Battleground: Ukraine


Lance Brownfield

As Putin has decided to invade Ukraine, the response from the West has been seen as slow and incohesive.


When the crisis on the border of Ukraine heated back up last October, many in the countries involved did not believe we would be sitting at the brink of WWIII several months later. Today, there is so much up in the air as Russian President Vladimir Putin seems determined to reclaim the former Soviet territory at any cost.

“Putin is going to start a war,” said Kseniya, a student in Kazan, Russia. “He is crazy. That’s why I want to move to Europe.”

Protests have erupted in major Russian cities such as Saint Petersburg and Moscow in response to the invasion.

The response from NATO, the European Union (EU) and other European nations has not been as uniform as one might expect. UN member nations around the world have rolled out heavy sanctions against the transcontinental country, but support for Ukraine varies from nation to nation. Germany has halted the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that was set to supply Russian natural gas to mainland Europe but has stopped short of backing Ukraine with military assistance. Other countries like Estonia have postured themselves to be more supportive as they also share a border with the behemoth.

“The political situation here is so bad,” said Kseniya. “I can’t say what I think because the government will send me to the jail.”

A channel on the popular encrypted messaging app, Telegram, is keeping locals in Eastern Europe up to date with locations of Russian troops and camps as well as developments that the mainstream media won’t broadcast. “Radio Free Europe” has over 22 thousand subscribers to the Ukrainian language channel and is a vital tool for those sympathetic to Ukraine’s plight.

The network of radio stations was first created in 1949 to combat communist media in Europe, and is funded by the United States government. Today, “Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty operates throughout Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East.

One of many channels labeled “extremist” by the pro-Moscow government in Belarus, “Radio Free Europe,” takes advantage of the encrypted platform, which makes it harder for the government to track messages and posts. The app, which was created by a single Russian man by the name of Pavel Durov, is much more popular than its mainstream competitor, WhatsApp, in the Russian-speaking world.

Among the readers and listeners of “Radio Free Europe” is Maxim, a Belarussian who was arrested in the Minsk student protests last September.

“We know the cases about Grodno Azot and Belaruskali,” said Maxim. “When their strike committees trusted newcoming members and were betrayed by them, arrested and imprisoned. And now new members join our teams.”

Although most of the world can see that Russia is fabricating a reason for aggression, many who listen to Russian state-controlled media believe that Putin is acting heroically to protect his people and to save the people in the currently contested regions of Eastern Ukraine. This includes many people who live in the Donbas region.

“It’s not a Russian position,” said Yulia, who used to live in Donetsk in the Donbas region of Ukraine before moving to Russia. “I was there. I remember.”

Yulia moved from Donetsk in 2014 after the situation in her hometown continued to get worse. According to her, most in the infamous Donbas region do not want to be a part of Ukraine. Yulia recently graduated from a university in Russia and wrote her thesis paper on the topic of relations between Russia and Ukraine since 2014. After graduating Yulia took a job in the Russian government.

February of 2014 was the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian War. It resulted in the annexation of Crimea and the establishment of a separatist stronghold in Eastern Ukraine. The forces controlling this region include the Donbas People’s Republic (DPR), Luhansk People’s Militia (LPM), and the United Armed Forces of Novorossiya.

These are the same separatist groups that Putin recognized Monday before sending troops into this region.

“My parents and all my friends wept with happiness yesterday when Russia recognized their right to independence and promised to help,” said Yulia.

A January survey conducted by the Washington Post, ordinary citizens in the Donbas region agreed that it does not matter whether they live in Russia, Ukraine or in a breakaway republic. 51.8% of respondents in the government-controlled areas and 52.6% outside of the government-controlled areas agreed.

In Russia and inside Russia’s sphere of influence, state-run media is common and usually the most popular source of information. Russia’s RT (formerly Russia Today) was founded in 2005 and is funded by the government in Moscow.

Western countries tend to stay away from state-controlled media for the fact that it creates a conflict of interest. As of last year, Russia ranks 150 out of 180 nations ranked on the Press Freedom Index.

Putin’s firm grip on journalists and the media gives him the ability to shape and craft a narrative that makes him look favorable in the eyes of his people. He has used RT and other media sources in the past to justify power grabs, squash opposition movements and garner support for his actions in Crimea.

Alexei Navalny is a famous case of what happens when someone within his borders speaks out in opposition. The Russian lawyer ran for office against Putin’s regime and was poisoned by the Kremlin. He fled to Germany for emergency treatment and, upon his return to Russia, was thrown into prison.

Still, there are many inside the country that love Putin and what he’s done for the country. Just as in China, Iran and North Korea, the constant barrage of a consistent message coupled with the blocking of Western websites does, in fact, sway public opinion. If for no other reason, the majority of young people in the country today understand what their grandparents did about the Soviet Union. That they could disappear for speaking out too loud, and yet still, some of them are just outright convinced.

“How can we be one with them?” said Yulia. They are killers. They raped my friend when I was at school, they burned 500 Russians in Odessa, they tortured Crimeans in Korsun. They are animals, not people.”

In Eastern Europe, it is common to travel back and forth between Russia and Ukraine. Many Ukrainians have family and friends in Russia and vice versa. There are many businesses that operate in both countries as well. Russia is one of the most frequented destinations for Ukrainian travelers. Like the nations in Western Europe, their economies and lives are intertwined. Regions like Crimea and Donbas are exceptions to the rule. There you’ll find animosity towards one people group or another. But these unstable regions are enough for Putin to leverage for his political agenda.

Foreign nationals have mostly left the country before the Russian invasion began, but the 44 million people who call Ukraine home have little choice but to wait it out. War is not exactly a new thing on Ukrainian soil and to those defending the Ukrainian identity.

“I will stay here,” said Darya, a university student from Cherkasy, Ukraine. “I have nowhere to run. I will not fight.”