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Originally published Friday, April 18, 2014 at 4:40 PM

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In Ukraine, little love for Putin


Syndicated columnist

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KIEV, Ukraine — For decades, Ukrainians have been starved, oppressed and bullied by Russians, and, with Russia now inciting instability that could lead to an invasion and dismemberment of eastern Ukraine, plenty of brave Ukrainians here say they’ve had it and are ready to go bear-hunting.

If they could just equip themselves.

“Any chance you could provide some machine guns or sniper rifles?” one former protester asked me hopefully in Kiev’s Independence Square, a scorched collection of roadblocks where so many Ukrainians lost their lives toppling a corrupt ruler earlier this year.

I explained that I was out of both. The next day, when another self-styled commander asked for weapons to fight the Russian invaders, I pointed to the pistol in his belt and told him he was better prepared than I was.

He laughed ruefully, pulled it out and showed that it was a pellet gun. “It’s a child’s toy,” he said scornfully. “And we have only one of these for every 10 men.”

That’s a glimpse of the mood in Ukraine these days. People seem to feel a bit disappointed that the United States and Europe haven’t been more supportive, and they are humiliated that their own acting government hasn’t done more to confront Russian-backed militants. So, especially after a few drinks, people are ready to take down the Russian army themselves.

“We will defeat the Russian army, hang the Ukrainian flag over the Kremlin, and turn it into a lake,” boasted Roman Butsyk, a locomotive driver who joined the protest movement.

Usually in international affairs, there’s a good deal of gray, but what is happening in Ukraine is pretty black and white.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia warns that Ukraine is on the brink of civil war. But the chaos in eastern cities is his own creation, in part by sending provocateurs across the border. It’s not clear how many of the troublemakers in the east are Russian security agents and how many are Ukrainians who want to remain in Russia’s orbit, but it’s reasonably clear that there are plenty of both. Ukrainians note that supposed locals in the pro-Russian camp sometimes are unfamiliar with local streets.

Putin has emerged as a great champion of the rights of Russian-speakers everywhere — except in the place where their rights are most endangered: Russia itself.

Meanwhile, Russian propaganda has reached almost North Korean proportions: Putin shrugs at the world and embraces implausible deniability.

Ukrainians mounted their revolution because they wanted to be more like the West, so it frustrates them that the West hasn’t returned the love. Europe fears that sanctioning Russia would hurt business, and even the Obama administration has been cautious and has resisted providing military assistance (except for military meals).

The Ukrainians have a point. A bear is charging them, and we offer spaghetti?

President Barack Obama’s concerns about provoking Putin are understandable, and I disagree with those Republicans who argue that Putin is on a rampage because of Obama’s foreign policy weaknesses. But I do think the White House can do more — with military transfers, financial aid, economic sanctions and moral support — to stand with Ukraine. Vice President Joe Biden’s planned visit to Ukraine is a welcome step to show support.

So far, Putin has arguably gained from his bullying of Crimea: His standing in domestic polls has surged — his approval at home is roughly twice Obama’s — and he has outmaneuvered some local critics, leaving them appearing unpatriotic or on the side of the enemy. It’s crucial that Putin pay a price for aggression so that he doesn’t benefit from bellicosity.

“I understand the U.S. reluctance,” acknowledged Igor Grosul, who sells doormats with the face of the ousted president. “If there is a war between America and Russia, it might be the last war ever.”

Yet Grosul, who was hospitalized in the fight to overthrow the old regime, still would like to see the United States more engaged. As a Russian speaker himself, he is also indignant at reports that most Russian speakers are pro-Russian.

Clearly, some Russian-speaking Ukrainians genuinely want greater autonomy for their regions, and the country should grant it. But Grosul says that in his city of Mykolaiv, most people are Russian speakers who have turned against Moscow because of the seizure of Crimea and the hysterical anti-Ukraine propaganda.

When Ukrainians ask me what I think, I tell them that I admire their spirit, but that courage is, sadly, no match for a tank. They disagree.

“When we were fighting against the police, we had just wooden sticks,” said Volodymyr Kozak, who helps run a tent museum in Independence Square about the recent battles there. “We can manage against Russia as well.”

These people don’t have much, but they have heart. We should do more to back them up.

© , New York Times News Service

Nicholas D. Kristof is a regular columnist for The New York Times.



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