Earlier this month I was invited to speak about the situation in Ukraine at a roundtable organized by the Civic Chamber of Russia. The organizers had even offered to fast track a visa, pay for my flight, and put me up in a hotel if I would be agreeable to returning to Russia to participate in person. Although I was not able to accept their generous offer, I accepted their invitation to speak remotely from my temporary home in Skopje, North Macedonia.
When it was my turn to speak, I limited my remarks to expressing support for the independence of Donbass out of respect for time constraints and because I was deeply conflicted about the larger military conflict targeting the rest of Ukraine. I expressed my empathy for the people of Donetsk and Luhansk and defended the decision to send the Russian military into this region to protect the Russian-speaking population which has suffered through almost a decade of war.
I criticized the Ukrainian government for their failure to implement the Minsk Protocols and called out the hypocrisy of western outrage about Russia doing exactly what they United States has done in places like Panama and Grenada when it deemed it necessary to invade those countries to preserve its national security interests and to protect US nationals living there. I also criticized the eastern expansion of NATO into former Soviet republics and agreed that their encirclement of Russia represents a legitimate security concern for Russia.
Much has happened since those first days of the invasion. I still empathize with the people of Donbass and feel a sense of outrage about the indifference within the global community about the loss of Russian lives there. While the western world embraced the mantra of Black Lives Matter, its silence on the war in Donbass demonstrates that Russian lives apparently do not.
As an American who calls Russia his home and lived as one amongst the Russian people, their silence and indifference about the war in Donbass was revolting. Unlike them, I had seen the pictures and heard the firsthand accounts of the death and destruction which had been allowed to continue there for so many years. This why I voiced my support for the reintegration of Donbass into Russia even though doing so by force violates the principles of the Helsinki Final Act and the Budapest Memorandum of Security Assurances to which Russia is a signatory.
Granted, neither of these agreements were binding treaties, but I tend to believe countries ought to keep their word or formally withdraw from the commitments they no longer plan to keep. Under the Helsinki Final Act, Russia promised to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine. It violated that promise when it annexed Crimea in 2014. It violated it again when it invaded Ukraine three weeks ago. Likewise, when Russia became a signatory to the Budapest Memorandum, it promised not to attack Ukraine in exchange for that country giving up its nuclear arsenal. Clearly, Russia broke its promise yet again. Should Ukraine now withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?
It is understandable that the national security calculus in Russia has changed since those agreements were made decades ago under previous leadership but when the current regime in Moscow decided it no longer wanted to uphold these commitments, it should have formally withdrawn from them. Unfortunately, it did not and that was disingenuous.
What is even more disingenuous is how Russia built its military up along the Ukrainian border under the guise of military exercises and lied to the world about their true intentions. Let me be clear: protecting Russian nationals and the broader Russian-speaking community in Donbass is an honorable and justifiable mission. The right course of action would have been for Russia to amass its army along the Ukrainian border and demand that Kyiv implement the Minsk Protocols—or face a Russian military intervention in Donbass.
I previously justified the Russian invasion of Ukraine by pointing to the American invasion of Iraq. There are some parallels between these two invasions but there is also one significant difference worthy of mention in this context: the American invasion of Iraq did not spring from military exercises that conveniently happened to be taking place along the Iraqi border and it did not occur after the American government spent weeks denying and even mocking predictions of a planned American invasion. Instead, the United States rolled its tanks to the border, issued its ultimatums, and invaded when its ultimatums were not met.
Russia should have done this. It was a missed opportunity for Moscow to protect the embattled Russian community in Donbass and defend its broader national security interests from a position of strength and righteousness instead of playing a game of charades when the world was well-aware that an invasion was on the horizon. No rational person could have possibly believed the build-up of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border was just a military exercise.
The invasion has turned out to be a debacle. Russia expected to be welcomed as liberators and secure a quick victory that would result in regime change. The new government would have recognized Crimea as part of Russia and Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics. It would have rewritten the constitution to include provisions of neutrality and specifically against membership in NATO. Additionally, it would have reduced the size of the Ukrainian military and turned away from western military aid (demilitarization objective), while at the same time disbanding the Azov Battalion (denazification objective).
Regardless of what is reported on state television or what the daily military briefing reports, things are not going as planned. Unless it was part of the plan to lose thousands of troops, including four generals in three weeks, and have countless more wounded or captured while engaging in urban combat against stiff resistance that has thus far managed to prevent Russia from taking control of major urban areas including the capital city after three weeks of carnage.
The reality is this debacle in Ukraine—call it a military operation if you like—is turning out to be a major embarrassment as far as it being a demonstration of Russian military might and competence. Yet the military disaster in Ukraine is now joined by looming economic disaster at home. What was once a top global economy will now fall behind as western sanctions begin delivering their intended impact, companies from around the world continue exiting the Russian market, and the country finds itself more and more isolated.
When I left the United States in 2016 it was not without reason. As I have explained in previous years, I left my homeland in search of a society whose values largely reflected my own. I found that society in Russia and I enthusiastically embraced my new home with all my heart and two open arms. It was a relief to live in a country that valued and protected its traditions, unlike my home where extremists want to tear down statues, rewrite history, and “cancel” those who dare deviate from their leftist agenda. It was an honor to live in a country that defiantly stood up against the hegemony of the United States and its western allies, and that was not, contrary to western media propaganda, an aggressive state with a history of invading its neighbors.
