Despite Putin’s bluster, Ukrainians look to West

To understand why Ukrainians are risking war with Russia to try to pluck themselves from Moscow’s grip, I came to this village where my father grew up.

The kids here learn English and flirt in low-cut bluejeans. They listen to Rihanna, AC/DC and Taylor Swift. They have crushes on George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, watch “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy,” and play Grand Theft Auto. The school here has computers and an Internet connection, which kids use to watch YouTube and join Facebook. Many expect to get jobs in Italy or Spain — perhaps even America.

“We feel our souls are European,” Margaryta Maminchuk, 16, told me. “That is why we are part of Europe’s future.”

The village school, which is in my great-uncle’s old family mansion, invited me to speak to an assembly, and I asked the students how many identified as European. Nearly all raised their hands.

These villagers aren’t “important” and claim no sophisticated understanding of international events. But it’s average Ukrainians like them who are turning this country around, defying President Vladimir Putin of Russia and his military, quite simply, because they dream to the West.

On past visits to this village, which my family fled in the 1940s, it seemed impossibly backward. It was near the Romanian border, a world apart from Kiev, the capital, and even a decade ago many houses lacked electricity and plumbing. Horses did the plowing. Nobody spoke English. If people went abroad, it was to Russia.

Yet Ukraine has changed and opened up. Almost everyone now has electricity, plumbing and television, and many young men and women have traveled to Italy to find jobs. There is bewilderment that Poland is now so much richer than Ukraine — and resentment at Moscow for holding Ukrainians back.

For people with such fondness for American culture, there is disappointment that President Barack Obama hasn’t embraced Ukraine more firmly.

“The U.S. is being very slow and cautious,” said Anatoly Marinchuk, a retiree, scolding gently. “You should be firmer, and quicker with financial assistance.”

He’s right, I think. It’s not just Ukrainians who are watching, and Putin himself, but all the world. We don’t have great tools, but we can do more.

As Wesley Clark and Phillip Karber, two U.S. military experts, suggested in a report to the Obama administration, the United States can do a far better job supplying nonlethal assistance to the Ukrainian military, in part to deter Russia. We can make clearer that Russia would face devastating banking sanctions if it invades Ukraine. We can send more officials on visits, and Obama would warm hearts if he found a way to quote the national poet and hero, Taras Shevchenko.

Ukrainians hope to avoid a war with Russia that they know they would lose. But many believe deeply that their futures depend on reorienting their country to the West. That they won’t compromise on.

Ukraine faces difficult times ahead, but tectonic forces are propelling it westward. In the battle between Putin and Taylor Swift, I bet on Swift.

“We love your culture, and we want to be part of you,” one man from Donetsk told me, almost beseechingly. “If you abandon us, we will never forgive you.”

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