By Steve Richards
This past January when I made it to Kyiv I posted a video (Hello from Kyiv! Wish You Were Here) showing how normal – if somewhat empty – Kyiv seemed. Shops open; people on the streets; plenty of restaurants to choose from; Ubers available; trains running, it was a far cry from my first visit in April 2022, a month after the full-scale invasion. The post triggered a somewhat alarming reply on Facebook though. A question being asked increasingly in America: “Why should we bother to help Ukraine?” This was my reply:
“Imagine the USA with the east coast and Florida under Russian control but you're in Chicago and everything is open. But the Russians are also best buddies with Canada and have already launched an attack from there that almost succeeded but was repelled, but still threatening to happen again in the coming months. Also imagine ongoing missiles and drone strikes. Then imagine a tourist coming and taking pics for a week while things are good. So, try to take my video in context.”
Since then I’ve thought A LOT about this question. Because as obvious as it is to me, it’s not obvious to many in the USA. So let me give it a more thoughtful try.
A Cold War Kid
A Cold War Kid means I was brought up in the time before Gorbachev and was already 30 years old at the time Ukraine achieved its independence in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s break up in 1991. The Cold War began at the end of the second world war and was framed as an ideological, political, economic, cultural war between capitalism and democracy on one hand, versus communism and autocracy on the other. All in a new technological age of missiles, nuclear weapons and the resulting nuclear arms race as the menacing backdrop. It was deemed “cold” because the USA and the USSR didn’t fire shots at each other. Rather we fought largely through our proxies and our spies.
If you want to do the math I am 62 now and for each of those years I’ve been under threat from nuclear attack by Russia. All of us in the USA have been – and still are. When I was born in 1960 ICBMs were a new thing and the Soviet Union and USA had enough pointed at each other, along with bombers and submarine-based missiles, to wipe each other out. Growing up in the cold war meant we all knew we were under constant threat and there was nothing we could do about it. I personally remember coming to this realization in middle school. We knew that Russia and the Soviets were not our buddies. In fact, if not for all our weapons and NATO they might kill us all if they could. They still can:
Putin controls around 5,977 such warheads as of 2022, compared to 5,428 controlled by U.S. President Joe Biden, according to the Federation of American Scientists. Around 1,500 of those Russian warheads are retired (but probably still intact), 2889 are in reserve and around 1588 are deployed strategic warheads. About 812 are deployed on land-based ballistic missiles, about 576 on submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and around 200 at heavy bomber bases, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Factbox: Russia's nuclear arsenal: How big is it and who controls it? | Reuters
Intriguingly, a lot of those missiles used to be based in Ukraine. But, In the aftermath of the Soviet breakup Ukraine voluntarily gave up their nukes in return for security guarantees from the USA, the UK, and, incredibly, Russia. This deal was memorialized in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Russia took control of Ukraine’s nuclear stockpiles. Those nukes are still meant for one place though; the USA and its allies, as we are frequently reminded by Putin, his generals, the Russian press, milbloggers, etc.
So, in keeping an eye on our own personal self-interest let’s not lose sight of America’s #1 nemesis for the past 78 years.
It is Russia.
The Cold War has gotten hotter but it’s the same war we’ve been fighting since WWII.
Ukraine is the hot but hopefully final battlefield of this long struggle. A spectacular strategic result that Harry Truman and cold warriors like Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan, and the rest could only have dreamt about.
NATO came out of the Truman presidency in 1947 as a bulwark against Soviet expansion because we understood what Stalin’s Soviet Union meant. In Ukraine for instance Stalin starved millions to death in what is now known as the Holodomor in the early 1930s. After WWII we settled into a world with an Iron Curtain separating east from west with Ukraine firmly in the east under Soviet domination. Other countries behind the curtain included Poland, Czech Republic, East Germany, the Baltics, Slovakia, the list goes on.
This is the world I grew up in as a Cold War kid. We thought it would last forever. But the weight of communism as a failed system, plus Reagan’s policies and détente with Mikhail Gorbachev brought upon the Soviet Union’s dissolution. The Iron Curtain fell and all of those countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain are now part of NATO.
