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It’s All About the Ukrainian People

posted on: Mar 5, 2022

It’s All About the Ukrainian People



Putin’s Russia played “chicken” with the West and, because he was the only one on the road, it appears that he has won. Unlike many of my colleagues on the Democratic Party’s left, I believed, early on, that NATO should have sent troops to Ukraine making it clear that any threat to its sovereignty would not be tolerated. It wasn’t necessary for Ukraine to be a member of NATO, just that it was threatened and needed to be defended.

Putin read the West’s hesitation to respond, beyond words and now sanctions, as weakness. The words mean nothing, and Russia and its oligarchs have been able to withstand sanctions. What they could not have faced down was a direct challenge to their military. As it is, Russia has literally been able to invade Ukraine without any meaningful challenge.

Throughout the past several weeks, as this conflict was brewing, American political leaders and commentators were debating the appropriate US response to Russia’s threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty. Instead of the expected Republican hawks versus Democratic doves, the debate raged within each party and focused on a number of important but still somewhat peripheral matters — not on the issues at stake in this Russian power-grab.

Former President Donald Trump weirdly praised Putin as a genius and a savvy operator, with many Republicans in his camp arguing, as one did, “Why should we defend Ukrainians? Would they fight to defend us?” Some of Trump’s acolytes in the Congress, ignoring their leader’s praise for the Russian leader, incongruously argued, “If Donald Trump were President, Putin wouldn’t have dared do this.” Fearful of alienating what is now called “the Trump base,” more mainstream Republicans tried to make do with criticizing President Biden’s weakness without offering an alternative.

Most mainstream Democrats, meanwhile, lined up behind Biden’s hesitancy to commit military forces and the fallback position of sanctions on key Russian oligarchs and institutions. Some liberal Democrats and a few conservative Republicans focused their attention on the demand that Biden seek congressional approval before committing troops to defend Ukraine. More “left-leaning” Democrats engaged in a perverse type of self-flagellation, arguing, in effect, “How dare we say or do anything against what Russia is doing, given our history of violating international law and invading sovereign countries?”

While all this talk passing for a serious policy debate continues, there are several deeply troubling aspects of the Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine that are receiving short shrift. First and foremost among them is the past, present, and future of the Ukrainian people. The policy debate ignores them. It’s about Russia versus NATO or Putin versus Biden.

Because I chair the Ethnic Council in Washington — a group that brings together leaders of ethnic Americans who trace their heritages to European and Mediterranean countries — I count many Ukrainians among my colleagues and friends. I know their history, including the lasting trauma resulting from the 1930s Soviet government-imposed Holodomor (forced starvation) and the Great Terror which took the lives of millions.

The Ukrainian American community numbers more than one and one-half million. They are proud of their country, their heritage and culture, and their independence. And they are fearful of the consequences of the Russian invasion and Putin’s faux history of all of these — especially Ukraine’s hard-fought independence.

What is also overlooked in much of the policy discussions about Ukraine is how we got to this point, just three decades after the end of the Cold War.  Back then, America appeared victorious over the Soviet Union and policymakers and pundits proclaimed the beginning of a “new world order” with the US as the world’s sole superpower.

When Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait, then US President George Bush played by the rules seeking United Nations support to liberate Kuwait. He then spent months building an international coalition to free that country. Succeeding US administrations, without exception, have not been so respectful of the international order — the most significant example being the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Not only did the Iraq war weaken the US militarily, making Americans wary and weary of more foreign interventions, it also damaged US prestige, weakening relations with other countries. More far-reaching was the impact our behavior had on the “world order.” Our reduced capacity and our hubris resulted in ushering in a multi-polar world in which other global and regional powers began to act unilaterally to project their power where they felt their interests required it and where they could get away with it. Gone was the “new world order” and the role of the United Nations and rule of law. Post Iraq, all this was replaced by the law of the jungle.

But finding fault with the past behavior of the US that contributed to the unraveling of the rule of law in no way places me on the side of the “left isolationists.” Our past sins do not absolve us from facing current responsibilities. The Ukrainian people deserve more from us than prayers and guilty abstention. The better course of action would be to admit our past faults, commit to reestablish respect for the rule of law, and act to correct the damage being done here and now to a country and people who deserve more than being Putin’s pawns in his crude “game of nations.”


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Arab American Institute. The Arab American Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan national leadership organization that does not endorse candidates.