Russia’s War in Ukraine: Views from the Region
On the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion, leading thinkers from Central and Eastern Europe examine the war’s impact. Part one in a series.
A Society of Angry Women
Veronika Velch, senior advocacy director at Ridgely Walsh
No one knows for certain for how long the war in Ukraine will continue. Nevertheless, I can already see that after our victory, the Ukrainian society will be a society of angry women.
Women who survived but paid a terrible price. Women, most of whom have lost people closest to them: parents, partners, children. Women whose loved ones returned without legs or eyes, with severe PTSD, and prematurely gray hair.
This war doesn’t have a typically male face. Despite the predominantly masculine profile of the Ukrainian leadership, it was Ukrainian women who began to advocate for arms deliveries, they were the first to appeal to the Congress or the Bundestag with detailed lists of the much-needed artillery pieces, tanks, and fighter jets.
Ukrainian women have opened a huge frontline of international advocacy that stretches across the whole Western world.
They are the ones who have everything on the line. Whose partners message them from the trenches. Whose friends stay in the hospitals after severe injuries. Whose children are being born in the middle of the war, and whose children are being killed by mines or missile fragments. Women who sometimes can’t possibly find appropriate words to support another woman who just lost her loved one somewhere near Zaporizhzhia or Soledar, but at the same time know clearly enough which member of the Congress they should address and what to say, so that the new package of military aid includes long-range missiles.
My husband never had a chance to see the birth of our son, but he’s been doing his part in the defense of Bakhmut for months. He does not make loud promises that he will definitely return to us, he just tells honestly and warmly that he will try his best.
Staring at this cold truth, I have been living the life of an angry woman for a year, whose only dreams for so long were just Patriots batteries and interceptor drones.
And I’m not alone here. We have an army of such women. This is the army Putin will never defeat. It’s been a while since we said our goodbyes to everything we had, and above all to the life we could have but will never live. We are convinced that the resistance must continue even under the nuclear attack. We chose this path to be side by side with our loved ones who hold the frontline.
Therefore, as we come to the second year of the war, we continue to channel all our anger into actions by updating the sanctions and weapons lists, by fighting for an international tribunal, by all the thanks, appeals, and protests. We painfully understand that we will get a very disproportionate country after the war, and we are preparing for something that is impossible to prepare for. And we also remember that the reconstruction of Ukraine will have a female face and the character of an angry Ukrainian woman.
Veronika Velch, Ph.D., is a senior advocacy director at Ridgely Walsh and a senior national security fellow at the Rainey Center.
Putin’s War on Reality
Michael Žantovský, former Czech ambassador to the United States, Israel, and the United Kingdom
A year has passed since the beginning of the Russian war against Ukraine. Apart from the horrific human suffering, countless deaths, and destruction of epic proportions, the past twelve months have also made clear that Vladimir Putin’s method of “reality reversal” is not just the principal tool of Russian propaganda but one of self-delusion, as well. It is hardly worth noting that the “special military operation” is in fact the largest and most brutal war waged on European territory since World War II.
The past twelve months have also made crystal clear the underlying rationale and purpose of Putin’s aggression. It is now obvious that far from preventing a “genocide of the Russian-speaking people” in the easternmost regions of Ukraine, the Russian army is waging a wholesale war against the Ukrainian people with genocidal features—a war in which the Russian-speaking people of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson oblasts are also suffering. The claim that Russia is defending itself against an aggressive NATO, which has not deployed a single soldier in Ukraine, is belied by the presence of hundreds of thousands of Russian troops rampaging the territory of a sovereign member of the United Nations. It is madness.
But as we are forever reminded by Polonius in Hamlet: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”Unlike the above claims, the underlying rationale of Putin and his cronies that the violence they have unleashed stems from a conflict between the “Russian world” and the West is essentially true, provided that the Russian world be made synonymous with tyranny, despotism, and plunder (something many ordinary Russians would be unwilling to accept but are forced to condone at the moment). In contrast to most previous conflicts in the history of Europe, Russia’s war in Ukraine is not about territory, nationhood, religion, or even rule. It is about truth.