No one had to coerce these countries to join. They all wanted to because they understood what being dominated by Russia means. They remember. Ukraine itself was more or less promised it would eventually be admitted to NATO at the 2008 Bucharest Summit. NATO has since dragged its feet on the issue to keep Russia happy. Putin’s blunder changed all that with his full-scale invasion turning Ukraine into a de-facto member of NATO but without the security guarantees. The entire alliance is, however, supporting and pouring weapons into Ukraine and inviting them to join the EU. The exact opposite of Putin’s plan.
Over their long history Ukraine has been fought over by Vikings, Mongols, Cossacks, Lithuanians, Poles, Ottoman Turks, Russians, Napoleon, Hapsburgs, Nazis, the list goes on. In 988 Kyiv’s Prince Volodymyr Christianized the Kievan Rus region more than a century before Moscow was a spot on the map. It is more accurate to say that Russia grew out of Ukraine than Russia’s Orwellian claims otherwise. Ukraine Has Seen Centuries of Conflict (history.com)
For NATO to have such a strong ally in Ukraine is something few imagined even a year ago. Yet there it is…and getting stronger. All without NATO firing a shot. From the USA’s perspective it is a strategic gift. Especially when Finland’s 800-mile NATO border expansion is factored in. Ukraine knows the horrors Russia represents – and how to fight them having been at war with them since 2014. They survived Stalin and endless decades of Soviet domination, and they are beating back the Russians now. They are keeping their independence.
A big part of what Ukrainians are fighting for is their cultural identity. Their history, their music, their art, their language, their literature, their heroes, and their religions are all under attack. They want to raise their children to know these things – and to love their country. Russia is trying to tell the world that these things just don’t exist and need to be wiped out or at least co-opted – a cultural genocide if you will. It is as bizarre as arresting Russians who say there is a war going on rather than a “Special Military Operation”. It is hard for those of us in the West to understand what it is like to live in such a place. Ukrainians know all too well.
In many ways there is a theological, even metaphysical, war going on within the shelling. Ukrainian Catholics were forced underground during the Soviet era. I personally know priests that studied for the priesthood under threat of death in the Soviet system. Christianity and religion are part of the political apparatus in Russia. Not so in Ukraine. It is one of the freedoms Ukraine is fighting for.
There is no going back. It is their chance.
In all, the USA has now pledged more than $35 billion in military assistance to Ukraine since Russia invaded nearly 14 months ago. U.S. to boost Ukraine’s air defenses with $2.6 billion weapons package - The Washington Post
With roughly $6 trillion in government spending this amounts to about one half of 1% (.006) of our annual budget. It is also less than the cost of one good sized hurricane. As a percentage of the US economy this amounts to an insignificant amount. Compare this to what we spent in Afghanistan where we spent roughly two trillion dollars and thousands of soldiers dead, for an ally that chose not to fight.
Ukraine is the opposite. When the war started Kyiv was expected to fall in days. Instead, Ukraine’s blood combined with NATO’s arms is exhausting Russia’s military and putting a severe hurt on its economy. Russia’s relationship with Europe is in tatters. Europe’s dependence on Russian energy? No longer.
All this while demonstrating to our adversaries just how strong we are. Ukraine is a real-world proving ground for American weapons, and a chance to observe the Russians in action. Ukraine's great value in helping test US military equipment (msn.com). Business is booming as we support one of the best armies in the world: Ukraine’s. U.S. arms exports up 49% in fiscal 2022 | Reuters.
And that inflation and higher gas price issue. Not so much. 'CPI March 2023: Inflation rose 0.1% in March, and 5% from a year ago' (cnbc.com)
Allow Russia to win? Instead of the end of the Cold War we will reignite it. NATO will have threats and possible outcomes that will require so much more than $35 billion a year to counteract.
If there is one thing I have come to know in my two months in Ukraine over the past year it is that Ukrainians are just like us. They have the same values, the same hopes, the same basic goals: to build their homes and families in peace and freedom. They just happen to be next door to a vicious neighbor bent upon old imperial habits. Russia will need to lose this war to learn its lesson and hopefully become a productive member of the world like all the other old imperial powers have. Russia is an anachronism, and its people and neighbors suffer as a result.
In Ukraine we have a staunch ally that simply needs our guns, our support, and our prayers. I hope that my films will help maintain the USA’s support as Ukraine’s soldiers remind us of our Minuteman roots. The Spirit really does work in mysterious ways.