My splendid but troubled return to Ukraine
What’s up Mr. Putin’s sleeve this time?
But there must be some eventual limits, even for him. Although Ukraine is the prize, and despite his tireless efforts to extract it in any way possible, the newly reformed and prosperous country still remains off limits. Not just because the West says so but more importantly the Ukrainians say so by an overwhelming choice. Despite the obstacles, these matters were never respected by him, hence the collapse of the Budapest 1994 Memorandum that assured security guarantees for Ukraine. But after President Yeltsin’s time, this “paper” was finally ripped up by Putin.
Therefore, the burning question still remains: what if the unthinkable really happens and there is an all-out war? Clearly this is at bottom an artificial matter that centres around one person, and one person alone, as he at the Kremlin continues to spin the contrivance that Russia is facing a military threat. As Putin surely knows, what he is really facing is the threat of democracy and a successful Ukraine.
This January I had the chance to put this searching matter to the Ukrainian people themselves. It was with some pleasure, as I have been there many times before, but also with some minor apprehension, that I visited to help make a tourism film. I bought a train ticket from Nyugati to the Záhony frontier, where a small local train took myself and a few others across the River Tisza bridge and into Chop, Ukraine.
Here I alighted, to be greeted by some high-spirited friends and I looked forward to hearing them explain matters along the way as our project took us to the atmospheric and snow-filled Kolochava in the nearby hills and valleys.
Kolochava, although relatively near Hungary, could also be said to be so far away from it all. This delightful old-style village high up in the Synevyr National Park is a real step back in time and makes a great getaway. With a splendour of wooden structures, local legends and much outdoor tourism, here is a place to find some welcome relief from today’s bad news about the Covid virus, illegal migration, environmental issues and military build-ups, as well as being a delightful site to make a wintertime tourism film.
Of course, my family and friends were concerned about this trip, and I felt a little uncomfortable myself, but at least the nearby Carpathian peaks provide a safe haven, for now at least, if only because this region is distant from much else. To put this matter into perspective, it is 300 kilometres from Budapest to Uzhgorod, which is at Ukraine’s westernmost tip. The distance from the Hungarian capital to Kyiv is about the same as Budapest to Brussels, then further still to the conflict zones in eastern Ukraine.
It is fair to say that the present undercurrent of tension can be traced to the theory that when the West is down or appears weak, underdog dictators can seize the chance to strike out. This was the case in 2014 when Russia made its first of many bids to attack Ukraine by illegally annexing Crimea.
“Crimea is ours” was one simple justification, and it did not end there as, despite outside awareness, soon afterwards Russia took its “interests” to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions on the eastern side of Ukraine. With minimal media coverage from then onwards, the defiant Russians, or “Russian-backed separatists”, continued their disruptions with relative ease despite strong resilience from the Ukraine side and further sanctions from the West.
A short while later came the inadvertent downing of the MH17 Malaysia Airlines passenger flight as it passed the disputed regions on the way from Holland to Malaysia. The list of war crimes continues, as do Russian denials and passing of all blame elsewhere.
An unabashed and autocratic Russia has no change in plan. The underlying truth remains that it wants Ukraine at whatever price and is willing to fight everything for it, despite the monumental challenge it faces. As shown in the Minsk agreements, which have been violated time and time again, it’s all-out jungle warfare all the way with this superpower versus a considerably smaller but not necessarily weaker Ukraine. The latter is not only propping up its own territory but also defending the rest of Europe too.
Ukraine’s military has NATO assistance and is engaging in greater cooperation at large with the allied Western world. The country is more powerful and better prepared for total war with Russian forces than ever before, but even so it’s unfortunate that Ukraine is still not a member of NATO yet. Pitifully, many people from far and wide still confuse Ukraine with Russia. The Russians themselves always push the claim that they are one and the same, and should remain so. Ukraine dismisses this outright, and with valid reasons as documented in the history books.
Another big difference is that the Kremlin’s mindset is still stuck in the Soviet sphere. Ukraine wants no part in President Putin’s vain obsessions and wants to move far away from his tiresome attributes and live in freedom with a democratic future.
My feeling is that Putin has ultimately made a catastrophic geopolitical mistake and has lost Ukraine. What he has not accounted for is the pride of the Ukrainians, who will not surrender regardless of outside help. This nation is more united, more determined than ever to see this through. It is now approaching two generations since the potentially successful country gained independence in 1991, and the vast majority will never accept outside rule again.
Dictator Putin has invested heavily in his grandiose plan to conquer Ukraine and restore the Soviet Union, and he urgently needs a “victory” to justify the bravado. If he fails to reign like an emperor it would be a huge humiliation to him and his legacy. He will be finished and will have to answer to the world.
For NATO to still look credible, this alliance must prove its worth once and for all. The West must fully unite and prove steadfast in its democratic approaches and capabilities. But no matter the finale, it is of paramount importance that it must not be the West which pulls the trigger. Doing so would give Putin the chance he has long been waiting for, to justify the West as being the aggressor.
As I ended my brief time there, not under the shadow of conflict but with local friends and coffee shop calm and sedateness, again I left with pleasant memories. I made my return to my eerily quiet and empty hotel for one last night before taking my final leave, happy to see that life carries on regardless of adversities. Putting everything aside, the lesser known Ukraine is still a great country with much on offer, and certainly I shall return regardless of the mean-spirited spectre.