Ukrainians Blame Putin—And Russians—For the War

We were still there at the casino even though it was five o’clock in the morning.. Our hotel in Lviv boasted a basement filled with card tables, slot machines, and a full-sized roulette wheel, which is where my friend and I sat, waiting out that morning’s air raid. We had already commented the absurdity in sitting at a roulette table while we waited for an air raid on our first night. We were now exhausted, having just woken up from another interrupted night, and we silently watched the news unfold on an immense flat-screen TV. This television used to broadcast boxing matches, horse races and soccer. It’s the current news. Marina Ovsyannikova, the Russian journalist who’d interrupted a government sponsored broadcast to hold up a sign protesting the war in Ukraine, was the lead. Three to four segments in the hopeful segment mentioned Marina Ovsyannikova during the one hour that I was watching. Then, our air raid app on phones stopped the discussions. all-clear. Slowly we made our way up the stairs to reach our rooms.

Matt, a serial entrepreneur and my companion on this trip, had started businesses in Turkey, Syria, and Afghanistan, and he had recently finished a stint at Yale’s Jackson Institute of Global Affairs. A one-time collegiate rower, he had driven a trailer from Germany to Iraq at the height of that country’s war to deliver sculls to the Iraqi rowing team. A Farsi speaker, he’d also studied in an exchange program at Tehran University, which he failed to complete after the Iranian authorities accused him of espionage and imprisoned him for 41 days in 2015. As a concession to Obama Administration, he was freed. Matt suggested that we meet Andrii who was a tech entrepreneur friend. So we went around the corner and had a quick coffee.

Andrii seemed irritable. Like a parent with a newborn, he calculated the days since he’d enjoyed an uninterrupted night’s sleep. When we got to the front of our line, he decided on twenty. Andrii ordered coffee as we settled at our table while Matt—who speaks decent Russian—confessed his fear that if HeHe was nervous that he would misunderstand Russian words or phrases and order from him. Matt is a blonde, blue-eyed man who could pass for Russian. I can understand why, given the Ukrainians’ active search for Russian saboteurs.

“If you get in trouble,” Andrii explained, “just say: rusni-pyzda. Whoever is bothering you should then leave you alone.” He repeated this, carefully annunciating each syllable. Correct pronunciation was a problem for the Russian native tongue, he explained. Matt tried to convince Andrii, but he was still not convinced. “Perhaps English is best for you guys.” When I asked what rusni-pyzda Andrii said it meant a type of bread that is flat and delicious.

I laughed, but Andrii didn’t seem amused. It seemed like an amusing way to catch Russian saboteurs. I apologized. It appeared that some Russians chose to stand alongside the Ukrainian people. Perhaps this was also counterproductive. In order to emphasize my point I also mentioned Marina Ovsyannikova, and how she interrupted the nightly news. Andrii cut me off. “Do you think she’s a hero?”

“I think she’s brave.”

“She was fined 30,000 rubles, that’s less than 300 dollars. The court released her immediately. Are we really supposed to applaud her even though until a few days ago, she was happy to dispense propaganda while Russia waged its war?”

It was just a week old when the war began. I observed that it sometimes takes time for people to discover their conscience. Andrii couldn’t contain his excitement. “Really? A few weeks old? Don’t forget, this war has been going on since Russia annexed Crimea in 2008, or at least since it took the Donbas in 2014. Should it take eight years to find one’s conscience?”

Andrii has a tale that categorizes the Ukrainian And Russian peoples as victims of Putin’s war absolved Russian citizens of decades of complicity. “I am sick of reading media stories pitying liberal Russians emigres who’ve fled to Helsinki or to Istanbul to work their tech jobs remotely as they cry about their devalued rubles. They complain that there is no way out of Russia and that genocide in Ukraine is happening. They claim Stop this War The don’t say Ukraine. They would love to see Ukraine annexed to Russia. It’s only the What does it mean?They protested against the annexed territory, and it is this method of war which has rendered them pariahs. These are the EndeThey are fine in Ukraine, as they were in Crimea, Georgia and Chechnya. After those invasions, did any of them flee Russia? Of course, not. It’s failed wars they’re against, not Ukraine they’re for; there’s a difference.”

