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Orest Deychakiwsky

Columns in "Ukrainian Weekly" newspaper


The Ukrainian Weekly
America’s solidarity with Ukraine
by Orest Deychakiwsky

Last March, just a few weeks after Russia’s brutal full-scale invasion began, I went to Dulles International Airport to pick up the wife and children of a Ukrainian official who had sent them to safety in the early days of the war. As we were driving back to my home in Charles Town, W.Va., the kids cried out “Mama, look at all the Ukrainian flags!” Indeed, the entire half-mile stretch of the nearby rural town of Hillsboro, Va., with its population of fewer than 150 people, was covered with blue and yellow flags and “Stand with Ukraine” signs and banners.
But this was not the end. The following month, in April 2022, Hillsboro’s UkraineAid concert and art auction raised $20,000 to support war refugees. Just last month, in February, the town held an “Art of War” auction to raise money for Ukraine, featuring a Swedish award-winning political cartoonist and an internationally-known blacksmith from Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine.
Throughout the past year, and especially in the initial months following the invasion, I have seen various expressions of support in Charles Town, W.Va. There’s a coffee shop that closed for two weeks last summer because the owners – as part of a mission by the local Baptist church – went to Romania to aid Ukrainian refugees. And there’s the local gentleman who on a nearly daily basis for months on end has been displaying pro-Ukraine signs and collecting donations for United Nations programs that have been providing help to Ukraine.
There were fundraisers in the nearby town of Shepherdstown, W.Va., and Ukrainian flags waving in the center of historic Harpers Ferry, W.Va., among other displays of solidarity.
Mind you, these places have no apparent connections with Ukraine and only a handful of Ukrainian Americans reside there. In her recent remarks at the Munich Security Conference, Vice President Kamala Harris noted: “I will tell you, I travel around the United States, and I have seen the Ukrainian flag fly in places most of you have probably never heard of in the United States: in storefronts, in front of homes, Americans proudly wearing the colors of Ukraine.” There have been thousands of protests, petitions, fundraisers and concerts across the country.
This support has come from not only ordinary Americans (which is especially heartening), but also from the more influential and well-known members of American society: actors, artists, musicians, sports figures, as well as experts, thought leaders and activists.
Also, Ukrainian-Americans, often working with other fellow Americans, have been amazing in stepping up as never before to help their ancestral homeland in its time of great need.
The media has done a commendable job informing Americans about the war and, indeed, about Ukraine. CNN, PBS, NPR, The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others, have provided especially in-depth and compelling on-the-ground coverage. In addition to the many reports on day-to-day developments as well as solid analysis and commentary, we have seen powerful accounts of the impact of the war on Ukrainian society. There have been many moving stories about ordinary Ukrainians – what they have endured and how they are coping.
Naturally, the coverage has ebbed and flowed depending on developments and is not, for the most part, as intense as in the early months of the war. During the week leading up to the war’s one-year anniversary, coverage spiked, with several outstanding specials on CNN and MSNBC. On two Sundays in a row, CBS’ iconic “60 Minutes” led off with stories from Ukraine. Social media coverage of the war also has been as intensive as it has been profuse.
American policymakers and the foreign policy establishment, with relatively few exceptions, are committed to standing with Ukraine “as long as it takes.” U.S. government assistance is unprecedented. President Joe Biden’s recent surprise visit to Kyiv – the first in modern history by a U.S. president to a war zone without the protection of the U.S. military – is exhibit number 1. Within the executive branch, the debate is not whether to support Ukraine – that’s a given. Rather, it is between those who are more cautious in their approach and those who are more forward-leaning.
A substantial majority of both chambers in Congress remain committed to doing what they can to help Ukraine win. This is notwithstanding questions about funding levels for American assistance that has been sent for the war effort and accountability regarding its disbursement (which, thus far, thankfully, has not been a problem), as well as some frustration that our European allies are not shouldering more of the burden. And while one should not underestimate – and must combat – those who wish to cut aid, most Democrats and Republicans are dedicated to trying to help Ukraine win.
In the Senate, both Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican leader Mitch McConnell are stalwart supporters of Ukraine, as are the majority in both their caucuses.
In the House, you have the extremist MAGA-wing – they are a noisy, shortsighted and rather incoherent minority who recently introduced the Ukraine Fatigue Resolution, which I doubt will get any serious traction. As in other policy arenas, we see a fissure within the Republican party – between the isolationists who want to diminish support for Ukraine and the internationalists – some of whom are critical of the administration for not providing additional military aid more rapidly. Impor­tantly – and this matters a lot – Republican chairmen of key House committees, such as Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Armed Services, are all staunchly committed to Ukraine’s success.
And yet, despite these amazing expressions of concrete and moral support in the year since the launch of Russia’s full-fledged invasion, opinion polls show a softening of support for arming Ukraine in comparison to the early months of the war. Not surprisingly, much of the opposition comes from the pro-Trump wing of the Republican party.
