Editor’s note: Our world is complex. The Global Watchdawg fetches events from across the globe, aims to build relevance to the UW community, and strives for action through the lens of geopolitical pragmatism.
Through the window of a bus, while staring at old Soviet mid-rise apartments, I reminisced about the last six weeks I spent speaking Russian with my host family, discussing furniture choices over tea, playing “Durak,” and watching the entire dubbed version of “Shutter Island” without English subtitles.
While all of this was occurring, Ukrainian civilians in Izium were being killed, tortured, and buried in mass graves by Russian soldiers about 850 miles southwest of me.
Upon my arrival to the United States, the news worsened — Putin had ordered a partial mobilization of those in Russia’s military reserve.
Not to mention, renewed conflicts between Azerbaijan and Armenia continue to take lives, and border conflicts between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are reaching a death toll of 100.
Over which, Russia has, ironically, urged a peaceful and diplomatic de-escalation.
Poorly drawn Soviet borders, internal politics in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and a weakening Russian influence over the area have all contributed to this Balkan powder keg-esque situation in a post-colonial space.
My experience abroad was not in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, or Tajikistan — nor was it in Russia.
My home base was in Latvia’s second largest city, Daugavpils, located just 75 miles from the Latvia-Russian border. Well within the bounds of NATO protection, the city houses an approximately 80% native Russian-speaking population.
From there, I traveled through Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, studying the Baltic countries and their long, dark history with Soviet occupation.
Unfortunately, my excursion doesn’t even begin to capture the full extent of Soviet imperialization. In fact, every single country mentioned thus far has been a Soviet republic.
The aforementioned Daugavpils sits in an interesting cultural and political environment, due to the fact that it’s ethnically Russian, but also Latvian, by nationality.
In the city center, I could see Ukrainian flags being flown outside homes, but when talking to older citizens, there was a clear hesitation about discussing the war in Ukraine.
Many of the folks I conversed with declared that the war is “bad for both sides” and remained lukewarm. While not factually incorrect, there is a clear aggressor in this war.
It would be unfair to characterize Daugavpils as pro-Russia, as it actually leans pro-Ukraine. However, during my time abroad, I’ve learned that leaning pro-Ukraine doesn’t cut it anymore.
This “Daugavpils effect” is something I worry about on our own campus.
“It’s better to be on the map with positive views,” Māris Selga, ambassador of Latvia to the United States, said. “But in many ways, the war in Ukraine has put us on the map for completely different reasons.”
How many more countries need to first appear on the news in bloody conflicts before UW students can place them on a map? How many more “unpredictable” wars need to start before there is more proactive action rather than vapid performative reaction?
Carl Larson, a soldier from Seattle who fought in the International Legion of Defense of Ukraine and organizer of Friends of Ukraine’s Military, expressed his anger.
“This pisses me off … Most of my fellow Amercians seem to not care,” Larson said. “This was an opportunity to show my fellow Americans, with my own body, my own life, how important it is for us. It’s still our fight.”
Larson is, arguably, absolutely right. While Larson’s choice is one potential avenue for activism, at an absolute, bare minimum we should be getting educated on this topic.
The next step for UW students who live in Seattle is to send a letter to Rep. Jayapal and encourage her to be more firm on her support of Ukraine with President Biden.
If you don’t live in Jayapal’s district, this site can help you identify your representative.
Diplomacy is always the best first option. But as it stands right now, Ukraine needs continued military, humanitarian, and political support from the United States.
“When dealing with a great power, the one thing you don’t do is appease,” George Beebe, former director of the CIA’s Russian analysis and staff advisor to former Vice President Dick Cheney, said. “Show that easy conquest will not be achieved.”
In this regard, Ukraine has been successful. Many thought that Kyiv would be taken in a matter of days. But fortunately, massive international support has shown leaders in the Kremlin that war is, and always will be, costly.
As we pass the 200 day mark, political fatigue and apathy become culprits of inaction. I urge UW students to possess the same level of energy and grit they had earlier this year on Feb. 22.