Our relationship became more tense.

“Rusni-pyzda,” said Matt, trying again with great effort.

Andrii smiled with happiness. “That’s better,” he said. “Now you’re getting it.”

Matt and me sat on the roulette wheel waiting for an air attack to stop. The attack from the day before had struck the Lviv airport, and while I wondered where today’s rockets might land, the word genocide, which Andrii had used the day before, troubled me. I had often been taught that people who live under autocratic regimes are never the enemy; rather it’s the regime itself. This belief seemed to have driven our Western strategy to use sanctions to exert domestic pressure upon Putin and possibly even exile the Russian people. Our entire Western strategy was based on these two factors: The resolve of Ukraine’s people to fight and to persevere; and, the determination of Russia to reject and resist Putin. If either faltered, the Ukrainian people would be subjected to genocide, a term often used in hyperbole, but the definition of which fit: “the deliberate and systemic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.”

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Putin has been open about his desire “to solve the Ukrainian question.” This summer, in a lengthy essay published by the Kremlin, he denied the existence of an independent Ukrainian nationality and also claimed that Russians and Ukrainians are one people—a Russian people. Are everyday Russians guilty of Putin’s genocide? Multiple independent polls have shown strong support from Russia for the war against Ukraine, despite polling being unreliable in Russia. If a majority Russians supports the war, is this a Western strategy that depends on Russian internal pressure against Putin fundamentally flawed.

The future will show.

A conflict that already echoes the Second World WarIt would appear that we wish to project our feelings onto the Russian people. If Ukraine—and the liberal Western order—can prove victorious in this war, perhaps we should be thinking of Russia like we thought of Germany in the 1940s. Americans and the West are more concerned about the decoupling the Russian people and their regime than the Ukrainians. Their resolve to resist Russia is incredibly strong, with almost eighty percent refusing territorial concessions. The pronunciation lesson of rusni-pyzda with Andrii didn’t hit home this point, walking down the street in Lviv one need only glimpse the front of any currency exchange: the offered rate for rubles is 00.00, so worthless.

Next morning we were waiting in Vienna Coffee House for Yaroslav Hytsak, an academic at Ukrainian Catholic University who is also a historian and prominent intellectual. He was the author of the bestseller Global History of Ukraine Hrytsak was sitting across us when he arrived. He adjusted his chair to the point that he was about to give a lecture. His mask, which he’d pulled beneath his chin, served as a hammock for his ample, grey beard. “This coffee house,” he announced, “is the oldest in Lviv.” He held his index finger to the bridge of his nose. “It is worth noting that the oldest coffee house in Lviv is named the Vienna Coffee House, while the oldest coffee house in Vienna is named the Lviv Coffee House. That is a good first lesson in eastern European politics and culture.”

Hrytsak, like Andrii, believed it wasn’t possible to decouple the war in Ukraine from the Russian people. When I asked if he could explain why, he peered over his reading glasses and took a breath; it was as if I’d arrived in the last fifteen minutes of a three-hour movie and asked him what it was about. With patience, he replied: “No one feels Russian identity more than Ukrainians. You see, the Russian identity is a spiritual one, in which Russia believes it is the savior of the world.” When I asked what Russia had to save the world from, Hrytsak replied, “The West, of course. Right now, Putin isn’t fighting Ukraine. Remember, he’s fighting Nazis and Nazism is synonymous with the West. In Putin’s mind Ukraine does not exist; it is a fiction, a creation of the West, one he must destroy. Russian identity has an implicit belief in its special mission of fighting the West. Russia saves the West from its depraved fascist tendencies, including Napoleon and Hitler. Russia defeated Napoleon. Russia defeated Hitler. And Putin will defeat Obama and Biden.”

“Obama?” Matt asked. “He’s not even in office.”