How worried should we be about this relatively modest decline in support? I believe that there is cause for concern, but not alarm. There is still a deep reservoir of support – a critical mass – among the American people and their elected representatives.
Why do I think most Americans will continue to support Ukraine?
First, most Americans love an underdog. Many are in awe of a people defending their freedom. It’s not unusual to hear the word “amazing” to describe the courage, resilience and ingenuity of the Ukrainian people. In more than one casual conversation, I’ve heard folks wonder how we Americans would compare with Ukrainians in similar circumstances.
Second, many Americans understand the geopolitical and strategic ramifications of this war. They understand that brute, unprovoked aggression and annexation of another country’s territory must not be rewarded and that the principles of territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence greatly matter to peace, security and the rules-based international order. They understand that standing shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine and providing necessary military and financial assistance serves and furthers our own vital national interests.
But there is more to it than that. Many Americans who are not especially attuned to the geopolitical dimension support Ukraine because it is the right thing to do – it is about the core values of democracy, freedom and human dignity. They are shocked and horrified by what they see and read, the massive atrocities committed by Russian forces, in what has become the most documented war in history. The solidarity that we have seen over the last year is perhaps a reflection, first and foremost, of the fundamental decency, generosity and goodwill of the American people.
Call me naive, but I am confident that, despite some headwinds and countervailing pressures, most Americans have lost neither their moral compass nor their common sense. They will continue to stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people as long as it takes. And places like Hillsboro, Va., give me that hope.

The Ukrainian Weekly
Making the Case for Ukraine with Congress
January 13 2023
by Orest Deychakiwsky

Throughout my 35 years on Capitol Hill working at the Helsinki Commission (1981-2017) I was no stranger to the Capitol itself. But never have I been more thrilled to be in that hallowed building than for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s December 21 address to a joint session of Congress. This was truly an historic moment that will be long remembered as few other Congressional appearances by foreign leaders have been. Not incorrectly, it has been compared to Winston Churchill’s December 1941 wartime address to Congress.
The Ukrainian president’s remarks were powerful, convincing and enthusiastically received by the overwhelming majority of those present in the chamber.
Ukrainians themselves, starting with Mr. Zelenskyy, have been making a compelling case for why Washington needs to sustain Ukraine in its fight for freedom. His wife, Olena, made a terrific impression when she spoke to members of Congress last July. The numerous visitors to Congress from Ukraine, both high-ranking officials and representatives of civil society, have been effective spokespersons for Ukraine. The Ukrainian Embassy, under the leadership of Ambassador Oksana Markarova, herself a force of nature, and her seasoned Deputy Chief of Mission Yaroslav Brisiuck, has played an instrumental role in garnering support for Ukraine.
So, does that mean we Americans, especially Ukrainian Americans, can kick back and relax? Not by a long shot. Indeed, since Russia’s full-fledged invasion began, we have seen an expansion in advocacy efforts the likes of which I have not seen in my more than four decades of involvement with Ukraine in the nation’s capital. But more on that later.
Ukraine has enjoyed bipartisan Congressional support for more than a century and it is no surprise that it has taken on far greater importance since Russia’s full-fledged invasion. The most visible manifestation of Congress’ commitment has been the more than $100 billion in emergency funding appropriated for Ukraine-related assistance since February 24, 2022. It has come in four separate packages, the most recent being an appropriation of $45 billion announced the week of Mr. Zelenskyy’s address. Any way you slice it, this is an enormous amount of money.
Appropriating badly needed military and financial assistance has been far from the only Congressional action on behalf of Ukraine. Several other bills and resolutions passed in 2022 that also provided important backing for Ukraine, among them the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022 and the National Defense Autho­rization Act for fiscal year 2023 (NDAA). There have been many other Congressional initiatives in the last year – hearings, briefings, statements, press releases, visits by members and staff to Ukraine itself (often logistically challenging), countless meetings and briefings with the Ukrainian Embassy and visiting Ukrainian officials and civil society representatives. I am especially proud of the work of the Helsinki Commission, which has been incredibly active on Ukraine in the last year.
Congressional support has been crucial in enhancing Ukraine’s ability to fend off Russian aggression and often in encouraging the administration to be more proactive. A substantial majority of Senators and Representatives understand that Ukraine’s fight is our fight, that it is the fight of the entire free and civilized world. Moreover, this Congressional activity and assistance reflect the will of the American people who continue to stand with Ukraine.
It is also bolstered by vigorous advocacy efforts by Ukraine’s many friends in this country, including of course the Ukrainian American community.
The history of advocacy on behalf of Ukraine is a long and storied one and it has evolved over time. Before independence, it was almost exclusively Ukrainian Americans lobbying on behalf of Ukraine. The landscape changed radically post-independence, with the engagement of numerous influential non-Ukrainian American voices. In fact, in comparison to the pre- and immediate post-independence period, advocacy by Ukrainian Americans waned somewhat for many years.
