In October, I was out of Ukraine for a number of reasons, and so I took the opportunity to visit with a handful of our neighbours. Here are some of my anecdotes and observations.
A marshrutka is basically a passenger van or minibus that is commonly used for intercity travel in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. I’ve ridden in them in the likes of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as well as in Ukraine. Packed into a marshrutka destined to Yerevan from Tbilisi last week, with a handful of young Russians, it only took me about an hour before I realised that I truly had risked my life on this journey. The middle-aged Armenian marshrutka driver had the dubious judgement and appetite for needless risk of a teenage boy out with his buddies on a Saturday night.
You’ll observe, though, that I survived. Still, it's tough to really know which is more hair-raising: riding in a marshrutka in the Caucasus or being under artillery fire in Ukraine.
What I was most interested in, though, was where these young Russians were going, both with their feet as well as how they envisioned their futures. Also, how were they being received by the locals in Georgia and Armenia, and how might that be changing over time. The answers that I found are mostly anecdotal, but I do feel it has given me better insight as to where we are all going and how we got here.
Why I’m not in Ukraine
I have to leave the country occasionally to stay visa-free compliant, or at least that's what some immigration officers will say. I also have some business interests and personal business outside of Ukraine, which I've neglected too much in the excitement of 2022. Still, I’m actually sending out this report from Ukraine, having just returned to handle several items of business. That includes getting on packing up those IFAKs that you folks have been donating to the troops.
REMINDER: I am accepting donations for Individual First-Aid Kits (IFAKs) to go to the Ukrainian troops in the Kherson offensive, many of whom are not receiving them because they are in short supply. Each costs about $125, but I'll pair you up with others if you want to make a donation as low as $25.
In the last month, I’ve been in a few different countries. Armenia, Georgia, Hungary, Montenegro, and Poland are just those from which these stories were taken, but the nationalities of those who I met along the way and who "participated" in this written piece include Germans and quite a few Russians. While there was almost always some kind of tension around me, there were few altercations, and many more moments of generosity and pleasantries.
To explain this reception, I have to tell you that I’m usually sporting some mix of Ukrainian and American flag badges on a shirt or pack, and my entire wardrobe is a lot of olive drab and grey. That is to say, I was conspicuous and that was by design. In places like Georgia, you’ll find quite a few people wearing Ukrainian buttons on their clothes. Tbilisi is replete with Ukrainian flags hanging everywhere, reminding the throngs of Russian arrivals just where the people of Georgia (if not quite the government) stand on the war. Still, no one else looked the part of an American volunteer in Ukraine like I did.
As I go along in this collection of observations and events, I’m going to give you some snippets of background if not a geography lesson, because I know towns like Tbilisi, Yerevan, and Podgorica may just be nasty New York Times crossword puzzle answers for many of you. What you probably all know, though, is Kraków, and that Poland has been the largest recipient of Ukrainian refugees.
Ukraine’s biggest western nextdoor neighbour has been indispensable to Ukraine since this war began, in material support, housing millions of refugees, and in being the conduit through which most aid arrives to Ukraine. So it’s no surprise that it was there that I saw my only rallies of refugees – almost exclusively women and children – as well as where I was first treated by the locals for my outward support of Ukraine. In a coffee shop not far off of Kraków’s Rynek Główny (main square), I was treated to my cappuccino by a few young Polish airmen in-training.
Just me walking through Rynek Główny, Kraków on a day in early October. I was first in the former Polish capital almost exactly 10 years before.
They were very interested in what this middle-aged American guy was doing in Ukraine, probably hoping that I was an intelligence officer of some sort. It was a notion I dispelled quickly, but my understanding of the tactics and weaponry in the theatre was energizing enough for them. What I took from them, though, was a more domestic detail: that the people they knew there in Poland were feeling refugee fatigue.
Like most countries less fortunate than the likes of the US or Germany -- places where there was immense economic support during the worst of Covid -- Poland never felt like it had a chance to catch its breath between Covid and war. See, few countries in the world could support employees and employers like the US did. In Ukraine, and to a lesser extent in Poland, there were no $2000 cheques or the government paying employers to keep your employees. Everyone just had to get by on their own, which was aided by having looser public health restrictions on businesses. Looser restrictions wasn’t a policy of choice for officials so much as the only one that seemed sustainable.
