Demonstrators with Ukrainian national flags rally against Russian aggression just 40 kilometers from the Russian border in Kharkiv, Ukraine, February 5th, 2022.
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WEDNESDAY was supposed to be the day when, US intelligence warned, Russia would begin “military action” in Ukraine and launch an invasion. In Kyiv, my friends checked on their parents, making sure they had enough bottled water and food in case the intelligence turned out to be true. On Tuesday, an acquaintance announced on Facebook that he had signed up as a reservist, just in case war broke out the next day. A friend who recently returned to Kyiv from a vacation abroad with her family told me that while she was away and reading foreign coverage, it seemed like her city was already at war. But when she arrived back at home, she found her life intact and unchanged, except that she and her husband have been spending every day discussing what to put in their go bags and have made sure to keep a full tank of gas in their car.
Lately, many Ukrainians have shared my friend’s sense of inhabiting a split-screen reality, of being told by foreigners that their nation is about to be invaded but seeing little evidence of that when they look around. It is a disorienting situation, augmented by the tone of barely disguised bewilderment with which much foreign coverage is reported. A few weeks ago, I listened as an American correspondent asked men marching down Kyiv’s main thoroughfare what they were protesting. A new tax law for small businesses, one replied. The previous day, the correspondent had posed the same question to a different man, in a different march, who replied that he was marching against vaccines. The correspondent, who had been flown in to cover the crisis in Ukraine for NPR, seemed surprised at their responses. Why, he wondered, weren’t the men protesting a possible invasion? Where was the panic in their eyes? He had met a few families who were stockpiling food; other journalists spoke with civilians taking defense training classes, learning how to wield guns in case Russian forces made it all the way to Kyiv. But otherwise, things in the capital seemed normal—the clubs and movie theaters were open, the bars and restaurants were full.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten the sense that the foreign press is waking up from a period of prolonged amnesia, all of a sudden remembering that “Ukraine” is not merely a code word for an American political scandal or a synonym for the old country (or a TikTok meme or a Jeopardy! category, for that matter). Western journalists have had to rapidly relearn not only how to pronounce “Kyiv,” but also that it is the capital of one the largest countries in Europe. What many correspondents seem unable to absorb is that Ukraine is already at war, and has been ever since 2014, when Russian troops in unmarked uniforms surreptitiously took over military bases in Crimea, and then the entire peninsula, and then a large swath of eastern Ukraine. A Russian invasion of Ukraine is not “imminent,” as the White House suggested, because it has already occurred; the war has already arrived, and 14,000 Ukrainians have already died in the fight. “[W]e have been in the situation for eight years,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told a gathering of foreign reporters several weeks ago. “The threat is constant.” Yet there were no tanks on the streets of Kyiv, the president said, and he would appreciate it if the correspondents would stop reporting as if there would be any minute.
One can understand his frustration. The coverage has had a way of escalating the situation that it was supposed to be merely documenting. The American obsession with Ukraine seems to have more to do with our country than Zelensky’s; all too often, Ukraine is depicted as a kind of fun-house mirror for US politics, a place that we look toward to watch our own worst nightmares play out and that we cannot understand on its own terms. For a foreign policy establishment consumed by anxieties about Russian meddling, Ukraine emblematizes a kind of worst-case scenario that is forever anticipated but impossible to fully prepare for. The debate among Washington’s Beltway foreign policy establishment, colloquially referred to as “the Blob,” has centered around whether the US should state explicitly what everyone already knows—that Ukraine will not join the US-led military alliance NATO for the foreseeable future—and thus assuage Russian concerns. For many in the Beltway, the greatest sticking point seems to be that such a pledge would mean giving up on the post-Cold War dream of a free and open Europe and a truly sovereign Ukraine.
