By Oksana Bashuk Hepburn
Aug. 4, 2021
Despite incredible achievements, there is much for Ukraine to worry about as it approaches its 30th anniversary of independence. Most worrisome is President Vladimir Putin’s determination to rape it. Will the West help or watch?
For some 70 years prior to independence – Aug 24, 1991 — it was part of the Soviet empire subservient to Russia’s de facto dictatorship. Although Ukraine provided much of the leadership and brainpower, its global recognition was negligible. Achievements like space rocketry, industrial and agricultural prowess continued to bolster Russia as had been the case for some 300 prior years of czardom. These centuries were marked with ongoing insurrections and insurgencies of liberation by Ukrainians. In his recent essay, Putin alters reality: the centuries of Ukraine’s oppression become the life of “one brotherly people.”
Much changed with independence. Ukraine’s Zaporizhian Sich descendents – they elected their government while most of Europe was still into one-man rule – were again saluted on the international stage with their own national anthem. Who can forget Oksana Baiul, the brilliant figure skater; the victors of Eurovision; or the euphoria of Ukraine’s victory in the last Euro Cup?
Now, even past achievements – formerly credited to “Russian”– are recognized as Ukrainian: Sikorsky’s helicopter; Mendeleyev’s table; Pylyp Orlyk, the Kozak’s esteemed foreign minister who performed similar duties for the French king after fleeing Moscoviya’s ire. Did you know that the Orlyk Airport is named after him?
Ukraine’s nation-builders – suppressed, tortured, exiled and maligned through centuries of Moscow’s “brotherly love” — are regaining their rightful place as Ukraine’s liberal thinkers and political giants, like Ukraine’s bard Taras Shevchenko who warned against “the Moscovites abusing you with evil”. Or, like General Roman Shukhevych who established the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in 1942 to fight the Nazis and when WWII ended for most—but not for the Ukrainians– dealt with Stalin’s reign of terror. To this day he is anathema to Moscow. Putin calls him a Nazi – his slur against all patriotic Ukrainians.
This ascendency to independent stardom rankles Russia’s president. He exhaled sharply – with annoyance, relief or anger – at the summit with Biden, after responding to a question on his war in Ukraine. Ukraine is the fight of his political life just like it was for Lenin, Stalin, and the czars. The big question: will the West allow Russia to win again?
To sway public opinion to that end Putin wrote his preposterous piece – The Historical Union of Ukraine and Russia. It reworks the outdated 18th-century colonial concept which Russia’s poet Alexander Pushkin summarized as “All Slavic rivers must flow into the Russian sea or it will dry out.”
Putin expands this defunct Pan-Slavism by elevating Russia to godhood. He claims that Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are a “triune”, the three-in-one concept used to explain the Holy Trinity.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky considers this union of “common brotherly space” more like the land of fratricide of Abel by Cain.
Putin’s piece blames Ukraine’s government for his war in Donbas and the West. It dragged it “ into a dangerous geopolitical game aimed at turning Ukraine into a barrier between Europe and Russia”. From on high he declared that “Ukraine’s sovereignty is not possible without Russia.”
Ukraine had been sovereign for 30 years, thank you, and is determined to stay that way. His wars of propaganda and bullets are determined to destroy it. Ukraine will continue to fight but what about the West? Will it watch a fledgling democracy it’s been mentoring absorbed into his anti-West space? Or will it act?
This is Ukraine’s greatest concern: the tug between democracies’ commercialism and their stated democratic values.
Recent events offer little to relieve the worry.
As Russia increased its military to 100,000 strong on Ukraine’s borders it seemed that NATO, the European Union and the US — “back” on the world stage with President Joe Biden — would finally stand up to Putin’s recklessness. However, June brought no good news even as the most powerful democracies gathered at various summits.
First, the United States lost credibility when its ships turned around in the Black Sea giving Putin a green light to continue his marauding of international waters. Then Biden rescinded sanctions against entities associated with Nord Stream 2 for domestic reasons as US entities are involved. Now Putin has a noose to extract political concessions from Europe, and Ukraine’s revenues which are being cut off because of the new pipeline. US and Germany’s promises to compensate Ukraine are, so far, words.
Then Ukraine’s hopes for NATO entry were squashed. Even the fast-track Membership Action Plan promised back in 2008 was ignored, a huge disappointment to all but Putin. Expectations of Putin becoming more “predictable” or “stable” – as Biden had hoped for his own summit— hold no promise of materializing nor does any endorsement of climate accords. As one Ukrainian political expert summarized: “Putin cares sh-t about climate.”
Result? Putin looks good, America does not, nor does NATO or the EU led by Germany and France. Ukraine looks abandoned by fellow democracies while a wild political animal is on the loose.
So, despite thirty years of independence, achieving higher standards of living, more freedoms, free elections with peaceful change of governments, tackling Soviet-style corruption, maintaining peace agreements, and seven years of military containment of Moscow’s war, Ukraine may be losing ground. The reason? Feckless western “partners” – captured by Russian money, threats and propaganda parading as national interest.
It’s misplaced self-interest. Putin set it up in order to trap Ukraine’s allies. To the shame of the “free” world, it’s working. And the danger to all is still to come
Oksana Bashuk Hepburn, former executive in the government of Canada, and president of a management consulting firm brokering interests between Canada and Ukraine, writes on international issues.