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The Ukraine Fallacies (with Victor Rud)
Americans are confused about the history of Ukraine. That's just how Russia wants it.
CONCERNED ABOUT U.S. APATHY toward Ukraine, the American attorney Victor Rud, in his capacity as chair of the foreign advisory council for the Ukrainian National Association, composed a letter to the incoming Secretary of State:
I am writing concerning the ongoing developments in Ukraine.
Even though Ukraine is the largest European country, the size of Germany, England and Hungary combined, it has been forever a terra incognita for Americans, citizens and policymakers alike. That, together with Ukraine’s sudden and stunning appearance on the international scene, requires a studied reassessment of America’s mindset about “Russia” that has dominated for now almost a century. This is especially so because, regardless of the result of the upcoming elections in Ukraine, the U.S. will be confronted by ever increasing and sophisticated attempts by Russia to suborn that country.
Putin’s soul is of an unrepentant CHEKIST who matriculated from the same school as Pavel Sudoplatov. Pavel was a key player in the Soviet penetration of the Manhattan Project…and was a killer, among the “wet tasks” organizing Trotsky’s assassination. Infinitely more consequential to the United States, though your predecessors were oblivious to its implications, was Sudoplatov’s organization of the assassination of Ukrainian political and military leaders in what he described as a 75-year war between Ukraine and Russia….The war continues.
Rud did not write this to Antony Blinken this past January. He wrote it to Condoleezza Rice in December of 2004.
Sixteen-plus years later, the only thing that has changed is the Russian occupation of the Crimea. Putin remains unrepentant. American policymakers remain oblivious, if not flat-out complicit. Ukraine remains essential. And the war continues.
To make sense of the situation playing out in the geographical center of Europe, we must understand the history of, and between, Ukraine and Russia. As the latter has spent the last century and a half in a concerted, systematic attempt to erase the history of the former, this is not always easy.
The popular conception of Ukraine—one carefully crafted by Putin, the Soviets, and the Romanovs—derives from four fallacies:
Fallacy #1: Ukraine is “Little Russia,” a spin-off of the original—Frasier to Russia’s Cheers.
If anything, it’s the other way around. As Rud writes in his superb 2014 piece “Russia’s War on Ukraine,” published in Accuracy in Media, Ukraine
is the land, wrote English historian Norman Davies, through which most peoples passed on their way to settle the rest of Europe, and to become the nations and countries that we know today.
In the Middle Ages, the Kyivan Rus’ (not Kyivan “Russia”—more below) Imperial Dynasty was the largest political entity in Europe. Following Kyiv’s adoption of Christianity from Byzantium, the precursor of modern Ukraine became a powerhouse of intellectual discourse, religion, and cultural life. In its size, grandeur and advancement of education (mandatory for women), in its equal rights for women, in the arts and the sciences, Kyiv eclipsed other European cities such as Paris and London. European kings and the English monarchy married into the Kyivan Dynasty. Among them, King Henry I of France married Princess Anna of Kyiv; she signed her name to the marriage document, he used an “X”….
“Russia” at that time did not exist, and had as its antecedents Finno-Ugric tribes that separately evolved into scattered principalities in the north that rejected Kyiv’s dominion. Most telling was their sacking and rejection of Kyiv in 1169 that was not matched until the city’s destruction by the Mongol Horde a hundred years later. The Kyivan Rus’ Empire collapsed with the latter onslaught, but in the process shielded the rest of Europe from the same fate.
In other words, the political and cultural seat of power in Europe transferred from Rome to Constantinople to Kyiv, before migrating West. Moscow was never more than an outpost, lagging behind, struggling to keep pace with its more accomplished neighbors.
Fallacy #2: The name “Russia” derives from the “Rus’” peoples of Kyiv.
If the names are similar, it’s to intentionally confuse everyone. Until the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the late sixteenth century, what we now call Russia was known as “Muscovy.” Different place, different history, different people, different culture. The early tsars appropriated the “Rus’” name, hoping to doll up their ho-hum pedigree—like how Norma Jean Mortenson took on the surname of a former president, to borrow some of James Monroe’s class.
Fallacy #3: Ukraine was historically a territory of Russia.
Nyet. In the days after the Kyivan Rus’ fell to the Mongols, Ukraine was for half a millennium part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Russia had no dominion over Ukraine for most of recorded history. Ukraine is no more a part of Russian than Normandy is a part of Great Britain. These are яблука and апельсины.
Fallacy #4: Russia and the Soviet Union are the same thing.
We conflate the two names all the time—“we,” meaning Americans in general, and “we,” meaning American lawmakers and presidents and foreign policy advisers, who should know better.
Russia is the territory around Moscow. The Soviet Union was a totalitarian empire that occupied and conquered Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine. Russia is merely one of 15 former Soviet “republics.”
Practically, what this means is that Putin has no more right to the Crimea than Germany has to the Sudetenland, or to Bohemia-Moravia. Russia’s occupation of Ukraine’s sovereign territory in the Crimea is no different, fundamentally, than Nazi Germany annexing Austria. That the West allowed this naked conquest to happen is shameful.