Even those who position themselves against “the Blob” and suggest that NATO membership should never have been on the table for Ukraine share a similar tendency to treat Ukraine as a mirror for US politics. The writer John Ganz criticized the Democratic Socialists of America, which put out a statement calling for the US to avoid engaging militarily or sanctioning Russia, for “regurgitat[ing] clichés of the Cold War, much like its opponents in the national security establishment, except armed with the opposite set of clichés.” The statement, he claimed, represented an attempt to “whitewash” rather than demonize Russia, with ultimately the same result of treating the actual concerns of Ukrainians—such as their nation’s basic right to sovereignty—as at best peripheral. In The New York Times, Bret Stephens bluntly stated what commentators across the political spectrum have telegraphed: “Whatever happens next in Ukraine, it won’t matter as much as the lessons we draw from it,” he wrote. The implication is that Ukraine is a sandbox for the US to explore its foreign policy failings. The results, he suggests, won’t matter—meaning, they won’t matter to the US. For actual Ukrainians it will be another story, of course, but by then, the US news cycle will have moved on.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was supposed to mark the end of history and the start of a peaceful era of hegemonic liberal democracy. But for Ukraine, it marked the start of a long battle for self-determination, for a future that would not resemble the past. In 1994, under pressure from both the US and Russia, Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum, agreeing to give away the immense nuclear arsenal that it had inherited from the Soviet Union in exchange for non-binding guarantees of its territorial integrity, which the nation’s leaders knew even then would inevitably be broken. The memorandum was presented as a political triumph, though it really foretold disaster for Ukraine. In 2008, a few months after the US announced its intention to eventually welcome Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, Russia easily defeated Georgia in a five-day war and then unilaterally recognized two breakaway regions as independent; both remain Russian-occupied to this day. “Over the past quarter century, nearly all major efforts at establishing a durable post-Cold War order on the Eurasian continent have foundered on the shoals of Ukraine,” the historians Serhii Plokhy and M. E. Sarotte observed in a 2020 Foreign Affairs essay. “For it is in Ukraine that the disconnect between triumphalist end-of-history delusions and the ongoing realities of great-power competition can be seen in its starkest form.”
In his 1996 opus, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, the late political theorist Samuel Huntington drew the boundary of Western civilization right through the middle of Ukraine, “separating the Uniate west from the Orthodox east.” In two maps, Huntington depicted Ukraine as “a cleft country with two distinct cultures,” home to a centuries-old “civilizational fault line.” Along this fault line, he argued, lay Europe’s eastern boundary. Beyond it, Huntington suggested, there could be no “potential members of the European Union, NATO, and comparable organizations.” In the years since, different versions of his argument have been repeated ad nauseum (including by yours truly): Ukraine’s eastern regions are often referred to as “Russian-speaking” and its western ones “Ukrainian-speaking,” with the implication that the east is Russian and the west European, as if those categories were inherently distinct. But linguistic divisions are not the same as electoral ones: Occupants of “Russian-speaking” regions such as Crimea and Donetsk voted overwhelmingly for Ukraine to become an independent nation in 1991. And these characterizations are even less accurate today, when nearly a decade of war with Russia has led young people all over the country—including and especially in its eastern cities—to embrace the Ukrainian language. As Rory Finnin, a scholar of Ukrainian literature and culture, recently explained in Politico, most Ukrainians could qualify as “Russian-speaking” or “Ukrainian-speaking” depending on the context, making it an almost entirely obsolete distinction. And the majority of the 14,000 soldiers who have died on the front lines were, according to former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Russian-speakers.
Nevertheless, Huntington’s formulation has defined American understandings of the Euromaidan revolution—now called the Revolution of Dignity—which erupted in the heart of Kyiv in November 2013 after Viktor Yanukovych, the country’s democratically elected but Kremlin-backed president, refused to sign an association agreement with the EU that would have brought significant political and economic cooperation. Over 100 Ukrainians died fighting their own country’s security forces. For the next year or so, revised versions of Huntington’s image of a neatly bifurcated Ukraine appeared on television screens and newspapers around the world. CNN published a series of maps depicting “A divided Ukraine,” including one that superimposed the country’s linguistic distribution and on an image of the 2010 election results; The Washington Post published an article titled, “This one map helps explain Ukraine’s protests,” which in fact contained three maps, one of Ukraine’s “ethno-linguistic” divide alongside results from the its 2004 and 2010 presidential elections. These maps provided Western audiences with a distorted and oversimplified explanation of the crisis, largely divorced from reality. The majority of Ukrainians—no matter what language they spoke—did not want to see their nation manipulated and subordinated by its more powerful neighbor, its sovereignty impugned.
