Ukraine- a former diplomats perspective

Millions of people are fleeing for their lives, on the other side of the world. Former diplomat Necia Quast spent three years stationed in Ukraine, begining in 2002, as Counselor for Economic Affairs at the U.S. embassy.

Quast and her husband retired to the island approximately ten years ago, and the couple has become deeply involved in the community. Quast is co-president of the League of Women Voters of the San Juan Islands.

Her primary concerns are humanitarian ones, worrying about the welfare of the Ukrainian people in general, and her friends and their families in particular.

“Before the invasion, I hadn’t kept up with the daily news beyond headlines. Now I have touched base with my friends to let them know I am thinking about them hoping they and their families are ok,” Quast said.

To understand Ukraine today, and its relationship with Russia, Quast gave a brief history, starting with tribes of Slavs and others who were associated in a loose federation, Kyivan Rus, from the ninth through the 13th centuries. Russia, Ukraine and Belarus each trace their origins to Kyivan Rus. The federation disintegrated under the Mongol invasion, and Ukrainian lands fell under Lithuanian and Polish leadership.

The mid-1600s brought a Ukrainian uprising that defeated Polish rule and a brief period of independence. Ukraine formed an alliance with the Russian Tsar to defend against Poland. Within a few years, however, most Ukrainian territory was integrated into the Russian Empire. The western-most areas became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Under the Russian Empire, a significant chunk of Ukraine was called the Pale of Jewish Settlement. This was an area where Jewish people were allowed to settle. They were not allowed to settle in Russia proper. Ukraine, as a result, had a robust Jewish population.

As the Russian Empire collapsed under the Communist Revolution, Ukrainians formed various competing independent states. In 1922 the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic joined the Soviet Union. The western areas of Ukraine, meanwhile, were divided among Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland as the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed.

Under Joseph Stalin, in the early 1930s, Holodomor, the great famine, also known as the terror-famine, killed nearly four million Ukrainians. Stalin forced farmers to give up their farms and join state collectives. Food production dropped and shortages were exacerbated as all harvest were shipped out of Ukraine.

World War II broke out, and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army fought both Germany and the Soviet Union for independence, and Nazis rolled through Ukraine territory slaughtering most of the Jewish population.

“After the fall of the Soviet Union many of the Jewish citizens remaining emigrated to Israel,” Quast said. Not many Jewish people are left in Ukraine. Still, that history and heritage remain.

After World War II, Eastern Europe was redrawn once again bringing Western Ukraine into the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. For the first time in centuries, all Ukrainian territory was reunited under one state.

Ukrainians were accused of collaborating with Germans and suffered repression by Russia as a result. Russian leader Nikita Krushchev brought Ukrainians back into favor, then General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev began a Russification effort threatening Ukrainian language and culture.

Finally, in 1991 Communism crumbled in Russia making Ukraine independent once more. According to Quast 92% of the republic’s citizens voted for independence.

Nine years later, Vladimir Putin was elected. Quast said Putin has wanted to restore Russian hegemony. Often when former soviet countries try to reduce Russian influence, Putin has sought to undermine those efforts.

“My impression is that Putin pushes to see what he can get away with. If he gets away with it, he pushes more,” Quast said.

Quast witnessed Russia’s interference while stationed in Kyiv. The Orange Revolution occurred toward the end of her term, in 2004-2005.

The Russian-backed prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, was running against Viktor Yushchenko. First Yushchenko was mysteriously poisoned. Fortunately, he made it through the assassination attempt. The poison, a powerful dioxin found in Agent Orange, permanently disfigured him.

“His appearance is drastically different, but he survived,” Quast said.

Yanukovych was declared the winner, but citizens knew that outcome was not accurate. Protestors poured into Kyiv. As if tensions were not high enough, state security services broadcast recordings between the elections committee chair and the Yanukovych campaign plotting to declare Yanukovich the winner. The Supreme Court ruled the election invalid and ordered a new one.

Ukrainians remained in the streets of Kyiv awaiting this new election, to keep their voices heard. Quast said embassy staff were told to avoid the demonstrations except when working. Ambassadors and their staff did monitor and report on Ukrainian’s opinions and concerns.

“They just want to be governed well,” Quast said, “by a leadership that isn’t corrupt.”

Yushchenko succeeded in the second election and served as the president from 2005 to 2010.

In 2010, Yanukoavych ran a successful campaign for the presidency. Three years later, he refused to sign an agreement overwhelmingly approved by the parliament tying Ukraine closer to the European Union. He instead proposed an agreement with Russia. In 2014, he lost his reelection campaign. Massive protests broke out. This time the government responded with force using snipers to shoot at demonstrators. When protests continued, Yanukovych fled to Russia and parliament removed him from office.

In response Putin annexed Crimea and launched military operations in eastern Ukrainian provinces and later cyber attacks. These attacks escalated further in early 2017.

When asked about Russia’s recent seizure of Chernobyl, Quast said it was extremely low on her list of concerns. “There is nothing there, nothing left,” she said. “It’s just unpopulated wilderness.”

Further up on her list of concerns, she said, is how the invasion will affect international stability.

“We have seen this story play out before in World War I and World War II. We say it isn’t our problem, and then it escalates,” Quast said, adding that she isn’t saying the invasion of Ukraine will become World War III, but warning that when things go sideways in Europe, it affects countries around the world. “Historically, when there is a war in Europe, it tends to suck everyone in. It is also very concerning that people in the United States are saying [Ukraine] isn’t a real country so it is perfectly fine.”

Ukraine has its own language. Quast speaks both Russian and Ukrainian. Russians that she has spoken with have told her Ukraine is simply a different dialect of Russian. The two are both slavic languages, and Ukrainian falls between Polish and Russian.

“If you speak Russian, you could understand a lot of the words, but there are distinct differences. Russian does not have an ‘h’ sound for example, but Ukrainian does,” she said.

Quast added that she has been struck by Russians she met who genuinely felt hurt by Ukraine’s drive for independence, yet those same Russians could not see that the attitude toward Ukrainians was driving them away.

“When I was there the population was pretty evenly divided between pro-Europe and pro-Russia,” Quast said. “But the Russians’ lack of respect for Ukrainian identity, infact contempt for the notion [of a Ukrainian identity], the interference in Ukraine affairs, the attacks, has actually pushed many Ukrainians toward the European side of things.”

Besides the fact Ukraine definitely consists of a unique people with their own language and culture, the question of ethnicity bothers Quast, she said, because it is simply a pretext and excuse for one country to invade another.

“The group of people who live there have every right to determine their own path. If they want to be separate from Russia, and they clearly do, they should be independent,” she said. “Ukrainians have long aspired to be an independent nation.”

For those wanting to help, Quast said there non-profits already at work, like Doctors Without Borders, Red Cross and UNICEF. Smaller organiztions are popping up daily, and some individuals have decide to support Ukrainian businesses directly, like renting an AirBnB without actually going. Whatever direction is chosen, Quast cautioned people to do their research to make sure the group is legitimate and that the money is going exactly where the donor wants it to go.

Contributed photo
Colin Powell with political officer George Kent.

Contributed photo Colin Powell with political officer George Kent.