A recent United Nations report says that nearly half a million Ukrainians have fled the country since April. The fact that families run from a war zone is heartbreaking but hardly unexpected. The disturbing part lies in the details — of the roughly 454,000 people who had fled Ukraine by the end of October, more than 387,000 went to Russia. Most of those who fled were Russian speakers from the east, but this still raises a sobering question: If this is a conflict between Ukraine and Russia, why did so many Ukrainians choose to cast their lot with the enemy?
Moscow’s denials of involvement in eastern Ukraine are, of course, absurd: It is clear that the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk are equipped, reinforced and trained by Russians. That said, if Vladimir V. Putin had tried sending unmarked commandos to set up sham republics in western Ukraine, where anti-Russian sentiment runs high, his men would have been returned to the Kremlin in body bags. Yes, Mr. Putin is brewing unrest in the east, but he is brewing with local ingredients. He is connecting with the population using a language they speak and a symbolism they understand.
The unpalatable reality is that a significant portion of eastern Ukrainians — the very people on the ground living and suffering through this conflict — distrust Kiev and the West and at least tacitly support Russia and the separatists. And frankly, that isn’t surprising.
Last month the Ukrainian president, Petro O. Poroshenko, decided to freeze government pensions and cut off funding for schools and hospitals in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. Unfortunately, the separatist thugs fighting there don’t rely on food stamps to buy weapons — they get them from Russia. All that Mr. Poroshenko accomplished was giving Mr. Putin the “proof” to tell the starving pensioners of the region: “See — the West doesn’t care if you die.” This is a sentiment that is growing stronger and stronger, according to reports coming out of the region.
Equally awful is Kiev’s decision to maintain a relationship with the Azov battalion, an ultranationalist paramilitary group of around 400 men that uses Nazi salutes and insignia. To anyone familiar with eastern Ukraine’s bloody history during World War II, allowing the Azov battalion to fight in the region is a bit like sponsoring a Timothy McVeigh Appreciation Night in Oklahoma City. It does nothing but infuriate the local population and provide Mr. Putin with yet another opportunity to shed the mantle of invader and position himself as a protector.
The impact of World War II, or, as most people there call it, The War, on eastern Ukrainian consciousness cannot be understated. My childhood in the northeast city of Kharkov (now called Kharkiv) in the 1980s was surrounded by The War, 40 years after it ended. Every family — Russian, Ukrainian, Roma, Jewish — had ghost relatives who had vanished or perished. One of my earliest memories is of asking my father where the mortar holes pockmarking the outside of our apartment block had come from; one of my father’s earliest memories is of fleeing Kharkov mere hours before the Nazis invaded the city. Eastern Ukrainians today, especially the older generations, respond to swastikas and wolfsangel runes — Nazi symbols now used by Ukrainian ultranationalists — about as well as African-Americans respond to burning crosses.
Mr. Putin and the Russian news media say that western Ukrainians in Mr. Poroshenko’s government are neo-Nazis. The West denies these claims, averring that there are no neo-Nazi elements in the Kiev government. Both are wrong. The Kiev government and the armies fighting in eastern Ukraine contain a small minority of neo-Nazi ultranationalists. To eastern Ukrainians, however, even one is too many.
Washington and the Western media have largely ignored the negative ramifications of Kiev’s actions. The State Department has said nothing about the pension freeze’s effect on the local population of eastern Ukraine; reports of the Azov battalion’s use of Nazi insignia have not been addressed in any meaningful manner. Mr. Putin’s greatest weapon of all may be the West’s refusal to speak directly to the people of eastern Ukraine. When I talk to family friends still living in Kharkiv, they ask me, “Why does the West label us as enemies?”
It seems the West has forgotten the lessons of its own history. At the end of the Cold War in 1989, Communism collapsed, leaving unrest and uncertainty in its wake. In that moment of chaos, the people of Eastern Europe turned their gazes westward. This happened not by accident, but because of decades of public diplomacy — from “Ich bin ein Berliner” to “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” to nightly broadcasts by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, which constantly reassured those behind the Iron Curtain that the West had not forgotten them. That year my family was one of many that fled eastern Ukraine for Vienna, and later the United States.
In 2014, the people of eastern Ukraine find themselves in an exponentially more horrible and deadly situation. They will turn to whoever provides them with bread and security and respect for their language and culture. They are looking, and more and more it seems they’re turning, eastward.
Lev Golinkin is the author of the memoir A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka.