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Foreign Affairs

James Brooke: History explains Ukraine’s tenacious resistance to Russia

Russia Putin Crackdown

Ukrainian soldiers and firefighters search in a destroyed building March 14 after a bombing attack in Kyiv, Ukraine.

There is a saying that you can push a meek and mild Ukrainian all the way until his forehead touches the ground. Then, he arises a Cossack.

With Russia’s frontal attack on Ukraine, the foreheads of 40 million Ukrainians hit the ground.

After Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the U.S. Congress on Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden promised 100 drones, 800 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and 9,000 anti-tank weapons. The stage is set for a long fight through this spring.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion, he expected a quick victory. His soldiers carried three days of rations and packed their dress uniforms for a victory parade down Kyiv’s central Khreschatyk Street. So far, they have been unable to take any of Ukraine’s top 10 cities.

History of resistance

Putin — and most of the Western media — have been surprised by Ukrainians’ fierce resistance. Ukrainian history gives insight into this resistance.

Ukrainians like to say that their eastern border marks a cultural divide — between citizens in Ukraine and serfs in Russia.

“Ukraine” means “borderland.” The culture that evolved on the untamed steppes was one of escaped serfs. These free-wheeling, answer-to-nobody people became Cossacks. Often switching allegiances between Poland and Russia, the Cossacks protected the Slavic steppes from slave-raiding expeditions by the Turks.

The cult of the Cossack and this anarchic culture helps to understand the unruliness, love for freedom and lack of deference to Moscow that characterizes Ukraine today.

In 1919 and 1920, when most of the former Russian Empire was convulsed in a civil war between the Reds and the Whites, Ukraine had a third movement, the Blacks. Riding under the black flag of Nestor Makhno’s Revolutionary Insurgent Army, 100,000 anarchists sought to create a stateless society. At its peak, this army controlled an area the size of Ireland with 7.5 million people.

After the Reds prevailed, Stalin engineered a mass famine to bring Ukrainians to heel. From 1932 to 1933, 4 million Ukrainians starved to death in “the breadbasket of Europe.” Only in January 1934 did Stalin feel safe enough to move the capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic from Kharkiv, 30 miles west of the Russian border, to Kyiv, in Ukraine’s heartland.

For decades, the Soviets suppressed information about the Holodomor, or “kill by starvation.” But since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, a whole generation has grown up studying how their ancestors were starved to death on orders from Moscow. Today, in Kyiv, yellow construction cranes loom over a building site on the west bank of the Dnipro River. The site is to hold the largest museum in Ukraine: the Holodomor Museum.

In addition to discovering the truth about the Holodomor, Ukrainians also have learned the hidden history of anti-communist partisans who fought from 1944 to 1953, trying to block Moscow’s rule over Ukraine.

These Ukrainian guerrillas killed about 15,000 Soviet security personnel. By comparison, the mujahedeen killed 14,453 Soviet soldiers during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Today, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry says that more than 14,000 Russian soldiers were killed in the first three weeks of the war.

Over the last decade, these post-World War II insurgent leaders have been glorified. As part of Ukraine’s thorough going de-communization drive, Soviet names have been stripped off streets, often to be replaced with the names of insurgent commanders.

Of greater impact to Ukrainians in their teens and 20s, a series of popular movies gave Hollywood treatment to the men and women who took up arms against the “Moskal,” pejorative slang for Muscovites.

The past informs a present war

Since 2014, Ukraine’s Army has been modernized with NATO training and equipment. It has been tested in the battlefront. Outsiders long described the eight-year-long, back-burner war between Ukraine and its two secessionist areas as a “civil war.” But polls indicate that most Ukrainians saw it as a war between Ukraine against Russia.

Into this hornet’s nest, Vladimir Putin has just stepped with his imperial boots.

His strategy was to “decapitate” Ukraine’s government by killing or kidnapping President Zelenskyy. Today, the Western media lionizes Zelenskyy as “Churchill in a T-shirt.” But at least half a dozen Ukrainian politicians of national stature could take his place.

In the last three decades, Ukraine has gone through three revolutions. Today, Ukrainian soldiers — the descendants of Cossacks and black-flag anarchists — warn that they are fully prepared to wage a partisan war of leaderless resistance.

Lenox native James Brooke is a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He has traveled to about 100 countries, reporting for The New York Times, Bloomberg and Voice of America.

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