In Russian thinking, a grotesque aberration of Hegelian philosophy, truth is not about a correspondence between real-world phenomena and our reflections on reality; it is about power. If we are powerful enough to impose on history that the Ukrainian people never existed, then they do not exist. If we have the power to wage war against other people while claiming that they are waging war against us, then we are justified in waging that war. If we can hoodwink our own people into thinking that we are the victims of nuclear blackmail, then we can use our own nuclear arsenal to blackmail other people into submission. If we have the power to persuade people that truth does not really exist, then it in fact ceases to exist.
In the center of Europe, this kind of thinking naturally brings back the memories of Goebbels’ propaganda and Hitler’s delusions. Yet perverse as it was, Nazi thinking remained for the most part clear, if euphemistic, about its ultimate goals: the supremacy of the Aryan race, the Drang nach Osten, the Tausendjähriges Reich, the Endlösung to the “Jewish question.” The frontal assault on truth that Putin is conducting bears more resemblance to the Stalinist rhetoric about the unbreakable union of free republics and its workers’ paradise, which resulted in the murder of millions in NKVD cellars and the suffering of tens of millions in the gulag. That is to say, Putin’s war against Ukraine is a totalitarian onslaught against truth and freedom everywhere and must be opposed as such with all the means at our disposal.
Michael Žantovský is executive director of the Václav Havel Library in Prague. He is a former spokesman for President Havel and served as Czech ambassador to the United States, Israel, and the United Kingdom.
Fear and Fearlessness in Slovakia
Marina Galisova, managing editor of Slovak weekly .týždeň
Shock is a wholly different thing from surprise. When the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine started, I was shocked, of course—by the temerity of it, by the brutality. But I was not surprised. I guess that is what happens when you grow up in the 1970s and 1980s with a deep distrust of all things Soviet—and then, after a brief hopeful period in the 1990s, you arrive at the inevitable conclusion that Russian is not too different from Soviet, at least not in the realm of imperialism. I, a youthful skeptic back then, would have been happy to be wrong, but I was not.
After Putin came to power, it became clear that he is a true homo sovieticus. Once he manages to recreate the Soviet-style state structures within the Russian Federation, he will try to recreate the Soviet realm outside the Russian Federation by annexing the post-Soviet space, complete with its former European satellites. He himself openly laments the loss of the Soviet Union, which attests to his true intentions. A rare show of honesty from the man of lies.
But if his words are rarely this honest, his deeds speak volumes. There were clear signs all along—Chechnya being far more than a local war, Georgia being far more than a regional territorial dispute. The world largely ignored the shameless annexation of Crimea. When Putin made the final move on February 24 and invaded Ukraine, it was a moral shock but, again, not a surprise.
At that time, I felt distinct fear. For a moment I imagined the worst scenario: Putin would crush Ukraine and move on, Russian tanks would once again roll through the streets in Slovakia where I grew up, and my homeland would once more be a helpless satellite. I was wrong, thankfully. Ukraine stood up with all its considerable might and the West stepped up with more than most of us would have expected.
As for the fear, I ditched it just hours after it appeared. I decided I would enjoy my life to the fullest—not despite the threat but because of it. As we come upon the first anniversary of the invasion and there are daily more signs of a renewed Russian offensive, I catch myself suppressing some anxiety again. Western support of Ukraine has held steady and millions of people in small countries like mine continue to make sacrifices to help Ukrainians, so I am more hopeful than I was one year ago. These days I do not let myself imagine any dreaded scenarios. I know what the homo sovieticus can never understand: that freedom, democracy, and true love of life—which entails the will to live as a free person—must prevail.
Marina Galisova is the managing editor of the Slovak weekly .týždeň.
Warranted Skepticism in Eastern and Central Europe
Iulia-Sabina Joja, director of the Middle East Institute’s Black Sea program
This past year, Ukrainians have fought bravely for their independence, surprising the world with their willingness and ability to fight and becoming a darling to the West. They’re defending European security, it’s said, fighting for Western values. Washington has led. The United States has provided roughly $23 billion in military assistance–the UK ranks second with an estimated $4 billion–with an additional $10 billion in humanitarian aid. In addition, it has been chiefly American intelligence and US-supplied weaponry that have positioned Ukrainian forces to defend against Russian invaders. American leadership has inspired others. The German Leopards have been freed up. Even French President Emmanuel Macron says his country will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes.
