Report from Ukraine

Map of Ukraine 2015, showing areas controlled by Russian-backed rebels.

KIEV − “It’s just like the run-up to World War II,” said the Minister. “Don’t you see? Hitler claimed he just had to have the Rhineland, Austria absolutely belonged with Germany, the Germans in the Sudetenland were screaming to join the Reich. Each time it was definitely his last grab. After that, there’d be peace.

“We know now that if England and France had stepped in at any point, Hitler’s top military officers, who weren’t ready for a general war, would have pushed him out, but with each annexation he was getting stronger. He was gaining assets, taking over the treasury, adding to his army.”

“Could that happen to Putin?”

“No. The Prussian General staff had been there long before Hitler, and enjoyed vast prestige. Putin however, has vetted Russia’s top military brass very carefully indeed. He’s in charge, just as Stalin was. They’re subservient. The Army can’t possibly get rid of him.

“Anyway, by the time Hitler, in spite of all his promises, had seized Poland, he could no longer be stopped. Then came France, the Low Countries, then Norway. After Dunkirk, England and its empire were at his mercy. Fortunately for the world, he didn’t seize that opportunity. After Pearl Harbor he felt he should declare war on America, and that, after more terrible years of war, led to his end.

“With Putin, we’re still early in the game. The Sudetenland, as it were. You have the same stream of broken promises, the same succession of lies, the same torn-up treaties. And on your side, the same craving to believe, the same horror of fighting after all the fighting you’ve already done. But with dictators, it’s cheaper to intervene earlier than later.”

I was in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, trying to form an opinion of how things were and what should be done. I met the Ministers of Interior and Education, army officers, the Academy of Science, our able and energetic ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, the deputy Speaker of Parliament, the Secretary of the National Security agency and members of the volunteer militias and support groups that are being formed.

Ukraine is the largest country in Europe, and has a population of about 45 million. Travelling through the countryside, one is struck by its vast amount of truly black earth, the most fertile kind, like Iowa. It was considered to be the breadbasket of Russia, but that doesn’t mean that without Ukraine Russia will go hungry, since Russia also supplies Ukraine with energy, which it threatens to cut off. GDP per capita is only $4,000, a third of Poland’s, for instance. Kiev was the original territory of Russia and has been in and out of Russia for centuries. It pulled out this time when the Berlin Wall fell. The cities and towns are clean, pleasant and bustling. You would have to know quite a lot to be able to distinguish them on the surface from towns in Maine or New Hampshire.

In the big cities there are good hotels. A Radisson is the same everywhere. But there is very widespread governmental corruption, perhaps comparable to Southern Italy. In an immense anti-government riot not long ago, 100,000 citizens demonstrated, and 100 were killed.

The country has seen a dreadful amount of violence over the years. There’s a memorial in Kiev to the several million small farmers Stalin deliberately starved to death in the ’thirties, another for the millions slain by the Germans. Consider the kindly words of Lenin when it came to controlling the Cossacks: “We should resolve the Cossack question by the means of their full extermination; all assets and property to be appropriated.” Ukrainians know about war and suffering.

Just as with Hitler and his supposed need for “Lebensraum” – expansion space – Putin has declared his right, his duty, to put together the old Soviet empire, and he has passed a law to that effect. We can see very clearly what he’s doing. And all the lies, the broken treaties! “Trust but verify,” said Reagan. Well, there’s no need to verify this one. The evil has already unrolled before our eyes. The uniformed “green men” without insignia who took over Crimea? Nobody now supposes that they were other than Russian soldiers.

The Russians are pumping out a full force disinformation campaign, e.g., that their seizure of Crimea rescued it from the Ukrainian fascists. Also, they’re engaging in massive penetration of government and broad ownership of business, including two of the largest banks.

So as one approaches the new de facto frontier one is a bit surprised to see no military preparations. In cheerful, prosperous villages the people go about their usual business, apparently unaffected by the risk of being re-absorbed into the Russian orbit. In England, when a German invasion was in prospect after Dunkirk, things were very different! “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds…” Drilling with real or wooden rifles, misleading road signs, every sort of psychological preparation. Here, another matter. In Crimea, the attitude was so slack that there was no resistance whatever. When “green men” in buses with no insignia just pushed their way right into Army bases and told everybody to go home, off they went!

In the east of the country, where I was, it is hard to imagine that if there’s a sequel things will be completely different, although recruits are being enrolled and sent off with as little as one week of training. Alas, the top military are often incompetent.

If the Russian-made tanks roll in, and officers fan out to take over city halls, police headquarters, TV stations and public utilities, there seems little chance of significant resistance.

I attended a village fete near the new frontier, presided over by the mayor, where in addition to the singers and dancers there were pastries and drinks on sale, all to raise a few dollars to send goodies to the soldiers at the front. Very nice, but essentially meaningless.

Chancellor Merkel is taking a much softer line than most Americans, and Obama (not necessarily Congress or the Joint Chiefs) is roughly on the same page: Send a few truly defensive weapons only, and even then more slowly than Congress would like, such as night vision goggles and medical equipment. The Germans think they got burned by following George W. Bush into Iraq, and they don’t want an encore. They fear that the U.S. is congenitally trigger-happy, and they know that if they make a mistake the consequences could be much harder on them than on us. Also, economic sanctions hurt the creator as well as the target.

Ukraine’s danger derives from being outside NATO. If Russia invades even the weakest of the Baltic states it knows that soon a huge American fleet will be blockading its ports, that its commercial isolation will be total, and that it will lose more than it can possibly gain. Ukraine’s different. If Russia pushes further, sanctions will intensify, internal resistance will become very intense, and political isolation will be more complete, but its vast military superiority in this theatre precludes significant overt outside intervention. This is one reason NATO doesn’t want Ukraine inside.

The Ukrainians are clamoring for modern tanks, American trainers, anti-tank missiles, secure field telephones (not the jammable cell phones the army uses) and all the rest. They could well attain a posture that would significantly deter the Russians. Still, one could not help thinking they should do more for themselves: special defense bond issues, tax increases, rationing instead of volunteers sending serious supplies to the boys up front. My friends were twice asked to provide a TV transmitter, of all things, to counter the continual volume of effective Russian propaganda. That’s a government task!

One theory, held mostly outside of Ukraine, is that strengthening the country’s defenses will irritate the Russians. Absurd! That would only apply if Russia is indeed planning to gobble up more of the country, in which case any defensive move is proper. One should make aggression as costly as possible. Second, however, how could things be worse if Russia were indeed irritated? Without provocation, Russia devoured a chunk of its neighbor! It’s as though the cook said to the half-fried chicken, “Now, don’t make a big fuss or I might get really mad.”

A long-term solution might well have been for everybody to forget about Crimea, which was only handed over from Russia as a gesture by Nikita Khrushchev, and then negotiate a status for Ukraine like that of Austria under its State Treaty: in foreign affairs neutral, and in business and thought whatever it likes. Now, however, the anti-Russian attitude in Ukraine is so strong that such a solution may be impossible: Too much has happened.

Very few people expect a general Russian push into Ukraine, but many fear further bites, particularly in the south, toward Transnistria, beginning with Mariupol. Marx himself said, “the pole star of Russian policy is foreign aggression.” To my mind, given what’s known about Russian ways, Ukraine should be vigorously taking defensive measures while it asks for help. The Russian bear is at the door, and it’s hungry.