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Reflections on My Time in Kyiv

A skeptic of U.S. foreign policy struggles with how to be anti-imperialist and pro-Ukraine at the same time.

Citizens organize a defense of Kyiv,

TALLINN, ESTONIA — For the past five months, I have been living in Estonia, tucked near the border of Finland and Russia. Here, as with most of Eastern Europe, the war in Ukraine weighs  heavy in people’s minds. In the capital, Tallinn, the Russian embassy has been closed and barricaded. Posters and banners condemning Vladimir Putin’s war hang on the chain-link fences surrounding the building. Throughout the city, signs of support for Ukraine are plentiful. Giant Ukrainian flags hang from buildings, graffiti proclaiming to “stand with Ukraine” are found among the normal tags, and at night the government office building overlooking the medieval city center is lit up with the gold and blue of Ukraine’s flag. In this country, which has donated the highest amount of aid to Ukraine per GDP of any nation, pro-NATO and anti-Russian sentiments run high. The same is true for many of the people from nearby countries that I have spoken with. Here in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, memories of Russian domination have not been forgotten. 

In this time, my own views on the war in Ukraine, more specifically U.S. involvement, have oscillated between a black-and-white idea of righteous support and a view made up by shades of gray as I search for a deeper understanding of the situation, one that matches the America I know. How can one be anti-war and still pro-Ukraine when the nation is fighting for its very survival?

Back in the United States, many leftists have taken a vocal stance against the war and U.S. support of Ukraine, calling for the ending of NATO and for the war to be resolved diplomatically as soon as possible in order to save lives and end the risk of escalation. While I understand and agree with many of these sentiments, all I can think about is how easy that is to say when your country has not been invaded, your land has not been taken, your home not destroyed with your family and friends killed in it. I couldn’t imagine saying that NATO should dissolve and Ukraine should start peace talks or negotiate the surrender of territory to the Ukrainian friends I have made, many of whom have become refugees. It’s easy to say “stop the fighting” when you are the one who has nothing at stake.

•   •   •

In January, I traveled to Kyiv to report on the effects of the war. On a 30-hour bus ride with Ukrainian refugees, mostly women and children eager to return home as the fighting has slowed, we passed through a Ukrainian countryside dotted with military checkpoints, abandoned vehicles and towns that have seen a century of violence and upheaval. 

The biggest winners so far in the Ukraine war are U.S. corporations that are profiting handsomely from the conflict.

Kyiv, a city of 3 million, bustled with activity. It was almost easy to forget the city with its ornate Eastern Orthodox cathedrals and art nouveau architecture was nearly conquered by Russian troops last year — until you come across a somber reminder that the war still rages. Statues and memorials are covered with sandbags to protect from potential missile damage, sporting goods stores now sell military equipment, and many roads are shut down and fortified by the military. Across the street from the housing project I was staying in, a building that was hit by a missile early in the war has been rebuilt, though many windows on the block remain shattered. Yet Ukrainians continue with their lives. They have no other choice.

Nighttime parties have become daytime raves due to a strict 11 p.m. curfew. When the power is shut off to preserve energy, a result of Russia’s attack on the nation’s critical infrastructure, sections of the city hum with gasoline generators that line the sidewalks. When the air-raid warning echoes through the streets or blares on phones, a near daily occurrence, many stroll to the metro stations for shelter while others go on with their affairs unaffected. 

In the metro stations, the people of Kyiv show how accustomed they are to the air raids. Elderly babushkas bring their own stools and sit together with their friends and chat away. Others bring yoga mats, rolling them up and sitting on them to stay off the hard marble floor of the dirty Soviet-era halls. Mothers pass out food and books to their kids to keep them occupied, and hopefully less cranky, as they wait. Usually, the raid lockdowns last between one and two hours, then the all-clear message goes out and the day resumes as if nothing had happened.

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But despite the appearance of calm, as one person I spoke with said, “You can still see the war in people’s eyes.”

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In Ukraine, I was most struck by how many citizens are committed to doing their part in the war effort. Many Ukrainians volunteer, whether it is by directing aid to the troops on the front line, sewing together camouflage nets or rebuilding destroyed structures. At bars, songs of national pride break out and the room is suddenly filled with a choir of Ukrainians singing of their struggle. The people of Ukraine are some of the strongest, most resilient people I have ever met. For them, this is a war of national liberation. When they speak about their plans after the war, they say “when” not “if” regarding their victory. “When” they will return to the home they left behind, “when” they will return to work, “when” they will see their family…

And all of this pains me, not only because I empathize with their plight, but because I fear what continued U.S. involvement in the conflict may mean for Ukraine. 

It is obvious to many (or at least those who have not fallen for the propaganda narrative of the United States as a champion of democracy, human rights and equality) that the United States only acts to serve its own interests. Since World War II, the United States has used its power not as a force of self-defense or democracy, but rather a force for economic intervention, gaining access to natural resources and prying open markets in countries in the name of “free trade” so they can be exploited by U.S. corporations. Examples across Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East are plentiful. Recent moves by the Ukrainian government to sell off state assets at fire-sale prices and suspend labor rights in order, it claims, to make the country more attractive to foreign investors suggests this process is already underway. 

