The unheard realities of the Russia-Ukraine conflict


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Protests over the conflict have erupted around the world—including in Washington D.C. where the protest pictured took place in late February.

Cian Ryback, Guest Writer

In recent history, conflicts concerning the United States and its allies have had their truths shrouded in uncertainty until long after military interventions had begun. From supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to alleged massacres of babies in Kuwait, unfounded (and oftentimes outright falsified) “information” given wall to wall media coverage has garnered domestic support for the West’s imperialist destabilization efforts. Such vile disintegrity only aids the West’s attempt to maintain its long-held unipolar influence over the globe. As the western grip on worldwide dominance rapidly deteriorates, it remains best to err on the side of skepticism when analyzing global conflicts. Conveniently, the developing military engagement between Russia and Ukraine provides an opportunity to raise the question of just what pieces of information are missing in common descriptions of the violent struggle. The answer: more than you might think.

Contextualizing the Crisis and Correcting History: A true understanding of the conflict may require a look back as far as the 1940s with the Nazi occupation of Soviet Ukraine in WWII; however, an observation of Eastern Europe from the late Soviet era and 1990s onwards will suffice. Ukraine was, as previously mentioned, a Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union. Following Nazi defeat and Soviet reintegration after WWII, Ukraine’s importance to the USSR was not at all negligible. Soviet leadership turned Ukraine into an industrial powerhouse, leading Europe in production of steel, iron ore, pig iron, sugar, and coal by 1955. This age of industrialization as a member of the Soviet Union laid the foundation for an important piece of the Russia-Ukraine relationship: heritage.

The Soviet Union, however, could not last under constant pressure from Western economic warfare and incompetent leadership in its latter years. On the eve of the Union’s dissolution in 1990, president of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev held a series of meetings with western leaders to discuss the reunification of East and West Germany. In a cascade of assurances by Western powers, it was agreed that NATO would not, in the famous words of former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, expand “one inch eastward,” in the interest of Soviet national security. The narrative parroted by many a western news outlet is that no such promise was made, or if it was, it was not written in a verifiable way. In 2017, the U.S. State Department declassified various documents from the 1990 discussions which showed this claim to be demonstrably false. Swaths of promises were made to the Russian people, and would be immediately broken. Not two years after the conferences, the Soviet Union was dissolved, and despite the fierce protests of Russia’s next president, Boris Yeltsin, NATO would immediately absorb countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into their strictly anti-eastern alliance. NATO’s borders have increasingly threatened Russian influence, and, to Russia, letting Ukraine join NATO underscores a history of broken promises and serious national security issues.

The 2000s onward is complicated for Ukraine. Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, was considered moderate by many, serving Russia’s best interest in remaining neutral. While certainly a divisive figure—riddled with corruption scandals from the beginning of his presidency—Yanukovych carefully towed the line to satisfy both the pro-Russian east and anti-Russian west Ukraine. Despite claims of Yanukovych being a “Kremlin puppet” by the West, he drew a line in the sand on his friendliness to his eastern neighbors. He refused to join a Russian-led customs union, shut down Russia’s proposal to merge the countries’ largest gas companies, and publicly supported western integration and assistance in building natural gas infrastructure. A heavily divided Ukraine was pushed to the brink as Yanukovych abruptly withdrew from an EU free trade agreement (influenced in great part by alternative Russian trade deals), sparking the nationwide protests that would lead to his toppling. A commonly heard narrative is that these protests, which were named “Euromaidan,” were overwhelmingly popular and demanded a democratic, westernized Ukraine. The fact of the matter is, Ukraine was extremely conflicted on both the issue of the protests themselves and the decisions that led to them. During the uprising, the Washington Post went as far as to clarify that claims that suggested that the majority of Ukrainians were in favor of the uprising “find very little support,” and that the most reliable polls, even after Yanukovych’s violent crackdown on the protests, showed a near-even split in support and against the protests, 48% and 46% respectively. It was also easy to see signs of western intervention in the uprising, with NGOs such as “New Citizen” being given hundreds of thousands of dollars from U.S. democracy promotion initiatives. Eventually, the outcome meant that Russia lost a somewhat Moscow-friendly leader in Ukraine through a coup that was both funded and critically supported by the United States, leading Russia to suspect yet another attempt by the West to secure its economic desires and throttle a key ally on Russia’s borders with internal meddling.

