Russia

A Mirror To The Past

Then the unthinkable happened again. The only good news is, at some point this war will turn into peace talks. The bad news is what stands between today and that day could be an all-out third World War.

Brent Antonson
Mar 24, 2022
7 min read
Brent Antonson

"A woman was born in L'viv, Poland in 1930. In World War II the Germans swept eastward across the country and then years on the Soviets would triumph in Stalingrad and chase the Germans westbound, back to Berlin. And in time, the Soviet Union would collapse, leaving L'viv in a fragmented state of Ukraine. The woman exclaimed that she'd lived in four countries yet had never left her own city. If Putin succeeds she'll have been Polish, German, Soviet, Ukrainian, and Russian. Such is the last century's geopolitical world."

The word 'Mir' in Russian, means both 'world' and 'peace'. Any longstanding homonymous irony has sharply fallen away as the Russian invasion of Ukraine endures its fourth week. With schools, churches, theatres, malls, and hospitals being drilled by missiles, all conduct of a 21st-century military campaign seems to forget the civil rules we made for reasons in the 20th century. And this far into the major incursion, Russians have yet to conquer the capital of Kiev, which lies a mere 90 kilometres from its northern border. This achievement, the claiming of the capital, was to take 48 hours. Someone miscalculated poorly. Poorest of all was Putin's faith in his military, in its strength, its leadership, and its readiness. Old food rations, poor supply lines, and old equipment have embarrassed the face of the enemy who hid behind the Iron Curtain; the power of the president, whomever it was, challenged and changed the West, for better or worse for nearly a century, but the current wizard behind that curtain has been revealed.

A damaged hospital in Volnovakha. Picture: Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

There were three cost factors that brought down the Soviet Union. The 1986 disaster at Chernobyl was a huge cost to extinguish, the surviving DDR Front (or East Germany) was too costly to maintain, and the outright defeat of Russians fighting in Afghanistan was too costly to keep fighting. These economic woes fell upon a centralized economy that couldn't support such losses. And the loss of face was also too great. Too great to keep war parades going, too great to keep sacrificing young men to. Russia still has compulsory conscription so the young men driving today's tanks and trucks in Ukraine are there because they're young boys who couldn't get a doctor's note or into a university for cover quick enough. These fighters aren't fighters per se, they are just kids who ran out of options.

The world is in awe that Ukraine is surviving the punishing onslaught. President Zelenskyy is an international hero, and should he survive this illegal incursion on his sovereign land, he'll go on to be the greatest showman on earth. If Ukraine holds the line long enough to keep Kiev from falling, and even repel the Russian forces, the man will be on a pedestal the world has never invented. He will be given the 'key to the world' for his success. But if he dies, if Kiev falls, and Ukraine loses its western edge, his memory will honorably fade, beatified with 'victory', even if it wasn't in the cards. But his charisma and circumstance tell us he has a few more chapters to write. And so we wait, with each air raid siren, with each whistling missile overhead, with each graphic explosion, we wait for the future to be written.

I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones"
— Albert Einstein

We wait for the mornings when news is fresh, when we assess the new damage, consider the latest Russian confusion, and judge the news anchors drawing potentials on computer boards. And we're relieved to see that somewhere, not quite safe from harm but alive, is President Zelenskyy saying to the West that yet again, "This may be the last day."

There are puzzle pieces to this war that seem to fit and others that do not but apparently are congruent with the bigger picture. President Putin had called the collapse of the Soviet Union 'the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century'. That implies he wishes things were as they had been, at least territorially. He himself could not have averted the economic tailspin the Soviets faced in 1990. No one could. It was then, when then-president Gorbachev was resting at his villa, that the leaders of the Soviet states of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus saw fit to detain Gorbachev, crash the Communist party, and dismantle the Union. The three would reconstitute themselves as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and encourage membership from the soon to be autonomous states. Fast forward thirty years and Russia is invading its sworn brother, the one it made a blood pact with as the tailspin turned into a Soviet, communist nosedive.