However, starting in 2014, and especially since February 24, 2022, diaspora advocacy has come back in full force.
Since the closure of the Ukrainian National Association office in Washington, D.C., back in 1995, the only Ukrainian American office devoted largely to advocacy in the nation’s capital had been the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America’s (UCCA) Ukrainian National Information Service (UNIS). It has done important advocacy work consistently since 1977, albeit with limited staff. Opportunely, the Washington Ukrainian American advocacy scene has now been greatly enhanced with a new, well-staffed Razom office, consisting largely of young professionals.
As welcome as the presence of two Washington Ukrainian American advocacy offices who prudently often collaborate is, the engagement of all Ukrainian Americans as well as Ukraine’s innumerable other American backers remains essential. Here’s a suggestion for 2023: Sign up to join Razom’s advocacy network, which will include updates with actions you can undertake to reach out to your Senators and Representative. You can do so at this website: https://bit.ly/razom-advocacy. To get regular updates from UNIS, which has long informed grassroots activists through its action alerts, contact the office by email at unis.sawkiw@gmail.com. I recommend doing both.
Despite the successes with respect to Congressional support in 2022, there is still plenty of work ahead in what will be a pivotal year. Advocates need to keep pressing for Congress to provide the requisite concrete military and financial assistance that Ukraine needs. Congress can play a vital role not only in funding military aid but in encouraging the administration to furnish more advanced weaponry to the country. Financial aid is also an absolute necessity given the 30 percent decline in Ukraine’s economy in 2022. Beyond assistance, there will be initiatives dealing with sanctions and various other measures to hold the Russians accountable for their aggression and genocidal actions.
As compelling as both the strategic and moral case for supporting Ukraine is, one must not take anything for granted. Keep in mind that even the most favorably disposed members of Congress must deal with a plethora of issues, both foreign and domestic. The dysfunction among House Republicans, as illustrated by the chaos over the election of the Speaker of the House, may also in some ways complicate funding levels for Ukraine. Advocates will need to keep Ukraine on Congress’ radar screen and keep reminding the American public of the stakes involved. It is incumbent upon each of us to do what we can.

U.S. midterm elections and support for Ukraine
DECEMBER 02, 2022 9:26 AM
by Orest Deychakiwsky

The results of the midterm competition for control of the U.S. House and Senate are in and President Joe Biden believes that the basic bipartisan consensus to support Ukraine will hold. I think he is right. But we should take nothing for granted and recognize that there will be challenges ahead. Ukrainian Americans and Ukraine’s many other friends will need to keep up their advocacy efforts for a long time to come, particularly in the coming weeks.
Given historical precedent, most experts predicted that Democrats would get clobbered, especially given high inflation. But the anticipated midterm Republican Red Wave did not materialize. However, even though the pro-Trump, MAGA candidates underperformed, they will still be enough of a force to complicate support for Ukraine.
The narrowly-controlled Republi­can House will likely be more problematic than the U.S. Senate, which remains under Democratic control, albeit barely.
The vast majority of Democrats in both the Senate and the House, even those who signed the October House Progressives’ unfortunate letter which they hastily retracted, continue to back Ukraine. So do most Republicans, including those most likely to assume chairmanships on relevant House committees.
On the Senate side, the Republican leadership, along with top Republicans on key committees such as the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees remain staunch advocates of Ukraine. They and most of their Republican colleagues in both chambers constitute what I would call the internationalist/national security/neo-Reaganite wing of the party. They understand that Ukraine winning the war is the central foreign policy issue of our time.
The chief problem lies in the MAGA and neo-isolationist wing of the Republican Party, fueled and abetted by the likes of Donald Trump, certain Fox News television talk show hosts, and some conservative groups and think tanks with longstanding ties to the Republican party – sadly, the Heritage Foundation is among them. They will cause problems, but they will not succeed in stopping aid altogether – or even cutting it dramatically. After all, in addition to the pro-Ukrainian majorities in Cong­ress, there is also still a reservoir of deep support among the American public.
Rather, the fight in Congress will be over maintaining the high levels of funding we have seen thus far, especially the desperately needed financial assistance to help keep the Ukrainian economy stay afloat. Many in both parties think that our allies and partners – especially those in the European Union – could be doing more to help Ukraine. While they have a point, it is also the case that just because others should be doing more does not mean we should be doing less.
There are many reasons why assisting Ukraine is in our national security interest. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin put it succinctly at the recent Halifax Interna­tional Security Forum: “The outcome of the war in Ukraine will help determine the global security of this young century, and those of us in North America don’t have the option of sitting this one out. Stability and security on both sides of the Atlantic are at stake.” Helping Ukraine maximally should be a no-brainer.