So two years of Covid over here really "ended" with the Russian invasion. Polish families and communities have been extremely generous, but many were already financially stretched thin, as were the finances of their unexpected guests. When the guys in the coffee shop were telling me stories of guests behaving poorly, I did share with them an observation: Amongst those who fled Ukraine, there’s been a sizable assortment of people who didn't do much for their own communities before the war. They’re not the best reflection of the character of the country, but they deserve some help given their involuntary desperate situation. The guys seemed to accept that; as it was difficult for them to join the image of heroism in Ukraine with many of the Ukrainians they met or heard about in Poland.
What you may not know about Poland is that it does share a land border with Russia: the exclave of Kallinigrad. It’s a wedge of Russia on the Baltic Sea that troubles central Europe because it houses Poland's and Germany’s great vulnerability to Russian nuclear missile attack. It should also trouble many more Russians since Germany has far greater historical claims to it than Russia has to any part of Ukraine. (#hypocrisy) It remains, as these young servicemen pointed out, a priority of Poland's defensive posture.
One thing I took from the conversation that wasn't said specifically, but derived from the international dynamics of the situation we're in, is that they don't feel alone in the fight for which they are preparing. They feel completely part of the European and North American mission to keep Europe safe, stable, and prosperous.
I had a similar impression when talking to young Germans in Budapest. The initial comments were those of embarrassment at how their country accepted Putin’s assurances of peaceful intent so willingly, even after his infamous speech in Munich in 2008 and the subsequent invasion of Georgia. What Germans recognise much more thoroughly than do Britons or North Americans is that part of the recent German partiality toward Russia and Russians stems from guilt over the utter atrocities that Nazi Germany visited upon Russia in the first half of the last century. I cannot know this in a visceral sense, and so I just accept it as part of the story. I still think, though, that a lot of what motivated much of the German establishment was the convenience of the cheap Russian energy for Germany’s powerhouse industries.
To put a point on this story as it is today, news in Ukraine includes a much louder and supportive German voice, marked by a hefty increase in air defense equipment and artillery pieces from Germany. It’s much more encouraging to hear Chancellor Schollz speak on the subject and future of Ukraine lately than it was months ago. I’ll also add that among the Slavic people vilified, demeaned, and murdered by the Nazis were not only the Russians and Poles, but millions of Ukrainians. So... history is complicated.
Among the Hungarians that I know well, there’s an embarrassment about their government under Orbán and Fidesz. They’re almost resigned to live in a country where they’re at odds with their government; indeed the vast majority of residents in Budapest do not support Fidesz, the largest supporters for whom actually do not live in Hungary itself. I'll explain: It was a coup, of sorts, a decade ago when Fidesz had a super majority and extended citizenship (and thus voting rights) to ethnic Hungarians who had never lived in Hungary, most of whom live in Slovakia, Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine today. Historically, those voters support Fidesz at a rate of about 90% whereas in Hungary itself, the number is close to 50%. (Only about 5% of Hungarian immigrants living in London, interestingly enough, voted for Fidesz in this last election, if I recall.)
The division between the government and the people I know grows more stark these days. It’s not that Hungarians have risen in great numbers to support Ukraine, not with so many hot-button domestic issues like teachers’ pay and interstellar inflation (of the economic not astrophysics kind), but the government rhetoric has gotten so insane that the US Embassy in Budapest has had to remind Hungarians via Twitter that we’re still allies.
The fissures in Hungarian relations with all its formal allies are now becoming apparent on the streets (and gyms) around Hungary, based on my own interactions. There's a divide among Hungarians in their understanding of the situation often based on their educational background and worldliness. I'm starting to get a few "complaints" and "bad vibes" where before there were occasional votes of support from strangers. It's not rampant, but it's enough of an indicator to me that Hungarians are listening to and beginning to believe their government's BS. It's even beginning to manifest itself not only in an anti-EU sentiment, but also in anti-US sentiments. It's not going to end well for Hungary and the Hungarian people if this self-imposed isolationism continues.
I’d say that the most obvious and outspoken support for Ukraine that I saw in that last month and that you probably don’t hear about, was in Georgia. There are flags all around Tbilisi and many residents wearing yellow and blue pins. There’s no large Ukrainian population in Georgia these days. Russia and the Russian army stands between the two former Soviet republics. Yet, the ties between the peoples are probably tighter than ever, though the government in Tbilisi right now is historically sympathetic to Russia, just like Ukraine’s was before 2014.
I got to speak to a handful of Georgians, but the most memorable interaction was during my visit to the Russian border in mountainous Kazbegi. This is the region where, on the other side of the border, you saw on TV Russian cars backed up for three days to escape the mobilization in September and October. Russians are still officially welcome in Georgia, but the population is increasingly uncomfortable with the tens of thousands of Russians taking up in Georgia. There’s the practical side – those Russians are adding to inflation, most notably in apartment rents – and there’s the security concern. Is this, the concern goes, just a new version of Russification, and will Georgia soon have to deal with a sizable population of people who are politically sympathetic to Moscow? Remember, as I've said before, these are mostly not Russians who fled in protest to the war; it was to avoid the mobilization.