Putin, who came into power by the grace of a feeble and alcoholic Boris Yeltsin, on December 31st, 1999, was a partial solution. But Russia is the largest country on earth and it is even larger if considered in the broader respect of the CIS, which includes the sovereign states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. This organization promotes cooperation across the member states in economics, military, and political aspects. Moldova lies on the eastern border of Ukraine so if Putin is reclaiming the USSR's territory, it need not stop after Ukraine for Moldova, a CIS enterprise, is sitting there ripe for the taking.

These pieces fit the puzzle. What may be perplexing to Westerners is akin to the woman from the L'viv meme, when the Soviet Union fell apart, it left whole generations of ethnic Russians in these newly independent countries. I was in Estonia in 1994 and the Estonians wanted to ship out the entire Russian bulk of its population. Imagine, if you will, you and your family are true Russians but have never actually stepped foot into Russia, you've only known the Soviet Union. Another country, into which you were born, lived, and worked in is all you've known and there was no need to think the future would otherwise change course. Remember, the Soviet Union was formidable, its peaceful disintegration unthinkable, and though many prayed, no one was waiting for it to catastrophically collapse overnight. Alas, for Russians to remain in Estonia, a law was passed that by a certain date all Russians living within Estonia would need to know 2000 words in Estonian, enough to be considered moderately fluent.

Estonia, along with its Baltic brothers Latvia and Lithuania, are now NATO. Beneath them looms Belarus and then Ukraine. The media has stuck with the story that Putin's entry strategy was somehow to prevent NATO from infiltrating Ukraine and posing a doorstep problem where Russia and the West meet but the Baltics are already there, already EU and already NATO. So this excuse for the current war doesn't hold much water. Instead, it is more convenient to think of the situation as uncomfortably close were Ukraine to become a NATO member. It should be said that the Baltics have their own histories and are wholly unique and richly independent countries in and of themselves, it is their proximity to Russia that, in part, made them Soviet. Ukraine is, more or less, intrinsically and ethnically related to Russia with a history that dates back to the 7th century with the pioneering Kieven Rus' who forged out the lands they now occupy.

Smoke rises after an explosion in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Picture: Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP

Again, these pieces still fit the puzzle. The Donbas region of Ukraine was filled with Russians who, like my illustration of those stranded in Estonia, are the 'pro-Russia separatists', it isn't like they're Ukrainians with a change of heart - they're Russians. And the conflict need not have gotten to the brutal subsequent actions of today, had there been a vote to cede from Ukraine. But Putin apparently didn't want a vote, did not want just the Donbas region, he wanted the country and that would only come by force. Ukraine, as a whole, would never vote to join Russia, today's news headlines, whatever they are, are proof of that. Remaining separate and willing to determine their own future is all they want, it is what all of the nations that screamed for their independence in 1991 wanted. They wanted the choice to weather out their sovereignty in a new world or rejoin the shards of the former Soviet Union.

Despite some birth pains, economic famines, regrettable contracts, and fair or rigged elections, the world had made itself rather orderly prior to February 24th. It was a map that looked like "us". Then the unthinkable happened again. The only good news is, at some point this war will turn into peace talks. The bad news is what stands between today and that day could be an all-out third World War.


Of Russia: A Year Inside

Brant Antonson has seen a Russia few foreigners have. Indeed, few Russians. This young Canadian ventured to Voronezh, eleven hours south of Moscow by train, to spend a year inside a country torn by strife, fresh into a new century, and struggling with the clash between history and future. Tasked with teaching English to students at one university, and then a second, his story is riddled with romance and deception, and punctuated with near disaster and disappointment. Antonson's candour and insights set Russia on the edge of failure and achievement – much like the students he educated, filled with a dash of hope and a lump of fear. His wit did as much to get him in trouble as it did to keep him out of it.

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