Historically Speaking: The War in Ukraine 6/22
By Will Bellaimey:
Watch the latest installment of Historically Speaking with Will Bellaimey, or read the transcript below!
I’m Will Bellaimey, and I’m here for the latest in our series Historically Speaking, where we’re making connections between things that have happened in the past, which is what I teach about as a history teacher, and what’s happening in the news.
We're entering, I think, the third month of fighting in Ukraine between Russian forces and the surprisingly successful Ukrainian defense forces. And I think many people, if you'd asked back the last time we talked in March, how long this war would last would've said that it would've been over in just a few weeks, because clearly the Russian military was so much better equipped, was so much larger. The fact that they're facing devastating losses at the hands of the rebels in Ukraine is its own reason to celebrate. That being said, I don't think there's much to celebrate for the people either living in Ukraine or who have been displaced by the war. We have a massive refugee crisis that is affecting especially Poland and Moldova and some of those other neighboring countries.
And it's certainly interesting to note how our attitudes towards refugees, both due to where they're from and what they're running from, are very different. There was a great piece on This American Life last week that was about Ukrainian refugees who entered into the United States through Mexico. And they got to Mexico, and there were tons of volunteers waiting with great supplies and food and the U.S. government moved very quickly to make it so that, actually, for the average Ukrainian refugee at the border, it only took about eight hours to be processed.
And just to contrast that with the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing from violence in Central America, which can't be classified as easily as war, but certainly in terms of the kind of fear and effects that it has on the people living there in many ways is very similar. But they've been waiting for months and even years to try to just get a hearing. And the basic principle of asylum is that people who are in danger should be able to claim legal safety in any country that's a signatory to the refugee convention. And so the fact that Ukrainians are being welcomed with open arms when others are not, is certainly a really painful reminder that our system isn't very fair, which is not to say that it's not a great thing that Ukrainians are finding a safe place to stay, I just obviously wish that that was also available to people from other countries.
The other thing that's happening right now, and I think will continue to be part of the conversation for the next few months, is the question of whether NATO, now in response to the Russian invasion, is gonna expand to some more countries in Eastern Europe. I think we've had a really clear demonstration over the last few months of how meaningful NATO membership is for the countries that it's a part of. Clearly the response, if Ukraine had been a member of NATO, would've been very different. And that could mean that we're sitting here talking about World War III, and so perhaps we can be grateful that that was not the card that was called. But I think if you live in Estonia or Latvia or any of those other countries that joined in the 1990s, you are really glad that your country has this particular Article 5 treaty protection, which says that an attack on your country should be treated the same as if it were an attack on any other member, like the United States. There's certainly been a shift in the kind of response from NATO countries, where Germany is now sending pretty significant weapons into Ukraine and is committing to a higher level of defense spending, which is something that they've kind of avoided doing for a long time. And also some countries like Finland and Sweden, which in the past had decided to remain nominally neutral, at least not to be a signatory to NATO, are kind of fast tracking to do that.
The state of the war right now is basically that the Ukrainian people are fighting off the Russians through a combination of the classic home-field advantage that you get when you are willing to do anything to protect your own homes, which we've seen in wars like the Vietnam War or the American Revolution. But also tons of extremely powerful weaponry that's been sent to Ukraine by the United States and a lot of other countries. And I think there is a perilous moment here where the question of how committed is the U.S. to a victory for Ukraine can walk a really tense line between being at war with Russia and just kind of being a source for armaments. And the historical parallel for this is the Lend-Lease Act under FDR [Franklin D. Roosevelt], where it was pretty clear that a lot of people in the United States wanted to go to war with Germany and help France and Britain and other countries that were being attacked by the Nazis. But at the time there was more people that wanted to avoid open war. And so instead the United States became the factory to the world and provided huge numbers, through what was called the Lend-Lease Act, of weapons to those people. And I think that laid the groundwork eventually for an entrance into the war that only happened after Pearl Harbor.
But it'll be interesting to see, especially if Putin continues to view this as an all-out struggle with the West, how you do that dance to continue to arm the very successful groups that have, for instance, blown up the largest battleship in the Russian fleet, without that turning into a direct conflict.
Will Bellaimey teaches U.S. Government and Politics at Flintridge Prep School outside Los Angeles where he is also the director of the Los Angeles Museum of Geography, which is staffed entirely by seventh graders. His podcast, All the Presidents, Man, is available here.