How would you advise Obama to avoid a war with Russia?

As tensions mount in Ukraine this week, headlines and conversations are dominated by a shared, universal, human fear: war.

You can read up on the trajectory of the conflict, but here’s where it’s at now: Russia’s President Putin coordinated an invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula this weekend, prompting Western nations to respond with threats like sanctions and lost G8 membership. The US Secretary of State Kerry is now flying to the capital of Ukraine on Tuesday to show support for the new Ukrainian government. And Ukraine’s Prime Minister Yatsenyuk is mobilizing and training Ukraine’s military reserves, presumably in preparation for a battle ahead.

As countries are taking sides and political stances, my mind goes first to the people of Ukraine. As an American who spends a lot of my time abroad, I frequently do the dance of having to distinguish my individual beliefs apart from my government’s behavior,  yet at the same time convey my proud identity as “American”. Nationality is such a complex spirit; on the one hand there are many American freedoms and social norms that I find incredibly precious and unique, yet there are many times when I am disgusted at and disagree with the decisions of my government, even if they are made ‘to protect the American people’.

So I can’t help but wonder, as an ‘everyday ambassador’, what’s going on in the mind of an everyday person in Ukraine? You may have caught this viral video,  I am a Ukranian“, which has garnered over 7.5 million views in a matter of weeks. It features a young Ukrainian protestor who explains why she is taking action to overturn her government:

“One reason: we want to be free from a dictatorship, we want to be free from the politicians who work only for themselves, who are ready to shoot, to beat, to injure people, just for saving their money, just for saving their houses, just to saving their power….We are civilized people but our government are barbarians.”

Pretty much: this has nothing to do with Russia and the US; this is a desire for a more free, safe, and secure society. Sure, there have been voices abuzz on the interwebs claiming this well-made film is actually just US-created political propaganda, produced to persuade the people (and thus leaders) of English-speaking superpowers to provide military support to Ukraine, engaging in warfare with Russia. Yet at the same time, I can’t help but think that even if that were true, there remains immense truth to the sentiments of this video. Over and over again in my work and travels abroad I see that human beings have so much in common, much more in common than in conflict, actually.

One core commonality is, of course, desiring this freedom to live without experiencing government-authorized persecution, human rights violations, or death. Yet another that feels perhaps even more intimate to many young people is the concept of innovation, and designing solutions for a better world. In a fascinating article for CNN, Alec Ross discusses that the now-billionaire founder of WhatsApp Messenger is Ukrainian; he had moved to the U.S. from his motherland as a teenager to escape political turmoil. And he’s not the only Ukrainian-born US innovator. Ross cites that,

“A long history of scientific and technological excellence shows that Ukraine-born talent usually realizes its full potential after leaving Ukraine’s political environment behind. Nearly 100 years ago, Kiev-born Igor Sikorsky immigrated to the United States following the Bolshevik Revolution. He founded the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, where he built the first successful helicopter. Seventy years later, Max Levchin’s family, also hailing from Kiev, sought political asylum in Chicago. In 1998, Levchin founded a company we all know well — PayPal.”

Although most of the media images we’ve been getting of Ukraine have been of violent, angry protestors, Ross’s article helps remind us (much like the viral video) that we’re all human. And humans tend to thrive in environments free from war and political strife.

So if I assume that most Ukrainians don’t want a war in their nation (but do want to maintain the recent power change), and that Americans don’t want to become embroiled in war again in another part of the world, then what is the best way forward? How would you advise President Obama (or any other involved world leaders) on how to proceed?

Over the weekend, America’s ‘top ambassador’, Secretary of State John Kerry, said in an interview about Russia,“You just don’t in the 21st Century behave in 19th Century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext.” It seems that from his statements and his forthcoming trip, the US strategy is to make some bold claims about what is OK and what is not OK, and (presumably?) back those statements with some type of actual force, or threat of force.

As much as I agree with Kerry’s sentiment, his statement also makes me wince, because America has also been guilty (in the 21st century) of invading another country under similar conditions. With flagging credibility to make such a statement and take this presumed approach, I am wondering: can we not do better, in this day and age? Is there anything an everyday American ca do for the everyday Ukrainian to minimize the likelihood of further death and destruction and war? Anything? Or are we still stuck in a world in which war is a necessary pretext to (eventual) peace?

“Field Notes” is weekly global news commentary by Everyday Ambassador founder and director Kate Otto. To stay up to date on current events and the latest posts from this series, follow #fieldnotes on our other platforms, and check back regularly for updates.


  • Kate Otto

    Hey Marina!! Thank you so much for your comments and apologies for my late reply. You make so many important points. (1) totally agreed – we really need more information — geographically, historically, politically — to be able to have an informed opinion or offer meaningful response to this situation. (2) AGREE! (3) I did not realize this, and thank you for the insight. Absolutely agree that we need to be clear what we’re supporting and what we’re not supporting, (4) Sounds like you need to be in office, Marina! “creative political solution that best meets the needs of the people involved” sounds right to me; (5) this truly could be a future where bloodshed is not necessary in the attempt to communicate with one another … I hope that more people are like you and take the ‘ambassadorial’ approach to finding common ground even with people who seem so ‘different’. Thank you!

  • I’m intrigued by your questions, Kate. Your article has me thinking in many directions, which is good in itself. First, just engaging Americans in a discussion about what is happening elsewhere in the world is a positive step. One can’t make a reasonable comment without first knowing (at the least) where Ukraine is, a brief history of Crimea, why it is important to Russia, and something more about the people who live in Ukraine. We pulled out the atlas yesterday to gain a bit of understanding. We hadn’t seen a map in our local papers, and the news articles I pulled up online did not give the geography or history of the region, I would love to Americans explore maps and history to be better informed as they develop their opinions. Second, this is a great opportunity to request that our schools, news media and government encourage this exploration. Technology makes linking to high-quality sources so easy. Third, my experience with one wonderful Ukrainian family showed me that their perspectives on some human rights issues that we hold dear, namely LGBT issues, are decades behind us. I’ve quickly read that some leaders of the protests are white supremacist and/or Nazi, and this scares me. How can we support the people of Ukraine without strengthening the power of groups we abhor? Fourth, by understanding the issues of each group involved, I am hopeful that a creative political solution can be worked out that best meets the needs of the people involved. Hopefully this is Kerry’s goal as he heads to Ukraine. Finally fifth, are we now at a place where the most important global connections are between people with common beliefs/ideals? Can a coordinated effort by individuals around the globe influence and enable a transformation of government without further bloodshed? I would like to think so, and I believe we are moving in that direction. What a worthwhile effort!

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