As I have mentioned before, my family has a Russian connection. So the invasion of Ukraine is much more than another piece of grim news in my mind. I did not think Russia would go as far as violating the entirety of its southern neighbor. I was so wrong.
“Near abroad” (blizhneye zarubezhye) is the term chosen by Russia to designate the Soviet republics that became independent in the late 1980s and early 1990s, leading to the fast-paced collapse of the USSR. In the past three decades Russia has kept a strong grip on near abroad countries whenever possible. What has just happened in Ukraine is arguably the most egregious evidence of this, but there have been many other moves throughout the years — most recently the military support swiftly provided to repress popular demonstrations in Kazakhstan.
Vladimir Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine shows a degree of cynicism and a contempt for human life, national sovereignty, democracy, and truth unfathomable for most of us. His shifting rhetoric, from claiming to merely come to the rescue of Ukraine’s pro-Russian eastern territories to proclaiming that Russia’s mission is to “de-nazify” the whole country (whose president Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish…) echoes Soviet propaganda bleakly.
It doesn’t matter what Putin and his clique say. Their goal is very plain: they want to demonstrate that Russia should be feared and that near abroad nations should never think they are free to self-determine (in particular if they share a common origin with Russia and are culturally as close as Ukraine).
I sometimes hear that Russia’s aggression is a direct consequence of how carelessly the country was treated by the West in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is no doubt that the loss of power and the quasi destitution Russia went through in the 1990s is a most painful memory for those who experienced it. But the primary cause for this crisis was the monumental failure of the Soviet system itself. Bitterness calls for enemies, whether real or alleged.
In the words of a political commentator I heard on the French radio: “We have long said Putin lives in his own world. Now he’s brought us into it.” As a European, I am ashamed that Europe is just watching and carefully calibrating economic sanctions. It was evidently Putin’s bet that Europe, and the West in general, would stop short of intervening. In his world, he has proven that Russia is stronger than the West. I don’t claim to know for sure if and how a military intervention should be conducted, but I believe our present response is neither honorable nor safe in the long run.
Some reporters and analysts seem to think that many Russians are opposed to this war. I am not so sure myself. I have Russian friends who disapprove of the invasion but I am afraid they belong to a minority. Most Russians get their news from TV and Russian TV channels are controlled by the government. Even assuming the overall sentiment is not in favor of the war, it is clear enough that very few are ready to say so publicly. Free speech has been attacked relentlessly by Russian authorities over the last two decades. It has cost journalists and activists their safety or even their life.
Russia is dear to me in many ways. For the people I have met and spent time with there — not least the many long conversations with my best Russian friend in her Moscow kitchen back in our youth. For its cities and its landscapes, always in a corner of my mind (together with fond memories of my trips to Ukraine). For its treasure of a language. For its literature, that has given me much more than most French authors ever have. For its ravishing classical music.
On the other hand, Russia has become less and less easy for me to love. This old country has known democracy only fleetingly and clumsily — a few months in 1917 (between the February Revolution and the October Revolution) and a few years in the 1990s, before the advent of Putin’s era. How can it be that a people lets itself be consistently used and abused by its rulers into the 21st century? How can it be that no opposition ever seems strong enough to reverse this fate? Or maybe I should wonder how a significant section of the Russian nation could be expected to stand up for the Ukrainians when brutalization has been a constant frame of reference in czarist, communist, and post-communist times?
I am thinking of the people in Ukraine. People killed and wounded. People staying put or fleeing wherever they can. People scared and powerless — not unlike the characters of The White Guard, Mikhail Bulgakov’s extraordinary novel set in Kiev during the Russian Civil War a century ago. I am also thinking of the three million Ukrainians living in Russia, fearing for the lives of their loved ones back home and for their own safety. War has returned to Europe and there can never be any justification for this turn of events.