Magazine December 31, 2019, Issue

Ukraine and Us

In the center of Ukraine’s capital (Jay Nordlinger)
A report from an anxious capital


Like you, perhaps, I grew up with “Kiev” — as in “chicken Kiev” and “The Great Gate of Kiev.” Here in the city itself, they want “Kyiv.” Why? Fussiness? An urge to be newfangled? No. “Kiev” derives from the Russian, and “Kyiv” from the Ukrainian. “Kyiv” is an expression, or an acknowledgement, of Ukrainian independence and nationhood.

“The,” too, is problematic — as in “the Ukraine.” That phrase suggests a region, not a nation. The first time I heard “Ukraine,” without a “the,” was in the mid 1980s. Robert Conquest, the great historian, had come to campus to talk about the Soviets’ “terror-famine” in the Ukraine, or Ukraine (1932–33). Many Ukrainians, he explained, insisted on no “the.”

“Ukraine” sounded so weird to me. It would take me years to get used to it. I also had to get used to “Sudan,” having grown up with “the Sudan.” Once, Paul Johnson — another great British historian — sent us a piece at National Review in which he referred to “the Lebanon.” To him, it was perfectly natural.

Here in the capital — Kyiv, Ukraine — I see banners celebrating the 70th anniversary of NATO. Ukraine has been unsuccessful in its bid to join NATO, as it has been in its bid to join the EU. I think of a phrase: “on the outside, looking in.” In 2008, President George W. Bush came to this city to support Ukraine’s NATO bid. He said that the Kremlin should not enjoy veto power over the alliance and its membership.

There is another anniversary, too — a rather bitter one. This very day (December 5), it is the 25th anniversary of the Budapest Memorandum, signed by the United States, Great Britain, and, not least, Russia. One of the things the accord did was guarantee the independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine. That went up in smoke in 2014.

I have come to Kyiv to ask one question, primarily: What do Ukrainians, of various types, think about the political drama playing out in America? What do they think about their country’s place in the drama? President Trump appears on the verge of impeachment over his conduct toward the Ukrainian government.

“Toxic” is a word used by Myroslava Luzina, a wide-ranging intellectual here. The great danger for her country, she says, is that it will become “toxic” in American politics. The Ukrainian government has to be extremely careful in navigating these waters, she says. You don’t want to alienate the Republicans; you don’t want to alienate the Democrats. You have to have U.S. support, because your position in the world is precarious.

Vitaly Portnikov, a leading Ukrainian journalist, makes a stark statement: “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 can ill afford to be a football in an American game, Republicans versus Democrats.

Some people here deny that Ukraine has any role at all in the American drama. “It’s your problem, your drama,” they say, indignant. “This is an American scandal, not ours.” They are certainly right, at one level. Yet Ukraine is featured, whether it wants to be or not. One prominent citizen says that people are simply “shocked” — shocked at Ukraine’s turn on the American stage.

Take the U.S. diplomats and other personnel who have testified on Capitol Hill: Marie Yovanovitch, George Kent, Alexander Vindman, William Taylor. They have all been assigned to Kyiv, and they have all been known to everyone here — at least those attuned to politics and foreign relations. And here they were, those diplos, in the international spotlight. Bill Taylor? Isn’t he the guy who was on the exercise bike next to me at the gym?

Paul Manafort was notorious here in Ukraine before he was notorious in his own country, the United States. He operated for Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Kremlin president, and now sits in a U.S. prison. (Yanukovych sits in Russia, wanted for high treason in Ukraine.)

A restaurant called “SHO” has gained some notoriety. This is where Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the EU, placed a call to President Trump, overheard by others. Some diners request the exact table at which he sat.

Rudy Giuliani is in Kyiv at the same time I am. He is meeting with some very shady characters: “the same kind he used to prosecute in New York.” Two different people say this to me, using the identical wording. One of them adds, “He’s obviously good at picking them out.” To Fox News, Giuliani says, “I’m just a country lawyer trying to show his client is being framed.” (The client would be Trump, and Giuliani was born and raised in New York City.) In October, two of Giuliani’s associates were arrested at Dulles Airport outside Washington. Both of them have Ukrainian ties. One of the men owns a company called “Fraud Guarantee”; the other owns a beach bar called “Mafia Rave.” Indeed, there is a restaurant chain in Ukraine called “Mafia.” This chagrins and disgusts some Ukrainians, who want sorely to get rid of that culture, or subculture.

Are people across the country glued to the impeachment drama taking place in Washington? Not at all. They are living their lives, and they have their own political scandals to worry about. There’s also a war on — that’s a huge worry. But people who inhabit the political world, so to speak, of course have an eye on Washington, if not the full two.

“If nothing else,” says one such person, “this impeachment business has put Ukraine on the map.” True. But Ukraine has been on the map before, if only in bursts. Since independence in 1991, the country has seen two revolutions, the seizure of part of its territory, and the imposition of the current war. Ukrainian life has not been quiet.

