If you have ever seen a pre-perestroika Eastern European film, you have seen her: the archetypal, ever-suffering, black-clad Mother searching for or mourning her lost child. She is the woman wailing through the street above Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal. She is Anna Akhmatova. She is, in a way, the embodiment of the countries of the former USSR and its near-abroad, the way in which they perceive themselves. Where the French have Lady Liberty leading the masses, the Poles, Belorussians, and Ukrainians have Lady Oppression crying out from among them. After all, these are countries accustomed to suffering, generations battered by the Russian Revolution, the two World Wars, Afghanistan, Chechnya… So much so, in fact, that suffering has become their primary modus operandi. Any other–like the ones so often suggested by the E.U. and Western NGOs–would threaten to unravel whatever sense of self and purpose these countries have. One gets accustomed over the course of twenty years to lamenting the state of the economy with one’s neighbors over a bottle of home-made vodka, or samogon. The result is that when it finally becomes possible, there’s hardly any impetus to go out there and fix it. Getting sandwiched between two voracious empires–the Russian and the Austrian–rendered these countries powerless–but they turned this into a point of pride, fashioning themselves into perpetual victims. And victims, by their sheer status as such, are always morally superior to their oppressors. (Motivated by this, these countries often try to aggrandize their personal losses in World War II, which Russia so often cites as the justification for its extended presence in Easter Europe–just take for instance Poland’s continual demands that Russia admit to the Katyń massacre of 20,000 Polish officers committed in 1940 or the parades of former Ukrainian SS troops that took place in Western Ukraine this summer). Arguably, such a coping mechanism was needed and effective while the Russian Empire and then the USSR held sway over these countries’ destinies–caused war, declared it, or dealt with it in a way the smaller states never could. Now that the USSR has been stripped down to Russia proper (with a handful of minor internal “states” thrown in for good measure), however, those that thought they had escaped its centripetal force by declaring independence in ’89 and ’90, in an ironic twist of events, cannot seem to. Having de facto become independent entities, they have either been covertly scooped back under Russia’s mantle or fear it as an imminent and very possible threat. For Poland, Belorussia, and Ukraine, then, Russia remains a hungry, imperialist bear. All this translates directly to a heightened awareness of its every political maneuver and a conviction that these moves are all by implication directed at them. So when the crisis with Georgia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia broke out this past August, a great wail rose up from Russia’s South and Western neighbors. In Ukraine, where I happened to be at the time, people would ask each other over dinner: “Have you heard the news today from Georgia? What does Russia want from us?!” The connection between Georgia and their native Ukraine was, to them, entirely clear, though I failed to follow its logic. On the evening news, politicians talked about mobilizing the troops and seizing the Black Sea navy (temporarily leased to Russia by Ukraine), while frantic mothers rushed from doctor to doctor in search of unfortunate diagnoses–flat-footedness, poor eyesight, scoliosis–for their sons. Even my usually hardy second-eldest brother, Danya, broke down about a week into the conflict. “I don’t want to be drafted,” he growled, tears in his eyes. Danya is not a patriot. He has not surrendered to the heavy wave of Ukrainization that swept through the school system starting in the mid 1990s, nor is our family a drop ethnically Ukrainian. Under ‘nationality’, Danya’s Ukrainian passport reads ‘Russian’, but he knows that were a conflict to break out he would never actually dodge the draft. Slightly younger than me, at 18, he is part of the first generation born into an independent Ukraine, and to him, despite all the intricacies of ethnic and linguistic ‘belonging’, Ukraine is home. It is both his birthright and his burden. So, despite speaking Russian and reading mostly the Russian press, he couldn’t help but see Russia as the aggressor and the war with Georgia as yet another indirect assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty. This was merely a warning sign from Russia that it can do more than routinely cut the gas. Danya was not alone in this conviction. Several days into the conflict, which broke out on August 8th, I called my friend Michał in Poland. He didn’t seem at all surprised when I described to him the anxiety that had seized