The Horrors and the Ironies of Russia’s War in Ukraine

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Alya Guseva, Boston University

In the finest traditions of science papers, I would like to report a gigantic conflict of interest in writing about the war in Ukraine. I was born and grew up in Kharkiv, Ukraine, a city of 1.5 million people, and received my undergraduate degree at Kharkiv State University. I have family and friends in Kharkiv, many of whom have fled since the start of the war, but some are remaining in the city, including my 80-year-old father. My heart is broken. My country is being relentlessly destroyed: tens of thousands of civilians are feared dead, including hundreds of children, and several hundred more children are severely injured. Millions are traumatized. Volnovakha, a small town of 20 thousand people in the Donetsk region is completely gone, 90% of Mariupol, a beautiful city on the sea of Azov with a prewar population of half a million people, has been encircled and mercilessly bombed by Russian artillery. It now lies in ruins. Hundreds or thousands of its residents, including orphaned children, were illegally deported to Russia, and about 100,000 people are still trapped inside the city. The Russian army has shelled residential buildings with people huddling in basements, as well as theaters, schools, hospitals, parks, lines of people waiting to get humanitarian aid, and private cars and evacuation buses trying to get people to safety. Russian soldiers raped, tortured and murdered civilians, including children, and plundered their belongings. The legacy of Soviet soldiers as liberators, heavily promoted for several generations after WWII, has been firmly replaced by the Russian soldier the invader and the looter.

More than a quarter of Ukraine’s prewar population have left their homes (11 million people, by UN estimates), and about half of them made it abroad, mainly to Europe. According to UNICEF, this includes two thirds of the 7.5 million Ukrainian children. The loss of life and the destruction of cities and towns are heartbreaking, but equally tragic are the cultural losses, the brain drain, and the blatant robbery of Ukraine’s future.

However, there is a silver lining. Ukraine has never been more united than now. The level of solidarity is astounding, and the support for President Zelensky, the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian language is at its highest. You may have heard that one of the stated goals of this “special operation” as the Russian propaganda machine insists on calling this war, was to protect Russian-speakers in Ukraine, who were supposedly oppressed. I grew up speaking Russian in a predominantly Russian-speaking city. We were taught Ukrainian in secondary school, but not well enough for anyone I know to be fully fluent. Today, many if not most of my Russian-speaking friends from secondary school and the university embrace Ukrainian: they post on social media in Ukrainian, and some made a conscious choice to switch to Ukrainian in their day-to-day lives. But, notably, the mayor of Kharkiv, Ihor Terekhov, who was also born and grew up in Kharkiv, continues to speak Russian. And right before the start of the war, President Zelensky encouraged him to speak Russian and not be ashamed of that. Zelensky himself switched to Russian when he addressed Terekhov at a meeting in Kharkiv: “We knowthat in Kharkiv, many speak Russian, but they nevertheless think in Ukrainian, in a pro- Ukrainian way.”

The European Union and the proverbial West dubbed “weak” and “divided” by the Russian propaganda have demonstrated both the resolve and the ability to unite on many issues, including sanctions, weaning themselves from Russian gas and oil, providing military and humanitarian help to Ukraine, and welcoming millions of Ukrainian refugees. In the ever politically polarized United States, the public support for aiding Ukraine, including militarily, is bi- partisan.

In fact, this is the biggest irony of this war: Russia is achieving the exact opposite of what Russia wanted from it. A widely publicized document entitled “What Russia Should Do with Ukraine,” published by Kremlin-controlled RIA News, explained the ideological grounds and goals for the ongoing war: denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine. Upon a close read, it becomes clear that what was meant by “denazification” was actually de-Ukrainization – – stripping Ukraine of its national identify, culture, language and history, no doubt in line with Putin’s own claim that Ukraine is nothing but an artificial make-believe formation, essentially populated by ethnic Russians, which have been pressured by the West to become anti-Russian (“anti-Russia” is literally what the Kremlin spokesperson Peskov called Ukraine in a recent interview with Christiane Amanpour). De-Ukrainianization is not a new idea: the Russian state has orchestrated more than 300 years’ worth of these efforts, starting with Peter the Great’s 1720 decree to ban printing in the Ukrainian language and seize Ukrainian church books, and Catherine the Great’s move to ban teaching in Ukrainian in Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, followed by the closings of Ukrainian-language schools, persecution of Ukrainian language and culture. The Soviet regime continued in the same vein but amplified the brutality. Millions of ordinary Ukrainians died in 1932-33 as a result of the state- orchestrated famine of the Holodomor. And a generation of Ukrainian poets, writers and artists, part of Ukraine’s Executed Renaissance, perished at the hands of state repressive apparatus, their creative work destroyed or censored and their legacy completely erased for decades. (No wonder I grew up not speaking Ukrainian).

