Snow is falling in Ukraine, and the world is holding its breath. For the past three months, the west has been waiting and watching as Russian troops built their three walls around the former Soviet state, then stood still. As anticipation and fear builds for what current intelligence tells us is an inevitable invasion, it is important to ask: what does this ceaseless conflict mean? Beyond the obvious goals of the Kremlin— to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO— and the goals of the west— to resist Russian expansion. There is a symbolic nature to this moment; Ukraine’s meaning is different from the west, Putin, and Ukrainians themselves. Analyzing these different perspectives can give us insight into the inner working of this complicated international showdown.
At this moment, the west’s ever present fear and suspicion of Russia is being exacerbated. For Americans, Russia hovers overhead like a mysterious specter. We saw her tampering in our elections from afar by using faceless Facebook profiles, acting as an invisible, yet formidable, force. Now, the monster that usually manifests itself in spy-flick caricatures has made herself very, very visible. For the west, Ukraine acts as a buffer between them and the looming specter of Russia, a pseudo-iron curtain. However, Ukraine also has the potential to join their cause. Although a large portion of the nation is nostalgic for a Soviet-Russian identity, there is a growing population, especially around cosmopolitan cities like Kyiv, with more western leanings. For these reasons, the west maintains a certain interest in Ukraine.
Despite the west’s dedication to keeping Russia at bay, American and European leaders alike have made it clear that they will not send their own troops to Ukraine. While the US has been providing weapons, supplies, and military advisors, world leaders know full well that this is not enough to prevent Ukraine’s fall. One may wonder why so much has been invested in a potentially fruitless cause, but perhaps the answer lies in what Ukraine represents from the western perspective. Of course, there is the utilitarian goal of doing all that can be done to protect the citizens of Ukraine. However, beyond that practical logic, the west has a symbolic responsibility to stand up against Russia. In the fashion of a resurgent Cold War era, any expression of power on Russia’s part must be met with resistance. In this sense, a free and independent Ukraine is an expression of western superiority to Russian aggression.
This constant tension shows that the world is still recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union. For Vladmir Putin, that wound still bleeds. The Russian word for Ukraine, Украина, meaning “border” or “edge,” helps to explain the Kremlin’s mindset at this time. If Ukraine were to join NATO, Russia would feel like its boundaries were being eaten up by the west. Moreover, Putin remembers Ukraine as a Soviet nation and likely hopes to rejoin the country with Russia. However, aside from Russian-backed separatists (who recently claimed they came under attack), most Ukrainians, or “little Russians” as Putin refers to them, are resistant to the idea of being part of Russia.
As hard as it is to understand Putin’s mindset, it’s entirely possible that he wasn’t sure of an invasion before now. His initial stance was reminiscent of a snake in tall grass; he may not have known if a strike was necessary, but he made his presence known via his rattle. This isn’t to say that Russia’s preparation to attack Ukraine was just a signal to the west that NATO is not welcome. Even if troops are not utilized, the propaganda war has already begun. By applying constant pressure onto Ukraine and destabilizing her government and economy, Putin could still achieve his goal of maintaining influence within the country, without deploying an invasion. But it’s not just about the literal ends; Putin needs to let the western world know that the relics of the Soviet Union will not be chipped away by NATO, at least not without a proper fight.
Caught in the middle of this silent values war between the west and Putin are the Ukrainians themselves. Many of them are used to the looming presence of Russia, with frequent bomb threats from Russian-backed forces a part of everyday life. However, this doesn’t mean that the Ukrainians are willing to bow down. Ukraine is a free and independent nation full of free and independent citizens who would very much prefer to stay that way. As Putin builds his offensive position, support for joining NATO and/or the EU is rising significantly, which even further indicates Ukraine’s resistance to any Russian involvement.
This Ukrainian willingness to stand up for freedom does not bode well for Russian forces. Although they are virtually guaranteed to lose in what will likely be a blitzkrieg, the Ukrainian spirit is strong. They will not give up easily, but the same may not be true for the Russian population. As more and more Russian men come home dead for Putin’s power play, their families, mothers, and wives will find it harder to accept the toll of war.
Each day, we inch closer and closer to the unknowable outcome of Putin’s plans. As we await his next move, the west and the Ukrainians are arming themselves, both literally and symbolically. The west is coming together for their values, and the Ukrainians are remaining at the ready, the fight for freedom swelling in their souls. Only time will tell what comes after this moment.
Categories: Foreign Affairs