Submitting on location – Kiev, Ukraine
We’ve heard a great deal in the Russian and international press about how Russians view the events in Ukraine and Western involvement in the situation on the ground. But how does the average American see the crisis? I travel a great deal in both Russia and the United States, and the difference in public opinion between the two countries is striking.
The first thing you realize when casually speaking with Americans is the relative ignorance to the Ukrainian and Russian past. Of course, the political elites and the press typically have a rudimentary understanding of how Kiev and Moscow are interrelated; however, the average adult in the American heartland really just doesn’t understand the history of the conflict–much less the significance to Western European, and therefore U.S., interests. I recently did an interview on a television station in Idaho regarding the Ukrainian situation; and the one question the viewers wanted answered was, “Why should Idahoans care about Ukraine?” America, separated by natural ocean barriers on both sides, has long been isolationist–until events around the world command their attention and they just can’t ignore them anymore. Ukraine has not reached this level of attention yet among vast segments of the American population.
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The one area where this is not the case is in the reputation of Russian president Vladimir Putin in the United States, where demographics are changing. Illegal immigration is a huge issue in the press and in the mind of the average citizen. The white, Eurocentric population is shrinking. When they hear Putin is requiring Russian to be spoken for legal immigration to the Russian Federation as well as an understanding of Russian history and values, there is a sense of respect that is expressed among this segment of the American population. When they hear Putin speaking out against violence against Christians among the global Muslim Jihadist community, they feel a kindred spirit is giving voice to their concerns (while the American president does not.) When they hear Putin talking about morality and family values, the social conservative wing of America smiles as well.
To the academic and political elite, Russian actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine are an anathema they just can’t put their arms around. In their mind, national borders and nationalism are ideas that were supposed to have gone by the wayside last century. They believe that since America has unilaterally reduced her power in the world, other powerful countries, including Russia, should naturally want to do the same. A perfect example is U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments about Russian actions being akin to nineteenth century behavior. There is a general bewilderment felt when discussing Ukraine with a member of the current administration or its allies. “Why would Russia do this?” they ask.
Then, of course, you have the hawkish segment of America that see events in Eastern Europe as an ominous portent of things to come if Russia is not contained. There is no bewilderment here. This group views the world through the lens of the Cold War, and when looking at Russia sees the Soviet Union. Here is where you hear calls for providing lethal assistance to the government in Kiev and proposals for redeploying American armored divisions to Europe to support Baltic and Eastern European members of NATO. Tweeting hashtags from the State Department to conduct foreign diplomacy just doesn’t cut it in their eyes.
Overall, I would suggest there is a deep resistance to the idea of the United States getting materially involved in the Ukrainian situation. Americans are war weary, and Ukraine is a long ways away and a place they generally do not know a great deal about. However, Americans are aware of the twentieth century history of Europe and in my estimation would be keen to prevent another global conflict as we saw during this period. If the unrest spreads to NATO, Americans most likely would demand presidential leadership to protect United States allies and interests on the continent.
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