Reviews | How Ukrainians define their enemy: ‘It’s not Putin, it’s Russia’

During a visit to Kyiv last weekend, I kept asking Ukrainians a question that vexed me: Is your war against President Vladimir Putin – or against Russia itself? Almost every time I got the same inflexible response. The enemy is a Russia that must be defeated and transformed.

In the eyes of Ukrainians, this terrible conflict has become a clash of civilizations. They argue that most Russians support Putin’s brutal war the same way most Germans supported Adolf Hitler. Unless Russia as a nation abandons the imperial dreams evoked by Putin, the conflict cannot be resolved through negotiations.

“Russia has to go through the same process as Germany after World War II,” presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak insisted on Saturday in an interview with me and other members of a group organized by the German Marshall Fund, which I am an administrator. . “If Russian society does not understand what they have done, the world will be plunged into chaos.” He enthusiastically predicts that post-war Russia will dissolve into five or six smaller nations.

This Ukrainian desire for outright victory — while understandable for a country that has suffered a vicious assault on its civilian population — poses a painful dilemma for the Biden administration. As President Biden made clear in a May 31 essay in The New York Times, the United States seeks “a negotiated end to the conflict” in which Russia withdraws from occupied territory. Biden is looking for a Ukrainian victory, but not a total Russian defeat.

For me, thinking about the end of this war juxtaposes two contradictory lessons of the 20th century. Historians generally agree that the punitive peace imposed on Germany after World War I contributed to the Nazis’ vicious quest for revenge. But historians also agree that the decisive outcome of the Second World War, with Germany and Japan forced into unconditional surrender, enabled the miraculous post-war revival of the two countries.

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Ukrainians, from top leaders to ordinary citizens, seem convinced that Putin’s Russia must be defeated, not just Putin himself. Olga Datsiuk, a 33-year-old television producer, relaxing over lunch at a cafe, was smiling but emphatic during an interview on Saturday. “We think Russia and the Russians are responsible for all of this,” she said. The same view was expressed by Sergiy Gerasymchuk, who heads a foreign policy think tank called Prism: “It’s not Putin; this is Russia,” he told us. “There is a chance of reconciliation, but not in my lifetime.”

The Ukrainian narrative centers on the divergent paths the two countries took after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Ukrainians turned West, towards the European Union and embraced a free but corrupt version of democracy. Russia initially flirted with the West, under President Boris Yeltsin, but after a decade of chaos and humiliation, Russians hailed Putin’s strong hand when he was elected president in 2000.

Russia has never had a post-communist housecleaning, and from the Ukrainian point of view, this is the root of the current catastrophe. “The Russians, in a way, are afraid [of democracy]Datsyuk said. “That’s what Ukrainians will never understand. They choose safe space and warm food instead of freedom. The two companies diverged, says Alina Frolova, a former deputy defense minister who now heads a think tank called the Center for Defense Strategies. “Russia had 10 years of freedom after 1991, but it chose to return to its traditional empire.”

Ukraine’s pro-Western democracy threatened Putin, and he worked tirelessly, obsessively, to crush it. Its war on Ukraine began in 2014, when it seized Crimea and parts of the Donbass region, and culminated in this year’s scorched earth invasion.

But the Russian assaults have only deepened Ukraine’s distinct identity. A gathering of Ukrainian intellectuals in June, sponsored by two major universities, compiled a list of 74 ways the war had changed society. Group member Valerii Pekar described this new spirit as “civic Ukraineism” – in its national pride, love for its armed forces and commitment to a European, democratic future.

So how will this clash of civilizations end? In the West, we try to imagine a negotiated peace. Putin could retreat to pre-invasion lines. … Or mediators could devise a formula for postponing the final resolution of the status of the occupied territories. … Or the Russian army could rebel against the dictates of the Kremlin. …Or Putin could be replaced by a successor who cannot or will not continue the war.

The Ukrainians I met in Kyiv unanimously rejected such an interim settlement. They want Ukraine to regain all of its territory and Russia to lose decisively. The war will end, said Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, “when the Russians understand that they have no chance of victory”.

Americans have the painless joy of watching Ukrainians fight for freedom. But there will also be growing risks for us if the war continues to escalate. We must calibrate them carefully and avoid a direct US-Russian conflict. But we cannot entirely escape the dangers.

Surely this is a war worth winning. I don’t want to see Russia destroyed, and I think any argument that it’s an alien civilization forever is wrong. But the ideology that Putin represents and that many Russians embrace must be defeated.

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