This is no time for isolationism. The $66 billion appropriated by Congress for Ukraine-related aid since February 24 is doubtlessly a lot of money. On November 15, Mr. Biden asked for an additional $37.7 billion in emergency funding. The current Congress may exceed this amount, as it has done with earlier requests. But even these generous allotments would be dwarfed by the costs the United States would incur with an undefeated, and hence, sooner or later, emboldened Russia. A Ukrainian win would also send a powerful signal to an increasingly aggressive China. For these and other reasons, assistance for Ukraine is an excellent return on the U.S. investment – indeed, it’s a bargain. Fiscally conservative Republicans in Congress – many of whom are sympathetic to Ukraine – should be mindful of this. Now is not the time to be penny-wise and pound-foolish.
Helping Ukraine is not only in our national interests, but it is deeply consistent with our values. The United States has a moral imperative to help a country experiencing genocide – yes, genocide – at the hands of a brutal, heartless aggressor. The continuing missile attacks designed to make Ukrainians suffer as much as possible this winter and that continue to kill innocent civilians, including babies at maternity wards, starkly demonstrate that the Kremlin is devoid of conscience. Metro­politan Archbishop Borys Gudziak, the leader of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the United States, summed it up well at a recent gathering of U.S. Catholic bishops: “The American people broadly support American aid to Ukraine because they understand it’s in America’s best interest. They also see the virtue of the Ukrainian position: it’s a position of peace, of democracy, of freedom; it’s a position that is inspired by faith.” Something to mull over especially as we approach the Christmas season.
Given the uncertainties that lie ahead in the next (118th) Congress, the current Congress should do everything possible during the lame-duck session to appropriate military and non-military assistance for Ukraine so that the country is guaranteed funding for the coming months. Encoura­ging are reports that at least some leading Congressional Republicans, along with their Democratic colleagues, are ready to allocate more than the $37 billion request as part of the end-of-the-year omnibus funding bill, especially if it includes additional oversight measures.
Ideally, Congress will pass a generous Ukraine emergency aid package this month as part of a full government spending bill. This would be preferable to another temporary spending bill (continuing resolution) which would kick the can down the road to the next Congress with its unpredictability, particularly in the House. Ukraine needs and more than deserves fulsome appropriations for what is, after all, our fight as well. We must never forget that in defending their homeland the Ukrainian people are protecting freedom, democracy and the rules-based international order. In short, they are defending the civilized world.

A letter to Vova (Vladimir Putin)
by Orest Deychakiwsky

Dear Vova,
I take the liberty of writing you an informal, somewhat stream-of-consciousness letter to let you know just what I think of you, and to suggest to you that your ugly war against Ukraine is not going too well, to put it mildly. But I suspect you already know that.
I am an American of Ukrainian heritage and, of course, Americans and Ukrainians are the two peoples you despise more than any other. For 35 years, I worked for a U.S. government agency – the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, better known as the Helsinki Commission. Yes, yes, the same Commission that has been a thorn in Moscow’s side going back to Soviet times. In May, your Foreign Affairs Ministry included some current and many former commissioners and staff on a list of 963 Americans permanently banned from Russia, including myself. You really let us have it! But that’s OK, Vova. Somehow we’ll manage to get by.
On a more serious note, Moscow has never much cared for the Helsinki Commission. Ever since its creation following the signing of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the Commission has attempted to hold the Kremlin accountable for its repeated violations of its Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) human rights and security commitments. With the war on Ukraine, Russia’s already poor record of compliance has only further deteriorated, as Moscow shamelessly and grossly flouts all 10 founding principles ensh-rined in the Helsinki Final Act – every single one! – not to mention the United Nations Charter, the Geneva Convention and numerous other international agreements.
Vova, I would not wish to be in your shoes right now. Everybody is fed up with you. I hate to tell you this (well, not really) but you are in a bind and your situation is precarious. You have nobody to blame except your narcissistic, arrogant self.
The Ukrainians (or whatever you might call them as they don’t really exist in your twisted mind) not only have not succumbed to your perverse desires, but they have also been winning on the battlefield. Big time! And despite your ineffectual propaganda, which few people believe anymore because it has gone beyond the limits of the absurd (calling Ukrainians Nazis – really?!?), the brave and resourceful Ukrainians have won the hearts and minds of people around the world. Notably, as you have come to see much to your chagrin, this includes the U.S. government, Congress and the American public.
It also includes – perhaps even more to your displeasure as you did not expect this – Europe and other democratic allies and partners around the world. They are working with America to provide unprecedented military, economic and humanitarian aid to the nation that you wish to erase. We and our international partners are punishing you with massive sanctions. And you can bet that the free world will continue to support the Ukrainian people.
Let’s face it, Vova, you have no friends. Your so-so buddies, the Chinese and the neutral Indians, are increasingly unhappy with you and are pushing you to end the war. Other non-aligned countries are less than pleased as well. The recent U.N. General Assembly annual session showed just how isolated you are. Even Belarus was half-hearted in its support, and I think you well realize that your lapdog Bela-rusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka prefers not to be involved, in part fearing his own people, with whom he is already unpopular and who do not want any part of your, ahem, “special military operation.”