Breathing Life into Russia’s Claims: Before continuing, it must be said that due to the ongoing nature of the war and constant cases of conflicting information regarding battles, civilian casualties, military goals, etc. Russia’s execution of the military operation cannot be properly discussed.

It is easy to do as we are told: disregard negative views of Ukraine and ignore any plausible legitimacy of Russia’s justifications for the war. Taking a look at what these reasons are and what demands are on the table, it becomes quite clear that, as hard as it may be to hear, Russia is far from being unreasonable. Russia’s demands are as follows: the end of Western armament in Ukraine, the end of glorification of Nazis by the Ukrainian government, the end of Ukraine’s pursuit to join NATO and the liberation of Eastern Ukraine. Following Euromaidan, two major issues faced the relationship between Russia and Ukraine. Firstly, easternmost Ukraine, the Donbass region, which felt a strong cultural, social and political connection with Russia was extremely unhappy with the results of the 2014 coup, and demanded a greater degree of autonomy. Those in Donbass speak mostly Russian, and a significant portion of their population is ethnically Russian. Separatist movements in the region grew, and the people attempted to create what is now informally recognized as the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. Bloody battles against the new Ukrainian government would quickly ensue in Donbass. Attempts to quell fighting between separatists and the Ukrainian military were made in two agreements called the Minsk Accords, which called for a ceasefire and larger independence for the eastern regions. These agreements were both shattered as fighting went on, leading to the casualties of 14,000 people, mostly civilians in separatist cities. Secondly, the Crimean peninsula had been annexed by Russia after Euromaidan, which is still a heavily contested decision in terms of its legitimacy. Unhappy with the annexation, the Ukrainian government decided to cut off the water supply to Crimea, putting thousands of lives at risk. It stayed this way up until February when Russian forces occupied the Crimean Canal and reopened clean water to the people of the peninsula. The eastern Ukrainian people were isolated in their own country, under heavy bombardment and cultural cleansing as the Russian language familiar to them was either heavily restricted or banned by Kiev in key aspects of public life such as education and news broadcasting. Eventually, after years of supporting those in Donbass and condemning Ukrainian attacks in the region, Russia formally recognized the People’s Republics and stepped in to begin their “special military operation,” signaling the beginning of the war.

The issues in Donbass rest at the heart of the conflict, but Russia also makes clear its goal to “denazify” Ukraine. Since the beginning of the altercation, western media has given little air to this concern, but in reality, to say Ukraine has a Nazi problem is criminally understating it. The first and most apparent piece of evidence rests in their military. Ukraine is the only nation in the world with an openly neo-nazi segment of their armed forces, the Azov batallion, a prominent section of the Ukrainian national guard. Sporting Wolfsangel and Black Sun insignia used by Nazi SS divisions, Azov outwardly presents their glorification of Ukraine’s far-right past. The batallion was initially formed during the Euromaidan insurrection, protesting alongside pro-western citizens and galvanizing an ultra-nationalistic base. During Euromaidan, western news noted the small proportion of neo-Nazi groups in relation to others at the protests, claiming that they at most had 7-10% representation. However, as proudly touted by the leader of C-14(a separate, but equally concerning group with Nazi sympathies), had it not been for that ~8% of neo-nazis, “the effectiveness [of Euromaidan] would have dropped by 90%.” Following the coup, the predominance of neo-nazi groups took shape. Fighting in Donbass was not like other battlegrounds. The Azov battalion, described by The Guardian as “Ukraine’s greatest weapon,” have been accused of various war crimes alongside other nazi-aligned military regiments such as Dnipro-1 and the Aidar batallion. As reported by Amnesty International, these groups have been engaging in “starvation as a method of warfare,” holding “ISIS-style” executions in which they beheaded separatists, and torturing whoever they suspected as Russian saboteurs. These actions continued for years and Azov announced their “Druzhina” street police that distinguished itself by carrying out pogroms against Roma, LGBT+, feminist, and Jewish groups throughout the country in 2018. Western news touched on this little, and senator John McCain would go as far as to praise the aforementioned Dnipro-1 regiment after they had been accused of crimes against humanity. 

