Putin’s invasions show that his threats and bullying have pushed Ukrainians irrevocably to the West
For two decades Putin’s appetite for blood and glory has fed on crushing dissent in Chechnya, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Donbas, Crimea, and Syria. Meanwhile, on Russia’s southern border Ukraine — albeit stubbornly and fitfully — has moved increasingly away from his influence and control. It didn’t have to end this way. Putin, the increasingly anti-democratic autocrat, drove Ukraine away from Russia.
In 2004 the Orange Revolution reversed the Kremlin-supported attempt to rig the presidential election. The world saw Russia’s naked attempt to manipulate the election and control Ukraine’s future. The disfigured face of democratically elected President Victor Yushchenko, suffering from dioxin poisoning, revealed to Ukrainians and to the world what the Russian regime would do to keep Ukraine in its sphere of control. As revealed by voters at this time, pro-Russian and pro-Western sentiment was evenly divided 13 years after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
By 2014 Ukrainian sentiment had shifted to closer integration with the West. Ukrainians once again took to the streets, reacting to blatant pressure by the Kremlin trying to force Ukraine’s alignment toward Russia and against NATO. Protesters at the Maidan, Kyiv’s Independence Square, braved weeks of bitter weather as the world watched apprehensively. The Maidan Revolution succeeded when President Victor Yanukovych fled to Russia in fear after government snipers killed protesters in the square.
From this time Putin has realized that his ambitions of a reanimated Russian Empire remain unachievable without its mythically historical key component — Ukraine. Blocking Putin’s will to power is the ever growing understanding of what his autocracy represents. Ukrainians have chosen alignment with the emerging democracies on their western border and the increasingly accessible democracies of Western Europe.
The invasion of February 24, 2022 crystallized for me how completely Putin’s Russia has alienated Ukraine since he took power 22 years ago. It’s clear that a generation of Ukrainians — with the help of Canadians, Americans, and a host of Europeans — have succeeded in so many ways in building the foundation for an independent, democratic , and “normal” Ukraine.
“We just want to live in a normal country.” This is the refrain heard over and over in conversations in my 17 years working in Ukraine. Whether the speaker used “normal” (нормальний or нормальный) while speaking Ukrainian or Russian, the meaning was the same. Ukrainians looked westward to the new NATO countries in Eastern Europe and beyond to Western Europe and North America and saw stability and freedom unknown in their lifetimes or that of their parents and grandparents.
To see Ukrainians bullied, threatened, and now brutally attacked over the past weeks by Putin both frightens and angers me. I can only imagine how Ukrainians must feel in Kyiv and in other frontline cities like Kharkiv, Mariupol, and Luhansk — all cities that I know firsthand from my years managing U.S. assistance projects there from 1994–2011.
The U.S. Agency for International Development funded projects during that period to support democratic local self-government, an institution that didn’t exist in the centralized soviet model. My employer for this work, RTI International, is an independent U.S. not-for-profit contract research and consulting firm founded in 1957. It is based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.
One of the earliest initiatives in RTI International’s work in Ukraine in 1993 was support for a fledgling municipal government association. Such associations exist around the world in democratic countries, giving a voice to the cities in national policy forums and providing a sounding board for sharing experiments in local self-government. The Association of Ukrainian Cities (AUC) today remains a national organization with regional offices around the country.
When I checked on the AUC website just before the invasion to get a sense of how cities were reacting in the face of the Russian threat, I knew that mayors and their staff would be severely challenged. Local officials representing the immediate face of their government would be called on for heroic help for citizens in resisting the invaders and caring for neighbors. Random thoughts raced through my mind, taking me back to places where I worked alongside Ukrainian local officials and project analysts, consultants, and trainers.
Luhansk International Airport, 2020. vlugansk.com
In 2002 the AUC set up the Luhansk Regional Office. My first visit to Luhansk, however, was in 1997, when it looked very much like a black and white cartoon of a rustbelt industrial city. It was winter and the best hotel our entourage could find was just warm enough to keep the water pipes from freezing. By 2005, shortly after the Orange Revolution, the Luhansk regional office was organizing regular training of local officials in providing more transparent and accountable public services. In a conversation with the director of that office in September of 2005, he expressed his doubts about the new government’s ability to “educate Easterners” about the benefits of European Union membership and getting rid of “old Soviet-era stereotypes.”
Luhansk city has been occupied by Russian mercenaries and separatists directed by Moscow since 2014.
Pokrovskyi Monastery 2007. Artemka — Author, Public Domain https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15805443
Kharkiv, with a population of 1.5 million is the second largest city in the country. I remember checking into a hotel where the receptionist wore a fur coat and fur hat to keep warm in the lobby. Her attire was an clear indicator that there were no hot showers in the rooms. A year later in 1996 I would travel to a USAID-organized conference in Sofia, Bulgaria for local government officials from all of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union with then mayor of Kharkiv, Evhen Kushnariov, who would later become the governor of the region and an aspiring presidential candidate.
Kushnariov represented one of the many local elected officials who would move up to regional government positions or become members of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. Tragically, Kushnariov would die in a boar hunting accident in 2007.
Just before the first day’s events started at the Sofia conference, the organizers called together the Ukrainian delegation with a problem: the crew of simultaneous interpreters did not include a Ukrainian speaker. Could the Ukrainian delegation conduct their presentations in Russian? After a brief huddle, the mayor of Lviv, Vasyl Kyubida, responded that they would speak Russian if the Russian delegation spoke Ukrainian.
Kharkiv, only 30 miles south of the Russian border, was targeted in the first round of attacks on day 1 of the invasion.
Welcome to Mariupol 2009. Bruecke-Osteuropa
In February 1998, landing an Antonov 24 turboprop in Mariupol, the pilot put the plane down on the grassy swale next to the runway because the tarmac was covered with several inches of ice. It was well below zero Fahrenheit with a stiff wind from the Sea of Azov. Passengers stepped out the plane, tromped through three feet tall frozen grass, and put heads into the wind to make it across the treacherous ice and into the terminal. The mayor of Mariupol, Mykhailo Pozhivanov, would subsequently invite project staff to attend a meeting of the mayors and heads of the financial departments of the cities of Donetsk region. U.S. funds would help Mariupol Elektrotrans buy spare parts to keep the city’s fleet of trolleybuses operating and create a new strategy for public transit.
Russian artillery and rockets shelled the outskirts of Mariupol in a threatened takeover in 2014. Russian force again attacked this port city on day one of nationwide invasion of 2022.
Recalling the hard work, resilience, and determination of Ukrainians who reimagined and then reformed local self government, I know that their hearts are democratic and their eyes look to the West. Putin lost this war when the first shots were fired, not of this reinvasion in 2022, but in the earlier invasion of 2014.