If the stated goals of Putin’s regime were to de- Ukrainianize and to de-militarize, which is to weaken Ukraine militarily, what is it actually achieving? Lifelong Russian speakers in Ukraine are abandoning the Russian language in favor of Ukrainian, and Russian culture is suffering a backlash not only in Ukraine, but worldwide. The Ukrainian National Academic Theater of Russian Drama named after a famous Ukrainian writer Lesya Ukrainka in Kyiv, the premier Ukrainian theater founded in 1926 where all performances were in Russian, was recently renamed the Lesya Ukrainka National Academic Theater, and its first resumed performances after the start of the war were in Ukrainian. Russian grocery stores, Russian restaurants and Russian math schools in the US are, too, being renamed. And even the Russian Boston Facebook group is no longer Russian, but “international”. Some may decry this as evidence of Russophobia — the knee-jerk cancelling of all things Russian. Yet I cannot help but wonder whether these name changes are more than justified. The very fact that these schools, stores and restaurants were called “Russian” while their founders hailed from Ukraine and Moldova, and sold and served food from Poland, Georgia and Armenia, reflected a particular imperial worldview, not unlike the use of “Russian studies” in the academy as a catchall label for all things Slavic, East European or post-communist.

The goal of demilitarizing Ukraine is looking more and more like the demilitarization of Russia. Once considered the world’s second most powerful military, the Russian army turned out to be all glitz but little substance, a Potemkin village that is much better at staging military parades than actual fighting (The Pentagon recently reported that Russia already lost a quarter of its combat power). Some of the Russian army’s substandard performance can be attributed to massive corruption: while Russia’s annual military budget is reported to be slightly over $60 billion, it may be that only a small part of it actually reaches its intended purpose, the rest is paying for mansions and yachts for top military personnel. And thanks to the bravery and spirit of the Ukrainian army that destroyed a large part of Russia’s military equipment as well as the steady supply of foreign military supplies, Ukraine may now have more tanks on the ground than Russia.

One other goal of the war in Ukraine, which was publicly stated by Putin and eagerly repeated by both Russian TV talking heads and ordinary Russians on the street, was to protect Russia from being closed in by NATO. Here too, what Russia is achieving is exactly the opposite of what it wanted, as Sweden and Finland, with whom Russia shares the 830-mile-long border, have expressed their desire to join the Western military alliance.

All wars eventually come to an end. How or when this war will stop is the most important question on everyone’s mind. Until recently, a common call was for the war to end at the diplomatic table, but after the world found out about the Russian army’s atrocities in Bucha, the tune has changed to “this war can only end on the battlefield.” “Ukraine must win” declares Anne Applebaum in the Atlantic, echoing the refrain repeated by journalists and politicians alike. The changed mood is also reflected in an increased international military aid to Ukraine, which for the first time since the start of the war includes heavy artillery and military aircraft to enable Ukraine to go on the offensive. There is also news that the negotiations have stalled. Meanwhile, the Russian army is regrouping in the east, preparing for a battle over Donbass. The Russian regime fixated on the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, is under pressure to “deliver” Russia’s victory by this year’s May 9th military parade. Anything less than that would make Putin look foolish and weak. What will Russia try to accomplish next, and what will it try to pass as “victory” to save face? One thing is clear: because the language the Russian elites understand best is that of power, diplomatic negotiations will not be successful unless Russia is significantly weakened militarily and/or economically to the point where the bargaining is no longer about the Ukrainian land, on which Russia has made unreasonable demands, but Russia’s own economic survival. Not “war will end once Ukraine agrees to lay down arms and give up its territories,” but “some sanctions will be lifted once Russia withdraws its troops and agrees to reparations.” The question is what price Ukraine and its allies are willing to pay to get to this point.

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