Ukraine: What Do We know?

AP Photo/Andrew Marienko

I’ve recently received a number of inquiries from readers asking why I’ve not written anything on the Ukraine-Russia imbroglio; after all, nearly everyone else and his uncle and aunt seem to be doing nothing but. It’s a good question and deserves an answer.


Moreover, I do have a residual interest. My mother was born in Ukraine, and her story of harrowing flight from her village with her mother and brother in the middle of a snowstorm in the dead of night remains fresh in my mind. Pogroms were a fact of life in the Ukraine.

That was then and this is now. And what is happening now is a human tragedy. The problem for me as a writer is that I am far from the conflict and my knowledge of the events unfolding, whether as cause or effect, is drastically limited—as is practically everyone else’s.

Nonetheless, the pundits are busy weighing in with contradictory interpretations of the calamity—and not without a certain occasional affectation. For example, we learn that Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, which also gives its name to Chicken Kiev available in our grocery stores and restaurants, is properly Kyiv, the name used by all our prestigious commentators to signal their erudition. Clearly, they must know what they are talking about and must surely order Chicken Kyiv when dining out. Sometimes the frivolous can act as a giveaway, as a token of putative accuracy.

More seriously, we learn that the Ukrainians—or Ukrainions, as that paragon of bovine ignorance Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland pronounces the word, as if she were observing an episode of Star Trek—have been hosting biolabs, “biological research facilities,” as she calls them, and that she fears Russian forces may take control of them. The tacit sense is that these are American-sponsored. But we learn that the implication is “Fake.” It has nothing to do with the U.S. That Ukraine could independently operate perhaps two dozen such facilities seems bizarre, and why Russia would attack its own secret laboratories is a question left unanswered.


We learn that Ukraine should have fast-tracked the Minsk Agreement. We learn that the Agreement would give Russia undue advantage in Ukraine’s internal affairs. We learn that Putin is a monster. We learn that Zelenskyy is a hero. We learn that Putin has sober reasons of state. We learn that Zelenskyy is a former comedian.

We learn that Putin was intent on restoring the Soviet empire or the borders of Czarist Russia. We learn that the Obama-inspired 2014 Euromaidan coup which illegally installed a pro-American president was the initial trigger for the 2022 Russian invasion. We learn that the Russian military is sustaining staggering losses. We learn that Ukraine is on the verge of collapse. We learn that Ukraine’s crack fighting unit the Azov Battalion wears Nazi insignia on its uniforms. We learn that it is armed by the Israelis and that Zelensky is Jewish. We learn that Russia, selectively expelled from the SWIFT global messaging system, is going broke. We learn that Russia’s growing involvement with the BRICS platform is a sufficient economic buffer.

We learn from certain sources that the president’s son sat on the board of the Ukrainian natural gas firm Burisma Holdings, receiving substantial payments for his services. We learn from other sources—the Internet is chockful of these—that the connection entailed nothing suspicious. We learn that NATO should enforce a no-fly zone over the country. We learn that this would lead to WW III. We learn that WW III may already have started. And so it goes. The papers and the digitals read like a piece of Borgian fiction.


There is truth here, invention there, and often it is impossible to distinguish one from another. The most important fact that cannot form part of any given narrative, that is not tendentious and does not advance a particular argument is: a war is going on and people are suffering. This is not a matter of interpretation.

What we should know, apart from the obvious, is that most of our information is being channeled and filtered through the mainstream media and the swarm of so-called “fact-checkers,” which means that our reading of the situation is profoundly compromised from the start. None of us can say with any certainty where the origin of the present conflict can be located, or who is ultimately responsible—Russia, Ukraine, NATO, the U.S., or some indecipherable tangle of all the actors involved. None can say with any confidence what kind of macabre political dance is taking place, and we would be best advised to refrain from offering sophisticated elucidations, self-assured judgments, and urgent military or geopolitical solutions. A sorcerer’s apprentice never solved anything.

True, authentic scholars and political researchers can lead us into the historical realities and complexities going back centuries, helping us to arrive at partially informed conclusions. But current exegetes are mired in unresolved complications, the “fog of war,” partisan convictions, and all-too-often apocryphal sources. We need to keep in mind, as noted, that most of what we know about immediate political intricacies and “facts on the ground” is what the media tell us, which means that, on the whole, our data are unreliable and slanted. In far too many instances, we have no way of separating empirical truth from domestic disinformation.


The only thing we can say with genuine conviction is that, sanctions notwithstanding, and absenting a major, expanded war, the sequel is not in doubt. Unpalatable compromises and political sacrifices, however painful, will have to be made. And that the critics, expositors, zealots, sectarians, and “interested” parties must cease purveying interpretations and issuing threats. Incitement would only seem to prolong the inevitable, with more destruction and more deaths to follow. The rhetoric needs to be toned down and pontifical assurances put to rest. We should all be pressing might and main for a negotiated settlement to end hostilities, repatriate the dispossessed, and rebuild the country as best as realpolitik allows before we “sleepwalk” into an unprecedented and far more costly conflict. And this, too, I believe, is not a matter of interpretation.


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