Like many globally in this media-saturated world, I’m distressed about the ongoing invasion of Ukraine by its larger neighbor Russia. For weeks, we’ve seen reports of a buildup of Russian troops and military equipment along the borders with Ukraine. Now it seems that troops and equipment are on the move and a full-scale invasion has started. The aim, as nearly all American pundits and experts tell us, is to topple the existing Ukrainian government and to install a regime more to Russia’s liking.
This is a scenario that has played out countless times throughout history by whatever superior military power desired to dominate its neighbor(s). The United States of America has not been immune to using such tactics, despite our protestations of “spreading democracy,” and so on.
Problems can arise in the aftermath of a military conquest, as we’ve seen most recently and tragically in contemporary Afghanistan. Conquering and governing are two rather different domains. Once a new regime gets installed, who repairs the infrastructure that’s been damaged or destroyed during the conquest? Who provides the basic necessities—food, clothing, shelter—to a cowed, needy, and probably sullen civilian population? Who firms up borders and stems the outflow of brain and talent of those eager and able to leave? Who works to reduce the likelihood that resentments will fester and eventually result in further armed conflicts when the balance of military power shifts?
I’ve never traveled in Ukraine. Prior to the current war, my main point of reference to Ukraine was the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, a now-decommissioned power plant near the Ukrainian/Russian border, about 70 miles from Kyiv. Much earlier, I was taught courses in Russian language and culture by a college professor who’d escaped from Ukraine during the final days of World War II. When “Dr. K.” taught us, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was near its height, the Cold War was raging, and the availability of non-official information about conditions in any socialist republic was severely limited. As our language facility in Russian improved, Dr. K. showed us articles from the Soviet press that glorified the Soviet state without mentioning any possible problems.
An ancillary point of reference to things Ukrainian: I’d learned to recognize a musical piece, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” I liked the somewhat ponderous music, but didn’t make much effort to visualize an actual gate. It turns out that there was not actually a “great gate” when composer Modest Mussorgsky wrote his piece during the late 19th century. The Kiev-related piece was the final composition of a suite called “Pictures at an Exhibition” that featured an artist’s rendering of what a memorial gate might look like. It would have celebrated the survival of Tsar Alexander II after a failed 1866 assassination attempt. In much earlier times, there had been a gate, erected during the 11th century reign of Yaroslav the Wise as part of city fortifications. (Per the sources I referenced, an actual memorial gate was reconstructed in Kyiv in 1982 by a then-waning USSR.)
The impulse to conquest seems to be part of our human heritage, from the earliest cave dweller with a bigger club, through the desolation wrought by 1940’s era fire bombings and atomic bombs, through the 1990’s Rwandan genocide conducted mostly with machetes, plus all the other “more conventional” weaponry used before and since. If we are to survive as a species, it seems to me that we need to cultivate more assiduously a countervailing impulse to nurture. The members of the military I know best and most admire are much more eager to assist after natural or man-made disasters than they are eager for combat and conquest. The ongoing disaster of our current global viral pandemic, plus the slower-moving planet-wide disaster that is climate change, can use all our ingenuity and empathy. These and other disasters call out for the greatest exercise of our nurturing sides that we can muster.
If or when Kyiv “falls,” then what?