It is not easy to be Ukrainian in times of war. The vast flat plains, the steppe, which provide such extraordinary agricultural wealth in times of peace, are the enemy of national defense when (as too often happens) enemies arrive from east or west. There are few mountains or other natural barriers to the onrush of barbarians, from Mongol hordes to those of Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin.
That may not matter as much when a nation can rely on powerful allies to assist in times of crisis, but Ukraine has not been fortunate with its neighbors. Like other Central and East European nations situated between Germany and Russia, it has been eyed as a resource and an addition to their empires.
This has rendered the pursuit of peace all the more elusive for the Ukrainian people, who have a reasonable sense that they have been neglected and forsaken time and again.
It is this backdrop that informs current attitudes as the country once again fights for its national existence. A staggering 89% of Ukrainians reject any notion of ceding land to Russia for the sake of a peace deal. Such surveys do not ask what the attitude would be if the West pressed Ukraine to accept a deal, but Ukraine’s leaders and most observers accept that it would not change very much.
That is partly because Ukrainians already know what the Russian occupation means. Their experience in the current conflict is clear (video of a captured Ukrainian soldier, holding a cigarette and apparently killed by Russians in cold blood may shock a Western audience, but not here. There have been too many such cases to cause surprise).
There are still people alive today in Ukraine who remember the depredations unleashed by the Kremlin on their country. From the devastating forced famine of the 1930s, to the invasion of Crimea in 2014, to the current full-scale war being waged against them since February 2022, the memory of the past and of an indifferent or uncaring world are branded onto the national consciousness. Ukrainians remember what has happened in the past and apply it to their present.
Worst of all was the Holodomor, the most devastating recent chapter in Ukrainian history, a man-made famine engineered by Stalin that claimed the lives of perhaps 4 million people — and perhaps many more — from 1932 to 1933. The word itself, translated from Ukrainian, means “death by hunger,” but it is the detail that appalls; the story of a boy who would not visit a neighboring village because everyone was dead and no one was buried. And the crows.
As the Soviet government went door to door confiscating every last scrap of food, people were driven to desperate measures. They ate whatever they could find, including rats and grass, and some even resorted to cannibalism. Stalin’s goal was to break the Ukrainian people, destroy their national identity, and reduce them to submission.
The Soviet government’s cover-up was so effective that for decades it was impossible to even mention the famine in public. Any attempts to discuss or teach about the Holodomor were met with censorship and punishment. As a result, the world was largely unaware of Stalin’s genocide and the fact that Ukraine lost a staggering 13% of its population to the man-made famine. It wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet Union that the full truth finally came to light.
Yet the facts were not just hidden by the Soviet government, and they were buried by Western foreign correspondents and others who willfully ignored the atrocities. In some cases, journalists even promoted lies and fake news to curry favor with the Soviet authorities. One such was Walter Duranty, a correspondent for The New York Times, who was based in Moscow and enjoyed a lavish and licentious lifestyle. Duranty praised Stalin as a strong leader and was even awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the USSR. He wrote in 1933 that: “There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from disease due to malnutrition . . . conditions are bad. But there is no famine.” The heroic Welsh reporter, Gareth Jones, first reported the facts under his own name, but his dispatches were “snowed under by our denials,” as a repentant US correspondent later confessed. Jones was subsequently murdered, possibly in revenge, by Stalin’s NKVD.
In 2004, the pro-Russian faction led by Viktor Yanukovych attempted to garner support for a language-based division of Ukraine, but their efforts failed to win over voters. Pro-Kremlin forces then launched a propaganda campaign, falsely claiming that the pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko wanted to establish a “national dictatorship” and eliminate the Russian language. Yanukovych’s son even helped put up billboards in Donetsk city depicting Yushchenko in a Nazi uniform, making a Nazi salute and calling for the “purity of the nation.” That campaign culminated in 2014 with attempts to encourage Russian speakers in the east to join an uprising. Largely unsuccessful, the Kremlin then deployed troops and “local separatists,” who were in fact Kremlin proxies. In the summer of 2014, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukrainian territory.
Russia and its friends relied on widespread Western ignorance about Ukraine and pressed the idea that it was a complicated and longstanding dispute with rights and wrongs on both sides. European audiences were mesmerized and appalled but they were far from clear about who was the aggressor, and Western politicians were inclined to seek solutions to make the issue go away. No one described Ukraine’s travails, like Neville Chamberlain, as a “quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing,” but the sentiment was very similar. And because too many in the West eventually bought into a narrative of Ukrainian separatism, they remained hesitant to provide military aid. The truth was very different, however. A poll conducted by the International Republican Institute in March 2014 revealed that a mere 2% of people in Southern Ukraine and 4% in Eastern Ukraine supported the division of Ukraine and the creation of new states.
As tensions mounted before the February 2022 assault, Ukraine’s security chief Oleksiy Danilov warned the West against trying to force Ukraine to fulfill the Franco-German brokered Minsk agreements. He noted that Ukraine urgently needed more weapons to defend itself and criticized Germany for refusing to do so. Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed that Germany preferred a quick Russian military victory rather than a drawn-out war, and for years this had seemed to Ukrainians how they were viewed — a people engaged in an “internal conflict” in their own country.
The language of “separatism” used in Ukraine was Russian misinformation, designed to influence people in the West and convince the major European powers that it was not worth provoking Russia by getting involved in its aggressive intervention. For years, journalists in the West peddled this Russian propaganda and neglected the views of the Ukrainian people. Much like with the Holodomor, Western media too often repeated this narrative, as did governments, and even now, continue to use the term “separatists” for units of the Russian army under direct Russian command.
It requires knowledge and consistent concentrated effort to identify Russian disinformation and to see the war the way Ukraine sees it — as a grotesque act of imperialism by a large country against its peaceful neighbor. Only once that is accepted will Ukrainians begin to feel secure in the knowledge that their trauma is understood by a sympathetic and trustworthy West.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.