The bottom line, Vovochka, is that the world realizes yours is a needless war of choice, completely unprovoked and unjustified. There is a wonderful saying, attributed to our great American President Abraham Lincoln (a man whom, I’m afraid, was the polar opposite of you; to whom you cannot even begin to hold a candle): “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” Yes, there are a few shortsighted or willfully blind individuals who still believe that your invasion was due to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expan-sion, but most people know the score.
The real reason for your brutal aggression, and I am quite surprised in how open you have been in asserting this, including in your infamous 2021 pseudo-essay, is your desire to wipe out Ukraine as a state and Ukrainians as a people. But your genocidal campaign – the war crimes, the atrocities, the killings, the torture, the sexual violence, the forced deportations, the filtration camps, the separation of parents and children, the destruction of homes and civilian infrastructure – is ultimately an exercise in futility. Why? I repeat, to try to get it through your thick skull, because of the incredible courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people defending their homeland. Also, because of the support they enjoy from the democratic West in particular, and the broader civilized world that respects the rules-based international order. Yes, Vova, the international order that you have violated with impunity.
It’s become increasing obvious over the two plus decades of your misrule that you are the face of evil (You may take that as a compliment, but hey, that’s your prerogative). You showed that early on in your rule when your FSB (security service) bombed apartment buildings killing hundreds as a pretext for the second Chechen War. It’s only gone from bad to worse. You have become even more despicable since February 24. You have caused so much death, destruction and suffering. I know empathy and humanity are not your strong suites, but I didn’t realize that you could be as cruel, callous and depraved as you have shown yourself to be. You think that you are strong? The only thing you are showing is your weakness.
However, I must confess that I never considered you to be stupid. I thought that you were basically a rational actor – evil, but not stupid. Boy was I wrong, as your actions are not those of a sane human being (And please don’t tell me that it was due to the bad information from your sycophantic advisors – that doesn’t cut it). Polite people call your full-fledged attack on Ukraine a “strategic miscalculation.”
I call it a senseless blunder of epic proportions.
Your actions, Vova, are those of a corrupt tyrant with imperial delusions and a pathological obsession with a country you deem essential to the restoration of your perverse vision of some sort of a “great Russia.” You fancy yourself a Peter the Great. Instead, you will be remembered and cursed for all eternity by your own people for having weakened and possibly even destroyed Russia. You will have achieved the exact opposite of what you wanted. What can I say, Vova, you are a buffoon, a moron, a fool for the ages, and an evil one at that!
You should not be in the least surprised, Vovochka, that you are the most resented, hated man in the entire world. You are even blowing it with your own population, which has been relatively passively supportive until very recently. You were able to fool many with your relentless disinformation campaigns and appeal to the unhealthy, imperialistic, chauvinistic instincts of all too many – though by no means all – Russians. But those days appear to be over. With your “partial mobilization,” your subjects are running for the hills – with planes and cars full of men getting the hell out of Dodge, as we would say here in the States. Your national minorities are over-represented in the military and becoming increasingly disaffected. Your troops fighting against the infinitely more competent and determined Ukrainian armed forces are already severely demoralized. The new “recruits” are not eager to become cannon fodder. Your own elites are becoming even more frustrated and disgusted with you – notably the security forces and the military. It does not help that you are trying to play strategic military genius and personally direct them on the battlefield.
And then there are the referendums in the occupied territories – a vote at gunpoint. Everyone knows they are a sham, a farce, a fraud – yet another among countless Russian violations of democratic norms and principles. Oh, and by the way, nobody is going to recognize annexed Ukrainian lands, nor buy your claims that you are now defending Russian territory. That would be laughable if it weren’t so warped.
So, what is to be done (chto delat’), to use Lenin’s famous phrase? The other famous phrase is who is to blame (kto vinovat) and you should be able to figure that out, just look into the mirror. Well, first, when it comes to your nuclear saber-rattling, which poses an even greater threat to global peace and stability than the considerable damage that you have already done, heed the warnings you have been receiving privately from U.S. officials, and the words of President Joe Biden: “don’t, don’t, don’t!”
The other thing you can do is to get the hell out of Ukraine. Just leave. End the war. Period. Full stop. Granted, the chances of that are just about nil, so I am not holding my breath. But it is an option, perhaps the least bad option for you. Think about it.
One way or another, sooner or later, you will be defeated. Either you will leave, or the Ukrainians will kick you out. After all, they are defending their land and that gives them the kind of motivation that your occupying forces will never have. They realize that as long as Russia rules even a meter of Ukrainian land, there will never be any respect for life, dignity, human rights and freedoms for any subjugated Ukrainian.
