How important is the fact that Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine, grew up speaking Russian in a Russophone city, Kryvyi, where at school he likely as not was called Vladimir? The Dnieper River that more or less bisects the Russian and Ukrainian speaking halves of Ukraine has its source deep in Russia and flows south through Belarus and Ukraine to the sea — the Black Sea, on the eastern shore of which lies Crimea, a largely Russian peninsula which Nikita Khrushchev, himself a Ukrainian, gave to his native land when it was, as a Soviet socialist republic, part of the Soviet Union.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, took Crimea back in 2014. It seems clear he would not mind putting Ukraine itself back in the orbit it pulled itself out of in the 1990s when the Soviet Union disintegrated. He did not discourage — to put it as non-judgmentally as possible — the armed secessionist movements in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Donbas regions, whose stated goal was to return to the Russian fold. Ukrainian government authority is tenuous at best notwithstanding accords between Kyiv and Moscow, the capitals of the two ur-lands of Russia, that were signed in the capital of the third one, Belarus’ Minsk.
That was in 2015. Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine in 2019, despite being Jewish. Or perhaps because of it. In a sense, he represented the post-Slav and post-Soviet aspirations of the western Ukrainians — western in the geographic sense but also in the spiritual-political sense. Today’s Ukrainians look west rather than east for models of liberal democracy to replace the autocratic rule of emperors or commissars, such as Belarus’s Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has never incurred Putin’s displeasure. On the contrary, he is presently hosting massive Soviet divisions poised on the border with Ukraine to bring the stray sheep back home.
Would Putin use force to impress Slavic solidarity upon the Ukrainians? He might, though of course it would be an odd way to make the Ukrainians swoon over their putative pan-Slavism. Or, they could say it is not even a matter of that, we are Slavs (even or especially with a Jew as president) and proud of it, and we are free, too; moreover, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe commits its members to respect the sovereignty of its member states (which include Russia and America), and one privilege of sovereignty as defined by the treaty establishing the OSCE is that you can join any alliance you choose.
That would include NATO and the European Union. Ukraine, and Zelensky himself, have been on and off about these two, but it is fairly obvious this reflects pressure measured against support they receive from the Western capitals (“pleased to have you”) and Moscow (“don’t even think about it”).
The leaders of France, Germany, and Britain all have been busy showing the Russian leader that he cannot and must not start a war in Europe, even one waged deep within his country’s traditional sphere of influence.
Olaf Scholz, German chancellor only since December, flew to Washington to assure President Joe Biden that he would not cave to Russian pressure and he is expected in Moscow next week after British foreign secretary Liz Truss has delivered her, one expects, Thatcherite message to Putin. And the prime minister himself, Boris Johnson, is stopping Thursday in Warsaw to reassure the Poles, who are next door to Ukraine, that the way to stop bullies is to stand up to them.
Meanwhile, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has just completed a Paris-Moscow-Kyiv-Berlin circuit in which he has offered to examine and discuss any solution to avert war that stops short of telling Zelensky that he must do whatever Putin asks.
In other words, it appears the European powers are standing as one for sovereignty and against aggression.
Macron’s preemptive diplomacy would, if this is a fair reading of the chessboard, announce that this time there will be no Munich: where, in 1938, the French and British leaders gave Hitler what he wanted in exchange for peace, and brought on war. We will talk, Macron reportedly said, but not about the conditions of Ukraine’s surrender. We will stand by you, Boris Johnson is saying in Warsaw, and troops and arms are on the way. And, Olaf Scholz already had added, we will not pull a Molotov-Ribbentrop on Kyiv, wherein Moscow and Berlin agreed to split the spoils in Poland (with the Baltic states going under the Soviet boot at the same time).
True or false? Bluff or oath of honor? We shall see. But it would indeed be a happy irony if a quarrel among Slavs, in a land far away, was the trigger for the kind of stiffening of Western solidarity that brought about the creation of NATO when the Red Army, in the wake of Nazi Germany’s defeat, was poised to march to the Atlantic.