Ukraine: Making Sense of a Clusterf*ck
After months of tension and speculation, on February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded his neighbor Ukraine. Putin’s troops started in the Russia-friendly separatist region of the country known as the Donbas and have since made their way toward the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv, which remains under siege.
The invasion has put the world on high alert. Western nations have imposed sanctions on Russia, markets have spiraled, and politicians have begun openly wondering whether the end result of all this will be a nuclear World War III.
No one can predict the future, but to make even an educated guess requires an understanding of Ukrainian/Russian history and US/NATO influence in the region.
A brief history of Ukraine
The modern history of Ukraine and the origin of the current political situation really begins in 1991, when Ukraine declared its independence from the USSR. This move was widely seen as the death blow for the Soviet Union. Ukraine’s separation involved difficult negotiations over Russian nuclear weapons in Ukraine and political control of Crimea, the quasi-independent peninsula populated mostly by ethnic Russians.
Since then, Ukraine has been consistently beset with political and economic turbulence, including corrupt leaders and regional skirmishes. Representatives from more than 70 political parties have won seats in Ukraine’s parliament since 1990. Far-right forces carry a lot of influence in the country, including the ultranationalist political party Svoboda and Azov, a neo-Nazi battalion within Ukraine’s National Guard. Neo-Nazi groups often “operate with impunity” in Ukraine, terrorizing populations like the LGBT community.
After achieving independence, Ukraine tried to move away from its Russian alliances in the east and integrate more into Western Europe. In 1997, Ukraine signed a Charter on a Distinctive Partnership with NATO. While never becoming a full member, Ukraine has continued to strengthen its ties to NATO, with some Ukrainian leaders making full membership a key strategic goal. Current President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wants Ukraine to join both NATO and the European Union.
Ukraine’s growing ties to Western Europe, NATO, and the United States have been a particularly sore spot for Putin. Despite promises that it would not expand “one inch eastward,” NATO has continually moved closer to Russia, eventually absorbing states like Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Some NATO member states house US nuclear weapons. Putin is wary of this military structure moving toward his borders and warned that Ukraine is a red line.
In 2014, Ukraine’s Maidan uprising culminated in the overthrow of then-President Viktor Yanukovych. Maidan was depicted in US media as a grassroots revolution against a corrupt government. In reality, Western powers including the Obama Administration supported — and, to some extent, facilitated — Ukrainian neo-Nazis like Svoboda in the violent overthrow of a democratically elected government.
Shortly after the Maidan uprising, Putin invaded and annexed Crimea. The eastern Donbas region of Ukraine, which borders Russia and is home to large numbers of pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, has been engulfed in off-and-on war ever since. The 2014 Minsk Agreement was supposed to grant Donbas some independence. Instead, the far-right Ukrainian military has continued carrying out human rights abuses in Donbas, torturing, detaining, and terrorizing ethnic minorities and LGBT people.
Putin’s most recent invasion began with his recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent territories. He moved troops into the Donbas region on February 21, 2022, and pushed into Ukraine on February 24.
In a speech on February 24, Putin laid out his reasons for going to war. Chief among these were the expansion of NATO’s military apparatus, potentially including nuclear weapons, toward Russian borders; US domination of global affairs and disregard of international law in the post-Cold War world, including bombings in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere; and mistreatment of the people of Donbas by neo-Nazis in Ukraine.
Regardless of the legitimacy of some — if not all — of Putin’s claims, the United Nations and the international community have roundly condemned his invasion of Ukraine. It may well be a war crime.
Russian air, land, and sea units attacked Ukraine through the Donbas region in the east, from the Black Sea in the south, and through Belarus in the north. They have already seized certain areas, including the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the important port city of Kherson. Russian forces continue to shell Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, and a large convoy of Russians has been stationed near Kyiv, with apparent plans to capture Ukraine’s capital.
Ukraine has accused Russia of war crimes for bombing civilian targets, including Kyiv’s biggest TV station and an opera house in Kharkiv. Russia has also been accused of using vacuum bombs, a particularly deadly weapon prohibited under international law.
News has been filled with images of Ukrainians, desperate to flee to safety, waiting for transportation and trekking long miles to neighboring countries like Poland. The UN estimates the war has already created 1 million refugees. Other Ukrainians have taken up arms and hunkered down to defend their country as Russian shells lay waste to their homes. Hundreds — if not thousands — of civilians have been killed already.
