Tolstoy & Putin in the Ukraine

by Paul Olson, NFP President Emeritus

Once again, the Crimea has become the locus of peacemaking.

In the 1850s, a young Russian officer named Leo Tolstoy was so appalled by what he and his troops did and saw in the Crimean War that he wrote Sevestapol Sketches, the first modern fiction debunking war’s glory. ( After this came his War and Peace, pacifist novels and tracts, and his students Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the later Nelson Mandela.

Now we revisit Crimea with talk of ‘Putin’s war’ and the need for ‘strong action’ against him with (in the poet W.H. Auden’s words) all “the windiest militant trash important people shout.”

The Washington fairy tale would have us believe that the good Ukrainian democrats, ruled by the bad pro-Russian Ukrainian tyrant, freed themselves in a popular uprising, whereupon the really, really bad Russian tyrant made war, and only the decency of the West kept everything from destruction. But, they say, we might still have to fight for democracy and truth and pluralism.

The fairy tale, however, does not square with the facts. Those so-called ‘democratic’ Ukrainian forces—especially those affiliated with the party “Svoboda”—marched against President Yanukovich with swastikas on their flags and armbands ( And they attacked Jews. Haaretz, the liberal Jerusalem newspaper has documented extensively the neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism of the movement ( A report in the UK’s Guardian newspaper noted that most of the protesters in Kiev are not interested in democracy at all. “You’d never know from most of the reporting that far-right nationalists and fascists have been at the heart of the protests and attacks on government buildings,” Guardian reporter Seumas Milne observed.

When the protestors acquired power, they voted to forbid all languages save Ukrainian, banned Russian media, and moved toward banning minority political parties. Torchlight neo-Nazi parades glorifying Holocaust collaborators have been commonplace of late ( The government has appointed four neo-Nazis as cabinet ministers, including most alarmingly the Minister of Defense. Putin rightly calls fascists these descendants of ancestors who welcomed the Nazis in 1941 and who received a Ukrainian “Reichskommissariat” from Hitler. They fully collaborated in anti-Semitic purges and genocide.

The Ukraine is an unstable, nonce country. The medieval Kievan Empire, founded around 1000 A.D., first came under the Polish/Lithuanian Empire, then the Ottoman, and then the Russian until the 1850s Crimean War, when the Brits, French and Turks came in again—ostensibly under the guise of protecting the rights of Western pilgrims to visit the holy places in Jerusalem, but in fact to reduce Russian power and prevent Russia from having a warm-water port at Sevastopol. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Ukrainians collaborated with the West and the White Russians to attempt to throw out the Bolsheviks. They lost and, for their pains, experienced the mass killings of their rich farmers, the Kulaks—perhaps millions of them—in the 1930s. As they became a Soviet Socialist Republic, Stalin gave them Odessa from modern Moldova and Khrushchev gave them Crimea and Sevastopol from Russia, illustrating the fluidity of Ukraine’s borders. The Crimea was not, until recently, even a part of the Ukraine.

When the Soviet Union broke up, the Ukraine did not enter the Russian Federation, but became a member of the Commonwealth of Independent states, tied loosely to Russia by trade, work and immigration arrangements.

Crimea went with Ukraine then, but the assumption was that Russia would furnish fossil fuel to the Ukraine and Crimea, that Crimea would provide Russia with Sevastopol as an accessible warm-water port, and that the continental Ukraine would provide the near-desert Crimean Peninsula and Sevastopol with fresh water and electricity. Ukraine voluntarily and intelligently turned over its nuclear weapons to Russia in compliance with the START treaty, and, in return, Russia, Europe, and the U.S. guaranteed Ukraine’s borders.

A good deal? But the deal, even without the Ukrainian uprising, does not reckon with U.S., European Union and NATO expansionism or with Russia’s need for buffering—both from invasion and economic instability. Russia (as the Soviet Union) lost 30 million people in the European conflicts of World Wars I and II, over a hundred times as many as the U.S. lost, and modern historians credit the U.S.S.R. with the heavy lifting in winning the Second World War. The European Union was the group that, for no good reason, required that the Ukraine choose between Russia and the West. Buffers were needed when Czarist Russia had to contend with Napoleon’s invasion, when U.S. and European invasion forces supported the White Russians and Mensheviks, and when Hitler’s invasion forces destroyed millions. They are needed now.

Indeed, the Iron Curtain, tyranny that it enclosed, was designed to provide the U.S.S.R. a buffer against European incursion. Even after the fall of the Soviets, when I lectured in Moldova in 1996, the people clearly understood the danger of moving too close to the West. (Americans forget that we’ve had the whole Western hemisphere as a buffer since the “Monroe Doctrine,” that we invaded Grenada to protect a very few American students that did not need protection, and that the very European Union that now offers close affiliation to the Ukraine takes its leadership from Russia’s historic nemeses: France and Germany.)

Since 1991, Russia has lost almost all of its buffers, the Balkan Peninsula, Hungary, the Czechoslovak area, Poland, the Balkan states and Finland. Is Ukraine, once the Russian nation’s agricultural heartland, next? For comparison, how would Americans feel about giving the Great Plains to Mexico?

Many Russians believe their country’s misery after the Soviet Union’s collapse, its poverty under Boris Yeltsin’s oligarchs, was ignored and/or relished by the West. They also believe that the creation of the European Union and NATO—with their efforts at the assimilation of the Ukraine—is a step toward recreating the misery of Yeltsin’s time, even if they do not accept the allegation that the Ukraine’s movement toward the European Union was sponsored by the CIA and Western corporations. In fact, when a 2009 Gallup poll asked Ukrainians whether they saw NATO as a threat or protection for Ukraine, 40 percent saw NATO as a threat, 17 percent saw NATO as protection, and 33 percent saw NATO as neither.

A Russia on its knees is far more dangerous than a Russia rebuilding—just as a chaotic 1920s-early ’30s Germany destroyed by inflation and chaos within was more dangerous than would have been a Germany creating a civil society. Europe needs to pull back from absorbing more of Russia’s buffer states into the European Union. Ukraine appears to have pulled back from seeking integration into NATO. NATO should perhaps pull back from its present boundaries. We need to concentrate on helping Russia create stable civic institutions.

Of course, Putin is wrong. He is himself an oligarch and the authoritarian arbiter among the oligarchs who rule his domain ( Bribery is the primary mode of governing in his realm. He has also committed plenty of sins against the peace movement’s Tolstoyan efforts to achieve peace—in Chechnya, in South Ossetia, in Abkhazia, in Georgia and in his dealing with Yanukovych in the Ukraine. However, he has promised that he will not seek to absorb the Ukraine, not even the Russian-dominated eastern Ukraine.

Of course, the Ukraine needs to be respected. Of course it needs food and economic help and UN observers. But, most of all, it needs neutrality in order to take on the moderating middle position that geopolitics requires it to occupy. Nebraskans for Peace has asked that the outstanding issues of concern in the Ukrainian area be presented to the UN General Assembly for full international discussion and mediation.

The kind of misery that Tolstoy saw at Sevastopol and that propelled him to found the modern peace movement needs to be remembered, particularly now when the stakes at risk are far greater than at the time of the Crimean War.

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