Op-Ed: Why should Portage County care about what is happening in Ukraine?

Image of an older white man with gray hair in a suit smiling and engaging with attendees of his event
General Wesley Clark, former NATO commander, spoke at Hiram College about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo by Renée Zimelis Ruchotzke

It was a packed house at the Kennedy Center Ballroom Thursday night, including several dozen students from Streetsboro, Aurora and other local high schools, to see General Wesley Clark, the former commander of NATO.

Clark took the stage and laid the groundwork for current events by sharing the history of Ukraine and its relationship to Russia, starting with Catherine the Great in the 1700s. He also talked about the history of NATO (which he had served as Supreme Allied Commander from 1997 – 2000 during the later stages of the Balkan conflict), from its formation in the Cold War of the 1950s to today. 

Clark didn’t want to make any predictions, but he shared many concerns, not only about what was happening in Ukraine, but how American democracy and the international rule of law is also under threat by the Putin regime supporting disinformation campaigns. He implored that people vote in the upcoming election to ensure we keep the right to free and fair elections — what he saw as the corrective inherent in American democracy that ensures our freedom. 

The first question in the Q&A was from a high school student, who asked if there might be a diplomatic solution. Clark praised the value and need for diplomatic solutions, but also was candidly realistic about how the brutal experiences of Eastern European countries under Soviet and Russian occupation could not result in anything other than a return of land, displaced people and hostages, and reparations, to which the crowd applauded loudly.

Clark then asked how many people in the room were from Eastern Europe, or whose parents were from Eastern Europe. Only a few of us raised our hands. He referred to how his Christian faith teaches us to turn the other cheek, but he then shared how experiences from the forced famine in the Ukraine under Stalin, the loss of lives and homes during the Balkan conflict, and living under the brutality inherent in dictatorships create a culture where people are willing to fight and die to protect their freedom because there is no mercy under tyrants like Stalin or Putin. This culture looks a lot like revenge, but it’s grounded in self-protection.

Clark repeated his concern about the importance of protecting our democracy and avoiding the perils of autocratic rule by citizens being informed and voting in every election. 

I am a first generation Latvian, one of the Baltic nations that was occupied by the Soviet Union after World War II. During the Soviet invasion of 1941, my grandfather saw his brother killed by Soviet troops. In 1944, the Soviets invaded again. My grandfather’s other brother was one of the 100,000 people sent to Siberia. My grandfather was on the list to be shot, but a friend warned him to leave. He and the family fled Latvia and lived in a displaced persons camp in Germany after the war for several years before being approved to settle in the United States. Even then, he worried that a KGB agent would assassinate him.

Eastern European countries were pawns in World War II, between two horrific options of Nazi Germany and the USSR of Stalin. In my experience, no one wants to talk about the details of the brutality, but you can see the impact still among the people. In countries where anyone might be an informant, people have learned to keep their heads down and opinions quiet. Even today, no one smiles or makes eye contact. 

With only a small percentage of Portage County residents understanding the consequences of living under a totalitarian government that stifles free speech and imprisons or kills dissidents, I worry Clark’s concerns will go unheeded.

Renée Zimelis Ruchotzke
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  1. I’m sorry to hear about the awful things your family went through to get here.

    As a resident of Portage County I can only look at the events from Ukraine from afar, and in the present. The past should not be forgotten and it definitely influences the present, but their past is not mine. The events in Ukraine are not isolated from the time of Stalin, just as they are not isolated from the Cold War conflict, the looting of the remains in Russia under free markets, and the expansion of NATO towards the Russian border. Russia pulled the trigger and should be blamed, but our leaders are far from blameless in the lead up to the war.

    It will be sad to see yet another country disintegrate from war in my lifetime, but sadly I’ve already seen too many. More than a couple destroyed by the same military that Mr Clark spent much of his life serving, and now spends his civilian life telling us can solve all the problems of the world. Our military can’t and shouldn’t try to solve all the problems. The people who sell you this are lying to you no matter how much they shroud it in the scam they call a “rules based order”

    My concerns, living in Portage County are whether my fellow citizens have enough money to eat or house themselves. Sure, Stalin may not be having them kidnapped in the middle of the night, but our citizens living precarious lives may not be better off in market capitalism than they were in Soviet communism.

    My fears in this conflict are that these same people selling you on this righteous war will lead us into nuclear conflict with Russia. Or if not, they’ll pivot to China who supplies most of our goods. Our hubris blinds us to our inadequacies. Our power disconnects us from our consequences. History shows us that nations such as ours (empires, if you will) only have a limited time in power after which it all falls apart. I could only hope we would give up power humbly, but nothing in our current actions shows me this will be the path.

    1. “and now spends his civilian life telling us can solve all the problems of the world. Our military can’t and shouldn’t try to solve all the problems. The people who sell you this are lying to you no matter how much they shroud it in the scam they call a “rules based order”

      Wow, this really wasn’t the message from Clark at all. Did you attend this event?
      I think the urgency of human suffering in Ukraine really calls us to deal in reality and stop characterizing things by our vague priors and overarching worldviews. There is no question the United States- spurred by a capitalism that turned into more of an all-encompassing religion that is supposed to replace human values or make them redundant- has made tragic errors of commission with it’s military and foreign policy. Errors that have lead to vast human suffering, especially in Iraq. Clark hammered this home. One of Clark’s main themes was that Iraq was an absolute travesty and one he fought against at the time. He obliquely included Vietnam in this critique. Intervening in ethnic genocide in Kosovo, on the other hand he felt just as strongly about as a positive. I tend to agree with both these assessments. As well as another point he made which you are implicitly gainsaying, that we made a huge mistake in the 90’s thinking capitalism would do all the work for us, which he specifically related to the decline of this region and the poverty you cite. But the overall point is that there are conflicts we should be in and conflicts we should not be in, ways our power can serve the good and ways it can serve misery…and the difference between them is how they relate to our human values and the preservation of something other than rule of the jungle or rule by authoritarian madmen.
      We can’t turn our brains off and say “war bad” and by doing so cede the world to those like Putin. We are our values. “Giving up our power” sounds like humble virtue until you realize who and what relies on that power and what fills up that space.

      Apart from that, the framing that NATO “expanded towards the Russian border” and thus provoked a response is a very odd kind of analysis, even as it is so common and so thoroughly repeated by Russia. NATO is a defense pact. The citizens of former Soviet countries fully understood both the misery of Russian rule and the ongoing threat it now openly talks about- military reestablishment of empire, with them as second place citizens of a third-rate kleptocracy. They themselves sought security in NATO and expanded freedom and rule of law of the EU. These citizens judge this is the way to secure and improve their lives, and they have been proven quite right about that. You erase the reality of those lives with this kind of analysis giving all the agency to the Unites States and great power politics. Just as Putin does.

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