Russia has unleashed a campaign of terror in Ukraine. Kharkiv and Kyiv, two cities I lived in during my student years, are now all rubbles, eerily similar to the rubbles of Dresden following the US bombing against Hitler's army in 1945. People have died in their hundreds. Tens of thousands have fled. Tens of thousands remain trapped in their pulverized cities besieged from all sides.
This is not the time to remain silent. This is not the time to remain neutral.
I spent the best years of my youth in those cities in the 1970s, getting to know a people and a country rich in traditions and culture. I fondly remember the friendships I forged there. In my book, Muktijuddhe Soviet Bondhura (Soviet friends in our Liberation War), I have recounted an incident that is worth recalling here.
It was in the early summer of 1974. Having finished our preparatory year in Kharkiv (we used to call it Kharkov after the Russian spelling), we were sent to a rest house ('Dom Otdixa') by a lazy, slowly rolling river with sparkling sandy beaches. There, at one of the evening entertainments, I was invited to speak about my country. I spoke and then quickly walked down the isles to escape the clippings. Near the entrance, I was stopped by a young man, almost my age, who appeared to be holding back his tears. He first outstretched his hand for a handshake, and then quickly grabbed me with both hands and tightly held me in a bear hug. Through tears he told me, in 1971, during Bangladesh's liberation war, he and his friends had raised money for Bengali refugees who had escaped the carnage and taken shelter in India. 'I knew Bangladesh but you are the first Bangladeshi I have met,' he told me, his face glowing with deep satisfaction.
Each time I see on the TV screen a bomb dropping in Kharkiv, I think of that young man, now must be in his twilight years, and wonder is he still alive!
An empire of his own
Today's Russia is not the Soviet Union, a country that stood by us in 1971. Vladimir Putin, the authoritarian leader of Russia now in power for over 22 years, has turned his country into a kleptocracy and a personal fiefdom. No dissent is allowed. Calling a war by its name (war) would land you in jail for 15 years.
The origins of today's war lay with Putin's desire to revive the old Russian Empire, the crown jewel of which would be Ukraine. It was an unprovoked war. Not a single shot has been fired from Ukraine. Nobody had claimed an inch of Russian Territory. With no evidence, Putin claimed there was a genocide taking place in Donbas, a Ukrainian territory where his troops and pro-Moscow separatists continue to occupy two enclaves since 2014. The truth is, Kyiv's real sin was its determination to stay away from Moscow and to seek security with membership in NATO. The Ukrainian people had genuine reasons to fear Putin who has the habit of attacking his neighbors. In 2008, he seized parts of Georgia and in 2014 annexed Crimea. He also interfered in Azerbaijan and Moldova. But Ukraine was the trophy he was betting on.
Putin has long been mulling over the territorial losses suffered at the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2005, he called it the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. The following year, in his address to the nation, he further elaborated on his thesis. For the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy, he argued. 'Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory,' he said.
In a long rambling speech just the day before launching his invasion, Putin dismissed Ukraine as a 'fictive' state cooked up by Lenin and called Ukrainians 'Little Russians'. He had hoped, with over 190,000 soldiers and a massive arsenal of killer weapons, his blitzkrieg would conquer Kyiv in less than 48 hours and force the country to its knees. How delusional is this man, who prefers sitting at one end of a large white table 20 feet long and lording over his people? Now in the third week of his campaign, with over 6,000 Russian soldiers dead and dozens of his aircraft destroyed, Kyiv and much of Ukraine are proving to be Putin's graveyard.
Mearsheimer Vs Kotkin
Some argue the Russian invasion is Ukraine's fault because it provoked Moscow by seeking membership in NATO. The loudest voice heard over the Internet propounding this argument is Chicago University's John J. Mearsheimer, a well-known political scientist. In an essay in Foreign Affairs - and most recently in an interview with New Yorker - Mearsheimer argues this is not imperialism; this is only great-power politics. 'When you're in a country like Ukraine and you live next door to a great power like Russia, you have to pay careful attention to what the Russians think because if you take a stick and you poke them in the eye, they're going to retaliate.'
