Imagine for one moment that your home town or village was geographically located—through a combination of fate and the decisions of your ancestors—in one of the most hotly contested border areas in the world. You would undoubtedly feel fierce loyalty and kinship to the region and its inhabitants—your own land and people. If the overwhelming force of a neighboring once-empire was bearing down on you and yours, imagine the combined feelings of defiance, outrage, fear, and determination that would be be waging a war unto itself inside of your mind.
Ukrainians in the eastern part of that country, on the border between the Russian-dominated breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and the portions of Ukraine still under the control of the democratically-elected national government of Ukraine, currently face the dire circumstances described above. They are not the first in history to be staring down the guns of war on the front lines, seemingly helpless to stand in the way of an overwhelming aggressor.
The Poles did so in 1939. Koreans between the two warring states on that peninsula have suffered similarly for years, and peoples in disputed border areas going back to the start of nation-states, and even before, have all faced down those encroaching armies.
Disputed border areas are the literal no man’s land of human existence. They are peppered with trenches, land mines, barbed wire, and grimly determined, heavily-armed forces facing off across small swathes of land that separate rival political entities and peoples. They eventually become almost uninhabitable for civilians due to the risk of remaining in such a fraught place, sometimes for years or decades at a time. Ukraine’s eastern portions have been in such a situation since 2014, when Russia first invaded the breakaway regions of the country. The disputed border then shifted westward, to where it remains today in the current crisis.
Now Ukrainians wait warily to see what Russia will do to their country, and whether or not the rest of the world will come to their aid should Russia push deeper into Ukraine. They face the dreaded uncertainty of all people who stare down the reality of a military invasion. What will become of their livelihood? Their prosperity? Their security? Who will rule them, and how? Will they be rounded up if they fail to demonstrate the requisite loyalty and fealty to the new overlords? All of these questions no doubt preoccupy Ukrainians today.
From the vantage point of the safety and security of a country like the United States—buffered on two sides by the world’s largest oceans and on the other two sides by countries with no remaining territorial claims on U.S. lands—it is likely hard to fathom the anxiety faced by Ukrainians in the east of that country. It has been a long time since a country’s sovereign borders were altered by an invading army, and that lack of palpable memory no doubt dulls the sense of national indignation that other countries the world over should feel at Russia’s aggression.
It has simply been too long since the world suffered at the hands of empires that sought expansion through force. The memory of the resulting chaos, political instability, and geopolitical flux that led to so many wars in the past has seemingly receded into the back of our collective consciousness. Political leaders and national security officials in European governments and the United States are attempting to forestall such chaos, but the populations of those nations do not seem to feel the acute anxiety of Russia’s moves.
Here in the United States, we seem to be, at most, feeling a tempered disapproval in some quarters, and an outright lack of outrage at all at Russian aggression in others.
Sadly, the current geopolitical crisis in the east of Europe possibly presages more future crises down the road. What is to say that Russia will stop in the east of Ukraine if it fails to face any meaningful consequences for its current actions? Or what will China think vis-a-vis Taiwan if Russia is allowed to move into a neighboring sovereign state without punishment? China already sees Taiwan as part of its own country, such that an aggressive move into Taiwan could be explained away as an act below the threshold of Russia’s (unpunished) incursion.
It is possible that the world is moving into a more politically dangerous time, one akin to the geopolitical environment in pre-World War I Europe. If today’s leaders do not make Russia’s aggression painful for it, and allow Vladimir Putin to change Europe’s borders at will, then those memories of political chaos and geopolitical struggle are going to come barreling recklessly back into the forefront of our collective minds. That will be because we will have entered a far more dangerous world for all of us, one in which force determines borders and might rules the world. International institutions and laws that have governed the post-World War II world will fall away, and we will all once again face the uncertainty of a world regularly at war between nation-states.
No one should want such an outcome and today’s leaders must prevent such a return to a less stable world, no matter the cost.