Numerous Western countries imposed sanctions on Russia and cut them off from various international banking and finance systems. President Biden authorized $350 million in arms support to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons and Stinger missiles, and the European Union pledged another €500 million. Biden also sent 7,000 US troops to Germany, apparently in case NATO needs them for any extra defense operations.
There is a real possibility that the war in Ukraine leads to a larger conflict — including, perhaps, direct military engagement between Russia and the United States. That could mean a nuclear World War III.
Propaganda in overdrive
Reports during war need to be taken skeptically. Accurate reporting from a chaotic warzone is challenging enough, but it’s made even worse when the parties involved manipulate press into propaganda for their own side.
In Western media, the Ukrainian conflict is boiled down to a clash of good vs. evil; freedom vs. tyranny. That view is cartoonishly simplistic, but it has already led to jingoism and anti-Russian bigotry.
FOX News’s Sean Hannity called for the assassination of Putin and suggested that NATO forces attack Russian troops in such a way that Putin doesn’t know who hit him. Hannity is laughably out of his depth pretending to be a military strategist. Apart from being illegal, such actions would likely escalate the conflict into a full-blown global war — the number one thing we should be trying to avoid.
Hannity went on to say, “If you invade an innocent sovereign country, and you kill innocent men, women, and children, you don’t deserve to live.” It’s an interesting perspective coming from a man who supported the US invasion of Iraq — an invasion that destroyed the country and killed hundreds of thousands. One of the architects of that war, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, characterized Putin’s invasion as being “against every principle of international law and international order.” Needless to say, the US has very little credibility when it comes to respecting international law.
Other commentators have been explicitly racist in explaining why Putin’s war is worse than US invasions. Charlie D’Agata of CBS News said Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan… This is a relatively civilized, relatively European… city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.” Ukraine’s Deputy Chief Prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze, said, “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.” Western nations have also been far more welcoming of Ukrainian refugees than Middle Eastern ones.
There has also been backlash against ordinary Russian people. Representative Eric Swalwell, a Democrat from California, proposed expelling all Russian students from the country. Russian businesses and brands have changed their names or been boycotted, in moves that recall the infamous campaign to change “French fries” to “Freedom fries” during the Invasion of Iraq.
Not all of the propaganda has been quite so sinister, but much of it is still very silly. Photos of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in fatigues and on the streets of Kyiv recently turned him into an internet sex symbol. Prior to becoming president, Zelenskyy played a fictional president on Ukrainian TV. He knows how to stage a photo op, and the enthusiastic responses to the photo illustrate just how powerful misinformation can be, particularly in times of war.
What can we do?
Understanding how we got here may help illuminate a way out. We must understand how Western provocations brought us to this point without using them to give Putin excuses. As the most powerful country in the world, the US sets the tone for global events. The best way we can reduce violence, suffering, and war across the globe is to stop participating and funding it.
Many of Putin’s concerns are legitimate. It’s long been known that NATO’s expansion could provoke a response like this from Russia. Even foreign policy hawks like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger encouraged NATO to exercise restraint. Formally abandoning NATO membership for Ukraine could go a long way toward appeasing Putin. More broadly than that, though, the West must abandon our aggressive takeover of the global economy and our expansion of military alliances toward the border of rival nuclear superpowers.
There are few encouraging signs. Putin and Zelenskyy have had peace talks, but they haven’t gotten far. They have, however, negotiated safe passageways for aid workers and civilians. So far, NATO and the US have been reluctant to engage Russian forces directly or establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine, and that relative restraint will hopefully continue.
The invasion has made Putin a pariah on the world stage, ostracized his country from global events, and led to domestic unrest. That kind of resistance could make the war untenable. We should be uniting with the Russian people, many of whom have protested the war at great personal risk, not villainizing them for the actions of Putin. We should join them on the streets of our own cities, demanding Western leaders compromise and find peaceful solutions to the conflict.
This is an unbelievably tense, dangerous moment, with a real potential for things to go catastrophically wrong. We want to root for “our side,” but we have to accept that walking the path of peace requires us to make concessions. We can’t trust the media, because it is too often used as a propaganda weapon to goad us into war. We must find ways to punish politicians who call for radical escalations like assassinations or nuclear strikes.
Most importantly, we must prevent nuclear war. In his speech, Putin reiterated the strength of his nuclear capacities and warned against any direct, physical attack. Meanwhile, US defense and intelligence agencies have gradually begun warming to the idea of using nuclear weapons. If the West pursues peace and abandons the goal of global economic domination, there may be hope of resolving this before it breaks out into a world war. Granting Putin one little concession is far more desirable than burning the world in a nuclear fire for the sake of Western finance.