Kateryna Yushchenko is a woman you may want to get to know a bit. I podcasted with her about a week and a half ago, here. And I have a piece about her today, here. Her story — her family’s story — reflects that of Ukraine, over the last hundred years or so.
One grandfather fought in the Ukrainian War of Independence (1917–21). The other was hanged, for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” Some family members survived the Holodomor — the Terror-Famine — and some did not.
After a series of hardships (to put it mildly), Kateryna’s parents made it to Chicago. Kateryna went to Georgetown University and the University of Chicago. She worked in the Reagan State Department, in the area of human rights. Later, she worked in the Reagan White House.
She moved to Ukraine just before independence in 1991. Seven years later, she married Viktor Yushchenko, who was elected president in December 2004. He had survived a murder attempt — a poison attack, of the kind for which Vladimir Putin’s agents have become infamous.
There is much more, of course. Kateryna Yushchenko has seen, heard, and experienced a lot, and she describes the present situation in Ukraine — as so many Ukrainians do — as “surreal.”
In the media, across the world, you hear the term “Ukraine crisis.” In reality, though, the crisis is not about Ukraine. It is not about Joe Biden or the United States. Or NATO or the West. It is about Vladimir Putin: his desire to stay in power; his fright at nearby democracies; the need he feels to create mayhem. Here is an expansionist dictator, on the loose, invading other countries and redrawing borders. We have seen his like before.
People will try to fog up the fundamental issue. My advice is: Don’t let them. Fight your way through the fog. The Kremlin’s propaganda machine pumps out fog day and night. Fight through it.
Does Ukraine have a right to exist? A handful of countries have their very right to exist questioned: Israel, Taiwan, Ukraine. Does Ukraine have a right to exist as an independent, sovereign nation? Is it born to be subjugated by Moscow? A lot of people think so, including some Americans, who are either duped or malicious. This is what Ukrainians have to contend with. They have to assert their very right to exist: to live their lives, within their borders, unmolested.
And when they assert their right to exist — to determine their own destiny — many accuse them of being American puppets.
When Kateryna Yushchenko — née Chumachenko — married Viktor Yushchenko, she was of course accused of being a CIA plant. She sued a pro-Kremlin newspaper in Ukraine for libel and won. Her award: a whole dollar. (Which was all she had asked for. “It was the principle of the thing,” she says.)
When Hong Kong fell — that is, when the Chinese Communist Party rendered it a PRC city like any other — something occurred to me: When I was coming of age, I saw one city after another liberated: Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, etc. That was the trend of things. To see Hong Kong, a great, free city, “murdered before our eyes,” as the China scholar Perry Link put it, was horrifying.
To see Ukraine assaulted and re-subjugated — wrenched back into the imperial fold — would be equally horrifying, at a minimum.
Not for everyone, of course. J.D. Vance, the Republican running for Senate in Ohio, told Steve Bannon, “I think it’s ridiculous that we are focused on this border in Ukraine. I got to be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other.” There are worse things than not caring. Some are openly rooting for Putin’s assault — or excusing it, in advance.
What Putin fears most, say the best analysts we have, is a “color revolution” in Russia: such as the Orange in Ukraine or the Rose in Georgia. He knows perfectly well that his rule is illegitimate. That he is running a gangster state, an authoritarian kleptocracy.
“Putin is popular in Russia,” foreigners will tell you, including Americans. Uh-huh. Putin forbids free elections. Censors the press. Imprisons his opponents, when not killing them. Maybe he knows more about his popularity, or unpopularity, than do the foreigners who claim he is popular.
Russian oppositionists — independent journalists, democracy activists, anti-corruption campaigners — are among the bravest people on earth. I have written about them steadily over the years. Last month, I did a piece about Memorial, the leading civil-society and human-rights organization in Russia. The Kremlin has shut it down. I also wrote about Dmitry Muratov, the editor of Novaya Gazeta, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year. Six of his colleagues on the paper have been murdered. Another has just fled Russia, for her safety.
Two years ago, I did a report from Kyiv. Among the people I met was Vitaly Portnikov, a top Ukrainian journalist. In recent days, I’ve thought of a phrase he used: “pregnant with war.” Let me excerpt my report:
Turning to a grave issue . . . Portnikov says that “the post-Soviet space” is “pregnant with war.” Bismarck and others spoke of the Balkans as “the powder keg of Europe.” Here is another one, possibly. The United States and others should do all they can to uphold the international order and the rule of law. Big powers should not be allowed to invade smaller powers and rearrange borders. This is a recipe for disaster. Adventurism, unchecked, will spread.
Toward the end of our conversation, Portnikov made a simple point, and an important one: Nations have the right of self-determination. “We have the right to decide, ourselves, who we are, and how we want to live. We have a right to sovereignty.”
Who will stand with the Ukrainians? Who will stand with Russians who want a decent life and a decent government? Who will stand against aggressive, murderous, and expansionist dictatorship? There will be some — there are always some. Will there be enough?