Ukraine is fighting its War of Independence (Guest post by David Lawrence)

NOTE: I am not an expert on international relations, or on war, or on attacks on neighboring nations. However, I have asked my old college buddy and lifelong friend David Lawrence, who has worked and lived in Kyiv for many years, to guest write today’s blog post on the Russian attack on Ukraine.

“I can’t believe we lost Kyiv.”

It was 1993 in Samara, a city of about 1 million on the Volga River in Russia. I was a fresh-faced Peace Corps volunteer, part of the first group sent to Russia. The young woman I was speaking to spoke good English—a relief since I barely spoke Russian at the time. She was telling me what it was like to see the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It hurt. Like many Russians, she felt a degree of shame about “losing” the Cold War. For her entire life, she believed that she was lucky to be a Soviet citizen. The Soviets were feared and respected; they had a powerful army and nuclear weapons. And the Soviet Union—dominated by Russia—ruled a multitude of different cultures and countries.

Now it was gone. Eastern European countries bolted as fast as they could, joining NATO and the European Union. What does it tell you when your allies run away from you as fast as you can? Nothing good.

And Kyiv, viewed by many Russians as the source of their civilization, had slipped away.

Fast forward 29 years. Today, Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities are under ferocious attack by Russian forces. It affects me personally—I married a Ukrainian woman in 1999 and spent many years in Kyiv. I raised my children there. Besides family, I have many friends and colleagues there. Some have already fled the city for western Ukraine or Poland.  Already, more than 2 million people have fled to neighboring countries.

How did it come to this?

It comes down to one man—Vladimir Putin, who has ruled Russia since 1999. Over the years, he nurtured a twisted worldview in which Ukraine is not a real country. The West, he says, is plotting to keep Russia down, as evidenced by NATO’s expansion since the end of the Cold War. The Ukrainian government, he insists, is, in fact, a fascist junta under the control of the West.

Russian brains have been marinated in this nonsense for years, thanks to the Kremlin’s iron grip on the media. The majority believe him and support the war, much in the same way that many Republicans believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

Nearly a month before the war started, I fretted about the looming invasion on Facebook. I was worried that a Russian attack would leave people without water, power, heat, food, or the internet. A Russian man who I’ve known for 30 years responded with this:

I was stunned. Forced to invade Ukraine? Tanks greeted with flowers? This guy is no idiot. On the contrary, he’s highly intelligent. Yet he believed that Ukrainians wanted to be liberated and that Russians would do no harm. Most Russians hold the same view today.

In the winter of 2013–14, I spent a lot of time on the streets during the Revolution of Dignity, a movement that started when President Yanukovych tried to steer Ukraine away from Europe towards Russia. The main square in Kyiv—Independence Square (Maidan) was occupied by protesters for months. There were barricades, tents, food, speeches, concerts, and a defense system. They successfully resisted the hard-handed tactics of government forces. In February 2014, snipers attacked the protesters, killing over 100. The violence escalated and led to Yanukovych fleeing to Russia.

Shortly after that, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began. They occupied Crimea and held a sham referendum to justify annexing it (it offered two choices: independence or joining Russia—remaining part of Ukraine was not an option). They also sent people to key eastern and southern cities of Ukraine to foment “uprisings.” These were led and financed by Russia. They failed everywhere except for two cities in the east—Donetsk and Luhansk—and the surrounding territory. The war there simmered for eight years.

Maidan aftermath, March 2014. Photo (c) David Lawrence.

That experience taught me several things about Ukrainians. They are tough and don’t want to live as vassals in a greater Russian empire. Instead, they want to live in a democracy and become part of Europe. I knew that no Ukrainian would greet Russian tanks with flowers.

The Russian invaders are learning this first-hand. Putin expected to take the country within a few days and to be greeted as a liberator. Two weeks later, the fighting rages on. Ukrainians from all walks of life are fighting hard for their freedom. On a Black Sea island, 13 Ukrainian defenders told a Russian ship to go fuck itself when they were told to surrender. “Russian ship—go fuck yourself” has since become a legend. A video of the “sunflower lady” went viral, in which she told a Russian soldier to put sunflower seeds in his pocket so that his corpse would fertilize them when he died. Unarmed people blocked Russian tanks by standing in front of them. Every day, new stories break out of the war zone.

Paris street art. Artwork by Seth Globepainter, or @seth_globepainter on Instagram.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has proven to be an effective wartime leader. I saw him on stage when he was a comedian only a few years ago. I didn’t have high expectations for him when he was elected a few years ago. The man is only 44 years old. But he stood up to Trump, who tried to blackmail him into launching a bogus investigation, and he is standing up to Putin. Unlike Putin, he isn’t hiding and has remained in Kyiv. He has inspired and shamed the West into providing support.

It’s working. People like to help those who help themselves. Russia’s army is performing terribly and suffering heavy losses, while Ukrainians are fighting exceptionally well. The sanctions are much harsher than most analysts predicted. But they aren’t enough. Now, because of sanctions, Russia’s economy is beginning to fall apart. That has made them angry, and they’re taking it out on the entire country in the same way they obliterated Grozny and Aleppo. Now, residential areas and civilian infrastructure are being targeted.

So, where will the war lead? I believe Putin will lose the war. But it will get worse before it gets better. Russia has no clear way out. It will pound Ukraine hard in the coming weeks in the hopes that it gets a concession—acceptance of Crimea’s annexation and recognition of the breakaway republics in the east. Thousands of Ukrainians could be killed.

But Ukraine knows that appeasing Putin won’t work—he’ll just come back later with more demands. Hitler taught us that. So, they will keep fighting, even if they’re fighting in the rubble.

In the meantime, Russia will become more and more unstable. Putin has remained in power because of several social contracts: First, he would increase living standards and restore Russian glory in exchange for unchallenged political power. And second, he would allow oligarchs to amass wealth as long as they stayed out of politics.

Putin’s promises are hollow now. Russia’s elite is feeling the bite of sanctions, which prevents them from enjoying their wealth. Russia’s economy is tanking. Their financial system has been largely severed from the rest of the world, and investors are leaving in droves. Soon, ordinary people will share the pain. And Russia’s reputation is in tatters—so much for Russian greatness. I’m not sure how long Putin will be able to hang on to power.

All Ukraine has to do is survive. I believe the war will end with Ukraine in full control of all its territory, including Crimea. Ukraine’s democracy will be richer and stronger, setting an example for Russians to follow when they’re ready. The country will be shattered but it can expect significant aid for redevelopment. And there will be no doubt that it belongs in Europe rather than as part of Russia’s authoritarian kleptocracy.

I’m optimistic. And one day, I am sure I’ll be back.

Many organizations are accepting donations to help Ukraine. If you would like to help, click here for a list of verified organizations that can help.