Tough, horrifying, unprecedented times indeed. Especially for Ukraine, but also for the world. But not all is lost.
Through my international development consulting and research, I’ve had sporadic contact with Ukraine and a smattering of its citizens over the years. Here are a few scattered recollections and impressions, followed by some speculation on where we go from here.
Bling and blandness in a newly independent state
First visiting the country in 1996, when it was still a newly independent state in the wake of the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, I joined a U.S. Government-funded National Democratic Institute (NDI) delegation looking to build contacts with and democracy-oriented training for political party personnel there. I was just an observer, along for the ride to learn about how the NDI operates and to advise it on how to evaluate those operations.
My main memories include a dinner meeting in a swank post-Soviet restaurant, ablaze with bling, at which an NDI official conversed with a party leader through an interpreter. Meanwhile, limited to English, I sat wordlessly across from a bulky, far younger fellow, whom I took to be the leader’s bodyguard. The establishment, a destination for the country’s newly (and in many cases corruptly) enriched elite, was quite the departure from the bland eateries we otherwise frequented on the trip, which were remarkable only for their dismal food and surly service.
I stayed in a sterile, Soviet-style hotel where each floor had an officious matron stationed both to monitor its guests activities and, I suppose as a sideline, offer them young ladies as companions for the evening. (I declined.) I also recall some sleepless nights there, due to the difficulty of obtaining even over-the-counter cough medicine.
Grounds for hope
My other visit, more than a decade later, took me to the capital, Kyiv, for a meeting of legal aid lawyers from former Soviet states and satellites. It was facilitated by the U.N. Development Program and the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), a branch of the George Soros-funded Open Society Foundations. The purpose was to discuss the attorneys’ progress and problems in setting up programs in societies where the law historically had been a tool of government control and oppression. Though Vladimir Putin was already in charge of Russia and there had been backsliding in some of those other states, there were still signs of progress and grounds for hope in Ukraine and many other nations.
The city was equally experiencing transformation. The changes were from complete and far from ideal, as is the case to this day. But my glimpses of street life offered a far more vibrant environment, with shops, restaurants and other signs of an opening economy in evidence. I stopped by a café with a great view. I was struck by the friendliness of the wait staff, in contrast with the typically dour attitudes of their counterparts from my previous visit, and how that more upbeat approach was far more typical of other Ukrainians I encountered this time around.
Building access to justice
As part of a multi-country consultancy for OSJI a couple of years ago, I had a series of phone conversations/interviews with the nation’s leading legal services attorney. We discussed his nongovernmental group’s work setting up legal aid clinics across the country, with support of both OSJI and (crucially, for long-term sustainability) the country’s government. You never know for sure in such discussions whether you’re getting an honest self-assessment of an organization’s work and impact. But he made a thoughtful case for the accomplishments he’d previously claimed in written reports and for the strategies pursued in getting government buy-in, as well as acknowledging the challenges his organization faced.
More than that, the consultancy reminded me of the progress sometimes achieved in some post-Soviet states and elsewhere, below the level of the headlines, in making life better and more just for some citizens. It offered a glimpse of how, whatever else was going on in Ukraine then, there was cause for cautious optimism in at least certain regards. Access to justice is something many Americans take granted, as flawed as such access admittedly is here. This fellow’s group had been starting to make it a reality for fellow Ukrainians.
Revisiting a nightmare
Early this morning, I received a message from an old friend, an American, whose entrepreneurial son had moved to Kyiv and built a small information technology business there over the past several years. The young man had recently moved the enterprise to the western part of the country, taking a few of his employees with him, on the off chance that a Russian assault would not seize that part of the nation. With those plans now apparently shattered, he’s fled to the Polish border. Last I heard, he was walking toward a NATO checkpoint there. Reluctantly and painfully, he’s had to leave those employees behind.
