Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The day Poroshenko let us think of Ukraine again

His address to Congress reminded Americans of the true stakes in the conflict with Russia

September 19, 2014 4:00PM ET

In mid-February, I wrote that Ukraine’s Euromaidan protesters had devised their own brand of freedom, one that seemed to grow increasingly independent of the American and European prototypes. Europe and the U.S., I suggested, were losing their power to inspire Eastern Europeans. Like many other Ukrainians and Ukrainian-Americans frustrated with the West’s lethargic response to the winter protests against then- President Viktor Yanukovych, I was eager to see my countrymen come into their own. The era of DIY freedom and democracy had arrived in Kiev, I cheered.

But as I sat in the U.S. Capitol’s visitors’ gallery on Sept. 18 to see Ukraine’s new President Petro Poroshenko address a joint session of Congress, I wondered if I had jumped to conclusions too hastily. His speech contained the expected plea for more armed support beyond “blankets and night-vision goggles,” reaffirmation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and condemnation of Russia’s “terrorist” activities along Ukraine’s eastern border — including the downing of Flight MH17. But Ukraine’s leader also appealed straight to America’s brand labels: Freedom, democracy and the rule of law loomed large in the text, written and read in English, at times soft-spoken to the point of inaudibility. In times of crisis, Poroshenko said, these beacons shine to Ukraine as much as they once had to the US. “Live free or die,” he announced toward the end, is a Ukrainian as much as an American revolutionary slogan. While these words hit close to my U.S. home — “Live free or die” is the motto of New Hampshire, and I owed my place in the visitor gallery that morning to its Sen. Jeanne Shaheen — they also raised the question whether Poroshenko’s tribute to America was complimentary but hopelessly derivative. So much for DIY freedom and democracy, I was tempted to think. Ukraine, in its president’s admission, thoroughly depends on America to “lead the way.”

What matters, though, is not Poroshenko’s borrowed vocabulary but his use of it. Since Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, the U.S. was the one to beam its rhetorical exports — freedom, democracy and the rule of law — to Eastern Europe across the Iron Curtain. Now Eastern Europe was beaming them back. “Freedom is at the core of Ukraine’s existence today,” he reminded his audience. This overdue reminder is, perhaps, one of the more significant accomplishments of Poroshenko’s Washington visit.

Ukraine has increasingly become our pretext for conversations about Russia.

True, he will not bring home the hoped-for assurance of lethal military aid. Ukraine, weighed down by bloodshed in the east and stagnation everywhere, may not be ready to implement the aid package as efficiently as one would wish. But for all that, Poroshenko’s speech brought focus to Ukraine again. For the past eight months, Ukraine has increasingly become our pretext for conversations about Russia. Since the Sochi Olympics, Putin’s threats, both empty and implemented, the Duma’s outlandish decrees and Russian officials’ propaganda have continually diverted attention from Ukraine as a sovereign country. From a hotbed of vigorous freedom struggles, our version of Ukraine has shriveled down to a buffer zone between its two oversize neighbors to the east and west, with many Western politicians weighing the country’s integrity against their own economic and political calculus. “What will Russia do?” has been the question to occupy us much more than “What will Ukraine do?” It is time we finally changed that. It is time we stopped describing Ukraine as an embattled former Soviet republic and discovered it as a political agent.

From this vantage point, Poroshenko’s rather scant references to Russia were highly symbolic. In the opening of his speech, he invoked “another nation,” “the most powerful enemy” and “an external aggressor.” Putin’s name, symptomatically, made an appearance exactly once. Of course, we could interpret this as political equivocation or even poor stylistic choice. Seen otherwise, however, these oblique references made room for an honest portrayal of current Ukraine, from Euromaidan’s heavenly hundred — the protesters who died during the uprising — to its presently ill-equipped army. And it has been a while since we have focused on this picture.

Americans have a long history of looking away from Eastern Europe. Even in the Cold War, this seemingly critical area consistently failed to grab our attention. Lack of interest as well as area fatigue were so overwhelming that even the nation’s savviest Mad Men had trouble making this part of the world seem relevant. Charged with publicity campaigns for Radio Free Europe — the U.S.-funded broadcaster that sent its message across the Iron Curtain — Foote, Cone and Belding, a leading advertising agency, rushed from one failed strategy to another. In 1966, for instance, it suggested that only “self-interest and fear” of a Soviet offensive could motivate Americans to support the station. Neither sympathy nor ideology had sufficient pull. Evidently, not even fear and self-interest worked, because the company changed its approach within two years. What “most Americans see as an ‘Iron Wall’,” its executives wrote in 1968, must appear “in a new, more upbeat light.” It must relate “to hope for the future — rather than the ‘doom and gloom’ of the past.”

Poroshenko’s address proved that the doom and gloom of the past and a hopeful future belong in the same history book — a history book of his country. It’s time we opened it and read closer.

Yuliya Komska is an assistant professor of German studies at Dartmouth College. She writes about transatlantic culture and media during the Cold War. This year she is a public voices fellow with the OpEd Project.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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