Huntington’s mischaracterization of Ukraine as a “cleft country,” eternally riven between East and West, was a projection that acquired a patina of truth and threatened to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Today, Ukraine does not belong to either the EU or NATO, though both insist on keeping the door open in theory, a perpetual dream deferred. Kafka’s man from the country arrived at the gates of the law to find that though they were open, he could never pass through. Ukraine has similarly found itself knocking at the gates of Europe—or at least of its security infrastructure—only to find that it will never be permitted entry. Ukraine hopes to join NATO, but after the past few weeks Ukrainians surely realize that NATO will not come to their aid. (Most recently, President Joe Biden stopped short of personally endorsing Ukraine’s future accession to the NATO alliance; “School is out on that question,” he told reporters.) The country also does not belong to Russia’s answer to NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which also includes the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Instead, it sits uncomfortably between the two alliances. Thirty years have elapsed since Ukraine became an independent nation, but its status has remained precarious at all times since, subject to the whims of greater powers.
If the tendency to view Ukraine through a Cold War lens is debilitating, the impulse to see the current crisis as a recapitulation of World War II battles is dangerous. This time around, one strain of coverage is fixated on the country’s right-wing nationalist party, the National Corps, and its associated militant group, the Azov Battalion, whose leadership is open about its ties to neo-Nazis. With the country surrounded by an unprecedented number of Russian forces, these militarists have re-emerged, posting billboards around Kyiv that urge residents to prepare for the possibility of a Russian invasion rather than panicking, and teaching civilians how to wield Kalashnikovs. As BuzzFeed’s Christopher Miller has reported, the Azov Battalion is a real political threat to the future of Ukraine. But it is also a boon to Russian propaganda narratives, which have highlighted these militants in an effort to portray Ukraine as a nation of “Banderites”—a reference to the antisemitic Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, whose followers collaborated with Nazi forces at the start of World War II before militating against them. When the foreign press overstates the unsettling presence of neo-Nazi sentiment in Ukraine, it amplifies Russian mischaracterizations, and augments the possibility of war. By centering the Azov Battalion in their coverage, Western journalists seem to imply that Ukraine should not receive US assistance of any kind, diplomatic or otherwise. Here, once again, is the tendency to project American political anxieties onto Ukraine—in this case by mistaking the presence of a far-right movement as something that marks Ukrainian democracy as fundamentally compromised, rather than recognizing that our politics shares the same rot.
In reality, Ukraine is not a bastion of antisemitism. Nearly a decade of war has fueled a militaristic far right, but Jewish life has also flourished. On February 15th—the day before the Russian invasion that wasn’t—Rabbi Meir Stambler, head of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, wrote a letter to Ukrainian Jews reminding them that the day marked Purim Katan (Little Purim), “a day when we remember how once everything was turned upside down,” when “evil and darkness retreated before good and light.” The whole community joined in the Ukrainian Day of National Unity that took place the following day, which they spent praying for peace and safety while maintaining contact with the presidential administration and national security officials, just in case.
Everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop. On Facebook, my Ukrainian friends are full of dark humor and defiance. One, a professor in the eastern city of Kharkiv (a city far more vulnerable than Kyiv, close to the Russian border), recently posted a cartoon of a giant shoe stepping on a snail while well-dressed bystanders politely stand by. The shoe was Russia, the snail Ukraine, and the bystanders, she said, “you can guess for yourself.” But life goes on. Her city staged a unity march earlier this month, with local demonstrators declaring Kharkiv to be resolutely part of Ukraine and parading the nation’s blue and yellow flags through the streets. Another friend encouraged everyone to stay put, to go out to eat, to drink Ukrainian wine, to renovate their apartments and to fill them with Ukrainian furniture. “Every time we panic, we make Ukraine weaker,” he wrote. “When our army sees that we are not going anywhere, our advantage grows.”
The most powerful depiction I saw of Ukraine’s uncanny present came in the form of a comic. In it, the Ukrainian illustrator Zhenya Oliynyk captures the strange feeling of periodically forgetting the possibility of renewed warfare, only to be reminded of its supposed imminence, of googling “so what’s up with Russia” and hoping that the search engine responds with something more than speculation. “They say you need a plan. An emergency grab bag,” she writes over several frames. “But, although thousands of Ukrainians have already run from war or lived with it, I can’t imagine what I’d do. And where I’d run. So life goes on.” Her illustrations capture the profound confusion of inhabiting a world in which there is already a war unfolding in Ukraine, and also the war is always about to arrive. Whatever does or does not happen this week, or next, will not change this uncomfortable reality. The news cycle will move on, but the war—present and future—will remain.