Russia’s President Putin continues to make the news, most recently due to his early departure from the G-20 summit in Brisbane, where he got to pose with a cuddly koala but then left the summit early after an otherwise chilly reception.
The main cause of the cold shoulder that Putin received — Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the subsequent conflict in eastern Ukraine — have mostly disappeared from the U.S. news. Active fighting between the Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian army has subsided. Since early September, a truce has been in place after Ukraine’s newly elected president, Petro Poroshenko, has granted the rebellious regions a wide degree of autonomy.
Still, fighters and civilians continue to die in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions due to repeated ceasefire violations. As the war on the ground continues, so does the information war.
Most Russians — those who get their news from government-run TV — continue to believe that Ukraine is overrun by a “Ukro-fascist junta” (a phrase coined and popularized by the government media) that is impinging upon the civil rights of the country’s Russian speakers and threatening their safety, and who thus must be stopped at all costs.
The Russian government continues to deny that it has been sending troops to Ukraine, deflecting clear evidence to this effect with claims that the latest batch of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine went there while on leave of their own accord, or were actually killed on Russian territory by shells fired from across the border.
Within Ukraine itself, opinions on current events appear to be determined largely by geography. In most of the country, people’s views largely match those in the West. Simply put, they want Putin out of their country, now.
For those living in the rebellious regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, it’s more complicated. It remains unclear how much popular support the self-proclaimed leaders of “Luhansk People’s Republic” and “Donetsk People’s Republic” actually enjoy among local residents. Since the separatist government reportedly has been ruthlessly quashing any dissent, it is unsafe for people to speak their mind freely.
Tragically, regardless of their political views, civilians in the region have found themselves caught in the crossfire, as separatists did not hesitate to use them as “human shields” while the poorly trained Ukrainian army either botched its aim or fired indiscriminately.
All four of my grandparents were born and raised in Ukraine. But I don’t have any first-hand contacts there anymore. So, one afternoon after work, I hopped on I-5 and headed to a low-income housing community 15 minutes outside of Seattle to interview a few of the 35,000 plus Ukrainian immigrants living in Washington.
My friend, who works in the community and helped arrange my visit, told me that most of the Ukrainian tenants were from western Ukraine – therefore, likely to support a unified Ukraine and oppose Russian intervention.
Rush hour was beginning, and as I sat in stop-and-go traffic, my anxiety about running late was amplified by other worries: What would my interviewees think of me, someone who was born and raised in the country that is now waging a war on their homeland? Would they be wary? Would they blame me for the Russian government’s actions? How would they feel about speaking with me in Russian?
As another Seattle Globalist author recently noted, many local Ukrainians who have Russian heritage or grew up speaking Russian are now distancing themselves from that part of their identity.
As I pulled into the building’s parking lot, a dignified-looking man in his seventies, his hands resting on a cane, was waiting for me on a bench just off the building’s central courtyard. He introduced himself by his first name and patronymic, Ivan Ivanovich.
At first he was reluctant to share his opinion.
“You should talk to Galina,” he said, in Russian, referring to a neighbor. “I get all of my information from her. She reads the news online and then tells me everything. I have the Internet too but I’m saving my eyes so I don’t read it.” (Later, I learned what Ivan Ivanovich was saving his eyes for. He took me up to his apartment, which was covered from floor to ceiling with his oil paintings, mostly depicting the Ukrainian countryside.)
While we waited for the neighbor, I learned that Ivan Ivanovich was originally from Lviv, a city in western Ukraine that is located less than 50 miles from the Polish border and has had a fascinating history as part of various states over the centuries, albeit with little connection to Russia until the region was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939.
As we chatted, another resident walked by, and Ivan Ivanovich pulled him into our conversation. Mikhail, as he introduced himself, was also from Lviv. In the few moments he had to spare, Mikhail expressed his views with confidence, speaking in Russian with Ukrainian words thrown in occasionally: the mess in eastern Ukraine was due solely to Russian intervention, but, with time, things would be all right again. Not only Luhansk and Donetsk would be reintegrated into Ukraine, but also Crimea, annexed by Russia in March and essentially written off by the international community.
Mikhail had some unambiguous predictions for Russia, too:
“You will have your own Maidan,” he declared emphatically. “Putin’s government will be overthrown.”
As Mikhail excused himself and moved on, Galina, Ivan Ivanovich’s middle-aged neighbor, came out to join us.
I barely finished explaining the purpose of my visit when Galina, a former resident of Kiev, began speaking passionately in rapid-fire Ukrainian; to my amazement, I understood virtually everything she said. (Russian and Ukrainian languages are closely related, but only share about 62% of the vocabulary.)
Galina, who gets her information from Ukrainian news source such as Ukrayinska Pravda, Channel 5, and Channel 24, as well as from first-hand accounts of family members living in eastern Ukraine, was unequivocal:
“Of course Putin and his government are to blame for what’s happening — mainly Putin.” When I mused that she must be worried about relatives who remain behind in dangerous conditions, she countered, “I worry about everyone who lives there. Their children are our children too. Their families fled to Kiev, and we took them in. These children are going to local schools where they now sit 3-4 students to a desk.”
Paradoxically, according to Galina, instead of dividing the country’s citizens, the conflict has united them.
“Everyone is helping the ATO [anti-terrorist operation] effort,” she said, employing the term commonly used by the Ukrainian government to describe their campaign to bring Luhansk and Donetsk back. “Old grandmas are knitting mittens and sending them to the soldiers on the frontlines.”
Like Mikhail, Galina was certain that both the breakaway eastern regions and Crimea will one day become a part of Ukraine again. Not because Putin will give them back, she explained, “but simply because the people living there will see how much better off Ukraine is after joining Europe, and they will want to live like that too.”
At one point, as I stood nodding silently while Galina spoke at length, Ivan Ivanovich asked me, “Do you understand Ukrainska mova?” Although I confirmed that, in fact, I did understand almost everything, even if I hadn’t expected to, Galina nonetheless felt bad. “You should have told me. I would have spoken in Russian,” she said.
Once Galina left, Ivan Ivanovich and I lingered on the bench as dusk fell and the Russian and Ukrainian children and their West African peers who had been playing in the courtyard drifted back to their apartments for dinner. I asked him about the wave of Soviet monument removals that has rolled through Ukraine since last December.
“Removing statues of Lenin is a positive thing,” Ivan Ivanovich replied. “The Bolsheviks didn’t do Ukraine much good.” He did, however, regret the removal from one of Lviv public squares of a tank commemorating the Soviet soldiers who drove the Nazis out of the city.
After stopping by Ivan Ivanovich’s apartment to take a look at his paintings, I drove away from the building feeling, for the most part, relieved. My interviewees seemed to understand that, despite Putin’s record-high approval ratings, some Russians did disagree with his policies.
The one thing that saddened me on my drive home was something Galina had said. I asked her if she thought relations between Russians and Ukrainians were irreparably damaged. The answer was a firm yes.
“The children of the people who are dying in Ukraine now will not forget or forgive.”
Russian-Ukrainian relations have always been complicated, with the two nations sharing much of their cultural heritage, yet periodically drifting farther apart. Yet it seems that the rift was never as decisive as it is today. Is there hope that in my lifetime, Ukraine and Russia will patch up their relationship? Without a regime change in Russia — its own Maidan, perhaps — it seems unlikely.