Now that Russia has invaded its neighbor, it is as though Russia abandoned the higher road to stoop down to the tactics of the Americans, even using previous American invasions to justify its own. It is disappointing and I find it hard to accept that in order to stop the killing of Russians in Donbass it is necessary for Russia to kill its Slavic brothers and sisters in Ukraine. I find it hard to accept that in order to stop the destruction of homes in Donbass it is necessary for Russia to destroy of homes in cities across Ukraine. I find it hard to accept that whatever formal agreement Moscow and Kyiv eventually sign to end this bloody conflict will have been worth the devastating loss of Russian and Ukrainian lives, the economic disaster Russia will continue to suffer long after this conflict has ended, and the isolation from which Russia will long not return.
Meanwhile, as my family and I travel throughout southeastern Europe, I have personally witnessed how a wave of anti-Russian sentiment is spreading as a result of this invasion. The way people react when hearing my wife is from Russia does not foster a welcoming environment. Considering that one of the stated objectives of the war was to protect Russians, it is safe to say the global backlash against this war has not made the world a safer place for them.
Frankly, I believe if the Russian government wants to protect Russians from other nations [nations in its literal meaning], it should instead focus on the violence against Russian women and crimes against Russian businesses perpetrated by an infamous group of migrants from certain regions of southern Russia and beyond instead of destroying a fellow Slavic nation and turning its people against Russians for a generation. It should be clear to Moscow by now that the Russian military is not welcome in Ukraine and to stubbornly push on against the grain is counterproductive to Russia’s larger national security interests.
To that I would add I support western sanctions and other efforts to end the Russian occupation of Ukraine, a country whose government I have often criticized but whose people I hold close to my heart. I recall my first trip to that country. It was back in 2008 and I arrived in Kyiv by train. I needed a new visa before I could start a new job in Kazan, so I would be there a few weeks. I was wandering the streets of Kyiv in search of an affordable hotel but didn’t have any luck.
Eventually, I approached a complete stranger and asked for help. Her name was Oksana and after a short conversation, she welcomed me to come stay with her and her boyfriend, who was apparently a famous boxer, instead of staying in a hotel. In exchange I promised to help her prepare for her upcoming interview at the US Embassy so she could travel to America on the Work & Travel program. She got the visa, and I was happy to have been able to help.
The following summer, when Oksana visited my country, I returned the favor. She stayed at my mother’s house, and I took her and a friend she was travelling with to Niagara Falls, which is located not far from my hometown, showed them where I went to school, and took them to my favorite restaurant on the Niagara River. It is hard for me to watch her country being destroyed by the country I call my home.
I watched the recent event in Moscow organized to celebrate the anniversary of the reintegration of Crimea into Russia, however I heard more about neo-Nazis in Ukraine than about Crimea rejoining Russia. Let me be clear: fighting neo-Nazis in 2022 is just as honorable and necessary as fighting their predecessors in World War II. However, the Nazi element in Ukraine refers to the Azov Battalion, a single infantry battalion comprised of several hundreds to a few thousand members in a country of tens of millions of people. It is in no way representative of Ukraine as a whole and yet the focus Russia has put on freeing the world of neo-Nazis in Ukraine has been disproportionate to the threat they pose to the world – especially when you consider that neo-Nazis make up a part, not the whole, of the Azov Battalion.
Vladimir Putin spoke at this patriotic event just days after referring to those who have left Russia in search of a better life abroad as scum and traitors, calling their departure a “self-purification” of Russian society. Recently, Evgeni Fedorov, a member of Russia’s State Duma, suggested that Russia make a demonstration of its resolve by physically destroying American Defense Department facilities, specifically by striking a military test range in Nevada. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of Russia’s Liberal Democrat party, wants Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics to be brought into the Russian Federation and openly calls war with the United States and NATO, arguing that NATO would scatter at the first shot. There are extremist elements in all governments, but they do not reflect the people of the countries they govern. In all my time living and traveling around Russia—from Karelia to Altai and Siberia to Stavropol— I never heard anyone speak of the “self-purification” of Russian society, launching pre-emptive air strikes on the United States, bringing independent countries into the Russian Federation, or eliminating the United States and NATO by military force.
There is a difference between a country’s government and its people, and I will never forget that the Russian people never held me responsible for the actions of my government. Likewise, I do not hold the Russian people responsible for one man’s invasion of Ukraine. My heart lies with the country of Russia, not its government. Clearly, my opinion on Ukraine somewhat differs from Vladimir Putin’s opinion on the matter, although I would hope this text demonstrates that our views have much in common and that my objections are reasonable. However, as long as I feel apprehensive about returning to my home in Russia because of these objections and my unwillingness to remain silent, I consider myself part of the opposition.
I do not want Russia to turn into the United States or adopt a western form of democracy, but I do want Russia to respect the basic civil rights of its people: the freedom of speech, assembly, and a free press. I was temporarily detained by Moscow Police in the summer of 2019 while attending a peaceful rally in support of a free press after the politically motivated arrest of Ivan Golunov. My views have not changed as a result of this invasion. For many years while living in Russia, I bit my tongue or turned a blind eye to the events occurring in the country because I was a foreigner and felt it was not my place to criticize the government of the country in which I was living as a guest. However, my Russian permanent residence passport was issued this year and I am no longer just a foreigner, but a legal resident of the Russian Federation entitled to rights by the Russian Constitution.
The current regime under Vladimir Putin denies those rights to those with different opinions. It detains citizens whose only offense is expressing those opinions in the public square while allowing voices in support of the government to echo through the city streets. It brands opposition groups and organization as extremists, forcing its members to flee their own homeland. It prevents independent media from functioning as a government watchdog, a cornerstone of journalism, while allowing state media to dominate the airwaves. It threatens imprisonment for spreading information it considers to be fake, and it now bans access to social media as a means of controlling the free flow of information. This is by no means an exhaustive list of civil rights violations under Vladimir Putin.
For a government focusing so much attention on its fight against the neo-Nazis in Ukraine, it seems to have a bit of a problem with fascism in its own house.