Even more shameful is that Ukraine once had the capability to defend itself, and did not need to rely on glorified mob boss Donald John Trump providing aid. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had a larger nuclear arsenal than Great Britain, China, and France put together—only the U.S. and Russia had more nukes. To arrest nuclear proliferation, Ukraine surrendered its weapons. It surrendered them to Russia. It did so at the behest of the United States. It did so with the understanding that the U.S. would defend it from foreign attack—that Ukraine would enjoy the same protection the United States has given Japan and Germany since 1945.
And yet when Putin invaded, America shrugged and let it happen. We imposed some toothless sanctions and then looked to make nice-nice with the psychopathic abuser. The U.S. policy toward Putin is forever on “reset.” Why? What more does this monster need to do, to demonstrate his ill intent?
“An appeaser is one who feeds the crocodile—hoping it will eat him last,” wrote Winston Churchill. Indeed. We appeased Hitler, and that genocidal madman kept right on going. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, by contrast, we kicked his thieving ass back to Baghdad, destroying his territorial ambitions forever. No one wants war, but no one wants crocodiles in the kitchen, either. Worse, as Rud points out, the U.S. appeasement of Putin sends a message to China and North Korea: It’s all good, guys. Do what you want. We won’t stop you.
Not that we should pursue a military strategy with Russia. Rud has a better idea, as he explains in our discussion, when asked what we should do about Putin:
We have to answer some questions, first of all. How is it that one country like Russia, with half the population of the United States, has been able to take all of Western democracy and pretty much press us up against the ropes? And yet they hold their own people in thrall. The same with China. The same with North Korea. There is something fundamentally wrong, and what’s wrong is, that these countries are playing us, taking our strengths, and using them as our most vulnerable points….
Yes, we have to have a strong military. But that is very, I think, short-sighted, and that gives us zero options. We have to do what I’ve been arguing for years. We have to do what they’re doing to us. We have to turn them inward—not by creating artificial problems, but by promoting [their own existing] problems internally, so they are deflected, and have to address internal issues….
Minimally, we have to stop the North Sea pipeline, which is going to be feeding a tremendous amount of money to Russia. And we have to take advantage of what? As far as Russia is concerned, Russia is itself the last remaining empire. We had three concentric circles. We had Eastern Europe as part of the Soviet Empire. We had the Soviet Union as an empire in and of itself. Those republics spun off, that Putin is trying to reassert control over. But the so-called Russian Federation is a federation only in name. There are two dozen nations that were occupied and conquered by Russia through the centuries. And they have a right to exist….
That and other tensions about Russia: complaints about budgeting, economy, environmental, first and foremost stripping the country of its wealth. The oligarchs. Advertising to the Russian people what they sense, what they know, but giving it to them in graphic demonstration of what the leaders in the Kremlin are doing. We have to take measures to turn Russia inward and take the pressure off of us. There is no reason why they’re immune.
Why do we allow Putin to cross the Delaware and walk into Congress? Why? Why do we allow that? How can it be that one country that doesn’t manufacture, that doesn’t have anything to offer the world…they can’t even make a better frying pan! At least China can make a frying pan. We don’t get that from Russia. All we get are natural resources, primarily oil. How does that one country manage to achieve and get what it has so far on the world stage? It’s by failure and default on our part.
And we have to take a hard look at ourselves and our own psychology, as much as we have to look at Putin’s psychology…and we have to start thinking and having a policy—not to react, not just to respond. We’re not going to go anywhere. We’ve been doing that for years. And we’re going downhill. We’re starting to swirl the drain now.
Domestic terrorism: where the hell did that come from? When? Did we have that 20 years ago? Do you think that’s all indigenous? Oh yes, we have grievances, I understand that. But we’ll work out our internal problems as long as they’re truly internal and not imported….
The thinking has to be radically changed. We have to start looking at an affirmative, assertive policy against these totalitarian regimes. They are holding their own people captive. And yet they’re able to achieve what they’re achieving against us, a free society and a free country. How is that possible? China’s got a billion people. They’re captives! You mean we can’t take advantage of that? We can’t take advantage of the fact that there is something that is prompting people to cross the Rio Grande and scale the wall and swim the river to get into this country? Those things, those values, those intangibles that those people want to have: we can’t take advantage of that? And use that in dealing with Russia, and China, and Iran?
If we can’t do that, then you know what? Maybe we don’t deserve to continue.
It’s early, but so far, President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken seem inclined to push yet another “reset” button. The latter promised at his confirmation hearing that he was “determined to do whatever we can to prevent that completion” of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a massive boon to the Russian economy; four months later, the U.S. has lifted sanctions and allowed that project to continue.
When will we stop feeding the crocodile?
Description: Ukraine is the largest country in Europe, and is in the geographic center of the continent. Understanding its history vis a vis its more famous northern neighbor is critical to grasping what’s happening right now in the Crimea—and why Western defense of Ukraine is so vital to global stability. Greg Olear talks with Ukraine expert Victor Rud, past chair of the Ukrainian American Bar Association, about Ukraine’s past, present, and future. Plus: A new offering from Time/Life Books.
Photo credit: Vadim Chuprina. The Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, in Kyiv, 2013.