I write this piece with a nauseous mix of dismay, anger and profound sadness building in my stomach as I watch Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unfold. In writing, I want to be clear that these are my own views and not those of any other person, community or organization in the U.S. or in Ukraine.
When I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine in the wake of the Orange Revolution, I could still hear the reverberating “NO!” a host of Ukrainians roared into the face of the Russian bear. I served together with my strong-minded wife whose family also said an emphatic, “NO!” to Soviet/KGB persecution almost two decades prior, when they left Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union) in 1989.
Because of those “Nos!” and because Putin is categorically unable to handle those “Nos!,” today we have family and host families, friends, colleagues and former students who are in direct threat of being occupied, brutalized, and possibly killed by Russian forces. I am immensely concerned about their safety and well-being.
I am also grieved to think about what this means for the future of Ukraine. Tragically, after multiple appeals for direct support from those who have long used the word “partner” and “ally” to describe their relationship with Ukraine, including the United States, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine was compelled to conclude that “We are left alone in defense of our state.”
Don’t get me wrong, it has been encouraging to see President Biden’s resolve and the commitment of a host of countries to denouncing Putin’s crusade, providing strategic weapons for Ukraine’s defense, and ratcheting up sanctions on Russia. Given the diversity of powerful interests each country must manage, this is nothing less than astounding. What is troubling though, is that, in making his case to the U.S. public for its critical, but distant, support of Ukraine, President Biden has felt compelled to reiterate his commitment to “limit the pain American people are feeling at the gas pump.” When people are dying and democracies are being torn asunder, it would seem that we might be able to stomach a little bit of gas.
There are many who would say that this is not our war; that Ukraine is another part of the world and that we shouldn’t accept their problems as our problems; that we are all for supporting freedom and democracy… so long as it doesn’t jack up the price at the pump. To these I ask: Is this how cynical and short-sighted we’ve become? Does the “great importance” the United States attaches to our relationship with Ukraine ultimately hinge on the variations of pressure we feel collectively on our palms and pockets as we pump gas? I find that logic and calculation appalling. Gas prices, while not insignificant, are not our most pressing concerns.
From events over the past five years, it seems clear that Russia has initiated a covert crusade against the democratic institutions of the United States, different in form though not in content from the unbranded war Putin has been carrying out in eastern Ukraine since 2014. Yes, in the current invasion of Ukraine, Putin is interested in solidifying his stature as one of the “Greats” in Russian history by taking possession of, what he believes to be, the sacred heart of the Russian empire – Kyiv. That is his “deep history” aim, and that requires dismantling Ukraine as an independent nation. But he also has the 20th century clearly in view and is just as bent on exacting crippling revenge on the United States for, as he perceives it, stripping Russia of its glory in the years and decade after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In recent years, Putin has engineered, funded, instigated, and inflamed attacks on many of the vital physical, political and social infrastructures of the United States. Our country is paying an immense price for that – far more than can ever be calculated at the gas pump. Certainly, in his current horrific and bald-faced crusade, Putin wants to topple the Ukrainian government and install his own. But this is linked to Putin’s apparent global ambition in which he has demonstrated that he would savor nothing more than crippling American democratic institutions by using our systems (imperfect as they are) against us. Putin doesn’t need to attack or invade that which he can manipulate, discredit or send off the rails.
I sincerely hope that what has transpired in the U.S. in the recent past and what is currently happening in Ukraine has rebuffed the smugness that makes us think that what is happening in Ukraine can’t happen here. To some degree, it already has, and perhaps in deeper, though perhaps less visible, ways than many would care to admit. We are far from invulnerable. I fear that unless decisive and forceful action is taken against Putin, these things will happen again, and again, and again. In the current situation, by offering Ukraine support from a distance and imposing sanctions that will only be felt by Putin and the Russian elite in the long term, we are leaving Ukraine – our partner and ally – open to the immediate attack of a rabid bear; we are also gravely wounding ourselves.
I urge all of us to urge our elected officials to take SWIFT actions that Putin will feel painfully and immediately; actions that may shift his calculus not over weeks or months, but over hours. Urge them to take SWIFT action and every other kind of action they can conceive of that will demonstrate to Putin and those who support him that he is unable to control us through the lever of the gas pump; that, at the end of the day, it is his calculation of invading Ukraine and attacking our institutions, not the discomfort we might feel, that will prove to be the most costly.
But to return to the most immediate concerns: I am gravely worried for friends, colleagues, former students and my host family in Ukraine. I am worried about kids being shelled in their apartment buildings; I am worried about pregnant women who will be unable to deliver in hospitals that have been bombed or closed; I am worried about the elderly and the sick who aren’t able to access medical help and treatment; I am worried about Ukrainian soldiers and civilians getting torn to shreds. I am also worried about the Russian soldiers who will die in service of a sociopath’s delusion. As I think about those who are experiencing the brunt of this invasion, I am also sickened by the fact that, by being bystanders to the assault of a people and the dismemberment of a nation, we are being complicit in the violence. Have we considered that the lights in our souls fade as we watch the light of an independent Ukraine dim?
With no direct support forthcoming, in a matter of days, it is very possible that Ukraine could cease to exist as an independent country. And because Putin cannot imagine that Ukrainians exist as a people -– but precisely because they do -– if Russia occupies Ukraine, it is just as possible that Ukrainian history, thought, language, religion, song and humor, in short, Ukrainian people, could be brutally quashed. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is certainly a ruthless war on the Ukrainian nation, but it is also a cold-blooded assault on the Ukrainian soul.
I write this as a fervent friend of Ukraine, the passionate partner of a Ukrainian, an alarmed U.S. citizen, and a member of an Indian tribe that has experienced but withstood centuries of imperial force and coercion. What we are witnessing as we watch Russia push into Ukraine is an unfolding atrocity to which all countries and people of conscience must join with Ukrainians and convey through decisive action a thunderous and reverberating “NO!!”
Anthony Trujillo (Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo) lives in New Britain.