For most Americans the horrific Russian invasion has introduced them to Ukraine for the first time. For me, this happened a half century ago. Ronald Reagan’s 1980 political campaign was seeking to win the support of previously Democratic ethnic groups, who were ferociously competing against each other for support from the man who might become the next president.
The campaign chairman’s solution was to appoint his Irish-ethnic strategist as chairman of these groups. His assumption was that ethnic groups in New York City had been successfully united under the Irish acting as a neutral go-between among the other ethnic groups, and an Irishman might do the same for Reagan. So I ended up with an additional assignment for the nomination process.
I soon learned that one of the few groups more interested in winning the election than one-upping the competing ethnicities was the Ukrainian-American section, which had a talented group of political operatives, many of whom became lifetime friends. Consequently, I have learned much about Ukraine over the years.
At the time, of course, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, part of the evil empire; but it was a most reluctant one. Ukraine’s history goes back to being the largest state by geography in Middle Ages Europe, and before, called Rus. But once brought down by the Mongols, the land divided into principalities led by Kyiv and others in Ukraine and with still others ruled by powers in Poland, Lithuania, and finally imperial Russia. There was a short formal independence between 1918 and 1921 before it was occupied and oppressed by the USSR. But Ukraine’s deep nationalism somehow survived all its trials, and it became fully independent in 1990.
Ukraine’s historical problem is being close to a bigger aggressive world power like Russia, of which Vladimir Putin is the latest czarist incarnation. It’s something like Ireland being close to domineering England and controlled by it from 1169 to 1922. Russia’s leaders have always put seeking power first and assuming everyone else will do the same, an approach epitomized by Ivan the Terrible and the USSR. The extension of NATO closer to Russian borders in 1999 and 2004 and especially the November 2021 U.S. charter recognizing a right of Ukraine to join NATO simply stoked Russia’s historic paranoia.
Putin was not subtle in his obsession. As early as 2007, when he was stepping down as Russian president to become prime minister, he gave a speech to a Munich Conference objecting to NATO expanding to Russia’s borders and warning that putting Ukraine in NATO was completely unacceptable. He made the point crystal clear again in 2012 when he returned as president and again in 2021, wildly claiming Russians and Ukrainians were one people.
Perhaps the most important factor for Ukraine is that its solidarity has actually been reinvigorated by the Russian invasion.
Putin, of course, seized the critical naval base and Crimea itself back in 2014. The West refused to recognize it as legitimate and imposed sanctions that remained until the greater ones after the current invasion. Still, no one thinks Putin, or any Russian, will ever return it given its enormous strategic value. The current invasion of Ukraine must be understood as Putin’s high-risk attempt to make Crimea et al. accepted as legitimate by the West. As Daniel McCarthy noted, Putin “had no leverage over the West before; if he is ever going to have any, Ukraine must be his lever.”
But Putin has big problems. His home economy is weak, and sanctions will make it worse, although he can probably control short-term Russian popular reaction if it does not get too bad or last too long. Putin’s control of government and military leaders is strong, but, as Russia historian Robert Service of Oxford notes, there have been frequent elite and mass uprisings in Russian history. Even long-term Stalin KGB chief Lavrentiy Beria did not survive. Russia’s population is declining and diverse, with 80 percent Russian but a fifth Tartars, Ukrainians, Bashkirs, Chuvash, Chechens, Indo-European, and Turkic people, all potentially resenting the Russian dominance.
The No. 1 concern for Putin, however, is not to become the next Beria. And his successor, Khrushchev, was not all that much better.
Perhaps the most important factor for Ukraine is that its solidarity has actually been reinvigorated by the Russian invasion. This would become a great problem for Russia, either to occupy or even to keep as a puppet regime. After the reestablishment of an independent Ukraine in the 1990s it was questionable whether the new regime might become a failed state. Corruption was endemic. Elections split Ukrainian and Russian speakers and the different Christian religious denominations. Bureaucracy and oligarchs manipulated markets and frustrated economic growth. (READ MORE: How Future Historians Will View Ukraine)
Putin’s invasion and occupation of Crimea and two eastern regions in 2014 was historic in uniting the Ukrainian nation against Russia. This aggression indeed became the driving force in building a fundamentally deeper country-wide nationalism, even crossing the Ukrainian–Russian language and religious divides. The current invasion has created a patriotic military and civilian resistance that will last long after any possible defeat, perhaps forever.
Russia now will never permanently be able to incorporate Ukraine. It took my Irish near 800 years, but we never gave up and I suspect the same is true for Ukrainians. We had our St. Patrick to sustain our nationalism and Ukraine its St. Olga, who both are still celebrated today. Only now I suspect Ukraine is facing months rather than centuries.
We say Erin go Bragh (or Ireland forever), and we wish Ukraine go Bragh as we celebrate our annual Irish day of remembrance.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies. He is the author of The Enduring Tension: Capitalism and the Moral Order, new from Encounter Books; America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution; andPolitical Management of the Bureaucracy. He served as President Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term and can be followed on Twitter @donalddevineco1.
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