Back to my little anecdote from Kazbegi: I returned from a vigorous hike up in the mountains only to find my parking spot at the hotel occupied by a horse gnawing on grass. Georgia is one of those places where you need to be careful on the roads for free-roaming cattle and herds of shepherded sheep. So I parked my little rental car at the adjacent market and went in to see if I could stock up for the evening in the quiet village. At the check-out register, a local man saw my US and Ukrainian flag patches and inquired with enthusiasm, but he obviously didn’t know much English. I told him, in Ukrainian, that I am American but live and work in Ukraine. In this case the Ukrainian and Russian are very similar and so he knew exactly what I was saying.
“Ukraine, good. America, very good.” His smile was large and he told the woman that he would buy my Coke Zero and peanuts; alcohol-free beer, for those who know me, is hard to find in Georgia and Armenia. I protested but it was futile. Everyone around seemed to share his enthusiasm, or at least enthusiastic curiosity.
A handful of Russians populated the small mountain villages, but they didn't look like the sort who just crossed the border, but rather had been in Georgia for quite a while. Among those that I spoke to, some made the point that Georgians probably should appreciate that the Russians are contributing substantially to the local economy by being there in such large numbers, which is fair to say, but the other costs to Georgia in the end may be much greater. There’s the inflationary pressures, but also the cut to wider tourism that the invasion has cost Georgia, as well as the impact on Georgian trade resulting from the sanctions on Russia. The delays for commercial vehicles going from Georgia to Russia look insane. Miles and miles of trucks parked along the mountain roads, waiting for their time after what must be days of inching toward the mountainous border.
Perhaps more profound than the divisions that keep opening between Russia and Georgia is how Russian geopolitics has eroded their position with their ally in the Caucasus, Armenia. Armenia is a pretty high-functioning democracy, if not a high-functioning economy. They’re in a now-cold war with neighbouring Azerbaijan, which was hot earlier this year, and very hot in 2020 when Azerbaijan attacked. All of that is a continuation of a war Armenians started in 1989, which itself came as so many wars have, over a line drawn on a map 100 years ago that favoured Azerbaijan in an ethnically Armenia region called Nagorno-Karabakh.
In the last thirty years, antagonists Armenia and Azerbaijan have generally been supported by Russia and Turkey respectively. Also in those 30 years, hydrocarbons have made Azerbaijan substantially wealthier than Armenia and its already larger population continues to out-pace its Christian neighbour. I believe Armenia, who may have had a brief upper hand while the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s, overplayed its hand and now finds itself outgunned and with no CSTO country, namely Russia, able to come to its aid. (The CSTO is Moscow's rather pathetic response to NATO after the Warsaw Pact collapsed.)
As everyone recognises, Russia has created for itself immeasurable military problems that have made it an importer of Iranian weapons, and so it has little to offer Armenia. Also, as a democracy, Putin's behaviour, particularly in Georgia and Ukraine, presents a lot of ethical problems for Armenians who are increasingly aware of their position on the wrong side of the fence of geopolitical ethics.
Enter stage West, the familiar faces of Secretary Blinken and Speaker Pelosi. If you hadn’t noticed, a couple weeks ago, both of these senior US officials visited Yerevan. The US and EU have seen an opening to start giving CSTO nations like Armenia an option for security and stability that doesn’t require awkward relationships with Moscow. It may not mean that Yerevan gets everything it wants, but given its weak bargaining position, and weak geographic position between Azerbaijan and its powerful NATO ally, Türkiye, Armenia may get what it needs: peace.
