the birth of strife

Apr. 14, 2022

Is there value in understanding history, ours as well as that of other countries, in order to make rational decisions ? The current Ukrainian/Russian conflict and the lack of understanding of the history behind it could be a good example. In our modern world of rapid communication further fueled by social media and 140 character epistles, true understanding is often lost in a narrative. If one were asked the single word that is often a "call to arms" and then to give an accurate definition of that word, it very likely would be "genocide". Yet the actual definition of the word since its inception in the 1940's has remanined an unresolved topic of discussion, even in the UN. All the public wants to know or consider is the general perception that "genocide" represents the "ultimate evil". This makes it so much easier to decide who is right or wrong in any conflict. Understanding why there is a difference also seems to elude scholars and politicians unless they are willing to dig into the history of a particular ethic group or "tribe"...or nation. 

In December of 1922, the Ukrainian SSR (soviet socialist republic), Russia, Byelorussian and Transcaucasian Republics joined together to form the beginnings of the USSR. Prior to that "Ukraine" was several different republics, united only after a civil war between Ukranian Nationalists, Ukranian anarchists, and Ukranian Bolsheviks. The Ukranian SSR was formed after the Bolsheviks defeated the Ukranian Peoples Republic in the Soviet-Ukranian War which occurrred during the Russian Revolution in 1917. Later the UK-SSR became a founding member of the United Nations along with Byelorussia SSR (now Belarus) even though the USSR remained their legal representaive outside of the Soviet Union. After the dissolution of the USSR in 1990's, Ukranian SSR became known as simply Ukraine. Of interest going forward is the widespread and common action of all previous imperial states in Europe, that of annexation. Ukraine had acquired land from neighboring Poland and Romania and continues to hold much of that. This remains a sore point among many Poles and Romanians yet little is mentioned because so far, other trigger events or words have not escalated into actual conflict. As we can see, annexation by neighboring states in the name of ethic protection is nothing new in the region. Other considerations that factor into the current conflict include several significant, yet non-response provoking matters among other world populations. These include things such as currency (Ruble), religion (greek orthodox, Russian orthodox, Christian, Muslim, Jewish), and language. Prior to the 1930's, 90% of the population was made up of peasants and much of that population was lost in the 1930's, replaced with Russian speaking people. That language remains predominate in regions of Ukraine now involved in turmoil.

Again, historical review is needed to realize that what became known as the "Holodomar" (extermination by hunger) that occurred in 1933 at the hands of Russia's Stalin, is what led to the loss of ethic Ukranians and greater Russian ethic influence, including language and currency, by the newer, historically Russian immigrants. The topic of the Holodomar remains in constant debate among Ukranians to this day with ethic Ukranians and Russian Ukranians each having their own interpretaion of what happened and why. Insert the term "genocide" into that discussion and suddenly the world takes notice and sides are chosen whether or not "the rest of the story" is ever researched. The use of that particular word, how and when it is used, differs in Russia and the Ukraine. In the west, however, it simply describes "ultimate evil". The overuse of the word "genocide" to describe anything from an apartment fire resulting in a dozen deaths to the cutting down of trees in a town square (green genocide) is a common writer ploy in the Russian world and in ways, dilutes the purpose. It is really not unlike westerners use of the word "hero" to describe evrything from a soldier risking his life to save his country or a fireman doing his job while extracting a cat from a tree. However, politicians have learned how the west responds to the word 'genocide' and often use it to gain sympathy for a desired end result. Herein lies another problem with understanding the differences between a Russia, a China, or a western democracy. Language, translation of those languages as well as loyalty to ethic origins and differences in social structure are all things the West has difficulty understanding when one is indoctrinated to believe that our societal norms are the best and therefore the best for all others. I'll offer as an interesting antecdotal comparison a trip my wife and I made to a large ranch in South Africa. The ranch owner had provided modern housing for an indigenous tribe living on the 100,000 acre property, including running water and bathrooms. The people soon tore out the commodes and moved them into the bush for use in that environment as plumbing was not part of their ethic history. 