The irony of this last anecdote is that this old friend and I have discussed and debated no end of issues over the years, not least Soviet intentions toward Western Europe back in the 1970s and whether the Red Army ever could or would invade another country not already under its sway. It’s a topic we’d long since left behind since the Soviet Union’s collapse 30 years ago. To see it revived is like revisiting a nightmare.
Of course, the real nightmare is what Ukraine is going through. Hope has turned to horror. Creation to destruction. And for some today and many to come, life to death.
Here at home, we have the horror of a Donald Trump declaring the invasion a “genius” move – not exactly a shock after his previous kowtowing to Putin. And we have the top-rated host on Fox News, Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson (yes, that’s the full name of this voice of the people) dismissing the pre-invasion tensions as a mere “border dispute” and countering criticism of Russia’s president. It spurs comparisons to the infamous, pro-Nazi radio broadcasts of Charles Coughlin in the 1930s.
Where do we go from here?
So where do we go from here, as Putin launches his Great Leap Backward into an era we’d thought we’d seen the end of? The answer partly hinges on why he took this drastic, disastrous step, something we can speculate but not be certain about. To preclude possible (though unlikely) NATO expansion? To crush a neighbor whose potential democratic and economic success could shine a harsh light on his own failures at home? To revive part of the Soviet empire? To nurse his grievances over real or imagined historic harms against Russia? In hopes that, come 2025, he’ll have his toady Trump back in office to remove sanctions against the occupation?
Of perhaps greatest concern, to indulge his own irrational impulses, as a man long assumed to be cold and calculating may instead be revealing a more erratic nature?
Much will of course hinge on how Ukrainians respond to this onslaught. As the United States learned in Iraq, and as both we and Russia learned in Afghanistan, it’s easier to secure a military victory than to maintain domination in the face of resistance. Nearly the size of Texas, with 44 million people, the country may not remain subdued even if the invasion initially crushes opposition.
Putin may control most Russian reporting on Ukraine. But it will be harder to hide soldiers coming back in body bags or without limbs. Given the historical and family ties between the two countries, suppressing bad news may prove all the more difficult. He will pay economic, political and diplomatic prices for this misadventure, which even influential, retired Russian generals had warned against.
In some ways, Putin has already lost. He’s solidified what was a drifting, unmoored NATO, as well as American leadership of the alliance. He’s pushed Ukrainian sentiments even further toward the West, regardless of what a puppet government may say. He’s shredded what remains of his own tattered international credibility. He’s set himself up for many struggles ahead.
Our own struggles
Much will also hinge on what America and our allies do. On balance, Biden is off to a very good start. He’s rallied NATO and other allies, organized sanctions and used intelligence to telegraph Putin’s moves before he’s made them. We may well see various kinds of support for a Ukrainian resistance.
The political fallout for Biden might be severe, given the short-term economic consequences and concerns about global instability. But he also might conceivably be bolstered by the clear line being drawn between himself and the invasion apologists on the Right (and in fairness, on the Left).
And who knows? Perhaps the harsh reality of European reliance on Putin’s oil and gas might add to the already significant arguments against energy dependence on petrostates such as Russia. Maybe it will bolster national security considerations in favor of alternative energy sources, here or abroad. I’m not exactly optimistic, but one can hope.
We also can hope but not yet know for sure how Ukrainians will handle the invasion’s aftermath, whether and to what extent they put up long-term resistance. But right now, their fight can inspire admiration, even as Russian aggression spurs despair.
That inspiration can be for our own fight, here at home, against the fascists and their allies in our midst. Ukraine makes our battle lines clearer than ever. And unlike the Ukrainians, with their freedom, homes, livelihoods and lives on the line, we have the privilege of battling with our advocacy, mobilization, persuasion, donations and votes.
I believe we’re up for it if we accept, like the Ukrainians may, that the fight does not end with one invasion, battle or election. The struggles are ceaseless. The alternative is unacceptable.
Benicia resident Stephen Golub offers excellent perspective on his blog, A Promised Land: Politics. Policy. America as a Developing Country.
To access his other posts or subscribe, please go to his blog site, A Promised Land.