I’m not going to take Armenia’s side on the disputed territory, but I am entirely sympathetic to any people who feel trapped by the events of geopolitics. Still, if there’s any message that you’ll get from my position on the several territorial disputes around Eurasia, both quiet and loud, is that there’s nothing to be gained for anyone in these on-going squabbles about lines on a map. Every nation has historical claims and disputes. No border in Europe is historically absolute. No ethnicity is so fragile that it cannot afford bi-lingual members and countrymen. What Eurasion nations should focus on is that which brings the nations of Europe closer together. If Europe doesn’t get its act together soon, the likes of the US, China, and even India, are going to continue to eat Europe’s lunch. The "continent" will continue to toilet-bowl-swirl into insignificance if it continues to place nations over people, identity over opportunity, grievance over progress. My position on Northern Ireland may seem like a convenient contradiction for a man with such an Ulster name as Gallagher. Be that as it may seem, I wouldn't care if the entirety of Ireland was Protestant or Hindu, my position about the virtues of Ireland's "reunification" is purely a Brexit reaction. If there can be no customs border between the Republic and the six counties of Ulster in the United Kingdom, and there can be no customs border within the UK, but there must be one between the EU (Ireland) and UK, then you're at an impasse. Everyone knew this before Brexit. The EU didn't create this problem. Ireland didn't. The Brexiteers did. Given the recent exposure of deep financial troubles in the UK, it seems like having all the counties on the island of Ireland being administered by a secular government in Dublin is practical and a benefit to all parties; the emotional gut punch to Protestants unionists of Northern Ireland noted. I am sympathetic, but it's time to think about your future, not your past. [steps down from soap box]
While most of what I experienced from my few days in Armenia was awkward glances, and that “what? … ooohhh” double-take, some people seemed to appreciate that outward support of Ukraine. There were altercations, though, but those came from Armenians and not Russians. All of them, though, came from what I think was Russian misinformation spread in Armenia so as to undercut any Ukrainian sympathy.
For example, I was approached by three 20-something guys on the street one Saturday night regarding the Ukrainian flag on my shoulder, and I was told to take it off. “Ukrainians sell weapons to Azerbaijan to kill our brothers in Nagorno-Karabakh.” My follow up was, well first to point out that I had more Ukrainian flags on the other shoulder too, but then to ask what they were talking about. “I’d like to learn,” is what I said.
The conversation was a bit circuitous, and I avoided the obvious comebacks like Armenia hans’t condemned the attack on Ukraine, and it never knew a situation in which their cities were getting bombed all across Armenia, as in Ukraine now. What it seemed to come down to was some debunked stories about phosphorus bombs and S-300 anti-aircraft systems… I don’t think they really recalled the facts. So I asked him when these sales took place, and he said before the 2020 war. That sounds a bit fishy since Ukraine had been in a larger war since 2014 and needed weapons for their own defense. He said it was some sort of deal of weapons for oil… maybe. I let it go at that because I gave them enough to think about.
What was really interesting in this and another case, though, is that they recognised I am an American, and that was a real bonus in their eyes. They held outspoken admiration for the US. To me, what this says is that geopolitics is really messy stuff, and for vulnerable countries in tight spots, geopolitics can be impossible to navigate. The US and its neighbour Canada (and Mexico to a lesser extent) have a buffet of geopolitical choices resulting from food and energy independence as well as strong and vibrant economies. Countries like ours are respected on the diplomatic stage. Sure Palestine and much of the Caucasus have difficult disputes requiring international attention, but no one is going to force Ottawa or Washington into taking sides over the threat of energy, food, or defense as happens in poor and weak nations with few options. Armenia has few choices they can make on their own without fear of reprisal.
The war has put more people who have chosen to stay distant from any sophisticated knowledge of politics and geopolitics into very tricky positions. In Slovakia, Bulgaria, Serbia, and even Montenegro, where historic ties to Russia are strong, I don't think the issue is a disbelief that Russia could be so ethically wrong, but that Russia could be so weak and dysfunctional.
I've long avoided conversations about Russia, Putin, and now this war with most people in the Balkan Peninsula. They have retained much of the historical nationalist propaganda, some of which grows from political interests to get votes, but also arises from the relative poverty and insignificance of these lands in Eurasia's larger power struggles. If you're in the eastern half of Europe, you've been in the push and pull of Romans and Byzantines, then later Ottomans, Germans (which includes Prusians and Austrian), and Russians. These are the in-between lands. It's not surprising to me that they express nationalism more frequently in military power terms than in cultural influence.
One friend with whom I can speak about politics in Montenegro is a contemporary and successful entrepreneur in Bar, the largest city on the Montenegrin coast. She expressed a higher degree of concern about the future of Montenegro than I had heard in all of the last decade. That angst is shared by many others in Montenegro, but because of her fluency in English, it was easier for her to express it to me.
"We only have tourism and construction, and I'm afraid our political leadership is so consumed by in-fighting over petty things that we'll never be able to grow and diversify. Our people will remain our greatest export."