The first of the revolutions occurred in 2004: This was the Orange Revolution. It was a democratic uprising, with people demanding honest elections and honest government. One of the presidential candidates that year, Viktor Yushchenko, had been poisoned, surely by Kremlin agents. The poisoning did not kill him, quite — but it disfigured his face beyond recognition. I saw this face in Davos in January 2005. Hard as it may have been to look at, I never saw a nobler face. Yushchenko carried himself with tremendous dignity.

He served as president from 2005 to 2010. In his first two years in office, he underwent 26 surgeries under anesthesia. A doctor was amazed that he could even sit. Yushchenko had to change his shirt several times a day, because of bleeding. Opinions vary as to the quality of his presidency. But no one can gainsay the man’s courage. As someone points out to me, the Orange Revolution was bloodless, or nonviolent — except for Yushchenko.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin could not believe that the revolution had been a genuine popular uprising. It must have been a Western plot, a CIA maneuver, successful. If you are a KGB man, such as Putin, it’s only natural for you to think this way.

The second revolution — another democratic uprising — took place during the winter of 2013–14. It is known as the “Euromaidan,” and, unlike its predecessor, it was not bloodless or nonviolent: Approximately 100 protesters were killed. Today, they are honored as the “Heavenly Hundred.” The revolution ended when President Yanukovych, in the middle of the night of February 21, fled to Russia, with the assistance of Russian soldiers. Putin then annexed Crimea and launched his war in the Donbass, a region of eastern Ukraine.

Here in pleasant, peaceful Kyiv, it’s possible to forget that there is a war on. “Sitting in this hipster coffee shop,” says a friend of mine, “you would never know, would you?” Yet there is a reminder on one of the main drags in town: an exhibit, set up by the Ukraine Crisis Media Center. It shows a calendar, with casualties indicated on specific days. It also says the following (in both Ukrainian and English, though I will quote the English, of course):

Every God-given day,
Whether we are at work or studying,
Out on a date or at the movies,
Hiking or relaxing by the seaside,
Has been paid for with blood, and with the lives of Ukrainian servicemen and women.
More than 4,000 Ukrainian soldiers have sacrificed their lives.
More than 15,000 got wounded.
We have paid for it every single day we have lived in peace.

Overall, more than 14,000 people — soldiers and civilians — have been killed in this war.

At the edge of St. Michael’s monastery — a beautiful light-blue structure, with golden domes — there is a Wall of Remembrance. It commemorates fallen soldiers. It reminds me a little of the Vietnam memorial in Washington. One difference, however, is that this wall has photos. You see the faces of the dead.

Virtually all of these people are known only to their family and friends, of course. But one of them, Vasyl Slipak, had some fame in the broader world. He was a baritone, an opera singer, working mainly in France. He returned home to volunteer for the war and was killed in June 2016. He is the subject of a documentary, made last year.

In August of this year, John Bolton came to this wall to lay a wreath, along with William Taylor, the acting ambassador. At the time, Bolton was national-security adviser to Trump — who was attending the G7 summit in Biarritz, where he called repeatedly for the readmission of Russia to the group. Putin had been expelled after his annexation of Crimea and his launch of war in the Donbass. The contrast between Bolton and President Trump at that moment was striking. The former resigned his position two weeks later.

The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, was elected last April. He was a television entertainer: a comedian and actor. He starred in a series that had an ordinary Joe elected president. In real life, Zelensky was elected with almost 75 percent of the vote. He is a populist par excellence.

I talk to people in Kyiv who are pro-Zelensky and anti-. All of them, however, have a degree of sympathy for the man, because he is in a very difficult position. The job of president of Ukraine is hard enough — but now there is the curious, gaudy problem of America. One analyst puts it this way: “He refuses to say he’ll investigate the Bidens, the Republicans are mad at him. He says he will, the Democrats are mad at him. He says there was no pressure, the Democrats are mad. He admits there was, the Republicans are.” How can you win?

I think of a phrase: “monkey in the middle.” Later, I see a Time magazine cover: “The Man in the Middle.” That’s how the magazine describes Zelensky. He is “caught between Putin and Trump,” Time says. (Yes, that too.) Some people here refer to Zelensky as “Monica,” with a little snicker: He is an unfortunate figure in an American impeachment drama. Whenever he opens his mouth about America, he is liable to offend someone, Republican or Democrat, so better to keep mum.

He spoke out, however, to Time and to three European publications, in the same session. He said that the United States is a signal-sender to the world. The world takes its cues from the U.S. And, right now, the United States — in the person of President Trump, primarily — is signaling that Ukraine is corrupt. This scares off investors and otherwise harms Ukraine, a country that is trying to get and stay on its feet.

