Staunton, November 28 – Russian aggression in Ukraine has opened a new divide in the West between those who take freedom for granted and those who know that it must be defended or it can be lost, according to Vladimir Vyatrovich, the director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory.
Many in the West have come to take their freedoms as a given, but Ukraine has shown that freedom has a price and must be defended or it will be lost, the Kyiv historian says. That is “an extraordinarily important” lesson for today when some are offering security or the illusion of imperial greatness in exchange for it.
The world needs to recognize that “what is taking place now is not a war between Ukraine and Russia and not an internal Ukrainian conflict. It is a struggle between European liberal-democratic values and the Soviet ones on which Putin operates.” And it needs to recognize as well that the first are directly threatened by the second.
Putin has made it clear that his ambitions include “the restoration of influence in the borders of the USSR. If he succeeds in subordinating [Ukraine], then his next target will be the Baltic countries.” Consequently, he has to be stopped in Ukraine before he attacks countries already in NATO and the European Union.
In his campaign in Ukraine, Vyatrovich says, Putin has relied on much drawn from Soviet propaganda in the past. That is a source of strength for him as many in Ukraine and elsewhere still live according to those values. But it is also his weakness because “this idea is retrograde and does not have anything in common with the present.”
Ukraine’s efforts to rethink the Soviet past and move toward a different future is thus a direct challenge to Russia not only because “the rebirth of the USSR is possible only if Kyiv participates” but also because “the condemnation of the crimes of the communist past acquires an entirely different sound if Ukraine joins in that.”
“It is naïve to hope that if another ruler replaces Putin, Russia will change,” the Kyiv historian says. Putin is “playing on the imperial ambitions of Russia,” not creating something which did not exist. Unlike other former imperial powers, Russians have not gone beyond them and come to view empire as a burden rather than a value.
Ukrainians have never been as committed to subordinating themselves to the authorities and the tsar as Russians have. “On the contrary, Ukrainians have always struggled against any power,” something that has opened the way to the possibility of change but has also added certain difficulties to that process.
Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich failed precisely because he operated on Russian assumptions, something that provoked a rising against him and ultimately his loss of power, Vyatrovich argues.
This divide between Ukrainian and Russian values also helps to explain separatism in the east of Ukraine. As a result of Soviet policies, many Ukrainians who had been living there lost their lives and their places were taken by “workers from Russia during the period of industrialization. As a result, the culture there from the beginning was Soviet.”
That pattern was compounded in Soviet times by Moscow’s subsidies to the Donbas, and the end of those subsidies has left the population with lower incomes and a sense drawn from the Moscow television channels it still watches that everything is still wonderful in Russia. All that has worked to preserve Soviet culture there.
But Ukrainian influence has been sufficiently strong in places like Kharkiv and Odessa that Putin’s plans to create a collection of “peoples republics” in Ukraine has collapsed.
Ukrainians cannot rely on that alone, however, the historian says. “The main lesson of history for Ukraine is that in order to oppose an aggressor, the citizens and the authorities must unite.” Only by so doing, he continues, can Ukraine avoid risings within its own territory when as they must things get tough.
“Now,” Vyatrovich argues, “Russia is interested in preserving an enclave beyond the control of the Ukrainian authorities,” and it is thus using exactly the same scenario it employed earlier in Georgia. And it is using tactics extremely similar to those the Bolsheviks used in Ukraine in 1918–1919.
Those include many that are now called “hybrid war:” the creation of parallel governments, military formations supported by the Bolsheviks, and an enormous propaganda effort.
Those were relatively successful at that time, Vyatrovich says, but the situation today is different. Fortunately, “the Ukrainian state is much stronger and the level of national consciousness of the people is an order of magnitude higher.”