The effect of these groups extends outside of the military to both social and political spheres. In 2015, the Ukrainian Parliament made it a criminal offense to “deny the heroism” of both the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and Ukrainian Insurgent Army, two Nazi paramilitaries that were responsible for the merciless killing of tens of thousands of Jews, Romanians and Poles during WWII. The government embraced Nazi collaborators, hosting exhibits celebrating Ukrainian cooperation with the Riech and even allowing the neo-nazi group C-14 and nationalist party Svoboda to revive government funding for “education programs.” The former Speaker of Parliament and current People’s deputy of Ukraine is the founder of two far-right parties which would later form the heart of Azov, and the Ukrainian Deputy of the Interior is a seasoned veteran of the battalion. Unsurprisingly, Ukraine is the Nazi hub of the world, and minority groups have suffered endlessly. With attacks on Holocaust memorials, thousands parading, yelling “Jews out,” with Nazi salutes, bans on books describing the Reich’s atrocities and a notable weekend long festival in the summer of 2017 for Nazi collaberator Shukhevych topped off with a firebombing of a synoguage, the international community could no longer deny the systemic issues within Ukraine. The Israeli government’s annual report on antisemitism of that year heavily featured Ukraine and noted them as having more antisemetic attacks than all other eastern European nations combined. Ukraine is simply not the avenger-esque heros fighting the dark evil of Russia as childishly propounded by the West.

Reflecting on the Western Story: Since the beginning of the conflict, very little has been said to understand the Russian perspective. They have seen a region which feels a deep cultural connection with them be subject to constant attempts at their erasure. They have seen their borders threatened with the West’s military presence, with NATO and the United States funding an insurrection to topple a neutral president and immediately pouring arms into groups fighting against ethnic Russians longing for freedom. They have seen a resurgence of an ideology responsible for the deaths of millions of their family members. Media writes of Russian “inhumanity” with no attempt to recognize their geopolitical position. Had Mexico proposed joining a military pact with China and its allies, how would the U.S. react? Is this not at all similar to the American demands to disarm Cuba of Soviet missiles during the Cuban Missile Crisis? All nations have a right to national security, and the path Ukraine is pursuing puts Russia’s at risk. Russian demands have been on the table for a long time, and with nearly a decade of negotiations, none of them have been kept while the situation becomes more and more dire. 

There is a common attempt to reduce conflicts down to perceived moral principles. The picture is painted that Ukraine is solely a victim, and the more videos showing children crying in tattered Ukrainian cities are heart wrenching, but distract from reality. It ignores the truth that there are thousands of Eastern Ukrainians who have died at the hands of Ukrainian forces in their attempt to dignify themselves. It ignores the truth that a non-neutral Ukraine is a serious threat to Russian security. It ignores the fact that the country that is now supposedly “fighting for democracy,” has banned the only remaining opposition parties in its country, refuses to let its own citizens speak a language that is familiar to most of them, and gives honors to members of the most repressive and murderous regime in history. Pleas that “Ukraine just wants to pursue its own destiny,” fall on deaf ears to the rest of the globe, who have seen their lives systematically shattered by western intervention. From Yemen to Venezuela, Libya to North Korea, their destinies have been stomped under the boot of western imperialism, but, in their case, there is no good reason. What threat did they pose to the most powerful countries in the world? What years of negotiation were they given? What truly dangerous enemies were they harboring? The answer, as always, is none. Russia is by no means perfect, nor is it a righteous actor in the current conflict, but when posed against a state that locks arms with the most destructive, imperialist, hegemonic force the globe has ever seen, a force which has made its point to strangle opposing spheres of influence, critical analysis is more required than ever in determining one’s position.