I love Ukraine.
I am not Ukranian. I am an American, from Ohio. The odd emotional attachments of ancestry (to which almost all native born USians are predisposed) are to “Czechoslovakia” and Ireland (with the odd anglophilic identification to which all native speakers of English seem prone). I am a russian speaker. I’ve been to Ukraine four times.
That’s how it started. I am a soldier. I’m not in uniform anymore, but as the saying goes, “Once a Marine, always a Marine”, so too is it with soldiering. I’m retired, but I’m still a soldier (this is relevant). My first two trips were to Western Ukraine, Yavoriv Polygon (a large training area, used for; among other things, armored warfare training). First trip it was me, and 36 grunts, living cheek by jowl with our Ukranian counterparts. We ate the same, slept the same, shat the same. We had fun. We also, as closely as could me managed, got “shot at” the same. We shot the breeze, told war stories and drank. Good times.
The second time it was a bit more abstract. I was working with a Colonel, not a Capt. The air was slightly more rarified. I had a driver to look after, and a colonel (the exercise was guerilla (this was 1999), and he was a target. I recall being in the GAZ (sort of like a jeep, for officers) and seeing some people trying to flag us down. I told the driver to keep going; which meant they had to jump out of the way [they had tried to block the road], and then the sound of shots being fired at us). We watched the Turkish eclipse. Sat on BTRs eating sandwiches and feeling the sun, while the breeze blew threw the grass on the steppes.
The next two trips were to Kyiv (yes, I’ve walked in Maidan). I helped with building the exercises. These were bigger deals. Ukraine was looking into joining NATO. I didn’t know it, but I was hanging out with movers and shakers in the Ukranian Army (one of them ended up on the Ukranian equivalent of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he was pretty quiet, and a huge fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger.). They sent me home with vodka. I gave them ironwood statues of California Quail. I was dragged to a party at the Ambassdor’s residence, where we griped at the “dog and pony show” aspect of it. When we were in San Diego, I took them here and there.
Viktor (of whom I was the fondest), liked ice cream, so I walked about with him, and we got Coldstone. We did a lot of “hurry up and wait”. We swapped war stories (Victor was in Afghanistan, when the USSR invaded. I was in Iraq).
In Kiev I wandered the streets. Friends of mine also spoke russian, and we had no qualms (three of us, all fluent, all soldiers. Yeah, we might get into some trouble, but it wasn’t likely. It was a chance to see how competent we were. To “live on the economy” and get to see Ukraine without the trappings of official status. The people were wonderful (as they had been in L’viv).
So I was watching the events in Maidan with some attention. The news of today isn’t surprising to me (Putin would love to be able to recreate Tzarist Russia, with himself founding the new Romanovs). Krai = boundary. “The Ukraine” defines the country as the border of something else (which is how Russia saw them, and what Ukranians were denying when they dropped “the” from the name). My last trip we had a “dining in”. I was the only NCO at the event. The Polkhovnik (Colonel) who was instrumental in getting the entire series of exercises started was there. So was my commanding general (who had been my first battalion commander). We did a round of toasts, starting by my commanding general; who saved me for last. I’d hoped I’d be excused (as the only NCO). No dice. He saved me for last.
This was a table of old friends(the Colonel being honored; for whom I’d written the text for a citation: [The Order of California] had been in charge of the exercise of my first trip; because it was the first exercise ) , and new (mostly members of the US Army). I think he was taking all that into account.
I don’t recall exactly what I said (there had been a lot of vodka, and it was late), but I did know the odds of my getting back were slim. I made a longish toast about the central fact of being a long-service soldier: All the people I’ve served with are friends. We have more in common with each other than we have to most civilians, and it matters not that our friends are Greek, Albanian, Korean, Iraqi, German, English, Russian, Ukranian, Swiss, Italian, Scottish, Canadian, Polishn etc (that list is inclusive, but not total, of nationalities I’ve served with). We can sit down and swap war stories; talk about bad chow, and good times. We can be companionable in silence as we ponder past times of being shot at. We do all this knowing the future is uncertain and we might have to spend future times shooting at each other.
It gives us the painful pleasure of a divided heart.
Right now my heart is aching. I want to know that Ukraine isn’t going to be broken apart, or swallowed whole, by Russia (which has always has a Sudetenland sort of idea about it, esp. Crimea). I want to know my friends aren’t at risk. I know that, were I there, I’d be trying to help (and that trying to stand against Russia is futile, in the way the protests at Maidan would have been had Yanukovich mobilised the full force of the Berkut on day one). And I’d still be willing to do it.
Because I have a divided heart. I’d do it, not so much because of how I feel about Ukraine, but because of my friends, and how they feel about it; and how their love of it (and my love of them) affects me.
And I know this is a strange thing to say (because really, If I’m never in a combat zone again; much less in combat, I will be quietly happy; beyond measure), but I want to be there. I want to be on the side of right in this one. I won’t be. There isn’t the time for an International Brigade to be formed, much less a chance in hell of it making a difference if it were. But if I were told to go, I’d go. A lot more easy in my mind than I went to Iraq.
Because, at root, I am a soldier, and this is the sort of thing we care about.
I have a divided heart.