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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