Why Black people should care about Ukraine, explained
OPINION: As tension continues to rise between Russia and Ukraine and with 3,000 U.S. troops set to deploy to Eastern Europe, here's why you should care about what's happening in the region.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve been bombarded with news coverage of Russia’s military escalation against Ukraine. There are more than 100,000-plus troops near the Ukrainian border preparing for a possible attack because, Putin claims, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is threatening its national security. The only way to de-escalate the situation, Putin says, is for NATO to make guarantees that it never accepts Ukraine into its military alliance and that it doesn’t expand beyond its current membership that would inevitably reach its borders.
Washington, D.C, said those demands were non-starters during talks with the Russians at one of their many meetings in Geneva to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Concerns among those in Washington further intensified after some 3,000 U.S. troops were approved to deploy to Eastern Europe to assure NATO countries that a Russian offensive on Ukrainian soil would be met with alliance resistance if the battle were to spill over. There have been reports of an “imminent” war in Ukraine from U.S. officials, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called for calm and said western leaders are exaggerating the gravity of the situation here on the ground.
Of course, all of these moving parts leave plenty of room for confusion at best and misinformation at worst. Moreover, why should Black folks even care about all of this, given America’s own domestic issues? Given that I am based in Kyiv and am a Black man who is an expert on this part of the world, I’ll take a stab at clarifying any confusion and explain why what’s happening here should matter to you.
How did we get here?
Back in 2013, Ukrainians took to the streets to protest ex-President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a document that would have deepened the country’s political relationship with the European Union (E.U.). It resulted in the overthrow of the Yanukovych government, which was replaced with a more Western-leaning leadership.
That revolution is known as the Euromaidan.
It is important to note that Putin sees the West as the enemy of Russian sovereignty and has consistently expressed anger at America and Europe’s role in accelerating the fall of the USSR and pulling its former states into the E.U. and NATO. If Ukraine—the second-largest nation in the former USSR and considered the breadbasket because of its fertile soil for crop production—is brought fully into the Western space, it would all but ruin Putin’s conquest to regain a critical piece of Russia’s lost geopolitical power.
This is important because that Western-leaning revolution reflected a democratic shift that changed the cultural dynamic of Ukraine that did not favor Russia, which is why he invaded Ukraine on the false premise that ethnic Russians were under threat by Kyiv’s new leadership. Russian military forces armed and provided logistical support to Ukrainian citizens in the Luhansk and Donbass oblasts in Eastern Ukraine, who wanted their regions to join the Russian Federation; the same thing happened in Crimea, a southern province of Ukraine with a large Russian-speaking population with Kremlin leanings. Crimea was illegally annexed by Russia, primarily with military force, and the Luhansk and Donbass oblasts are under self-proclaimed autonomous statuses that a vast majority of nations don’t recognize.
Putin thought this military pressure would break Ukrainians and force them to seek Moscow’s aid in order to result in a military crisis he created. Not only did it not work in Putin’s favor, but more Ukrainians want to join NATO and the E.U. now than before the Russian invasion.
This latest escalation is supposed to do what the first one did not: break Ukraine’s will to join the west. It won’t work. People here are joining civilian combat groups, including Ukrainian boxing legend Wladimir Klitschko. His brother, Vitaly, is the current mayor of Kyiv.
If a war breaks out, how will this impact America?
For starters, at the gas pump. Russia is the second-largest exporter of oil in the world behind the United States. A Russian attack would trigger stiff sanctions against Moscow and cease the approval of Nord Stream II, a gas line that is set to pump billions of gallons of gas to Germany. It would damage the region’s gas infrastructure and Putin would weaponize gas exports to Europe, as the continent relies heavily on Russian gas.
Russia exports very little oil to the U.S., but because crude oil is traded as a global commodity and prices at the pump are based on world oil prices, everyone worldwide would see an increase in prices when they go to the gas station—including Americans— according to CNN Business.
Then there is the prospect of American troops being deployed to Eastern Europe as part of the NATO alliance to ensure whatever military outbreak happens in Ukraine doesn’t threaten fellow member states.
What is NATO and why does Putin hate it?
The North Atlantic Treaty Alliance Organization is an intergovernmental military alliance that was founded in 1949 to primarily fend off a Russian military offensive. The alliance rejects it was solely designed to defend against Russia, but few experts actually believe that. There are a lot of rules in NATO, but the most important one you need to know is Article 5, which stipulates that if one member is attacked, then every member is treaty-bound to provide backup.
Simply put: Mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.
There are 30 nations that make up the alliance, around a third of them were states that used to have political ties to Moscow. Initially, it was made up of 12 nations.
There is a lot of talk going around that American troops will fight in Ukraine. That is not true. The recent deployment of U.S. troops to Eastern Europe is standard operating procedure to shore up support for alliance members bordering a conflict state, which Ukraine currently is.