In one of his tweets, Trump said, “I held back the money from Ukraine because it is considered a corrupt country.” Indeed, Ukraine has suffered from corruption for many years. Yet it has been going in the right direction, curbing corruption and becoming more transparent. Before Congress approved military aid to Ukraine, the Pentagon certified to it that Ukraine had made sufficient progress against corruption to warrant receipt of the aid. Moreover, Trump is not one to complain about corruption: not in Russia, not in Turkey, not in Egypt or Saudi Arabia or elsewhere. Why Ukraine?

Two Washington Post reports make for interesting and jarring reading. The first, published in October, is headed “Putin and Hungary’s Orban helped sour Trump on Ukraine.” The article, relying on current and former U.S. officials, says that Trump’s conversations with Putin, Viktor Orban, and others “reinforced his perception of Ukraine as a hopelessly corrupt country — one that Trump now also appears to believe sought to undermine him in the 2016 U.S. election.”

The other Post report, published in November, is headed “A presidential loathing for Ukraine is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.” It says that “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 . . . Zelensky.” Such a meeting has not taken place. Trump did meet, however, with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in the Oval Office, bewildering Ukrainians: Lavrov is not even a head of state or government, and Ukraine is a beleaguered American ally.

The Post article also says that Trump “peppered Volker” — Kurt Volker, who at the time was U.S. special representative for Ukraine — “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.’”

Here in Kyiv, one prominent lady tells me that Westerners are hopelessly, dismayingly naïve about Putin and the Kremlin. They are especially naïve about the money that Russia spreads around. It buys a lot. Another prominent lady, on a separate occasion, makes an impassioned statement to me — a furious statement, full of righteous indignation: “People in America buy the Putin narrative and repeat it. ‘Ukraine is just a sh**hole country, a corrupt country, not a real country.’ They say we basically speak Russian and really belong to Russia. It’s all a pack of lies, coming straight from the Kremlin, and you guys believe it. Disgusting.” (In 2018, word got out that Trump had spoken of “sh**hole countries” in the context of immigration to America. Many around the world are aware of the phrase.)

Mention CrowdStrike to people, and, if they have heard of it, they don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Many times, Trump has said that CrowdStrike is “a Ukrainian company,” owned by an oligarch. The theory holds that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the Democratic National Committee in 2016. CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity company, ingeniously pinned the hacking on Russia. “The server” is hidden somewhere in Ukraine right now. Etc.

As Tom Bossert, the president’s first homeland-security adviser, said on television last September, this theory has been “completely debunked.” CrowdStrike is, in fact, an American company, based in Sunnyvale, Calif. It was founded in 2011 by three Americans: George Kurtz, Dmitri Alperovitch, and Gregg Marston. The second of those, true, was born in Russia — the Soviet Union, actually (Moscow, 1980). With his family, he emigrated to America when he was a teenager. They lived in Chattanooga. Dmitri went to Georgia Tech.

CrowdStrike, incidentally, is retained by the National Republican Congressional Committee. It seems to be a cybersecurity company of choice.

On November 20, Vladimir Putin sounded a triumphant, satisfied note. Speaking to a forum in Moscow, he said, “Thank God, no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore. Now they’re accusing Ukraine.” The next day, Fiona Hill testified before Congress. She is a Russianist, formerly on President Trump’s National Security Council staff. “Based on questions and statements I have heard,” she said, “some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”

In the past — including the very recent past — Ukraine has had an image among American conservatives and Republicans as a plucky, gritty post-Soviet nation, trying to establish a democracy while fending off the KGB colonel in the Kremlin. There is a John McCain Street in Kyiv. The city council renamed a street in the late senator’s honor earlier this year. During the Euromaidan revolution, McCain came to Kyiv to stand with the protesters. “We are here to support your just cause,” he said, “the sovereign right of Ukraine to determine its own destiny freely and independently.” The prospect of going without such support is alarming to Ukrainians.

Nationalists, wherever they live, might be particularly keen on Ukraine — because Ukrainians are struggling for their own nationhood, their own culture, their own identity. They are struggling not to be reabsorbed into an empire. Liberal democrats and nationalists alike might be attracted to Ukraine’s cause.

Vitaly Portnikov, the journalist, makes an ominous statement. The “post-Soviet space” is “pregnant with war,” he says. Bismarck and others spoke of the Balkans as “the powder keg of Europe.” Here is another one, possibly. The United States and other democratic nations 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. The world has seen it before, to its horror.

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

In the fall of 2016, I did a report from the Baltic states, or rather two of the three: Latvia and Estonia. I said that I had the feeling of being on the front lines of something important. I have the same feeling in Ukraine, of course. I ended my report as follows:

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.

Ukraine is important to Ukrainians, to be sure, but also to the rest of us. Countries must find a modus vivendi, as Vitaly Portnikov says: equal countries on equal footing, living together. Not liking one another, necessarily: but respecting one another’s right to exist, within sovereign borders, and without war.

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