‘Pregnant with War’: Ukraine Journal, Part IV

Ukrainian servicemen ride on an armored personnel carrier near the contact line with Russian-backed separatist rebels in the Donetsk Region, Ukraine, November 9, 2019. (Oleksandr Klymenko / Reuters)
The GOP, Russia, national identity, a powder keg, and more

Editor’s Note: Today, we bring you the fourth and final installment of this journal. Here are the previous parts: I, II, and III.

As I’ve mentioned, the weather is mild, which is pleasant. I see ice-cream stands. They’re closed, darn it. But the hot-cocoa ones are open. Don’t want ’em, don’t need ’em.

• I see little kids, doing what little kids have traditionally done, all over the world: beat the hell out of their younger siblings. One day, the younger ones will be able to fight back . . .

• I like this sign, with its wording. Conveys true meaning.


• Here is a neat description of Korean cuisine:


• I’ve heard of fish and chips. This, I like even better:


• A stunning yellow building — housing the Institute of Philology of the Kyiv National Taras Shevchenko University:

I feel like enrolling, although I doubt my chances at qualifying . . .

• A very handsome red one — housing the law and history departments of the same university:


• Today happens to be the 25th anniversary of the Budapest Memorandum — an accord signed by Russia, the United States, and Great Britain. Among other things, it guarantees the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

A bitter joke . . .

• There is a John McCain Street here. This honor was accorded by the Kyiv City Council earlier this year. The late Republican senator was a strong backer of Ukraine. He came here to the Maidan, during the protests of 2013–14. “We are here to support your just cause,” he said, “the sovereign right of Ukraine to determine its own destiny freely and independently.”

• Last month, the Washington Post published an article that bears consideration. It was headed “A presidential loathing for Ukraine is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.” Here is one portion of it:

Trump’s animosity to Ukraine ran so deep and was so resistant to the typical foreign policy entreaties about the need to stand by allies that senior officials involved in Ukraine policy concluded that the only way to overcome it was to set up an Oval Office meeting with Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

That meeting has not taken place. On December 10, however, Trump would meet with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. The day after, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “This is an important moment. The very fact that the Russian minister was received by the U.S. president is an important point, of course.”

Yes. It is very rare for a foreign minister to gain an Oval Office meeting with the president. A foreign minister is not a head of state or government, after all.

I will excerpt one more passage from that Washington Post report. The “Volker” in question is Kurt Volker, who is a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer. In 2008 and ’09, he was ambassador to NATO, and from 2017 to ’19 he was the “special representative” for Ukraine.

Trump then peppered Volker with his negative views of Ukraine, suggesting that it wasn’t a “real country,” that it had always been a part of Russia, and that it was “totally corrupt.”

All this is painful and frustrating to many Ukrainians, and others.

• There has been a spate of articles such as this one in The Atlantic, by Ronald Brownstein: “The Russification of the Republican Party: GOP lawmakers used to oppose the president’s embrace of Putin and the Kremlin. Not anymore.” Here is a column by Matt Lewis, in The Daily Beast: “The GOP Is the Russian Propaganda Party Now: I’m so old, I remember when the Republican Party proudly stood up against Russian aggression and interference.”

One more article. This is from the Washington Post, by Robert Costa (my old colleague at National Review) and Karoun Demirjian: “GOP embraces a debunked Ukraine conspiracy to defend Trump from impeachment.” The article begins,

Much of the Republican Party is pressing ahead with debunked claims about Ukraine as they defend President Trump from possible impeachment, embracing Russian-fueled conspiracy theories that seek to cast blame on Kyiv rather than Moscow for interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

The increasingly aggressive GOP efforts continued Tuesday on Capitol Hill and were amplified throughout conservative media . . .

Now, you may regard this as Fake News, peddled by Enemies of the People. But there has, at a minimum, been an evolution of the Republican party and the American Right. Anyone with eyes to see, has seen it. And people in Ukraine have seen it. Which leaves them open-mouthed, bewildered, some of them.

In April 2008, President George W. Bush came here to Kyiv, standing alongside President Viktor Yushchenko, supporting Ukraine’s bid to join NATO. Bush said that the Kremlin would not enjoy veto power over the alliance and its membership.

• Some people in Kyiv express astonishment to me over one point in particular: “Why do people in your country regard Vladimir Putin as some kind of guardian of Christian civilization? He is an amoral KGB thug, whose government tortures and kills, and whose only law is his own power.”

Hard to argue with that . . .

• At home, I know a number of nationalists who are pro-Putin or sympathetic to Putin. This is perplexing: as the nationalists ought to be among Ukraine’s biggest supporters. Ukraine is struggling for its own nationhood, its own culture, its own identity. It is struggling not to be re-absorbed into an empire. Not just liberal democrats but nationalists ought to be attracted to Ukraine’s cause, one might think . . .

• Vitaly Portnikov is one of the leading journalists in Ukraine, a household name, and a household face, too, owing to his presence on television. He was born in 1967 and was Moscow-educated. Sitting with me, he has fascinating, often profound, things to say about Ukraine, Russia, Europe, and beyond. I will relate a little of our conversation.

About the part that Ukraine is playing in the American impeachment drama, Portnikov is alarmed: “I think the fact that Ukraine has found itself in the midst of an American domestic political squabble is a threat to our national interests.”

Ukraine needs the support of the United States, uncontroversially. It cannot afford to be a football in a game played by R’s and D’s (i.e., Republicans and Democrats).