Because of your evil, your stupidity and your lunacy, Russia has become a global pariah. You stand on the wrong side of history and may very well become the destroyer, not the savior, of Russia.
Nobody knows what fate awaits you – I personally would love to see you face justice at the International Criminal Court in the Hague – but it could be even worse than that. What happened to Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1945 or Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in December of 1989 comes to mind. Sweet dreams, Vova.
Orest S. Deychakiwsky
P.S. I was tempted to write a letter akin to what the Zaporizhian Kozaks wrote to the Turkish Sultan, but I am not that creative, and, besides, this is a family newspaper.


AUGUST 26, 2022 2:24 PM
Belarus and Russia’s War on Ukraine
by Orest Deychakiwsky

In thinking about Russia’s war against Ukraine, it is a mistake to equate the Belarusian people with the country’s long-time dictator, Alyaksandr Lukashenka. And it is important to recall the unprecedented eruption of massive Belarusian pro-democracy demonstrations that began two years ago.
No doubt, Belarus’ illegitimate leader is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s accomplice in the war that has wreaked so much death and destruction. Belarus is a co-aggressor state. Its armed forces are not themselves fighting in Ukraine, although, unfortunately, Russia has reportedly recruited thousands of Belarusian volunteers to fight on its side, most of whom are doing it for money rather than out of conviction.
Belarus was a staging ground for Russian forces to invade Ukraine in the early phase of the war, providing the shortest land route to attack Kyiv.
The Russian military continues to use Belarusian territory to attack Ukraine. Recent satellite images indicate an increasing number of flights from Russia to Belarusian airfields with equipment that could be used in air-raids. Given Belarus’ proximity to Kyiv and western Ukraine, through which a great deal of Western aid flows, this poses a serious threat.
But don’t conflate the people of Belarus with the Lukashenka regime.
According to surveys, Belarusians are largely opposed to the war, with only a tiny fraction supporting Belarus’ direct involvement in Ukraine. They want nothing to do with it, and those polls show they are convinced that the war will only have negative consequences for their own country.
Indeed, many Belarusians are actively supporting Ukraine, risking their well-being and lives. Some 1,500 Belarusian volunteers are fighting alongside the Ukrainian military. They include the Belarusian Regiment of Kastus Kalinouski – named after a 19th century Belarusian writer and revolutionary who led an 1863 uprising against the Russian Empire.
The fighters fully realize that by backing Ukraine they are also ultimately defending their own country’s freedom and independence. Their ranks are growing.
Other Belarusians have actively opposed the war from within Belarus, notably the so-called “railway partisans.” These Belarusian patriots disabled or disrupted railway links in Belarus, stalling the movement of Russian troops and military supplies into Ukraine. Some have recently received harsh sentences. Other Belarusians provided valuable military information. These actions no doubt complicated the Russian assault on Kyiv.
The democratic opposition, led by Svitlana Tsikhanouskaya, the true winner of the fraudulent August 2020 presidential elections, is firmly on the side of Ukraine, recognizing that the fates of Belarus and Ukraine are inextricably linked. On August 9, the second anniversary of the elections, the Belarusian opposition formed the United Transition Government – in effect, a government-in-exile – with the goals of an independent, sovereign and democratic Belarus. A key task is to mobilize and increase support for Ukraine.
Many Belarusians feel a close kinship with Ukrainians. The two peoples have a shared history. Both trace their heritage to Kyivan Rus’. Both have far greater legitimate claim to this ancient polity than does Russia, despite warped Russian attempts to appropriate its history.
Belarus and much of Ukraine were part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and later the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The (Old) Ruthenian language, predecessor to modern Ukrainian and Belarusian, was an official language. Both peoples have far more in common linguistically, culturally and historically with each other than they do with Russia. With the expansion of the Tsarist empire into both countries in the 1700s came centuries of repression and Russification, which continued under brutal Soviet rule. The late-1930s killing fields in Bykivnia near Kyiv and Kurapaty near Minsk are powerful symbols of Moscow’s efforts to destroy the “enemies of the people” in both countries. Belarusians – certainly Mr. Lukashenka’s many opponents – realize that Russia is a common enemy to both Belarus and Ukraine.
Since becoming independent in 1991, Ukraine and Belarus have gone on separate tracks. Ukraine is a democratic, pluralistic country where basic rights and freedoms are respected, while Belarus, except for the first three years following independence, became a repressive dictatorship following the election of Mr. Lukashenka as president in 1994.
Every single election under the dictator’s rule has been fraudulent – something I personally witnessed, having observed all but one national election during my tenure at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. The one I missed was because the Belarusian government denied me a visa because of my involvement with Congressional legislation sanctioning the regime and providing assistance to the beleaguered democratic opposition and civil society.
Post-election protests – and subsequent crackdowns, notably, the brutal post-2010 election crackdown – have been commonplace throughout Mr. Lukashenka’s rule. None of the protests, however, ever approached the scale and perseverance of those held following the August 9, 2020, presidential election.
