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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Russia has created this ‘crisis’, not Ukraine

Olha Vorozhbyt writes: My country is being invaded, suffering in a war not of its making. Russia must see reason not just for Ukraine’s sake, but for the global order.

Written by Olha Vorozhbyt |
Updated: February 26, 2022 10:13:02 am
Russia started a war against Ukraine on February 24. But the process began eight years ago when Russia annexed Crimea and started operations on the Donbas. (C R Sasikumar)

I am writing these lines as my country, Ukraine, resisted the first day of full-scale war started by its Slavic neighbour – Russia. I am writing this and still cannot believe in it. Moscow started attacking Ukraine not only from multiple directions around our border, but also from the territory of Belarus, which makes the other Slavic country accomplice in this humanitarian catastrophe. “137 Ukrainians died, 316 injured”, said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi during his late-night address to the nation. Russian missiles hit our capital, Kyiv, the second-largest city Kharkiv, and the southern city of Kherson. Russian tanks were trying to cross the border with Ukraine from multiple directions. The Russian operation was successful in some directions, but Ukrainian defenders also repelled a lot of these activities. The Russian army suffered much and lost several military vehicles.

When I close my eyes, trying to rest after 24 hours without sleep, I see images of the father who mourns his son near the apartment block in Chuhuyiv, which Russia attacked the morning before. Among those who died, there were children. It is still difficult to believe that this is what happened to me and my country in the 21st century, in the middle of Europe. Russia started a war against Ukraine on February 24. But the process began eight years ago when Russia annexed Crimea and started operations on the Donbas. I do hope that it is now crystal clear that these were not “pro-Russian separatists”, but Russian forces that killed Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers at the Donbas.

Over the last century, it becomes vividly clear that Russia has constantly tried to place Ukraine under its influence. Like in other Central European nations, Ukrainians struggled to create their own state after World War I. We were successful, declaring independence in January 1918 and then uniting with the Western Ukrainian Republic a year later. Yet, unlike other Central European nations, we did not have much opportunity to celebrate living in our own state. The Bolsheviks and the Red Army took control of Ukraine in 1920 (except the region on the West that became part of Poland). This is how the “Soviet” period for Ukraine started. Among historians, there is a consensus that the existence of Ukraine as a separate nation was not put into question by Soviet authorities. This is what Russian President Vladimir Putin now denies with his neo-imperialist rhetoric, claiming that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” or that it is Vladimir Lenin who “created” Ukraine. That is why, pro forma, the USSR was a federal state. But, it was also a totalitarian regime and Ukraine paid a devastating cost as a part of it.

During 1932-33, Ukrainians suffered the great famine which we call Holodomor (holod – means hunger and mor from moryty – to die). Between 3-4 million Ukrainians died because of it, roughly 13 per cent of the population at that time. Today, more than 13 countries (among them the US and Canada) acknowledge Holodomor as a genocide of the Ukrainian population. Soviet collectivisation policies forced Ukrainian peasants to send their harvest to the Soviet authorities. They were banned from moving out of their villages in search of food. The notorious Law of Five Spikelets that prohibited peasants from gathering food meant death by starvation for a lot of them. Those who attempted to “rebel” and were looking for food were either imprisoned or shot. My husband’s family preserves the terrible story about his great grandmother, who collected potato peels that a rich family threw away and fed her children with them. Many Ukrainian intellectuals, musicians and academics were sent to prison — concentration camps, where their lives tragically ended. The Second World War brought devastating loss as Ukraine was in the middle of what Tymothy Snyder calls “Bloodlands” – the territory stretching from what is today Poland to Western Russia — which suffered at the hands of both Soviets and Nazis.

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So, when at the end of the 1980s, glasnost and perestroika brought about change, Ukrainians were inspired. Interestingly, the first push was from the Donbas. In 1989-90, Donbas coal miners started a big strike. The reasons were mainly economic — they were not paid salaries for a long time, working conditions were poor and they looked at the possibility of decisions being taken in Kyiv, and not Moscow. Those protests are often seen as a precursor to the collapse of the USSR and the independence of Ukraine. On December 1, 1991, 90.92 per cent of the voters (including those who lived in Crimea) answered “yes” to the question: “Do you agree with an Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine?”. Just a week later, the USSR was dissolved.

Thirty years of independence have not been smooth. But Ukraine proved its peaceful approach. At the time of the dissolution of the USSR, Ukraine held the third-largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. In 1996, Kyiv gave up all its nuclear weapons. There are just two examples of peaceful nuclear disarmament and one is Ukraine. In return for this, in 1994, the Budapest Memorandum was signed and Russia, together with the UK and US, guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. In 1997, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin signed a friendship agreement between our nations. These are just two among the row of bilateral agreements where Moscow showed respect to Ukraine, its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The talk about the “Ukraine crisis” in the international media is a recent development and is deeply misleading: Russia created this crisis, not Ukraine. I hope that the world will finally call this “crisis” by its true name — a war. A war in which Russia attacked its neighbour, in a cowardly manner at 4 am — as the Nazis did during World War II.

Since 2014, Ukraine has changed a lot. Even while living with war, it became more European, had more opportunities, a visa-free regime and deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU that gave more options to our entrepreneurs. Most importantly, Ukraine has been a democratic state. For the Kremlin, having a democratic neighbour while it targets opponents is not a preferable option. That is why Ukrainians are so eager to enter the EU and NATO. According to the last poll, 67 per cent of Ukrainians want to join the EU and 59.2 per cent, NATO. These numbers are a result of Russian aggression. In 2013, less than 20 per cent of Ukrainians wanted to enter NATO.

This may sound strange but Putin’s aggression made Ukrainians more patriotic. Both Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking people see themselves as Ukrainians. And the full-scale war that started yesterday would only make Ukrainians hate their neighbour in the coming years. Yet, the protests against Kremlin’s war with Ukraine all over the world, including in Russia, gave me a bit of hope that ordinary Russians would try to reverse this horrible situation. Hundreds of Russian mothers lost their sons just yesterday. Are they ready to stand up to Putin for the sake of their sons?

India has been very cautious with its statements about the war. Yet, India has a painful history that may help it understand Russia’s claims against Ukraine. Kremlin wants its empire back and sees Ukraine as the jewel in this regard. Ukrainians never agreed with this and severely fought against it. Now, could you imagine a Britain that claims India is in its empire? It is just impossible. But that is what Russia is doing now. It strikes missiles on our cities and our capital Kyiv with an intensity unseen since World War II just to achieve this impossible end. Please, help us bring it back to reality. It is not just Ukraine that needs this. The global order is shaking after the explosions in Ukraine.

This column first appeared in the print edition on February 26, 2022 under the title ‘A letter from Ukraine’. The writer is Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Ukrayinskyi Tyzhden, a weekly magazine in Ukraine.

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