Donald Trump’s attempt to extort Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden thrust the war-torn nation into the spotlight yet again. The coverage is unflattering: All too often, Ukraine comes off as little more than a hopeless cauldron of corruption teeming with seedy characters.
But America often forgets that it takes two to tango. We rail against Latin American drug cartels, while forgetting their billions come from American consumers. We denounce offshore money laundering, while ignoring the fact that havens like Gibraltar and Cyprus are operated by Western nations. And as the details of the Trump-Ukraine scandal emerge, the unpleasant reality is that much of Ukraine’s corruption is a reflection of our own.
Considering that we’re talking about an impoverished nation in the middle of an ongoing conflict, perhaps we can take a moment to look at matters from a Ukrainian perspective.
The fact that Ukraine exists as a sovereign nation is itself a miracle, given what the land had endured over the past century. The end of World War I saw the collapse of empires as people from Ireland to Saudi Arabia got countries of their own. Ukraine did not get a country. Ukraine was split between Poland and the Soviet Union. The western, Poland-controlled regions spent the interwar years with Ukrainian culture and society suppressed by Warsaw.
Meanwhile, the Soviet part of Ukraine was undergoing a quiet little genocide courtesy of Josef Stalin, whose man-made famine claimed 3-4 million souls. It was A Modest Proposal brought to life. Skeletons shambled through the steppe; families ate their children.
Then came World War II, which turned Ukraine into a meat grinder with a body count that defies comprehension. For a frame of reference, America’s total of WWII casualties is 420,000 men. In Ukraine, 240,000 were killed in a battle for my home city of Kharkiv—a single battle for a single city. A quarter of all Jews butchered in the Holocaust were Ukrainian, as well.
The end of the war brought four more decades under Moscow’s dictatorship, including the Chernobyl disaster—the largest nuclear incident in history. Even when Ukraine finally gained independence in 1991, the country was plundered by oligarch clans who made billions off of energy and industrial resources while much of the population remained impoverished.
That’s when the Westerners swaggered in.
They came as consultants and entrepreneurs, peddling access and influence. They strolled, like gods among peasants, past mass graves and drab Khrushchyovki apartment blocks. They sought adventure and women, lucrative lobbying contracts and consulting gigs. Some appear to have genuinely empathized with Ukraine, but all too often, they too carried a taint of the swamp.
There’s Paul Manafort, consiglieri to Philippine dictators and African warlords who made obscene amounts of money by collaborating with the oligarch president Viktor Yanukovych. There’s Rudy Giuliani, whose security consulting company eagerly partnered with Kharkiv’s oligarch clan. There’s Hunter Biden, who, having no experience with either Ukraine or the energy sector, landed a $50,000-a-month sinecure with the fabulously corrupt Burisma Holdings.
There’s Kurt Volker, who recently resigned from the position of State Department special envoy to Ukraine. As Politico reported, Volker was negotiating the sale of weapons to Ukraine while on the board of a think tank and a lobbying firm funded by manufacturers of the weapons he was promoting. Volker is also a member of the Atlantic Council, which spent the past five years churning out essays lecturing Ukraine about corruption—all while being heavily funded by Burisma and by Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk.
Now there’s Trump, cynically leveraging America’s role as the primary guarantor of Ukraine’s security to drag Ukraine into his reelection schemes, a move that’s extraordinarily reckless and likely impeachable. All this is happening as Kiev continues to fight a brutal war with Russia-backed rebels. It’s a despicable, ugly affair, and as unpalatable as it is to admit, much of the ugliness is firmly rooted in Washington.
Western analysts are already chiming in about how Ukrainians feel about all this. It’s hard—not to mention a bit colonialist—to attempt to encapsulate the feelings of a multilingual, multiethnic nation in a single analysis. But I think it’s safe to assume many Ukrainians are just plain tired. Tired of an awful, grinding war that continues to claim the lives of soldiers and civilians and that transformed eastern Ukraine into a hell of torture, land mines, starvation, and disease. Tired of constantly checking news from Moscow and Washington to see what plans foreign entities have for their future. Tired of paternalistic plaints about corruption from some of the very actors mired in it.
Foreign policy experts often talk about “Ukraine fatigue”: the West being exhausted with Kiev. If the West is fatigued, imagine how Ukraine feels.