The vote fraud in that election was so flagrant that most Belarusians were convinced that the real winner was Ms. Tsikhanouskaya. The democratic world recognizes that she represents the Belarusian people, and she has been warmly received at the highest levels in the United States and much of Europe.
Mass unprecedented peaceful rallies, occasionally exceeding 100,000 people, lasted for months, despite the torture, abductions and detentions of thousands of people. Ultimately, the protestors were no match for a system that had long honed its repressive machine. In the two years since, the Lukashenka regime has continued and even intensified its crackdown on civil society activists, independent media and other dissenting voices – including those who have opposed the war Ukraine. Today, more than 1,200 political prisoners languish in Belarusian prisons.
Despite his ostensible fealty to Russia, even Mr. Lukashenka has long resisted efforts to be absorbed by Russia because doing so would mean a loss of his own hold on power. He and Putin reportedly cannot stand each other. But thanks to the lack of political and economic reforms throughout his 27-year rule, he has made Belarus vulnerable to Russia. For this, he has nobody to blame but himself. Mr. Lukashenka is in a trap of his own making. This dependency has only grown in the last two years. Indeed, if it weren’t for Putin’s backing, the Belarusian autocrat would likely have lost his grip on power following the 2020 mass protests.
Thus far, Mr. Lukashenka has resisted Putin’s considerable pressure to overtly join the invasion of Ukraine. He well understands that the Belarusian people oppose it, and that his own military – especially the rank-and-file – have no desire to get involved. Given his own lack of legitimacy among Belarusians and the considerable, even if now largely suppressed or exiled opposition, Mr. Lukashenka sees the potential threat to his own rule should Belarus decide to more extensively participate in the war.
It is vital that Ukrainians and their friends and allies in the West make the distinction between the Lukashenka regime and the long-suffering Belarusian people who seek a free and democratic future. The Ukrainian government needs to embrace Belarus’ legitimate, democratic opposition which knows that a Russian defeat in Ukraine will mean liberation from the tyrannical Lukashenka regime and bring the Belarusian people closer to freedom at home.
The United States and its Western partners must continue to stand with the people of Belarus. The West imposed stricter sanctions following the 2020 election and massive crackdown, and further expanded sanctions for its role in Russia’s invasion. The West needs to continue its assistance to those seeking democratic change in Belarus and to those who defend its sovereignty. Both Ukraine and the West need to cooperate with the Tsikhanouskaya-led United Transition Government as much as possible.
The Belarusian people are Ukraine’s natural allies in the fight against Russian imperialism. It is they who represent the future of Belarus, not Putin’s puppet, Mr. Lukashenka. Supporting the Belarusian people’s fight for freedom is the smart thing to do, and the right thing to do.

JULY 15, 2022 1:56 PM
Kherson on my mind and in my dreams
by Orest Deychakiwsky

Three years ago this month, on July 19-22, 2019, I was in the southern Ukrainian port city of Kherson as an international observer to the Verkhovna Rada elections. Throughout my career at the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I had often visited Ukraine – including as an international observer to every national election but one since 1990. Yet I had never made it to Kherson until 2019.
For most visitors to Ukraine, Kherson was somewhat off the beaten path. I certainly had not known much about the city, or Kherson Oblast, considered to be the “fruit basket of Ukraine.” I was pleasantly surprised at how much the city and region appealed to me. I liked its physical appearance, the architecture, the wonderful outdoor market.
I liked the people – they were calm and friendly. Pro-Russian sentiment was nil. They were unmistakably Ukrainian in their identity and loyalties, despite being largely Russian speaking out of habit. When I addressed them in Ukrainian, they would invariably switch – and their Ukrainian was beautiful. While never a hotbed of Ukrainian nationalism for various historical reasons, I learned that the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) operated an underground cell in Kherson during World War II resisting, from August 1941 to March 1944, the German occupiers, then afterwards, the Soviets. Indeed, one of the OUN leaders in the Kherson district was Mykola Bandera, brother of OUN leader Stepan Bandera.
One of my fondest moments during my brief stay in Kherson – a reprieve from our intensive elections-related schedule – was taking a boating trip down the widening Dnipro as it approaches the Black Sea and swimming in its refreshing waters on a picture-perfect warm sunny day. I have been to many places and experienced much in my life, but for some strange, intangible reason, that experience stands out.
Three years later, I find myself often thinking about Kherson, now suffering due to Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine. Russian forces have been occupying the city – and much of the oblast early in the war and have been terrorizing its people since. Kherson is the only oblast center captured by the Russian forces since the start of the all-out invasion. Kherson Oblast, which borders Crimea, is of critical strategic importance, vital to Moscow’s ability to control access to the peninsula and to potentially holding Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.