Although many things lke language, monetary exchange, religion and ethnicity were major points of contention in Ukraine, political rule and control of the military were obstacles that confronted those with doubts about the intentions of whoever was in power. Basic differences in the philosophies of what the military represented and who ultimately controlled the power that force might wield in support of a leader's version of policy, caused problems in the fledgling country. This all happened in the 1990's following the loss of the USSR as titular head of state and the growing distrust in Russia of all things related to the west. The 1990's and the ensuing years became a time of increasing conflict in Ukraine, especially among rival political ideologies bolstered by language differences. When the Ukranian language was declared the official language of Ukraine, many Russian speaking regions like the Crimean Penninsula, Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics (two breakaway regions now under fire) had grave concerns about what that could lead to. When the fires of those fears were further fanned by declarations of all civil servants having to speak Ukranian, it's little wonder those areas appealed to Russia (and Putin) for support. Recalling history again, one should realize that the Crimean Penninsula remains home to Russia's largest naval base and keeping it open in WWII was one of the reasons the seige of Stalingrad failed and eventually the allies were able to defeat national socialist (nazi ) Germany. No one should doubt that Russia would never relinguish complete control of this base to any country, much less one considering alignment with NATO. One also should realize that the largest employer of that region was the naval base and those working there spoke Russian ! The stage was set for the new Ukraine to try and establish a military to control regions that were upset with policies slowly being developed, but at the time, command structure was not in place. The poorly organized Ukranian government did what many european countries had done for centuries...they hired mercenaries and promoted the development of local militias. Many of these units were far right wingers that were better aligned with the facist nazis previously expelled than the Ukranian government and its designs on total unity. Thesse units often functioned independently with no central command structure and this led to some atrocities being committed on both sides. The separatists used any excuse from Russian language to the Holodomar controversy to further their views. Genocide again became the watch word used by both separatists and unity groups when describing the actions of each other. When the world press and social media entered the fray, tensions escalated. At present, who really knows the whole truth ? Russians offer safe zones for civilians to leave many urban city areas yet the possibility of the Ukranian militias blocking that exit so that civilians might be in the line of fire ( think Iraq and some of their cities held by ISIS ) resulting in 'atrocities' is never fully discussed as even a remote possibility.

Where exactly does this leave Ukraine, Russia and the rest of the western world ? For one thing, depending on the visual presentations of the conflict as well as government sponsored media reports without understanding the mindset of those involved or the history of distrust between the US, its allies and Russia, is a mistake of epic proportions. Having NATO knock on Russia's backdoor is akin to the US allowing missle installaions in Cuba. It was never going to be allowed. Furthering this feeling of distrust with sanctions, namecalling, or using "genocide" as a catchword serves no purpose other than to further inflame those feelings of distrust. Its important to remember too that the west brokered the Minsk agreement in 2014 but when the Ukranian government the US supported failed to follow through with things they had agreed upon, more seeds of distrust were planted while nothing was done to encourage living up to that pact. The same regions again appealed to Russia to help stop the 'genocide' of those that wanted to continue with their Russian hertitage and language. The US response was for total Ukranian unity in an area of the world known for frequent border changes, then futher adding insult with an open invitation to join NATO. These actions became the proverbial 'straw that broke the camel's back' in the eyes of many Russians including their strongly nationalist leader, Putin. In the eyes of the west, Putin is acting with increased criminality, but what does he see with his own misguided eyes?  Distrust remains the open sore as well as the justification for abhorrent acts. 

What might be the answer?  If NATO were to ask for an open and juried election in the various regions now in contention with guarantees from all sides that the results would be final and adhered to, perhaps each region could decide its own fate based on individual needs and desires to fulfill their own destiny. The alternative will be a continuance of hostilities which serves no useful purpose for the people, only for ideologues and those currently in power. In the meanwhile, the rest of the world will suffer the effects of sanctions, energy disruptions, commerce degradation along with the 'sword of Damocles' of a nuclear holocaust always on the horizon. I invite readers to review an excellent article written in 2014 by M. Kupfer in Carnegie for even more intellectual insight of the region.       DRSpence