Thoughts on the Russian-occupied territories

Thoughts on the Russian-occupied territories

Originally published in The Ukrainian Weekly. Written by Orest Deychakiwsky, a Vice-Chairman of the Board of Directors of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation and a Senior Advisor at the U.S.-Ukraine Business Council.

I don’t know if it was the lyrics, or the melody that left a powerful impression on me – probably both, but one of the songs we sang at Ukrainian Plast scout camps growing up in the 1960s and ’70s was “Vid Synioho Donu.”

Here’s a rough English translation  of the poem’s first stanza:

From the blue river Don
to the grey Carpathians,

A single indivisible family,

No slavery, no serfdom, no brutality,
no betrayals,

A free, independent Ukraine!

It was decades later that I learned the author of the lyrics – way back in 1917 – was my wife Orysia’s grandfather, Ukrainian writer Oleksiy Varava, who wrote under the nom de plume of Oleksa Kobets.

His poem has often come to mind since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, when Russia cruelly assaulted the vision of a united, integral, free Ukraine. Russia continues to flagrantly mock this vision – a vision reflected in the 10 Guiding Principles of the Helsinki Final Act. They include sovereignty, territorial integrity, inviolability of borders, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Varava’s words also come to mind when I see some, both in Ukraine and in the diaspora, who appear to be willing to effectively cede the occupied Donbas, an integral part of Ukraine, to Russia. They do so for various ostensibly pragmatic reasons. Some tend to dismiss the residents of the occupied territories as pro-Russian or “sovok” (slang for a person having a Soviet mentality or values), or insufficiently committed to their Ukrainian identity. This is both unfair and shortsighted.

There are some 1.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) scattered throughout Ukraine from the occupied Donbas. You can bet that most did not leave because they were particularly satisfied with living in a land devastated by war under the thumb of the Russian-puppet rulers of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics (DNR and LNR).

I cannot imagine that many who stayed are especially pleased to live in lawless statelets in which their human rights and freedoms of expression, association, assembly, religion (unless, of course, one is Russian Orthodox) are flagrantly violated, democracy is non-existent, and the rule of law is a fiction. A climate of fear persists. Nor can I imagine that many are particularly happy to live in a land in which the economy, infrastructure and environment have been devastated thanks to Russia and its proxies. Coronavirus only adds an additional horrific factor, with an older, more vulnerable, population, an awful health-care system and poor governance.

Sure, there are some who benefit and collaborate with the puppet regimes, and some may even be true believers in the Russkiy Mir (Russian World). But there are also many who feel themselves to be Ukrainians and would welcome re-integration. For obvious reasons, they are lying low.

Despite the challenges, Ukraine must not give up on its citizens living under Russian occupation. It needs to fight for their hearts and minds. This won’t be easy, given all the anti-Ukrainian brainwashing going on in media and schools, and the relentless Russian propaganda demonizing Ukraine. The Ukrainian government needs to build on its recent efforts to break the DNR and LNR’s information blockade.

Giving up on the people of the Donbas would be both a huge geopolitical and a moral mistake. Geopolitically, it would set precedents for future land-grabs of Ukrainian territory that Russia might contemplate, and it would call into question Ukraine’s own commitment to its sovereignty and territorial integrity. It would be morally wrong, because the residents of the occupied territories of the Donbas are, after all, Ukrainian citizens, and the Ukrainian state has a legal and moral obligation to them, regardless of what language they speak or their level of patriotism. That some supposed patriots look down on them as second-class citizens is regrettable.

Achieving real peace in the Donbas, which requires Russia to leave, will be an extremely difficult task because of Russia’s intransigence. There are many factors, among them the Putin regime’s deep-seated and probably justifiable fear that a successful, democratic Ukraine will serve as a positive example for the Russian people and thus threaten Vladimir Putin’s power. Another is Moscow’s imperial delusions, which manifest themselves most starkly in the disdain toward Ukrainian statehood. The Kremlin is not going to willingly give up its strategic objectives. Hence, the most likely near-term outcome is continuation of the current low-intensity war, or a more genuinely frozen conflict which, of course, would be an improvement over the status quo. In any event, Ukraine’s friends in the West, led by Washington, must continue to support Ukraine with robust military and non-military assistance, continued and even increased sanctions, and smart political and diplomatic engagement.

Despite the degree of difficulty, efforts towards peace need to be made. After all, it is the responsibility of a country’s leadership and the role of the diplomacy to at least attempt to find solutions to conflict – even if the odds are stacked against you. And negotiations have yielded some positive dividends, such as the freeing of more than 130 Ukrainians from Russian captivity in three separate prisoner swaps since last September. Yes, difficult compromises were made as some of those exchanged to Russia were odious figures, but I subscribe to the view that it was still worth it to get innocent Ukrainians, many of whom had undergone torture and deprivation, back home. The negotiations have also led to some practical measures that alleviate human suffering, such as expanding border crossings. It is vital not to lose sight of the war’s human dimension as well.

And who knows? Some analysts believe that COVID-19 will make Moscow more dangerous in that it will exploit the pandemic for its nefarious purposes – first and foremost the destabilization of Ukraine. However, others think that the serious pressures on Russia’s fossil fuel-based economy and social fabric could compel Russia to leave the Donbas. While I am skeptical, I learned a long time ago to never say never. After all, how many of us back in the 1980s – even in the late 1980s as substantial changes were taking place in the Soviet Union – would have predicted that its dissolution would occur as rapidly as it did.

Ukrainians must not give up on the people of the occupied Donbas. Neither should the Ukrainian people, with the support of Washington and other international friends, give up the pursuit of a just and lasting peace, recognizing that it will probably require a great deal of time, patience, persistence, fortitude and wisdom. A single, indivisible family in an undivided, inviolate, free and independent Ukraine!