On the streets of Warsaw, Poland in the late 1970s, I often encountered banks of votive lights and small stone monuments marking a spot where the “Hitlerowcy” (Hitlerites) killed Polish citizens during World War ll. The reminders had another purpose besides honoring Polish victims. They were to convince Poles that Russians were their true friends and alliance with Moscow – not the West – in their best interest.
Few Poles bought the pro-regime propaganda. They knew their history better than that. Yes, it was the Red Army that ultimately drove the Nazis out of Poland, but only after Russia first contrived with Hitler to carve up the country, then did nothing to stop Hitler’s march east until the Fuhrer invaded Russia itself. Russia looks out for itself, not for its fellow Slavs.
Because his army was in de facto control of Poland when the war ended in 1945, Stalin could install a government that would do his bidding instead of leaders committed to a democratic future. During the decades of oppressive rule that followed, Poles resisted valiantly until finally overthrowing the detested regime in 1989. Returning to Poland for another assignment with our embassy in the mid-90s, I witnessed a country transformed, a people overjoyed to be free to chart their own course.
This is not ancient history to Poles. They count the number of times they’ve been invaded from the east – more than 20 – and believe that, by its brutal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Russia is again trying to exercise its sway over what it presumptuously calls its “near abroad.”
The fundamental lie was that Poles or Ukrainians accepted that Moscow was entitled to a “sphere of influence” over them. They concede no such thing. Anyone watching Ukraine’s heroic resistance can see that such claims are absurd, however brazenly Putin speaks of fraternal solidarity with Kyiv. This is a big bully throwing his weight around, not an older brother protecting a beloved sibling.
The lies pile up: Moscow will never invade. Kyiv is run by Nazis. This is a special military operation, not a war. Casualties are light. Russia does not attack civilians. Russia respects humanitarian corridors. NATO is the aggressor. Bad weather tipped over Russia’s flagship carrier. And so on. George Orwell’s novel, “1984,” could be retitled, “Ukraine, 2022.”
By using brute force to destroy everything in his path, Russian President Vladimir Putin may, in the end, conquer much of southern and eastern Ukraine. But he will not gain the cooperation needed to govern or administer it effectively. That requires a degree of “soft power” – the ability to attract or persuade or inspire – that Putin’s Russia so obviously lacks.
If anything, Ukrainian nationalism is now stronger than ever. Ukrainians are demonstrating that they want to govern themselves, that they will give “the last full measure of devotion” to escape subjugation to Moscow’s dictates.
This is the core struggle that has been raging in central and eastern Europe since the Cold War supposedly ended. The people of the region want to be free while Moscow wants to reassert its control over them. That’s why Poles, Romanians, Czechs and a dozen other nations undertook the democratic reforms needed to qualify for membership in NATO and the protection it offers. It’s also why the United States and other members welcomed them to history’s most successful political-military alliance.
Today it’s Ukraine’s turn to fight for its independence and territorial integrity, whether secured through membership in NATO or by some form of agreed neutrality. Moldova, seemingly already in Moscow’s crosshairs, could be next. Georgia, too, is highly vulnerable. Putin’s ambitions might also extend to former satellites that have made it into NATO, such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Though he is less likely to want to risk a wider – possibly nuclear – war by directly attacking a NATO member, stepped-up vigilance is required.
However the war for Ukraine turns out, we need to be clear-eyed about what is happening there. This is a big power bent on conquering a smaller one. Putin’s claims to the contrary are lies. If he sets up a new government in Kyiv – or in part of the country – it will be illegitimate and should be rejected. Sanctions must be maintained and Moscow as well as its puppets regarded as pariahs until Putin or his successor ends Russia’s aggression. No country has the right to rule another against its will. Think Lincoln at Gettysburg and the sacred commitment to government of the people, by the people, for the people. Ukrainians want and deserve no less.
Dick Virden is a retired minister-counselor in the State Department’s Foreign Service and a graduate of the National War College. His diplomatic posts abroad included assignments in Poland and Romania.