“As I said, this isn’t a rational war, it is a spiritual one.” Hrytsak sipped his coffee, gathering his thoughts before he continued, “Over five hundred years there have been many attempts to emancipate Russian society. Each attempt is thwarted by a brutal autocrat. What is the reason why Russians choose to be unfree? Russian culture is the reason. Russia could be the global savior if its suffering has meaning. Its suffering would also have to correspond with its religious piety. That’s why the sanctions won’t work. You could convince a Christian by making him feel pain. His suffering does not bring him closer to God. Russia enjoyed freedom for a time, but then it returns to suffering. It’s important to understand that it’s not Putin who took Russia, but rather Russia which gave itself to Putin, and Putin has used Russia’s history of suffering to consolidate his power.”

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Hrytsak folded the arms. “This city has been Austro-Hungarian, Polish, and Russian. The Poles in particular have a very strong claim on Lviv, but their culture is different than Russia’s. While they have the capacity to think about the past and Russian culture tends to live it again, the Poles are able to do the opposite. In the one case, it’s like driving car with a small rearview mirror you can reference. In the other case, it’s like driving a car with your windshield coated in mud. All you can do is look out the back window.”

Hrytsak said that the Third World War was already underway. Russia had, just like Germany after the First World War ended, suffered humiliating defeats at the close of the Cold War. He used the term “Weimar” to describe Russia’s post-Cold War government in the 1990s. Putin like Hitler did the same thing. He extracted grievances through a flawed, selective interpretation of history and then turned those grievances into power. That power was enough to promote this story we’re seeing right now. One in which Russia would exile their brother Ukrainians under a Nazi regime headed by a Jewish president. “We don’t like being called brothers,” Hrytsak said, “by people who murder us.”

When I asked Hrytsak what, if anything, could break this spell, he explained, “The Russian people have made a bargain with Putin, and it’s one they’ve made throughout their history. They have allowed a despot to take away their freedom, but in exchange he has offered them glory.”

This afternoon as though to settle the Russian complicity questionAndrii made arrangements for us and Melaniya to have coffee together with MelaniyaPodolyak. Melaniya is a political advisor who owns a warehouse in which she distributes crowdsourced supplies directly to the Ukrainian front. While we sat there, Melaniya Podolyak scrolled photographs on her cell phone. She saw photos of sniper scopes, tactical vests, body armor and then she made the decisive move. . . The video showed a six-wheeled truck pulling a howitzer to its firing position. “I bought that truck,” she said proudly. The petite blonde haired woman leaned over the table, her bug-eyed eyes nearly the same size as those of tea saucers. “Let me ask you a question.” She crossed her arms, revealing a half-sleeve tattoo. “How many Ukrainian speaking schools exist inside of Russia?”

She told me that I had correctly guessed zero when I did so, then recounted her story. Volodymyr Senyshyn, who’d tried to build one in Tula, outside Moscow. He was trying to build a school, but his plan ended with his death, right in front his house, on a street that is well lit. Cause of death: Skull fracture, stabbing wounds to his right temple and penetrating injuries to the head. Police never located the culprits. Soon after, his wife Natalya, a member, was arrested. Ukrainians in Russia,She suffered severe injuries when she was attacked and beat so that her condition became serious. In her case, the police did not find the culprits. “This wasn’t last year, or after the second Maidan uprising in 2013, this was back in 2006.” I noticed the print on Melaniya’s olive drab t-shirt: three grey wolves, their teeth bared, charging forward from each of the Ukrainian trident’s prongs.

“The reason the Russians are here,” Melaniya added, “is we succeeded in getting our freedom after the Maidan, in 2013. They hate us for it.”

What about the possibility of a Russian Maidan, or colored revolution, what about acts of resistance like Marina Ovsyannikova interrupting the news, what about Russian opposition leaders like Alexi Navalny, doesn’t any of that matter?

“Navalny!” She spat the word from her mouth. He pulled her up. TweetNavalny had written, on her smartphone It’s one thing if Putin killed Ukrainian civilians and destroyed life-critical infrastructure with full approval from the Russian citizens. However, it’s a whole different story if Putin’s bloody venture is not supported by the society.Melaniya asked me to leave a comment under the tweet: Navalny knows that Russian silence can be catastrophic. Not for the Ukrainian victims they don’t care about: for Russia.

