Sheriff Ahmed

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As I digest the TV images from Ukraine, my mind goes back to 1971 when I found myself in the middle of a civil war in Bangladesh.

The countries, the people, and the context of the conflict are all different. But the playbook of justifications, the false pretenses, the sowing of misinformation, and the hesitancy of the global response are very similar. And what hasn’t changed are the suffering of innocents, the shattering of lives and the deaths.

I have been trying to make some sense of the current conflict in Ukraine. When I’m faced with a complex topic, I look at the issue from different perspectives of each party’s vantage point.

Russia claims that Ukraine is really not a separate country, but historically a part of Russia. That’s like the British claiming that the USA is still a part of UK and is not a separate country. Or Mexico saying that Texas and California are really parts of Mexico. So I know that’s absurd.

Russia also does not want NATO at her doorstep, and Russian President Vladimir Putin sees that as Russia’s existential threat. I do understand Putin’s angst. Since the old USSR fell apart in 1991, many countries of the old Soviet block have gained membership in NATO, with NATO’s borders steadily creeping closer to the Russian border.

For example, let’s imagine that Mexico, Panama, and Venezuela decided to join a military partnership with China, and that Chinese alliance started establishing military bases in those countries. How would USA respond to that development? Recall that in October 1962 President John F. Kennedy considered invading Cuba to prevent Russian missiles within Cuba. So I absolutely don’t believe that we would allow Chinese military bases near our borders.

But I believe that the real fear in Putin’s mind is not NATO, but a flourishing democracy across its border which offers citizens a much higher standard of living. He does not want Russians to see that, lest they start demanding the same thing.

Russia has followed the classic playbook of a dictatorship. Putin has removed his detractors from power, silenced voices of dissent, poisoned his opponents even in foreign lands, and has clamped down on open information within Russia. He has surrounded himself with supporters and awarded them huge fortunes.

He meddled in our election, which led to increased divisiveness and weakening of our democratic norms. Cyberattacks have come our way from Russia. He invaded parts of Ukraine (Crimea, Sevastopol) earlier. And now, with everything lined up to his advantage, he has launched this invasion. So there should be no confusion about what he wants to do in Ukraine.

Putin has weaponized misinformation within Russia to his advantage. Through careful manipulation of information and lies, the Russian citizens hear that this is not a war, but a legitimate “special military operation” to protect the Ukrainians from their corrupt government. Journalists now face 15 years imprisonment if they report this as war or invasion.

During the 1971 civil war in Bangladesh, when the Pakistani army indiscriminately killed about three million Bangladeshi civilians, the Pakistani government similarly told their citizens that the army was there to protect the land from the Indian invaders.

Weaponizing of misinformation for one’s own gain should be familiar to us. There are still millions of people in USA who believe that the last election was stolen, and that the Jan. 6 events were really not an insurrection, but a peaceful expression of democracy. Why? Because Trump told them so.

But there should be no confusion about what the Ukraine war is about. For us, it is about putting a stop to evil. It has critical strategic security concerns for us. Allowing any country to take over another independent country only teaches other dictators that “might makes right.” It exemplifies that if you pursue an unflinching strategy of intimidation and muscle, the rest of the world will be scared and will get out of your way.

We all wish that things wouldn’t be like this, pray that cooler heads would prevail, and hope that things would just go back to normal. I have come to appreciate that hope is not a strategy. When a rabid mad dog bites one of us on the street, we don’t tell that dog, “Bad dog, don’t do that again.” We eliminate that threat.

Which brings me to the question of what does Ukraine mean to us? We cannot let Russia take over Ukraine. Period! We absolutely must do whatever is necessary to stop that, or live with the consequences.

We, the United States, stand for a certain set of values and principles which have endured for many years. We are not perfect, but we still enjoy a place of trust and respect within the world order. If we shy away from that responsibility, we will ultimately find ourselves irrelevant on the global stage.

But there is cost to every action, same as there is cost for inaction. To achieve anything of value, a country and its citizens must be willing to bear the cost.

We must prepare ourselves to face difficult times and pay the price. Because one way or another we collectively will pay the price, either now proactively, or later with the long tail of the consequences.

Slava Ukraini! And God bless USA!

Sheriff Ahmed is a 35-year resident of Savage who contributes to Community Voices.

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