Remis group hears thoughtful analysis of war in Ukraine

Olexandr Shevchenko

By BERNIE BELLAN It’s always interesting to hear perspectives on a story that occupies much of our attention from an individual who has first hand knowledge of that particular story.
Such was the case on August 4 during one of the regular luncheon get-togethers of the Remis lecture group at the Gwen Secter Centre when the guest speaker was Olexandr Shevchenko, a historian and interpreter who comes from Ukraine himself.


Shevchenko is also a part-time lecturer at the University of Winnipeg, where he has taught courses on Russian history and European Power Politics.
While you’d have to be oblivious to world events not to be aware of what’s been happening in Ukraine since the Russian invasion, which began on February 24, listening to Shevchenko putting things into a very broad perspective certainly helped those who were at the luncheon gain a much deeper understanding of how events were set on a collision course long ago - and which ultimately led to Russia’s totally unjustified invasion of a neighbor country.

Shevchenko’s talk was titled “Can democracy defend itself?” By looking back at certain key events that are often overlooked when one is fixated on the day to day events of the war such as what atrocities have the Russians committed lately? he was able to help audience members obtain a better understanding how Vladimir Putin could come to think that he could invade Ukraine with few consequences.

A pivotal event - and one that is hardly ever mentioned in coverage of the Russian invasion, according to Shevchenko, was the war in Georgia in 2008, when Russian troops entered into the former Soviet republic of Georgia on the side of the self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia has occupied parts of Georgia ever since.
At the time though, much of the world’s attention had turned to the severe economic recession prompted by the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market in the United States and the ensuing deep dives that stock markets took around the world, leading to a prolonged economic crisis that lasted well into 2009.
It was also the year of the election of Barack Obama, Shevchenko noted. One of the first things Obama did when he was elected, Shevchenko observed, was call for a “reset” of relations with Russia. Shevchenko, I don’t think you’d be surprised to learn, was rather dismissive of President Obama.
Russia had already been laying the groundwork for an effort to restore its past dominance of Eastern Europe, but when its invasion of Georgia barely caused a ripple among the international community, the table was set for further aggressive behaviour, Shevchenko explained.
“Russia does not consider itself bound by the dissolution” of the Soviet Union in 1991,” he said. Thus, when it invaded the independent republic of Georgia in 2008, the lesson garnered from that, according to Shevchenko, was “anything goes.”

The next domino to fall in the cascading series of dominos that led up to this year’s invasion of Ukraine occurred in 2014, when a pro-Soviet president in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, resigned as a result of a series of protests by Ukrainians who were in favor of closer ties with the European Union. In February 2014 Russian troops occupied Crimea. Shortly thereafter pro-Russian separatist forces began fighting Ukrainian forces in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Lukansk, aided by Russian troops.
Rather than take aggressive action though, Shevchenko said that had the Russians done nothing, “Ukrainians would have squabbled among themselves,” thus leading to disunity. Instead the occupation of Crimea and the arming of separatists in the eastern provinces hardened Ukrainian nationalism.

In 2019 Vlodomyr Zelensky was elected president of Ukraine when he headed a party known as the “Servant of the People Party.” In Shevchenko’s opinion, the party was made up of “extreme dreamers.”
“In some respects, Ukrainians electing a former comedian might have sent the wrong message to the Russians,” Shevchenko observed.
While Zelensky was hardly taken seriously by other world leaders, viz. Donald Trump’s attempt to manipulate him into saying that Hunter Biden had been engaged in corrupt business activities in Ukraine, Ukrainian themselves were hardly united in opposing Russian attempts to influence the course of Ukrainian history at that point.

Shevchenko told this joke to illustrate his point:
“Question: What is one Ukrainian?
“Answer: “A fighter.
“Question: What are two Ukrainians?
“Answer: A fighting unit.
“Question: What are three Ukrainians?
“Answer: A fighting unit with one traitor in it.”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 was modeled after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Shevchenko observed. The notion was that it would be fairly easy to topple the Ukrainian government and replace pro-democracy officials with Russian acolytes.
Unfortunately for Putin, things didn’t turn out the way he envisioned, but the consequences of the Russian invasion are likely to be felt around the world for years to come, Shevchenko predicted.
“We’re quite likely to see a bunch of regional wars around the world,” as the foundations of the world order that were established after World War II come undone - and stronger states feel empowered to attack weaker ones, he suggested.

Returning to the title of his talk, Shevchenko asked: “If democracy is defeated in Ukraine, what message does it say to the rest of the world?”
The answer, he said, is “it’s best to seek accommodation with your neighbours.”
As far as world organizations are concerned, Shevchenko said, “the UN is a joke. One of its primary purposes is the prevention of aggressive wars.” It wasn’t very effective in stopping Russia’s invasion, was it?
Further, Shevchenko asked: “Can a democracy defend itself?”
The answer, he suggested, was that “if it starts acting on real problems” and concerns itself “with the security and well being of its citizens,” then it can defend itself. (As an aside though, I have to admit that Shevchenko’s example of a democracy digressing from concerning itself with real problems was the debate over whether Portage and Main should be open to pedestrians. I wonder whether he might have been able to find a better example.)

Continuing in the vein of opportunities that were missed earlier to send a strong message to Russia that aggression toward its neighbours would not be tolerated, Shevchenko observed that another missed opportunity came when Turkey applied to join the European Union (a process that has been ongoing for years).
“Acceptance of Turkey into the European Union could have sent a message to the Muslim world,” Shevchenko suggested, that a state can be both democratic and Muslim.

Answering questions from attendees at the luncheon, Shevchenko was asked how long he thought the current war will go on?
There may be a “window of opportunity” this fall, he answered. Certainly, if it drags on there will be another opportunity when the US holds mid-term elections in November, he added (without quite explaining why).

But what if Russia emerges victorious - or at least claims to have achieved victory? What then? Shevchenko was asked.
“Could we have a puppet Ukraine?” “Possibly,” was the answer. But, would that lead to a more “docile” Russia? he wondered.
“I seriously doubt it,” Shevchenko said, answering his own question. “Who’s next? Finland? Poland?”

There are three possible outcomes to the fighting, Shevchenko explained:
“One shot in the Kremlin could end it all.
“Stalemate.
“The defeat of Ukraine”
(Shevchenko did not describe a scenario in which Ukraine beats back the Russians.)

Finally, Shevchenko offered this novel observation about which country’s behaviour might affect the long-term outcome of the war in Ukraine the most: the United Kingdom.
“What worried me the most from the beginning were the actions of the U.K. government,” Shevchenko said (without explaining why he was focusing on the U.K. rather than say Germany, which seems to be far more vulnerable to Russian threats than other European countries).
“What will happen in the upcoming winter” (when gas supplies could very well run short throughout Europe)? Shevchenko asked.
“The population may say ‘Wrap it up. We can’t have it any more.’ “

Really though, that’s what Putin is counting on, isn’t he - that European unity will evaporate and support for Ukraine will diminish to the point where he will achieve at least some of his original goal of disassembling the Ukrainian state.
So much to ponder. Olexandr Shevchenko certainly gave his audience something to think about - at a time when discussion of the war in Ukraine doesn’t usually occupy typical lunchtime conversations, does it?