Portnikov says that Ukraine has a “low political culture.” He also says that Ukraine is a “Third World country,” which may be a surprising thing to hear.

After the Euromaidan revolution in 2014, he says, Ukraine entered a transitional period — going from a post-Communist country to a proper modern state. Ukraine is in that period now. Portnikov expected that populists would come to power after the state had been built up, properly. But they have arrived already.

People working as waiters and waitresses may have a law degree or a degree in mathematics. People who master English may be able to get a job as a sales clerk, in the middle of Kyiv. But to enter parliament? You barely need any education at all. You may not be able to read the laws you are voting on.

This is what Portnikov means by “low political culture,” etc.

Yet there have been hopeful developments, he says. Ukraine is outgrowing the Soviet period, in fits and starts. Before the revolution of 2014, “Ukrainian” referred to ethnicity, mainly. Now it has a political meaning. You may be of Russian, Armenian, Tatar, Jewish, or Georgian ethnicity — but you are also Ukrainian, in a political sense. This is new.

Hilariously, but also seriously, Portnikov says that “even anti-Semitism has taken on a different flavor”! When he criticizes President Zelensky, he’s apt to hear from two distinct groups of anti-Semites.

Supporters of Zelensky might say, “Leave our president alone, you Jew!” Portnikov will point out that Zelensky himself is Jewish. They’ll say, “No, you are the Jew, he is a real Ukrainian!” Anti-Semitic opponents of Zelensky might say, “Nice goin’, Vitaly. How did a Jew get to be president of our country? You yourself should be president!” Portnikov will point out that he, like Zelensky, is Jewish. “No,” they’ll say, “he is the Jew, you are a real Ukrainian!”

Funny, as I said — even hilarious — but serious, and illustrative, too.

Portnikov repeats that “Ukrainian” has taken on a political meaning instead of an ethnic one. “For us, it is a huge step forward,” he says. After 2014, people of different ethnicities started singing the national anthem. He does not mean this metaphorically (as I first suspect). He means it literally.

Imagine, he says, that black Americans or Hispanic Americans did not sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Only white Americans did. That would be a problem, right? (Right.) That was the situation of Ukraine until 2014. “So we have made big progress.” And “it is big progress that nobody really cared about Mr. Zelensky’s ethnicity during the election.”

Turning to a grave issue — like, the gravest — Portnikov says that “the post-Soviet space” is “pregnant with war.” Bismarck and others spoke of the Balkans as “the powder keg of Europe.” Here is another one, possibly. The United States and others should do all they can to uphold the international order and the rule of law. Big powers should not be allowed to invade smaller powers and rearrange borders. This is a recipe for disaster. Adventurism, unchecked, will spread.

Putin’s Russia is trying to undermine Ukraine, of course — but also Moldova, Georgia, and other countries. A lot is at stake here, and not just for the specific countries. The world at large cannot remain unaffected.

We no longer really think about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, says Portnikov, or the German Empire or the Ottoman Empire. Those are relics of the past. But the Russian Empire? “Thanks to the Bolshevik experiment,” says Portnikov, “it kept going, after the other ones were finished.”

This point may seem simple — and it is — but I have the impression it is overlooked.

Have no illusion, says Portnikov, that “if you give something to Russia, if you placate Russia, this will all calm down.” That would be a “great mistake.” Lessons of deterrence and appeasement are perpetual.

The future of Ukraine, he says, like the future of other post-Soviet states, and of Europe as a whole, lies in finding a modus vivendi. Equal countries, on equal footing, must find a way of living together. He cites the example of Ukraine and Hungary. “We have a complicated relationship. Both sides have made mistakes. But we are not at war. We are communicating. We are exchanging delegations,” etc.

A final word — old, but unstaling: Nations have the right of self-determination. “We have the right to decide, ourselves, who are are, and how we want to live. We have a right to sovereignty.”

• In the fall of 2016, I did a report from the Baltic states — two of the three, actually: Latvia and Estonia. I did a Web journal, like this Ukraine one, and a magazine piece. (My magazine piece on Ukraine is forthcoming.) For the mag piece about the Baltics, go here. I said that I had the sense of being on the front lines of something important, and tense. I have the same feeling in Ukraine, of course.

I ended my Baltic piece this way:

Recently, I heard an American on the right say that Ukraine will revert to Russia, because that is the “historic norm,” and all should be relaxed about it. The Baltics have their own historic norm — the same: foreign occupation and domination. Their experiences of independence have been mere parentheses. May independence become the historic norm.

Slavery, for that matter, is a historic norm. Some historic norms are made to be broken.

• A touch of American jazz, here in Kyiv? Check it out:


• After I visit a church, for about a minute, I have a thought, back out on the sidewalk: “After all these years, it’s time for me to confess: I have next to no interest in the inside of churches, mosques, etc. I have a great interest in the ideas. But in the physical stuff? Not really. Now, if I have a David Pryce-Jones with me — pointing out what I should think about what we’re seeing — that’s one thing. But how often does that happen?”

I sort of envy those who can spend hours inside a church, or in a museum, for that matter. My feet want to bolt almost upon entering. Maybe that will change, with more experience. (I sort of doubt it.)

• I could spend hours in a Crimean Tatar restaurant, however, and I do, with a Kyiv friend. I would like to come back. And to Kyiv in general. I wish for Ukrainians peace, happiness, and prosperity. Democracy, freedom, and human rights. The same as I do for Russians, Americans, Papua New Guineans, and everyone else under the sun.

Thanks for joining me, my friends, and I’ll check you soon.

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