Defiance to Putin stems largely from cultural affinities with the West.
To understand why Ukrainians are risking war with Russia to try to pluck themselves from Moscow’s grip, I came to this village where my father grew up. The kids here learn English, listen to Rihanna, AC/DC and Taylor Swift. They have crushes on George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, watch The Simpsons and Family Guy, and play Grand Theft Auto. Many expect to get jobs in Italy or Spain — perhaps even America. The village school, which is in my great-uncle’s old family mansion, invited me to speak to an assembly, and I asked the students how many identified as European. Nearly all raised their hands.
These villagers aren’t “important” and claim no sophisticated understanding of international events. But it’s average Ukrainians like them who are turning this country around, defying President Vladimir Putin and his military, quite simply, because they dream to the West. On past visits to this village, which my family fled in the 1940s, it seemed impossibly backward. It was near the Romanian border, a world apart from Kiev, the capital, and even a decade ago many houses lacked electricity and plumbing. Horses did the ploughing. Nobody spoke English. If people went abroad it was to Russia.
Yet Ukraine has changed and opened up. There is bewilderment that Poland is now so much richer than Ukraine — and resentment at Moscow for holding Ukrainians back. Granted, significant numbers of Ukrainians in the eastern part of the country feel deep bonds with Moscow and want more autonomy. In the short term, despite a diplomatic accord reached with Russia and Ukraine that aims to defuse the crisis, Putin may succeed in dismembering Ukraine. But, in the long run, he is both undermining his own economy and also driving Ukrainians forever into a Western orbit, as surely as the Soviets propelled Czechs to the West when they invaded in 1968. Even here in the village, Ukrainians watch Russian television and loathe the propaganda portraying them as neo-Nazi thugs rampaging against Russian speakers.
For people with such fondness for American culture, there is disappointment that President Obama hasn’t embraced Ukraine more firmly. As Wesley Clark and Phillip Karber, two American military experts, suggested in a report to the Obama administration, the US can do a far better job supplying nonlethal assistance to the Ukrainian military, in part to deter Russia. We can make clearer that Russia would face devastating banking sanctions if it invades Ukraine. We can send more officials on visits, and Obama would warm hearts if he found a way to quote the national poet and hero, Taras Shevchenko. Today, leadership is coming from ordinary people who are driven by deep popular aspirations like those reverberating in my family’s ancestral village.
Without moving an inch, this village has been an ever-changing place. When my father was born, it was Austria-Hungary. Throughout his childhood, it was Romania. In the 1940s, it became the Soviet Union. In 1991, it became the Republic of Ukraine. And, in 2014, by popular will, it is becoming part of the West. Ukrainians hope to avoid a war with Russia that they know they would lose. But many believe deeply that their futures depend on reorienting their country to the West. In the battle between Putin and Taylor Swift, I bet on Swift.