By Kim Bolduc
This past Thursday, Renowned Holocaust scholar Professor Berk was invited to give a talk on the Ukrainian crisis in Hillel. In a well-attended lecture, Berk outlined the roots of the current dilemma, some of which date to imperial Russia, and laid some predictions for the future implications of the present situation.
“You cannot explain the present with the present,” Berk began.
“History towers over the present like a mountain,” he continued, appropriately quoting Joseph Stalin. To put himself and the audience back in time and place, Professor Berk delved into the history of Ukraine.
Ukraine was a no-man’s land after Kiev was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century, and remained as Russia’s safety valve for runaway serfs for many years after. During the imperial age of Russia, the tsar viewed the Ukraine as “Novorossiya,” expressing the denial of Ukrainian rights and the position of Ukraine squarely under Russia’s dominion. This term was also recently used by Putin as a throwback to historically Russian influence in Ukraine.
While many Russians view Ukraine as thoroughly Russian, many Ukrainians feel differently and yearn for independence. Soviets under Stalin put down Ukrainian uprisings and squashed Ukrainian nationalism.
In the 1930s, Soviet units tasked with procuring food created an artificial famine in Ukraine, which crushed the region terribly. Letters from this era talk of horrible atrocities in the name of hunger; one striking instance speaks of the cannibalism of an infant in order to save a woman’s other children.
The tragedy of Chernobyl was aggravated by Soviet secrecy. While communist officials were evacuated, the people of Kiev waited 10 days for news of the danger. Even after gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine would suffer from poverty and Russian influence.
Russia’s claims to Crimea are also historically controversial. The Crimean Peninsula has been inextricably linked with Russian legend and lore since the Crimean War and the defense of Sebastopol in World War II.
While Russians are a majority in Crimea, 28 percent identify as Ukrainian and 12 percent identify as Muslims, descended from the Mongols and today called Tartars.
Mistreated by the communists, Tartars oppose annexation by Russia. In the present crisis, Putin may have underestimated the presence of these 142 million people, many of whom staunchly oppose him.
However, Putin does have one important card to play against his opposition. When the Nazis advanced towards Russia in 1941, Ukrainians welcomed them, hoping to be liberated.
Some Ukrainians, to their detriment, engaged in the extermination of Jews. Painting the current Ukrainian government as descendants of the government that engaged in the atrocities of the Holocaust undermines Putin’s opposition.
Putin has voiced his opinion that “the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century was the disintegration of the Soviet Union.” To restore his country’s greatness, he believes that he must restore to its control, or at least maintain spheres of influence, in its former territories. Destabilizing Ukraine prevents it from leaning towards NATO or the EU, or even from forming a uniform annexation policy.
In dealing with the Ukraine, Professor Berk contends that President Obama has made some mistakes. He has set down “red lines” but has not followed through with the consequences of crossing these red lines. His threat regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria is one example of this.
While we may debate whether the president is weak, it only matters if Putin believes the president is weak. A projection of weakness also affects our allies, who may lose confidence in our ability to protect them. America has historically been viewed as the ultimate backstop — if we continue to give in, who will stop Russia?
Berk argued that Russia needs to become a pariah state. Consumers, especially European consumers, need to shun Russian goods and cease the use of Russian oil. Putin relies heavily on this income to maintain his policies.
One of Professor Berk’s oft-repeated statements was, “Putin is playing a bad hand very well.” That is, Russia is weak at the moment, with a low life expectancy and little capital. However, Russia does rival the U.S. in its nuclear armaments left over from the Soviet era.
Will Putin move further to the west? Berk does not think he will go that far, but reminds us that the United States is bound by military alliance to Poland and other countries in NATO.
As a note of caution, Berk expresses the concern that the next few years will require clever diplomacy. China has been flexing its muscles and drawing ever closer to an alliance with Russia, an alliance that could be fatal to American interests. America must play its cards carefully by wisely exchanging its lines in the sand for immutable brick walls.