Putin has always viewed NATO with suspicion because he sees it as a military power that is surrounding Russia under the guise of spreading democracy. In reality, all of the Warsaw Pact and ex-USSR nations that were under some variation of political and military control from Moscow basically begged to join NATO because they all feared occupation from Russia. Most of the Eastern European states that are in NATO joined in the early and late 2000s; the USSR fell in 1991, which is pretty recent history for folks who suffered in the USSR regime.
Imagine more than a dozen nations that were once Team USSR saying “ Screw you! I’m going to Team E.U., NATO and the U.S.A.” all at the same time. That is a tough pill to swallow—even for an autocrat like Putin, who looks back on the Soviet Union with great endearment.
Does Putin have a legitimate beef with Ukraine?
None of Putin’s security claims against NATO are legitimate. Putin is a bad actor and here is why. For one, he is arguing that NATO is ignoring its security concerns while literally occupying Ukraine for no reason at all, other than to recolonize it. Ukraine never attacked Russia in 2014 and Russia is arming separatists on Ukrainian soil. There have been a series of attempts at peace to resolve the issue via several Minsk protocols, which Russia has consistently sabotaged because as long as Ukraine is destabilized, it serves the Kremlin’s advantage.
And while the U.S. is the biggest financial and military supporter of NATO, it is important to note that had Russia just spent more time building up its own nation after the USSR fell as opposed to trying to resurrect it via post-colonial measures, maybe its former satellite states and ex-USSR members would not feel the need to join NATO.
In short, Putin and much of the Russian population that supports him are pretty much like white folks in the South who are still pissed that the Confederacy lost the Civil War. Ever since the Confederacy fell, the South has been trying to suppress Black voters from gaining political power while their economies remain in the toilet because they haven’t thought of better ways to create income since negroes ain’t picking their cotton anymore.
That’s Russia in a nutshell, folks. Like white Southerners grieving over the loss of the Civil War, Putin and much of Russia are grieving because their leadership can’t think of how to regain its power beyond making their neighbors feel like subjects of their now-dead empire.
Ukrainians are essentially seen as slaves in Putin’s eyes. But, like Black folks in America, Ukrainians got a taste of that good ol’ freedom and have no interest in going back to Massa’s house.
Why should Black folks care about any of this?
Because we don’t live in the world by ourselves, and our skin color doesn’t protect us from the impact of global events. By now, you should be well aware of the Kremlin’s attempts to sway Black voters via disinformation in the 2016 election and the Kremlin’s growing influence in Africa, which isn’t to benefit the people of the continent. (Sure, America sucks at engaging Africa, too. But, I’m not defending America. I’m raising awareness about Russia’s shenanigans.)
Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, told me recently that Putin sees things very much through an ethnic lens. When he and President Joe Biden were meeting with him about Russia’s 2008 attack against Georgia, Putin stared intensely into their eyes and ran his finger down the side of his face and said, “‘You know what’s wrong with you Americans? You look at us and assume we think like you—and we don’t.’”
To McFaul, that was a clear message that “We are Slavs, not white people.”
Like America, Russia is a settler-colonial state and we as Black folks need to understand how leaders of such states operate because we aren’t that far behind when it comes to being on the lower end of the totem pole of racial oppression. Yes, in America, Ukrainians are white. But over here, many of my Ukrainian friends tell me Putin and Russians who think like him view them as white trash. Many Ukrainians very much see themselves through the lens of race when it comes to Putin’s revisionism of their shared history. In a 5,000-word essay last summer full of ahistorical claims, Putin argued that Ukrainians and Russians are one while ignoring Joseph Stalin’s early 1930s Holodomor, which many scholars claim was a deliberate, government famine to publish Ukrainians fighting for independence against the Soviet state. Estimates vary but the death toll tallies in the millions.
Tens of thousands of foreign students study here and many of them come from Africa, mainly Nigerians. Any attack would put them in a precarious position, as many do not have paperwork to enter Europe. There is also a native-born Black Ukrainian population in this country. There is no census data on their numbers, but figures range from thousands to tens of thousands. It is impossible to know without data, but it is not uncommon to see Black folks walking around Kyiv speaking fluent Russian or Ukrainian and walking with their white family members. A friend of mine, a Black Ukrainian, worries about a Russian invasion and shared with me that, while she is proud to be Black, she feels the trauma of the Kremlin’s aggression as much as any white Ukrainian.
Anytime I am asked why Black people should care about anything that is considered non-Black, I refer them to Malcolm X’s call to condemn the U.S. at the United Nations for its abuses against Black Americans. Even a highly pro-Black activist like Malcolm knew the power of solidarity.
I suggest we follow his lead as it pertains to Ukraine because colonial conquest of any nation should alarm us all—be it by Russia or even our native United States.
Terrell J. Starr is host of the Black Diplomats Podcast that focuses on the intersection of race and foreign policy. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center where he focuses on Ukraine, Georgia, Russia and nuclear non-proliferation issues. You can follow him on Twitter.
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