By J. Michael Willard
Top of mind awareness about Ukraine only bubbles to the surface via revolution or imminent war. Most Americans don’t recognize a Ukrainian from a Geranium. That is sad. It’s a fascinating country.
Ukraine is, in essence, somewhere “over there.” Most are surprised that in land area it is larger than France and has a shrinking but still large population of 45 million.
I once bumped into a West Virginia governor friend of mine in the Hart Senate Office building in DC on one of my infrequent visits back to the States over 22 years in Eastern Europe.
“Hey Michael,” he shouted across the cavernous hall. “You’re in Russia.”
“No Governor, Ukraine,” I corrected.
“I know,” he repeated, “Russia.”
The fellow was later to go on and head up the College Board, administrator of the Scholastic Aptitude Testing (SAT) program. But this is not a dig at a demographically or time challenged governor.
His response was understandable. Ukraine had just declared independence four years earlier, shortly after the break up of the Soviet Union. At the time, with the USSR in disarray, it was a peaceful separation, though Russia never quite got over it.
Having lived a few blocks from the Kremlin for several years and in Ukraine for many more, there is an exaggerated and forever paternal feeling held by Russians about “little brother” Ukraine.
Perhaps it has something to do with Ukraine, in essence, being the historical birthplace of Russia, or Kyiv-Rus. Many Russians hate to admit this parentage.
Now Ukraine is back in the news with its third crisis in just a 15 year span. The first two episodes were genuine revolutions. Governments were toppled. People died. There were also economic crises, but they were as common as colds.
I lived two blocks from ground zero of the 2014 revolution, the epicenter being the Maidan, or Independence Square. It’s where 100 brave Ukrainians were murdered by sniper fire on a single, very cold winter’s day. Many of their bodies were laid out in front of McDonald’s restaurant.
My wife and I brought food and clothing to those who camped out on the Maidan. I donated profits from a book I had written to the cause. We protested mightily alongside what was, at times, a million others.
Though Ukraine has been in an undeclared war with Russia since 2014, few around the world really took notice or cared as 10,000 countrymen were killed and several million displaced over four years.
The lack of notice is perhaps forgivable, if not understandable. We all have problems, and maybe, as Bogart’s Rick Blaine said in the movie “Casablanca” to the Albanian wife seeking letters of transit, “Maybe yours will work out.”
Ukraine simply hasn’t been on the world’s front burner. But you should know that with starts, stops and fits of rough idling, my adopted country has prevailed, persevered and, believe me, endured.
However, after these years of protecting its borders while losing an eastern swath of the country and the Crimean Peninsula to Russian aggression, Vladimir Putin, is at his bullying again.
This time at the narrow Kerch Strait, with the shallow Azov Sea dividing Russia and Ukraine. There is a recently constructed Russian built bridge connecting Russia with the still resource-starved Crimea.
The Russia story is that Ukraine ships entered its territorial waters and were halted with gunfire and ramming. The infraction, however, is in the eyes of the beholder — Russia’s eyes on one hand, and the civilized world’s vision on the other.
To Ukraine, the territory in dispute is Ukrainian, blue and yellow throughout. Crimea is Ukraine’s and was taken by sleight of hand and force against a backdrop of law breaking and universal condemnation.
Hence, Ukraine has declared martial law in about a third of the country bordering Russia. Whether this was wise is debatable. However, it does show Ukraine’s determination not to be pushed further.
So, at least for now, the world’s eyes — while not mesmerized by other international flareups, a Saudi prince murdering a US resident, the Trump-Mueller drama, a Yemen slaughter — is momentarily cast toward Ukraine.
It probably will not last.
Just after the last Ukraine revolution, I spoke to a civic club in Orlando, giving them a blow-by-blow account, and what could possibly happen next with war waging.
I was met with a collective yawn with folks wondering when dessert would be served.
But, I will tell you this:
The stand Ukrainians made on the Maidan was monumental. Fighters with motorcycle helmets, makeshift shields, and sticks and stones defeated a corrupt leader backed by Russia. He high-tailed it to a Russian refuge.
The historian Herodotus, in a fit of purple allegory that has a smidgin of truth, tells the story of the Spartans and the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae about 450 BC.
“We shall fill the sky with arrows and blot out the sun,” said the Persians.
“Good, then we shall fight in the shade,” said the Spartan leader.
This, my friend, is the spirit of the Maidan in Ukraine.