In other words, the carnage is fully justified. Little children must die because the big bear is angry. This line of argument reminds me of Yahya Khan of Pakistan who in 1971 justified the military action in Bangladesh by blaming Sheikh Mujib for demanding freedom for his people. He felt provoked!
John Mearsheimer's argument has been challenged by an equally esteemed scholar. Stephen Kotkin of Princeton University, arguably the foremost historian of Bolshevism and Russia, in an interview with New Yorker respectfully disagreed with his University of Chicago colleague. Mearsheimer assumes if NATO did not expand, Russia would have behaved differently. Not so, says Prof Kotkin. What we have today is not some kind of deviation from the historical pattern. Way before NATO, Russia looked like this in the 19th century. 'It had an autocrat. It had repression. It had militarism. It had the suspicion of foreigners and the West.' There are internal processes that account for what we have today, he argues.
Six years earlier, in his own long essay in Foreign Affairs, Professor Kotkin had forecasted how Russia's expansionist drive would eventually create a situation like today's, with or without NATO expansion. He wrote: for half a millennium, Russian foreign policy has been characterized by soaring ambitions that have exceeded the country's capabilities. Beginning with the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century, Russia managed to expand at an average rate of 50 square miles per day for hundreds of years, eventually covering one-sixth of the earth's landmass.'
I would present a less philosophical rejoinder to the claim of Ukrainian provocation. As an independent country, Ukraine has the right to decide which way it wants to go - eastward (Russia) or westward (European Union). Why Russia should have a right to veto on how Ukraine chooses its destiny? The 2014 'Maidan Revolution' and the election of Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019 with over 70 percent of popular votes had already decided that question for the people of Ukraine.
Putin Vs the rest of the world
As a permanent member of the Security Council, respecting a neighbor's sovereignty and territorial integrity is a solemn duty for Russia. It is, therefore, no surprise that in the United Nations General Assembly in a vote taken on 2 March, only four states decided to side with it. The rest either strongly condemned (141 States) or abstained (35 States) from voting.
The former Soviet Union was considered a great friend of the Third World. Not so with today's Russia. One of the strongest condemnations of the Russian invasion came from Kenya whose U.N. Ambassador Martin Kimani compared Putin's plan to redraw his country's map to the practice of the old colonial masters who preferred to divide their colonial booty disregarding ethnic or cultural realities on the ground. Yet, the Ambassador reminded everyone, 'rather than form nations that looked ever backward into history with a dangerous nostalgia, we chose to look forward to a greatness none of our many nations and peoples had ever known.' He chided Putin for rejecting diplomacy in favor of military force, 'an action that has put the international norm of multilateralism on its deathbed.'
Not a time for neutrality
Among the countries abstaining in the UN General Assembly vote on Ukraine was Bangladesh. This was interpreted as taking no sides or staying neutral. I had an opportunity to ask Bangladesh's Foreign Minister how Dhaka planned to vote on the issue of Russia's invasion. The Minister simply said Bangladesh was opposed to all kinds of war. For a small country that imports most of its arms from Russia, taking no sides may seem like a sensible option, but is it a moral one? In 1971, in a similar vote in the General Assembly, most countries sided with Pakistan and we were outraged. We should be outraged now at any defense of neutrality when people are dying at the hands of a brutal aggressor.
Faced with aggression and foreign occupation, the only moral choice is to oppose the aggressor and stand by the aggressed. Nobody understood this better than Martin Luther King, who argued he who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. 'He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.'
As I watch on my TV screen the battered apartment buildings and hospitals and the face of a woman and her unborn baby buried under the rubble, I am reminded of Dante's Divine Comedy. There the great scribe saved his sternest scorn for those who refuse to take a position when faced with a moral dilemma. 'The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.'
No, when people die and children become orphans, it is no time for neutrality.
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