Editor’s Note: In January 2022, we asked Brian Bonner to write this essay about tensions between Russia and Ukraine. On the one-year anniversary this week of the war between the two nations, we are reposting it.
My last assignment for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where I spent more than 20 years as a journalist, was covering a referendum in suburban Mendota Heights in which voters decided to keep its family-friendly municipal par 3 golf course and not sell it to housing developers.
That was 2007. Within a year, I would be leading the English-language Kyiv Post newspaper in Ukraine. During the 14 years that followed, the stories were radically different but many revolved around the same unending drama of how to survive living next to a violent, imperialistic Russia bent on destroying Ukraine as an independent nation and rewriting the end of the Cold War to establish a new Iron Curtain across Europe.
If that happens, and it’s possible if the West keeps appeasing Vladimir Putin, then the damage will be felt even in the comfortable Dakota County suburbs that I loved covering for my home state.
Ukraine comes and goes from the international headlines, mainly for themes that involve the three Cs—corruption, Chernobyl, and the legacy of communism. Corruption factored into the impeachment of U.S. President Donald J. Trump, but that time it was American corruption, not the notorious Ukrainian variety, in the spotlight.
Russia’s current threat of a deeper invasion of Ukraine is rightly generating a flurry of diplomatic activity and extensive news coverage. But it’s not just about Ukraine. It’s about what kind of world we want to live in.
How the West responds to Putin’s bullying, blackmail and forcible redrawing of boundaries will determine whether democracy advances or retreats globally, whether such small nations as Sweden and Finland, who Putin wants to forbid from joining NATO, can determine their own destinies.
So far, the Western response is dismal. Politicians have mostly cowered in the face of Kremlin aggression, which included invasions of Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, and Syria in 2015. In the last year alone, Russian troops have put down pro-democracy protests in Kazakhstan and Belarus.
Russian troops seldom leave places they have invaded. Today, Russia controls 7% of Ukrainian territory, including the Crimean Peninsula and a slice of the eastern industrial region known as the Donbas. Its forces have killed 14,000 Ukrainians and displaced more than 1.5 million others in eight years.
Russia controls 20% of Georgia. Its troops are in Moldova and the disputed region between Azerbaijan and Armenia, all former Soviet republics. And Kremlin troops remain in Syria, not on the side of angels but rather of a dictator who has repeatedly used banned chemical weapons to kill his own people, all for the sake of staying in power.
Military force is just one part of a Kremlin arsenal that includes murder, jailing, poisonings, cyber-attacks, corruption, propaganda and interference in Western elections to achieve its aims. Under Joseph Stalin, the Kremlin starved 4 million Ukrainians to death in the 1932-1933 Holodomor to get the rest to submit to his rule. Stalin got away with that and more. Today, Putin is getting away with being an international outlaw.
Is it any wonder that the tepid economic sanctions and toothless verbal warnings haven’t deterred Putin from his dream of righting what he regards as the 20th century’s greatest wrong: the collapse of the Soviet Union?
This is why Putin is so obsessed with Ukraine, which he regards as an integral part of Russia, even though 40 million Ukrainians regard themselves as a separate nation and people. For him, Ukraine is the big fish in the former Soviet empire that got away—or is getting away.
To Russians, Putin portrays the desire of Ukrainians for a future as a democratic nation within the European Union and NATO as a Western plot. It isn’t. Ukrainians demand freedom, including honest elections. They have voted out presidents and parliaments many times since leaving Moscow’s rule in 1991. Russia, meanwhile, has been stuck with Putin for more than 20 years, with no hope of changing.
A recurring theme in Ukrainian history is the willingness to fight for independence—and to fight to keep their own rulers in check. Ukraine has had three revolutions in as many decades to achieve these ends. And Ukrainians are responding to the prospect of a deeper invasion by more than 100,000 Russian troops on their border in ways that may confound Minnesotans.
Citizens are preparing for war. Even though the Russian military can easily defeat Ukraine’s armed forces, there are limits to military superiority—as America humiliatingly discovered during the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Russia would face stiff guerrilla resistance and be treated as a hostile occupying force by most Ukrainians. The talk in coffee shops is how to acquire and use sniper rifles. (Restrictions on gun ownership are far more severe than in gun-loving America). Men are subject to compulsory military service. Women are required to register for support roles in the event of all-out war. More than 4,000 bomb shelters have been identified.
Put simply, 40 million Ukrainians are not going to flee. I tell my Minnesota friends that I plan to stay put in Kyiv, where I have lived since 2008, because I think Ukrainians will prevail. If I had to bet, I would say that Putin will not risk an all-out invasion, but is conducting another of his many provocations to test Western and Ukrainian resolve.
It’s perfectly natural for Minnesotans to wonder why they should care about a nation 5,000 miles away from St. Paul’s Capitol. The truth, however, is that a Putin victory in Ukraine will only postpone the day of reckoning when the West will have to marshal their superior collective strength over Russia to put an end to this cancerous dictator with actions that say: Stop. No more.
Brian Bonner became chief editor of the Kyiv Post on June 9, 2008. He took on the additional responsibilities of executive director on March 21, 2018, following the purchase of the newspaper by businessman Adnan Kivan, owner of the KADORR Group in Odesa, Ukraine. Kivan fired him along with the entire staff on Nov. 8, 2021. Bonner announced his retirement on Nov. 30, 2021, after spending the last weeks winding down operations. Bonner also held the chief editor’s job in 1999, three years after first arriving in Ukraine on a journalism exchange program. He spent most of his career with the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota, where he covered international, national, and local news for more than 20 years as a staff writer, foreign correspondent, and assigning editor. Besides Ukraine, he has also reported from Russia, Belgium, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Norway, Poland, and the United Kingdom.