians will end up suffering the gravest consequences of his recklessness.
Some people point to unilateral actions that America and its allies have taken to intervene in various countries in the past to justify Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. There is no such moral equivalence. Western leaders operate in domestic environments where their actions are heavily scrutinized by voters, who largely are allowed to hold their leaders accountable. That is not the case with despotic regimes. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a decision taken to satisfy only the wishes of Putin and the small group of people around him. The vast majority of his own people are against this barbaric attack, but are powerless to do anything about it. The few who have dared to go into the streets to voice their displeasure have been quickly arrested and sent to jail.
Based on reports from around the globe since the invasion began, large numbers of ordinary Russians everywhere feel ashamed by Putin’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine, and are horrified that their country’s image is being so unnecessarily tarnished. Most of the Russians I met all over the Soviet Union were some of the finest human beings anyone will ever encounter. As the civilized world grapples with how to stop this naked aggression and end the suffering in Ukraine, we should also keep this important fact in mind, and maintain solidarity with those powerless Russians.