Freedom is what you don’t notice when everything is alright. It seems so basic and undeniable a concept that we easily grow accustomed to it: we stop noticing its presence. The opportunity to join an NGO to address social problems that bother us without risking prosecution by the state, the ability to create a small enterprise without owing loyalty to any officials, or even simply the freedom to write an agitated Facebook post about recent government decisions. This last freedom is a particular favorite of Ukrainians, as evidenced by a new ruling party in each election cycle.
That is – Ukrainians loved this before they were forced to reorient their priorities towards defending their country against an assault on these fundamental freedoms and the opportunities they provide.
No opportunities like these exist in the state called Russia. They did not exist 30 years ago in Ukraine either – when Ukraine was still occupied by a state called the Soviet Union. The occupation of Ukraine lasted 70 years under the Soviets and a further 200 under the Russian Empire, interspersed with small periods of an independent Ukrainian state. As a consequence of all these years under occupation, since 1991 Ukrainians have been especially enjoying the sprouts of freedom. While the realization and full sensation of freedom have not yet reached everyone in Ukraine in these 30 years of independence, they have reached enough to detach Ukraine from its colonizer’s roots and develop a full voice of Ukrainian history that had previously been silenced.
What Russia tells the West about the West
It is noteworthy a country with such a low level of freedom can be so influential around the world.
Several young people I met in the UK in January told me that one of their sources for news about the UK is the media outlet called RT – Russia Today. One UK resident explained: if you want to learn facts about your country, it is better to read another country’s media than the media of your own country.
This is striking. Why would one need a distant – not to mention authoritarian, perhaps even totalitarian – country’s media to learn about internal issues in their own country? In the UK, Ukraine, and all western countries a range of internal media exists to showcase all viewpoints. Isn’t it local people who know the internal problems better and can solve them best?
The “news” in Russian media outlets mostly blames and accuses everyone around except for Russia and Russians.
Indeed, it is a fairly easy task to find weaknesses in another country’s politics and values. Providing constructive feedback and finding solutions to internal issues, however, is far more complicated. This can only be addressed internally as it requires intimate familiarity with not only the problems but also locally available resources, precedent, and culture. It is actually the most detrimental when a foreign country attempts to solve issues for another country – especially when these problems were originally created by the foreign country itself. Today’s Ukraine understands it clearly.
“Freedom is not about you, so please abstain”
Nearly 60% of Russian citizens supported the full-scale invasion of Ukraine when it began, an independent poll suggests; a further 71% feel pride in connection with the war. Yet, simultaneously, 88% of Russians want a friendly relationship with Ukraine. This is a classic trick of colonizers: if the “slave” (note that this is the role in which the colonizer views a “friend”) does not agree with the master, the master shoots the slave. This is why Russia now shoots civilians in Ukraine. This is the style of friendship Russia nurtures. As George Kennan, a US diplomat to Moscow, wrote in 1946, Russia lives up to the logic of force, not reason.
Likewise, Russian media in western countries works not through reason but through force: though it suggests conflicting and often incoherent narratives, the sheer volume of media present and the negative emotions of accusation, grievance, and fear presented has an undeniable impact. To accomplish its objectives, Russian media simply needs to highlight or invent faults in foreign governments and societies. As a side effect, it convinces people that western values are irrelevant or even destructive.
Like those in Russia, who live amidst constant informational frustration, some in the West also no longer know what to believe. As a result, the most precious value guaranteed by democratic governments slowly fades into invisibility: people in the West stop noticing their freedom. Because freedom is so natural, so undeniable. Isn’t it?
Freedom is essentially political; it is neither individual nor natural because a person can only be free within a free society. People elect governments that ensure their freedom, and if people are not satisfied with their representatives, they replace or even exile them, as Ukrainians did with Yanukovych in 2014, and as many European nations have done at some point in their history. Russians have accepted 20 years of Putin’s rule without replacing or exiling him. Therefore, claims of innocence by Russian citizens ring hollow. In fact, some oppositional Russians have had the impudence to invite Ukrainians to get rid of Putin for them rather than solve their own problems.
The Russian message to the West seems to read:
“Abstain – Ukraine is not your business, it is our business. Ukraine is our ‘friend.’ Don’t pay attention to Ukrainians who claim they never wanted to be our friends. Besides, your western values are corrupt, aren’t they?”
If western countries do indeed choose to abstain, it is not Ukraine that will be betrayed, but the very concept of freedom and of sovereign states. The right of every nation to rule their own country based on the will of their people will be betrayed in Europe. The precedent of territorial sovereignty will be broken. Any country could again take other countries’ land. The support sovereign states provide to each other will be successfully attacked by Russia.
Time measured by deaths
Probably, Ukrainians now see the value of freedom more clearly than any other country in Europe. Ukrainians know that freedom can be attacked and must be defended. At the same time, many western leaders still hesitate, driven by fears of World War 3 and nuclear weapons. However, a retired US general said that even a pocket knife given to Ukraine will provoke Russia so giving less of weapons to Ukraine will not make Russia “less provoked”. Abstaining from aiding Ukraine is driven solely by fear.
Ukraine will win. But the price we will pay, measured in human lives, depends on the support of our international allies. It is not inspiring to see members of the US Senate applauding Ukrainian President Zelenskyy while they ignore the most immediate needs of the Ukrainian people despite Zelenskyy’s pleas. It is, however, inspiring to witness the successes of the Ukrainian army, single-handedly fighting “the second strongest army in the world.” And it is inspiring to receive weapons from international partners so the Ukrainian army can continue to defend itself against Russia, even though it is alone (even though many Russians believe they are actually in Ukraine to fight NATO and the West).
In the 20th century, Russia killed millions of Ukrainians who refused to become slaves. In only one year of the Holodomor genocide of 1932-1933, Russia killed 4 million innocent Ukrainians. Historian Yaroslav Dashkevych estimated that throughout Soviet times, a total of 25 million Ukrainians were killed “in wars for Russian interests and during collectivization, torture, and forced relocation.”
Now Russia has begun another genocide in Ukraine. But we are stronger than the Ukraine of 100 years ago, when Ukrainians had only tasted freedom for 3 years. Now we have had freedom for 30 years. The West has had time to better hear and understand our values. Time in Ukraine is once again measured by deaths – but we hope that price will not be as high as before.