Guest columnist David Gottsegen: As war rolls on, support for Ukraine must continue

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Published: 1/19/2023 5:14:33 PM
Modified: 1/19/2023 5:14:15 PM

With the approaching anniversary of Russia’s unprovoked onslaught on Ukraine, I think back to the Dec 5 column in the Gazette by the Rev. Peter Kakos on “defusing Ukraine.” He wrote of his hopes for an “irenic” peace, a hope that “both warring factions come to an understanding that each side is at fault; each share the blame for the horrific consequences rained down on those each aims to conquer.”

What followed at the end of last year was a rally by well-meaning clergy urging a Christmas-New Year’s Eve truce, much like one during World War I — the war that ironically, led to the founding of the first (short lived) independent Ukraine.

The futility of this attempt was highlighted by Russia’s bombing of residential areas of Kyiv on New Year’s Eve in areas that had no connection with either the military or power infrastructure of the country. The latest so-called offer by Putin of a Russian Orthodox Christmas truce, was as much a sham as his offers of corridors for safe passage of civilians out of cities that Russia bombed during the early weeks of the war — corridors which Russia shelled. These were among the first of tens of thousands of war crimes documented by Amnesty International and the International Criminal Court. From the beginning, Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has been an effort to terrorize a sovereign democracy, marked by daily accounts of rape, murder, torture and other atrocities. The war has been accompanied by a brutal incompetence that has led to the death of up to 100,000 Russian soldiers that Putin has treated as little more than “meat,” according to many reports.

The history of what historian Serhii Plokhy calls “The Gates of Europe,” in his fact-filled book of that name is complex. But of note is the fact that the Sclaveni and Antes people, who came to control the region which is now Ukraine in the 7th century, practiced a democratic form of government; they were also fierce defenders of their land, practicing guerilla warfare if necessary. The son of the first ruler of Kyiv, Prince Yaroslav the Wise (1019-1054), had cosmopolitan tastes. He was called the “the father-in-law of Europe.” He had children who intermarried with the children of most of the monarchs of Europe. One of them, Anna, complained how dirty and uneducated the streets and people of Paris were compared to the people and environs of Kyiv, where her father had established great libraries and institutions of learning.

Over the next few centuries, what is now Ukraine had many shifting boundaries, falling under the control of the Mongols, Lithuanians, Poles, czars of Russia, Nazis, and the Soviet Union. Professor Plokhy called Ukraine the “Gates of Europe” because the region has always been a melting pot of European and Eurasian cultures, a mix of languages, cultures, and religions. It also has been a land of immense suffering. Under Stalin’s rule, collectivization of farms led to the starvation of four million people from 1932-1934. Seven million Ukrainian citizens, including one million Jews, died during World War II — counting 70,000 women, children and elderly men who were shot in the massacres at Babi Yar and Odessa. One million citizens died of starvation from 1946-1947 when Soviet leaders focused on massive industrialization of Ukraine to the exclusion of feeding its people. In 1986, the Chernobyl disaster exposed three million Ukrainians to toxic doses of radiation, as they were forced to continue with May Day celebrations in Kyiv.

In 1994, three years after the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, a now independent and democratic Ukraine signed the Budapest Agreement, in which the U.S., Great Britain and Russia agreed to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine. In 1997, Ukraine and Russia signed an agreement in which Ukraine leased the Sevastopol naval base to Russia, and Russia recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea. In 2004, there was an attempt to assassinate Ukraine’s pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko who was poisoned with dioxin, triggering the “Orange Revolution” in which hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens demonstrated against corruption and Russian interference in their elections. In 2008 and 2009, pressure from Russia kept Ukraine from joining the European Union. Though Ukraine expressed an interest in joining NATO, no membership action plan (MAP) — a necessary precursor for membership — was ever completed. The year 2014 saw Russia’s invasion of the Crimean peninsula and the Donbas region, with installation of puppet governments, with no significant reaction from the West.

In the meantime, Ukraine, since its exit from the Soviet Union, had not only doubled its GNP and become the world’s 2nd largest exporter of grain, but became one of the four most educated nations on Earth, with a literacy rate of 99.7%. In a nation that had been a region for terrible pogroms against the Jewish people in the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries, Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish (as am I) was elected president.

When Putin began his barbarous invasion of Ukraine, he tried to divide and conquer. But Ukraine is a now multi-cultural society of people that, as their Maccabean resistance against a much more powerful invader has shown, are united in defending their country.

Those who suggest that Ukraine should negotiate and give up the lands Russia now controls should think of what they might do, if they lived in a region conquered by a foreign invader that had daily committed war crimes, raped, tortured, killed neighbors and family, bombed hospitals, churches, and homes, and kidnapped and deported thousands of its citizens to other countries. Would they be OK being traded away to the invader in a peace agreement?

I am against war. I was spat on and called a commie while demonstrating against the Vietnam War as a teen. I rallied outside of Westover to try to prevent our invasion of Iraq.

But this war is different: It is a democratic nation defending its homeland against a maniacal ruler of a much larger country that hopes to destroy them.

We must think of and pray for our Ukrainian brothers and sisters who are enduring cold winter nights without heat or electricity, without running water, who live in fear of bombs or drones killing them or their families at any moment. And we must continue to support them in any way we can.

David Gottsegen lives in Belchertown.

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