Melaniya’s distrust of Navalny stemmed from the fact that he, too, was a Russian nationalist. Because the West would praise him and make a mockery of Ukraine, he might end up being even worse than Putin.

Is she crazy to believe this? Is Navalny worse than Putin?

“Whether it’s a colored revolution, or Navalny, or anything else, it’s already too late. Their crimes against us cannot be undone by protest movements. Over the last eight years of war, the Russian people have done nothing.”

Marina Ovsyannikova is again mentioned.

“So what? Then, a propagandist appears on T.V. with a sign and we’re supposed to thank her? For eight years, she worked for Channel One. . . . eighteen years!” Melaniya checked her phone, as if searching for an excuse to leave, or at least to talk about something else. “Listen, I know that sounds harsh. Maybe you can’t understand, or you think that I’m bitter toward Russians, or even unfair to them. I’m not. What I feel towards Russians isn’t hate; it’s indifference. They suffer terribly and I don’t care about it. But you’re an American, maybe you can’t understand. Life in your country is about the The pursuit of happiness. We don’t live that way here. Our life is about survival, it always has been, and that is the fault of one country.”

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The sirens of the air raid sirens wailed outside. Our phones mimicked the sound with the app we’d downloaded. As we huddled in the coffeeshop, Melaniya assured us it had, “good and thick old walls.” While we waited for the all-clearWe spoke also about other aspects, such as her life prior to the war and her once-burgeoning career. YouTubeShe is now a professional channel for political consultants. She joked that she was a “different kind of political consultant now.” Speaking to Melaniya it seemed clear that what she wanted to convey wasn’t anger toward Russia but rather a warning: as much we all wanted to believe the world had changed—through increased social, cultural, and economic connections—it really hadn’t. And this message wasn’t coming from her alone; it was also coming out of my pocket, where an app blared an air raid siren.

The meeting was scheduled for that evening. with Dmytro Potekhin, a journalist and one of the organizers of the 2004 Orange Revolution, which overturned the corrupt result of that year’s presidential election. Dmytro Potekhin was a journalist and one of the organizers for the 2004 Orange Revolution, which saw the Russian population mobilize in a similar color revolution to the one Dmytro took part in. He was on the phone with me from Kyiv, and like everyone else I’d spoken to, Dmytro wasn’t optimistic. “Do I think a colored revolution is possible in Russia? Perhaps. Theoretically Russia could be democratic, though historically it hasn’t happened.”

Dmytro explained how, in 2005 and 2006, he’d traveled to Russia and trained their dissidents in the strategies and tactics of non-violent resistance. Why then had these dissidents not succeeded in Russia? “The problem is cultural,” he said. “Russian culture expects a single leader. Others societies have flatter leaders. They’re not as vertical as Russia. Russians are able to create movements that evolve into vertical organizations with an executive at the top. See Navalny. You can see how Navalny was able to create a huge anti-corruption movement. Instead, he built a vertical organization around himself. Although I attempted to help Russians build decentralized networks they always built corporate structures with top-ranking officers and regional heads. Once the guy on the top is detained and once the regional offices are raided, the organization is stopped.”

Dmytro saw some hopeful green shoots. “Putin has finally taken off his mask. He is now seen as he really is by the entire world. When I was working in Donetsk as a journalist, in 2014 I was taken into custody and placed in a concentration camp. They’re calling us Nazi’s but they’re the ones running concentration camps. This was eight years ago. Was the world aware that there were concentration camps back then? They didn’t. The war started first for Crimea. They then moved on to the Donbas. Now, they wish to rule all of Ukraine. Will the world allow Russia to set up concentration camps in all of Ukraine?”

Consider the Russians and their co-operation over many years. What about figures like Marina Ovsyannikova and the hope for others like her, on which so much of the West’s strategy seems to depend, at least for now?

“I know many Ukrainians don’t trust her because she helped start the war. It will be her, and others like her, who stop the war. It’s great that such things happen, but the point isn’t to make heroes or villains of these people, the point is to stop Putin.”

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