As they have elsewhere in Ukraine, the Russians invaders have shown their true colors in Kherson, exposing themselves for the savages that they are. Ambassador Michael Carpenter, in a recent speech to representatives of the 57 countries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), put it succinctly: “The Kremlin’s pre-planned, multi-faceted campaign to absorb Kherson lays bare the truth of its vision of a subjugated, Russified Ukraine. Kherson is the Kremlin’s laboratory of horrors.”
The Russian occupiers are responsible for numerous egregious human rights abuses, including killings, kidnappings, torture and sexual violence.
Local civilians are rounded up in “filtration points” and interrogated for any connections to the Ukrainian government or independent media outlets. Russian occupiers have reportedly detained some 600 people in the region – local officials, civil society activists, journalists – in what have been described as “torture chambers.” Some cite higher numbers of “disappeared.” Many of the detained are horribly mistreated. Graphic accounts of torture by survivors are nothing short of chilling.
Residents are beaten in their homes or on the streets and subjected to humiliating identity checks, and God forbid if you have Ukrainian symbols tattooed on your body or if your iPhone has anything perceived as pro-Ukrainian on it.
Many Khersonites are being forcibly deported to Russia. The puppet authorities are reportedly settling all those whom they consider to be loyal Russian citizens into the homes of those forcibly deported.
Russian soldiers have looted shops and stolen property. Prices have skyrocketed. Supplies are short. Medicines can only be bought on the streets. Many people have lost their jobs. The hryvnia is being replaced by the ruble and internet services and Ukrainian mobile phone providers have been cut off.
It is little wonder that more than half of the city’s residents have left, according to some estimates.
The Russians are taking active measures to bring Kherson under their administrative control, detaining the Ukrainian mayor, destroying its democratic Ukrainian governing structures and replacing them with their puppets and proxies. Free Ukrainian media have been supplanted by Russian propaganda. There is a wholesale attempt to Russify and isolate the population. And Moscow seems to be gearing up for a referendum to annex Kherson to Russia, possibly in September.
We see “passportization,” with Russian President Vladimir Putin issuing a decree expediting the process for Kherson residents to receive Russian citizenship. Given the reluctance of inmates, the Russians were forcing passports on people at a correctional colony in Kherson. Other residents have been told that they could not get pensions or start a business unless they obtain a Russian passport. Oh, and children in Kherson Oblast born after February 24 are automatically made Russian citizens.
Ukrainian state symbols have been removed. Gone are the large banners I saw three years ago on the municipal building that proclaimed, “Kherson is Ukraine,” and, in Ukrainian, “Glory to Ukraine” and “Glory to its heroes.” A Russian curriculum is being introduced in schools – you can bet that it will present a highly distorted view of Ukrainian history and culture. The use of the Ukrainian language is discouraged; there are plans to ban the circulation of documents in the Ukrainian language. A leader in the so-called Kherson “military-civil administration” recently said that education in schools and institutions of higher education will be conducted in Russian but offered that Ukrainian language classes can be formed if parents so request. How generous of him.
As much as the story of Kherson is one of brute repression and Russification, it is also one of remarkable courage and resistance.
Despite the cruelty and climate of fear that pervades it, the people of Kherson city and oblast refuse to be cowed. We see resistance and partisan activity take many different forms, ranging from killings of pro-Russian figures and acts of sabotage to the refusal of average citizens to cooperate with the Russians, including educators and health-care workers. Initially, we saw pro-Ukrainian street protests, but these have been quashed. Several attempts to organize referendums on joining Russia have not taken hold due to the refusal of citizens to cooperate. The resistance of the population and growing insurgency is mounting a strong challenge to Russian attempts to consolidate their control.
Most Khersonites are resisting obtaining Russian passports, despite pressure, or, reportedly, even monetary incentives to do so. Ukrainian flags and pro-Ukrainian symbols, graffiti and leaflets appear in the city. Partisans release videos calling on the occupying Russians to save their own lives and leave. Indeed, partisans have helped the Ukrainian military target Russian forces. In May, the puppet Kherson governor appeared at a meeting with teachers in a bullet proof vest. That was probably a smart move on his part, as Kremlin-approved local leaders and Russian soldiers have been attacked and killed with increasing frequency in shootings and car bombs.
Ukrainian fighters have been carrying out counterattacks in Kherson Oblast, slowly regaining control. They are getting close to the city and may be readying for a counteroffensive to liberate the suffering and terrorized inhabitants of the city and region which is so key to the strategic stability of Ukraine. The growing supply of weapons that the U.S. and its allies are providing will help in achieving this goal.
My dream is that I will someday once again visit a liberated, free, Ukrainian Kherson, take a boat ride down the Dnipro and swim in its cool waters where I did so on that sunny summer day three years ago, a special place where the Dnipro and two of its tributaries, Stare Dnipro and Kosheva, meet. May someday soon the sun cast the warm rays of freedom, peace, justice and truth upon Kherson and all of Ukraine.