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Ukrainians Are Nobody’s Pawns

Conservative anti-interventionists buy into an authoritarian narrative that ignores the clear choices made by the people of Ukraine.

· 8 min read
Ukrainians Are Nobody’s Pawns
Members of Kyiv territorial defense on one of Kyiv's checkpoints, Kyiv, Ukraine, March 4th, 2022. Mykhailo Palinchak / Alamy

The nationalist conservatives and the dogmatically anti-interventionist wing of the Right are attempting to rally opposition to American support for Ukraine’s defense against Russian invasion. But their arguments have a curiously inward-focused character.

They don’t seem to want to talk about the invasion itself. Dwelling on the horrible, brutal details would, at the very least, make an emotional case for defeating Russia. Nor do they seem eager to talk about Ukraine’s heroic resistance or Russia’s statements about their geopolitical aims or their plans for Ukraine.

Instead, the anti-interventionists are more concerned with their intramural contest against other factions on the Right. At an “emergency conference” meant to prevent support for Ukraine, these conservatives complained, not about the artillery bombardment of Mariupol, but about the “bombardment of the neocon moment that we are in,” while “speaker after speaker targeted the GOP hawks more often than they spoke about Ukraine itself.”

Sohrab Ahmari is quoted muttering darkly that near-universal support for Ukraine reflects, not the justice of their cause, but rather the success of “mind control strategies.” He goes on to write about Ukraine as if the whole thing is a conspiracy directed by State Department hawks, particularly Victoria Nuland who “in 2013 went down to Maidan Square to personally supervise the velvet revolution.” The article he links to with the phrase “personally supervise” is not some exposé of a secret American conspiracy. It’s a perfectly non-sensational news report about Nuland making a single visit to Kyiv to meet the protesters and talk with both sides.

A petition signed by these anti-interventionists blames the conflict on “leading interventionists in the United States and Europe” who are “goading the West into an abyss of war and suffering.” The people of Ukraine appear in this narrative only as “victims,” who “bear the brunt of Russia’s aggression and of the [Western] attempt to bog down Moscow in a long, devastating insurgency.”

One suspects much of this is a dodge by those who have long been sympathetic to Putin’s regime and the dream of using authoritarianism to promote religious traditionalism, which fits well with the ideals of the “nationalist” and “integralist” Right. But their resulting portrait of events in Ukraine is one in which the Ukrainian people have little or no agency, in which they are merely pawns on a chessboard in a game planned out in a State Department conference room.

In reality, the events in Ukraine are being driven primarily by the Ukrainians themselves. We are watching in real time as the people of a nation, one-by-one, choose the kind of society they want and take control of their own fate.

It is important to understand the history behind this invasion. The roots of the conflict could be traced all the way back to Genghis Khan—it was the Mongol invasion that imprinted a culture of strongman rule on the Russian psyche—but more proximately, the action begins in 2004. Two big things happened that year.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s government launched a politically motivated prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the billionaire “oligarchs” who made a fortune in the carve-up of state-owned assets after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This wasn’t because Khodorkovsky was unusually corrupt; to the contrary, he was reforming the accounting of his enterprises to meet the transparency of Western standards. But Khodorkovsky was also supporting political activism independent of Putin. He was seen as a threat to Putin’s political monopoly, so he was repeatedly targeted by rigged prosecutions.

This was an announcement to the post-Soviet oligarchs that they could make as much money as they liked and cruise their ridiculously large super-yachts around the Mediterranean—so long as they stay out of politics, take orders from the regime, and serve as piggy banks for Putin and his cronies. It was a relapse to Mongol-style strongman rule.

The other big event in 2004 was a presidential election in Ukraine. Viktor Yanukovych was the candidate considered friendlier to Russia, while Viktor Yushchenko was considered friendlier to the European Union. So Yushchenko suddenly came down with a case of dioxin poisoning so severe it has been written up in medical journals because no one had ever been subjected to such a high dose before. The culprit was never identified for certain, but the main suspect fled to Russia. The Russians have a long history of poisoning their political opponents, with dioxin, polonium, novichok, and underpants.

Since this didn’t manage to knock Yushchenko out of the running, Yanukovych and his pro-Russia faction simply rigged the vote. The response was a series of mass street protests, the Orange Revolution, that forced Yanukovych to accept a new, un-rigged election, which Yushchenko decisively won.

So two decades ago, we see Russia and Ukraine moving in opposite directions—Russia back into the arms of a strongman ruler, Ukrainians launching their quest for liberal democracy.

The next big crisis came in 2014. After the triumph of 2004, Ukraine’s pro-European factions fought among themselves, making it possible for Yanukovych to come back and win the presidency for real in 2010. But he made a promise to continue his predecessor’s policy of integration with the European Union.