For now, the interests of the United States align with those of Ukraine, but how long will that last? Is the United States supporting Ukraine because of the moral imperative or because it sees opportunities for profit? While it may be both, I fear a time when the United States chooses a capital gain over the welfare of Ukraine and stability in the region. 

In Ukraine, almost every citizen is united in doing their part to help the war effort.

Nowhere is the country’s willingness to pursue its own interests at the expense of others more apparent than in last September’s bombing of the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline that runs under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany. When the sabotage occurred, the United States and NATO tried to blame the Russians, though no one could credibly explain why the Russians would bomb their own pipeline. Recent revelations by legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersch point to a U.S.-led operation to blow up the pipeline with assistance from Norway. 

The combination of economic sanctions against Russian energy producers and the scuttling of Nord Stream 2 has caused energy prices — and inflation more broadly — to spike across Europe. But it’s been a boon for U.S. energy producers, who have moved to fill the void created by the 54% decline of Russian-imported energy to European Union nations. 

U.S. oil producers made $200 billion in profits in the second and third quarter of 2022 alone, according to The Financial Times. 2022 was the most profitable year on record for Exxon Mobil. Similarly, BP reported its highest earnings in 14 years. Meanwhile, U.S. Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) exporters increased shipments of “freedom molecules”  to Europe by more than 137% in 2022, according to Reuters. Americans have felt this in their pockets with high utility prices. Those high ConEd bills you’ve been receiving? They’re just part of the larger swarm of U.S. fossil fuel producers taking advantage of the war. The war in Ukraine has also been a bonanza for U.S. arms makers that have been resupplying U.S. and European arsenals that were rushed to the Ukrainians. 

As U.S. companies reap the windfall of the war, some European Union officials have accused the country of war profiteering. 

“The fact is, if you look at it soberly, the country that is most profiting from this war is the U.S. because they are selling more gas and at higher prices, and because they are selling more weapons,” a senior EU official told Politico in November 2022. In the fall, President Biden criticized the huge earnings of oil companies as a result of the war and threatened to tax their profits unless they brought gas prices down for U.S. consumers, a statement no doubt made to look tough on inflation ahead of the midterms. With the midterms in the rearview mirror, a crackdown on war profiteering seems even more unlikely than it did at the time. 

•   •   •

NATO has excelled at reinforcing the notion that it is simply a “defensive pact” bound together to support democracy, but there is more than meets the eye. The creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949 cemented U.S. control of Western Europe for the duration of the Cold War. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has used NATO as a cudgel for enforcing its unipolar vision of the world — intervening in the Balkan wars of the late 1990s, supporting the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and protecting Western oil interest in Libya during that country’s 2011 civil war. Many Europeans, especially here in Eastern Europe, are grateful for NATO’s protection against the threat of Russia. But to not question the official narrative of NATO and call out its imperial tendencies is to be naive. 

So, should NATO be dissolved and Ukraine be left to fend for itself against the Russian onslaught? Many critics of the war say yes. But the people of Ukraine are not simply pawns in a proxy war, they are real people with real, legitimate and moral causes to fight. Unfortunately, I think the occasion for winding down NATO has passed (for the time being). 

When I spoke via Facebook with a Ukrainian soldier on the front lines, he told me he did not want to be fighting this war, yet he and others like him are huddled in cold, muddy trenches willing to die for their country. The people of Ukraine have no interest in peace talks, and neither does the Russian government at this time. If the United States and NATO were to withdraw support, I do not think that would mean a quick end to the conflict. If Russian tanks roll into Kyiv, Ukrainians will conduct bloody guerilla warfare for years to come. Simply put, the solution to this crisis does not lie in dissolving NATO at this time — that will only lead to more bloodshed with the majority being given by the people of Ukraine.

What should we do when two imperialist powers are fighting over a smaller country? We should listen to the victim. If Ukraine and Russia ever move to the table for a diplomatic solution, I fear that the United States and NATO will compromise long-term peace and stability to satisfy their own agenda. Currently, it is the official policy of the United States to reject a diplomatic solution for this conflict. It is also currently in America’s favor to keep the war going, continuing our arm sales and energy expansion. Furthermore, it is the United States’ stated goal to absorb Ukraine into NATO and damage Russia to the point where it is no longer a threat. The United States has fanned conflicts and thwarted diplomatic resolutions before, including blocking elections and the peaceful reunification of Vietnam following the French withdrawal from Indochina in 1954 and invading Iraq in 2003 even after it agreed to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to enter the country without conditions. 

If Ukraine and Russia move to the negotiating table, we should question whatever warhawk narrative the U.S. government will lay on us. And if the conflict is brought to an end, the United States and its European allies should not be allowed to shackle the Ukrainians with unpayable debts or gain control over Ukraine’s abundant natural resources. Supporting Ukraine’s defense is one thing, but we should not complacently let the United States and NATO further turn Ukrainians into game pieces and use their blood to wet our beaks.

•   •   •

Lachlan Hyatt was The Indypendent’s 2022 winter intern. He is currently a Fulbright Scholar based in Estonia. 

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