The closer one otherwise gets to the front lines—to the menace, the predator—the clearer the threat becomes. Central and Eastern Europeans in particular (with the notable exception of Hungary) have shown unprecedented solidarity. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki organized the first visit of European leaders to Ukraine in March of last year. His remarks at the time were, “We know you are fighting not only for your homes, for your freedom, for your security, but also for ours.”
This resonates deeply across Eastern Europe. But to what extent does it further west? One year into the war, the United States and its closest partners have yet to articulate clear war aims, while Ukraine’s elected government is crystal clear.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, some in the West seemed to think that the project of “Europe whole and free” was a light lift—pushing rocks down a hill. Eastern Europeans were skeptical. We wanted agency. We wanted insurance against Russian revanchism and were often dismayed when our concerns were dismissed as outdated and emotional. We grimaced as one American administration after another tried its Russia reset. Those able to join NATO were relieved.
Of course, it was heartening to hear European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen say last year that Western Europeans should have listened to their neighbors to the east about Russia. But there is yet to be a clear assertion by the EU that we must aim for a thorough defeat of Russia. The war is far from over, and Western allies are still bickering over whether to give Ukrainians the full and proper means to defend themselves.
While some Western leaders fear escalation, some of us closer to the action are more concerned about another frozen conflict, with the Kremlin’s war criminal still at large, European security compromised, and America chastened.
Iulia-Sabina Joja teaches at Georgetown and George Washington universities, runs the Middle East Institute’s Black Sea program in Washington, D.C., and is co-host of the AEI podcast “The Eastern Front.”
The Time to Discuss Peace is Now
Caroline Fetscher, editor-at-large of Der Tagesspiegel
Having served as a war reporter in the Kosovo conflict of the late 1990s and reported on war crimes trials at The Hague’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, I have a keen interest in how wars end and what happens afterward. The Yugoslav wars were said to be based on ethnic strife, while in reality a post-Cold War economic power struggle was at work. Similarly, official narratives belie the forces at play in the current war, which was unleashed by the Kremlin using two paranoid assumptions: first, that ethnic Russian minorities in Ukraine are harassed, and, second, that ethnic Ukrainians are a pseudo-nation instrumentalized by NATO and the West at large. These narratives are advanced by Russia’s state-run media and serve nationalistic and geopolitical goals. In fact, those who speak Ukrainian, Russian, or both commingle in Ukraine, and no NATO member has ever been a threat to Russia.
A much more straightforward dynamic is playing out: autocracy fighting democracy. To achieve peace Russia cannot be allowed to get away with its aggression, either territorially or judicially. Common ground in the genuine sense of the term must truly be sought for all parts of Ukrainian society. The longer the war, the more tired the warriors—and the more ready they will be to negotiate. And yet the greater the losses, the more feelings will have hardened for a postwar settlement.
There appear to exist two major and competing strands in the current debate in the West on this war. One side argues convincingly that Ukraine needs a lot more military, financial, and moral support to keep its head above water. The other side calls for ceasefire, dialogue, and negotiations, the sooner the better. A third view encompassing to a degree both strands is even more compelling: Ukraine must be supported so it can succeed while simultaneously planning for a restoration of the battered country.
A postwar plan for Ukraine must address not just rebuilding Ukraine’s infrastructure and housing, but also reconciling the varied parts of the population in order to ensure social peace in the long run. A successful peace settlement attends to both the vanquished as well as the victors. In Ukraine´s case, this means a blanket acceptance of non-criminal Russian-speaking civilians.
It is often said that discussing possible peace settlements before the war is won by Ukraine is a sacrilege. I disagree. On the contrary, the sooner all sides begin to look beyond the limited horizon of today, the better prepared they will be for the necessary, realistic, and demanding compromises that can form the foundation of a durable peace.
Caroline Fetscher is editor-at-large with the German daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel in Berlin. She earned a PhD in Cultural Studies at the University of Zurich (UZH).
This essay compilation is part one in a series. Part two, "Russia’s War in Ukraine: Putin’s Soviet Delusion," can be accessed here.
Image: Soldiers participate in a ceremony commemorating the Day of Defenders in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Flickr: President of Ukraine)
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