In 2013, Yanukovych reneged on that promise, derailing a treaty with the European Union in favor of economic dependence on Russia. Protesters flooded into Kyiv’s central square in what was called the “Euromaidan.” This preference for the European Union is about much more than economics. It is about opposite models of government. As boxing champion Vitali Klitschko (now mayor of Kyiv) put it at the time, “Today they stole our dream, our dream of living in a normal country.” By a “normal” country, the Ukrainians mean a European-style country, a liberal democracy rather than an authoritarian kleptocracy.

Yanukovych proved them right by trying to clamp down with Russian-style strongman methods, pushing through restrictive laws banning virtually all forms of protest and sending in riot police to shoot protesters. As support for these measures collapsed, including among the security forces Yanukovych was relying on, he fled the country and Ukraine’s parliament voted him out of office. To highlight how much he represented a kleptocratic model, Ukrainians opened his opulently over-the-top estate for public tours so the people of the country could see where their stolen money had gone.

In Russian propaganda, of course, you will still hear Yanukovych’s ignominious flight described as a “coup.” (If you want to sort through all of the various claims and counter-claims about Ukraine, I recommend this thorough review by Cathy Young.) But let’s keep it simple. What kind of coup is immediately followed by disbanding the riot police and holding a new election?

Russia’s response in 2014 was to invade Ukraine. Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula outright and also broke off several eastern provinces by holding an absurdly rigged separatist “referendum" with the support of Russian military operators sent in unofficially and referred to by the locals as "little green men."

Combine this with a string of assassinations of Putin’s critics and political rivals on British soil, and the poisoning and false imprisonment of Russian anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny. The story we see is that Russia has let itself be pushed farther into the dead end of war and dictatorship—while the Ukrainian people have been struggling to go the opposite direction.

That brings us to the current day and the unlikely figure of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. What carried Zelensky into office was a fictional tirade against official corruption, delivered by his character in a television comedy about an ordinary man who become president of Ukraine. Then life imitated art. That in itself illustrates the different directions taken by Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine still has enormous problems with official corruption—but the Ukrainians keep trying to find leaders who will tame it. Russia also has a lot of corruption, and it is all being run out of the Kremlin by a man with an iron grip on power and a $700 million yacht.

At every stage, when given a choice between a European liberal social model, versus the old Russian strongman model, Ukrainians have consistently chosen a liberal model. The biggest choice they have had to make was on February 24th, when the Russians invaded their country in a plan clearly based on the assumption that Ukrainians would not resist. They had to decide whether they were willing to risk their own lives for the kind of government they wanted. It was Zelensky who set the example, refusing an offer of evacuation and staying in Kyiv despite being targeted for capture or assassination. In doing so, he merely reflected the similar choice made by millions of his fellow citizens.

Prosecutor General of Ukraine Irina Venediktova during the exhumation of a mass-execution site in Bucha Ukraine, 12 April 2022. Mykhailo Palinchak / Alamy 

Ukraine is a country that is struggling for freedom and is increasingly defining itself by that struggle. As Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko puts it, Ukrainians are self-consciously building “an anti-tyrannical politics in Eastern Europe” a “political culture” that is “democratic and republican”—not in American partisan terms, but in the political philosopher’s sense of those words.

This remaking of Ukrainian society is reflected not just in big ideas but in myriad concrete choices. One that is most relevant right now is the remaking of the Ukrainian military. A former American military commander in Europe recounts his experiences watching the Ukrainian military rebuild itself since 2014 by adopting a liberal society’s model of organization, which relies less on a corrupt centralized command and more on the individual initiative of self-motivated soldiers and junior officers.

As another overview puts it:

[T]raining and battlefield experience against the Russians and their separatist proxies in Donbas allowed commanders of small, dispersed units to think for themselves, overturning the old Soviet model of top-down leadership that has paralyzed Russian units and forced top generals to venture to the front lines, where several have been killed.

Ukraine’s military has been winning because it has chosen a Western, liberal model.

We have been watching the geographically largest country in Europe, with a population of more than 40 million, struggle over a period of decades to transform into a European liberal democracy. These people are nobody’s pawns.

So why treat them this way? Why indulge the fantasy that everything is really being run out of Washington, DC, or maybe Brussels? Denying the agency and choice of the Ukrainians is an authoritarian outlook, because that is precisely how a strongman leader views the people whose lives he presumed to dispose of.

Consider a report from a Polish official who describes how Vladimir Putin once offered to partition Ukraine between Poland and Russia: “He (Putin) went on to say Ukraine is an artificial country and that Lwow [Lviv, in Western Ukraine] is a Polish city and why don’t we just sort it out together.” The Poles, who have experience in the last century of being partitioned by the Russians, obviously declined. But the story is revealing of Putin’s mindset, in which the people are objects to be divvied up among the rulers with no need to consult them about what they want.

That helps explain why, for all their loud talk about “sovereignty,” the nationalist conservatives can so casually deny it for Ukraine. Despite their protective camouflage of populism, the nationalist authoritarian vision is one in which a small clique or cadre decides for itself how the people’s lives and property are to be arranged—in Ukraine, and also possibly here at home.

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