There's a lot packed into that sentiment, but what I recognise is the ever-growing cost of focusing on nationalist themes and identity insecurities, rather than education and innovation. Governments have made contracts with the people whereby the government provides "security" and a sense of national pride, in which the people are allowed to complain, and they can even call all the politicians corrupt, but they cannot deface the nation and its history. History isn't even about disputing the facts, it's about saying there are no facts. There is no truth. You can be skeptical of our state-run media, goes the logic, but you must be similarly skeptical of all media. Without being Serbian first and foremost, for example, you are nothing.
Herein, I would argue, is also the way Putin and the Kremlin were able to co-opt the future of Russia and Russians; to "rescue" them from the promise of McDonald's and Mercedes, by giving them both, but with the caveat that they not interfere with the business of governance. Several Russians have told me about "the bubble" they live in back in Moscow. They have their lives, and while they can call the government corrupt, they cannot organise against it in any meaningful way. Putin sells the image of security and prosperity, but in return he has taken the truth from the populace. Truth is not a thing built on facts or meaningful observation, it is only what results in the righteousness of Putin and his United Russia party.
Not only is Stalin more highly regarded within Russia now than he was 20 years ago, the atrocities that Stalin committed either didn't happen in the minds of many Russians, or just don't matter to them.
I've heard the analogy made by one Russian abroad that it wouldn't have mattered if Putin invaded Ukraine, or Finland, or just decided to bomb some cities in Russia so long as they're not named Moscow or St Petersburg. All Putin would have to say is, "we have found some Nazis there and we need to take care of them. Don't you worry about this, as it will not affect you. Go about your business." So when you saw the support for Putin's special operation in Ukraine, it wasn't that anyone supporting Putin knew anything pertinent about Ukraine. It was simply that he was, to them, fulfilling his contractual promise of a great and infallible Russia.
Let that idea sink in, because it's important even if it only expresses the position of a percentage of Russians. Obviously not all Russians buy into this contract with Putin and the Kremlin, and none of those I really got to press with questions were in that group. But it's important because there's always different angles that provide clarity as to how we arrive at times like these.
The Ukrainian position is clear: Russia invaded in the hopes of easy conquest, but found resistance and brought death and destruction upon Russians and Ukrainians. Ukrainians pretty much hate Russians now and there's no fence-mending so long as Putin is there.
Then there's the US and the converging global view that Putin's Russia is out to fulfill imperialist ambitions through the use of force. He's out to disrupt the world order, blinded by a belief that his resources are too precious to the West for them to stay on the moral high ground for long. Russia has been uncovered a threat to economic and political security, as it had been long expected to be.
But within the Russian Federation, the wide-scale compliance with what was "the special operation" wasn't based on Ukrainian animosity, or even NATO threats, the argument goes. Those were just a couple of many plays in the Putin playbook that fits easily in the narrative that he developed over the last 20 years. The compliance so far has been based on the promise that this would not affect the people of the major metro areas who were living in their bubbles, and it would secure their place in the world, rising and respected.
Now, this would make me question the durability of that contract given the 70,000 dead Russians that are quietly piling up behind the Kremlin's curtain. Almost none of the Russians I spoke to saw the bubble bursting in Moscow or St Petersburg anytime soon. In a nation of 140-million, even 70,000 families of 70,000 dead Russians doesn't have an immediate impact. Almost all the Russians I got to speak to were in two general camps; all of them in their 20s and 30s and quite good with English. Either they saw themselves separating from Russia on a permanent or semi-permanent basis, or that they were hoping that the dust would settle soon and some kind of normal relations with the world would be restored within a year.
Almost all of them looked unsettled when I explained how badly things were going for Russia. That was a sign that they willfully didn't want to follow the war. It has nothing to do with them. When I pressed that this could end up with regime change in the Kremlin or parts of the Federation fraying, they were dismissive. I'm not saying they have any keen insights on this matter, as they're all too young to really remember even the 1990s, and, like I said, have tried to distance themselves from the events.
To be clear, none gave me the impression they supported Putin, and most said they were appalled by what has been happening, and some even expressed amazement that their seemingly worldly parents were buying most of the propaganda.
There's a lot for me to chew on from these conversations and others, and I'm not sure how any of this might have enlightened or darkened your outlook. I hope the exotic nature of the subject might have enticed your interest to read on, but remember that there's a whole lot that unites the people in these stories. They're not so different from those around us.
Every person who appeared in these anecdotes, as I suspect all of those who read them, have had to evaluate the complexities of international relations and the corruptibility of societies at a level that makes us all feel a little like the Foreign Minister of such-and-such. My advice in such a situation is marry yourself to your principles and to the importance of truth, not to personalities. People add a layer of complexity to the subject, and certainly add to opportunities for infidelity, so think of issues not as who is saying what, but rather what is being said.