Ukraine and the End of Illusions

Ukraine and the End of Illusions. By Jay Nordlinger.

You hear “the Ukraine” less often these days — “the Ukraine” instead of “Ukraine,” without the definite article. “The Ukraine” implies a region of something broader; “Ukraine” implies nationhood. Also, people are getting the hang of “Kyiv,” rather than “Kiev.” Is this a matter of political correctness? A “woke” term? No. Simply put, “Kiev” is a transliteration of the Russian name for the Ukrainian capital, and “Kyiv” is a transliteration of the Ukrainian. These linguistic matters may seem small — frivolous — but they mean a lot to Ukrainians, and, by extension, to their well-wishers. …

You will find the Kremlin line echoed in the American media, even now. I will provide one example, of many. On February 24, the day Putin launched his all-out assault on Ukraine, Steve Bannon told his War Room listeners and viewers, “Ukraine’s not even a country. It’s kind of a concept.” …

In 2004, there was a brazen act of violence. Campaigning for the presidency of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko was almost murdered, in a poison attack — the kind of attack for which Putin’s agents are now infamous. Yushchenko went on to be elected, in the Orange Revolution, a democratic uprising. There was another such uprising in 2014, known as “Euro­maidan,” or the “Revolution of Dignity.” Putin and his people claimed that these uprisings were CIA operations, not genuinely Ukrainian at all. They always do this, and so do their echoers in the West, very much including the United States: The Ukrainians have no agency. They have no will or spirit of their own. They are just pawns in American hands, or Russian hands, for that matter.

Can this illusion now die, in light of what we have seen in Ukraine? The fight they have put up? Can it die along with the illusion that Ukraine is not a real country, etc.?

In 2019, I spoke with a variety of Ukrainians who were irked — in some cases furious — at American perceptions of their country: the perception of Ukraine as a corrupt joke, the perception of Ukraine as not really separable from Russia. You know the drill. One woman said — spat — “It’s all a pack of lies, coming straight from the Kremlin, and you guys believe it. Disgusting.” People were also bewildered that Vladimir Putin could be regarded, by anybody, as a champion and guardian of Christian civilization. …

I have been thinking of another conversation, too — one with Vladimir Bukovsky, the great Soviet-era dissident, at his home in Cambridge, England, in April 2019. Bukovsky died later in the year, in October, at 76. “Putin will provoke the West again and again,” he told me, that spring day on his patio. “What he is doing now, you remember, used to be called ‘brinkmanship.’ He will push things to the limit — to test the strength and resolve of the West.” Putin annexed Crimea. He altered international boundaries by force — and got away with it. He proved that a taboo was not, in fact, a taboo. What else could he do?

Putin is a classic Soviet man, said Bukovsky, “a product of the system.” He did not spend all those years in the KGB for nothing. “Everything that comes from him has a birthmark on it”: a Soviet birthmark. Putin and those like him regarded the collapse of the Soviet Union as a tragedy, and the loss of Ukraine as a particular tragedy. Unjust. Unnatural. Insulting. …

Bukovsky made another point to me, three years ago: Putin, like Kremlin chiefs before him, cries “Encirclement!” He pretends that Western powers are encircling Russia, preparing to do Russians harm (rather than to stop the Russian military from invading other countries). This is a way of distracting the population from the problems that bedevil it. According to Kremlin propaganda, the West is always plotting against the Russian people. “The truth is, the West doesn’t give a damn about Russia,” said Bukovsky. “I should know this, having lived in the West for more than 40 years.” …

Putin is a patriot, or a nationalist, who loves Russia, many claim. On February 22, Trump said, “He loves his country, you know? He loves his country.” Putin has looted his country. Robbed it blind. He has denied his country a free press, genuine elections, an independent judiciary. He has created another “fear society,” to borrow Natan Sharansky’s phrase. He has driven millions into exile — especially young people, hoping for a better life. He has made Russia a pariah on the world stage. If this is love of country, what is antagonism? …

One of Putin’s pretexts for war, you remember, is that he is saving Russians and Russian-speakers from their Ukrainian oppressors. He has a funny way of showing it. His forces have flattened Kharkiv and Mariupol — Russian-speaking cities — the way they did Grozny and Aleppo. …

Can this be another lie that dies? That Putin is motivated by his love for Russia — Russian culture and “spirituality” and language? Soviet depredations in Budapest and Prague, in 1956 and 1968, have nothing on Putin’s depredations in the Russophone cities of Ukraine. …

Putin’s longstanding fans and allies in Europe are having to do some fast dancing. In France, Marine Le Pen shredded 1.2 million campaign pamphlets. They had boasted a photo of her with Putin. In Italy, poor Matteo Salvini had himself videoed while bringing flowers to the Ukrainian embassy. He is better known for wearing Che-style Putin T-shirts — at the EU Parliament in Strasbourg and in Red Square itself.

The Russians are insisting that the bodies found in Bucha were not their fault, and it is all fake — war propaganda. What I do know for sure is that Putin choose to start the war, and there are now a lot of dead people and destroyed homes. The Russians have told so many lies already during this war, especially to the Russians in Russia.