“If we don’t stop Putin in Ukraine, his success there will embolden China, North Korea, and every malevolent dictator in the world,” Larson said.
Zelensky has consistently outlined his demands, which include the reunification of Crimea, which had been annexed by Russia in 2014, into Ukrainian borders and reparations before peace talks.
Crimea is considered by Russia to be Russian soil. If Zelensky isn’t bluffing with these demands and pushes forth with military action, this will mean a perceived invasion from Ukraine by Russia.
It is quite likely that there will be a quick and explosive response. Regardless, enabling unbridled aggression of a sovereign nation like Ukraine isn’t the M.O., we should be pursuing it.
Despite Ukrainian counter-offensive success in Kharkiv and Kherson, Putin seems willing to bind his legacy to a brutal war of attrition.
“If the freedoms and liberties deteriorate or are taken away from the more remote corners of the world … this is certainly something that will harm and affect the other guys,” Kristjan Prikk, ambassador of Estonia to the United States, said.
The longer this war goes on, the worse it gets, the more likely a full-blown world war will break out, and it’s not too extreme to say that it may include the United States.
“Most NATO members are not ready for war with Russia,” Steven Pifer, former ambassador of the United States to Ukraine, said.
This is the unfortunate truth. Many NATO countries that border Russia like Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Norway, and Finland will rely heavily on U.S. support if push comes to shove.
The United States, of course, has already been leagues ahead in its support of Ukraine.
Though a world war is unlikely, it is worth noting that the countries we owe a defensive obligation to are much more connected to us than we think — and that includes Daugavpils.
After the bus took off on our last day of formal study, the words of a young, patriotic Latvian echoed in my head.
“I am ready to die for Latvia,” she said.
Reach writer Raj Kumar at email@example.com. Twitter: @rjswizel
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Am I ready to die for Latvia? No. Would I die for Latvia? I wouldn't think so.
Yet it is easy to say this while sitting comfortably in my apartment not facing immanent destruction. This goes much farther than Latvia as well. No one wants a war obviously, but how far would we let a potential adversary (who hates us and our way of life) go until we must get involved? I think the Biden administration has been pretty responsible in its handling of the situation, maintaining support for Ukraine while keeping the United States out of it. Nevertheless, the elephant in the room is the use of nuclear weapons. Russia's obviously falsified annexation referendums occurring in occupied Ukrainian areas will cede these regions to Russia and may give Russia an excuse to say that Ukraine is invading Russian territory. As seen in years past, Russia said that an invasion of its territory would lead to the government using nuclear weapons to protect it. Nuclear weapons talk has been thrown around across this most recent invasion, with many US analysts saying that the Putin regime is bluffing when it says that it would use them. But are they bluffing? Medvedev has recently emphasized that Russia is not at all bluffing, and while I am never one to believe what is spouted from his mouth, he may be right. Russia may very well possess a theory of victory for the use of tactical nuclear weapons in wars and would do so if it believes that the West is afraid of responding to it and has no theory of victory. The US must continually pressure Russia and create and propagate a plan of response (which the government has iirc) if Russia is to use nuclear weapons in order to dissuade the Russian government from taking such a course of action. Besides, using nuclear weapons against Ukraine could justify the enactment of NATO's Article V if the effects of the blast make its way to the territories of other NATO member states. Allowing the use of nuclear weapons on a tactical/strategic level will set a dangerous precedent when it comes to other regimes, and, as Carl Larson said, may embolden other dictatorships to pursue such a course of action. We are in unprecedented times and I pray that nuclear weapons will not be used, but it is important to ask the question if we would die for our way of life and our allies if it comes to it.
Anyways, great article. I wish there would be more geopolitical articles on the Daily.
Well, nobody cares about Latvia. Latvia is the equivalent of a flyover state in the US, where the only things they have is bread and potatoes. Ukraine has gas.
Latvians probably did not want to talk politics as much because they probably know people that listen to Russian television, and also know that Ukraine is not entirely a paragon of virtue either.
The Larson guy is nuts. Most Americans are unwilling to get into foreign wars, especially after Iraq and Afghanistan, much less be a mercenary.
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