At the time of this writing, Russian troops were inside the eastern borders of Ukraine, the fighting that broke out over night resulted in three deaths. Putin called for dialogue and caution even as he is accused of fomenting the unrest and instability. Diplomats from the US, Russia, and Europe were due to summit, again, to discuss matters. The Ukrainian crisis is so fluid it is difficult to know what the news will be on the morning this column appears in the paper. But I suspect, whatever the news, it won’t be good.
The parallels between the taking of Crimea and the ceding of the Sudetenland in 1938 are instructive. You will remember the Munich Agreement. Hitler expressed concern for the safety of the German-speaking people living in a the Sudetenland—a large swath of central Europe that encompassed Czechoslovakia–and in an effort to appease him and help stop his meanness, it was decided to just give it to him.
The German-speaking Czechs, it must be noted, were not in danger and needed no protection. Crimea is populated with many native Russians, Russians who have lived and worked with Ukrainians for decades with no unrest or upset. Yet, the excuse Putin used to invade was to “protect” the native Russians. From whom, from what, remains a mystery. But as excuses go, it will do, and there is uneasiness in Central Europe as they think about the Munich Agreement while events in Ukraine unfold.
I am often asked what is going on in Ukraine. I am no expert, although I have traveled there on several occasions and I can tell you what my Ukrainian friends tell me. The country is divided, not physically, but ideologically. Ukraine is the largest country in Europe and is the gateway to Russia from the west. The western part of Ukraine wants to be in the European Union and it has an affinity for Western Europe. The eastern part of Ukraine identifies with Russia, and wants to reunite with Russia. It is more complicated than just this, of course, but this gives you some framework.
Ukraine is important strategically, with eighteen pipelines traversing the country carrying Russian oil and natural gas to Western Europe, just as the Crimea is important to Russia because it is the only warm water port to which Russia has access. And Ukraine is poor. Very poor. I haven’t the space to tell you about the tragedies that have befallen this country, but I can tell you that today it is reminiscent of a third world country.
The roads are cratered and pocked-marked. In the countryside Ukrainians drive their cattle down the roads, switching their bottoms with a stick. Women who look seventy but could be fifty spend all day this time of year up on the steep hillsides cutting and stacking hay, using scythes and pitchforks. Then they walk down the mountain to prepare dinner for their families in centuries-old houses with no electricity or running water. There are few cars, but lots of mules and wagons.
There is no medical insurance. There is no healthcare, period, unless you procure it under the table. If you need an operation the doctor sends you to the apothecary with a list of everything you will need: sutures, scalpel blades, bandages, pain medication. You might be in the hospital but your family must feed you, sit with you, change your dressing. And it is expensive. Your child’s bronchitis might cost six months’ salary. So much, that a young mother telling me this can’t do so without tears of desperation in her eyes.
And there is corruption. Everywhere, corruption.
Yet, the Ukrainians are generous. Full of life. They dance, they feed you, what little they have. They make an effort. But they need help. While diplomats do what diplomats do, while power mongers do what power mongers do, while ineffectual political leaders do what they do, the everyday Ukrainian suffers.
There was recently a benefit concert held in Owensboro, KY, to help with Ukraine relief. Donations are still welcome through the following link or mailing address.
Or, by sending a check directly to:
Owensboro Sister Cities and Regions
2901 Western Parkway
Owensboro, Kentucky 42303
Your money will be given to Caritas Charities, which works within Ukraine. I have traveled there with Caritas humanitarian workers. Here is who your money will help. It will help elderly Ukrainians who have no family and who come to a community center twice a week for their only hot meals—soup, rice, bread, an egg.
It will help my boys in the orphanage, beautiful boys, in their cast off clothes and lob-sided smiles. It will be used to ease suffering and it will be used wisely. It will buy cabbages, potatoes. At least a little something.