everyone I know in Ukraine. “In Poland, it is the same thing, you know,” he told me. “It is clear to everyone. Russia does not care about Georgia. It wants to assert itself as a power in Europe. It wants to show Central Europe that it is not yet done exerting its influence.” Such thoughts were quickly echoed in official political discourse. On August 18th, the presidents of Lithuania and Poland, Valdas Adamkus and Lech Kaczyński, respectively, signed a joint declaration petitioning NATO to reach out to Ukraine and Georgia. They cited the decision reached at the Bucharest summit in April to extend membership to the two countries, and pleaded that such a plan “is the only means available for stabilizing the situation and ensuring the safety of civilians. (1) Yuri Baluyevsky, the director of the General Staff of the Russian Federation responded soon after with an unequivocal statement that were NATO to do so, Russia would be forced to undertake “military and other action” to ensure the safety of its interests in its near-abroad. (2) So far, Germany and France have put the breaks on the creation of any concrete plan for the extension of NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia. Russia, of course, has gloried in this decision, taking it as a sign of fear and respect for its renewed might. As the same article from Russian news source Lenta.ru obliquely reports, “According to a series of observers, they [Germany and France] decided not to let their relations with Russia, which has been calling against the expansion of NATO, deteriorate.” (3) More recently, the Prime Minister of Lithuania, Gediminas Kirkilas, has renewed calls for greater action by the West in response to Russia’s “increasingly more aggressive…foreign policy” that “often does not take into account the opinions and rights of others.” He sees in the events of this summer nothing less than “the attempts of Russia to abjure its obligations to respect the sovereignty of its neighbors and provide accepted European standards of human rights and democracy.” (4) Even the Economist ran a brief story on September 11th entitled “Near Abroad Blues,” whose subtitle read: “The European Union should offer Ukraine and Russia’s other neighbours [sic] a clearer path towards membership.” It went on to say that “Russia’s August war with Georgia was about many things besides the two enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It was about energy, Russia’s place in the world, its relationship with the West—and, above all, the reassertion of Russian interests in its ‘near abroad’. That means that it was about Ukraine among others.” Danya wasn’t so wrong after all. The interesting thing about all these appeals for support to NATO and the EU is that none of them examine the germination of the actual conflict between Russia and Georgia. Everybody I talked to in Ukraine and Poland, too, was so preoccupied with the consequences of the war (and what it would mean for them), that they never paused to contemplate its causes. After all, these are not so pretty. Since Georgia gained its independence in 1991, South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been disputed territories and have effectively functioned as micro-autonomies. Long before Russian tanks were anywhere within sight of the Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, let alone of Tbilisi, the Georgians had, on August 6th, undertaken military action. Employing artillery and aviation fire on Tskhinvali, they did not distinguish between military and civilian targets. The result is that much of the city has been reduced to rubble, and 1,400 to 2,000 civilians–roughly 3% of South Ossetia’s population–are dead (official death counts are still being debated). (5) Russia, which has been covertly issuing Russian passports to citizens of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, notably issued several ‘diplomatic warnings’ to Georgia under the pretense of protecting its citizens in these disputed territories, and even appealled to the U.N. Security Council to interfere. When that had no effect and Georgia failed to respond, it invaded. What followed Russia’s decision on August 8th seemed all too closely to resemble middle-school politics. One by one the countries of the former USSR and its dependents sided with Georgia against the big bad bully. Poland and Lithuania, as mentioned above, fought for Georgia to be allowed to join NATO; Ukraine sold it arms. Even the U.S. decried Russian aggression in the region and French president Nicolas Sarkozy called for an immediate pull out of Russian troops. Finally, on August 14th, Poland agreed to house a new U.S. missile defense system–a controversial decision it had been dwelling on for a long time. Since Russia began withdrawing its troops on August 18th, these ties have stayed strong. Lech Kackyński’s call to arms in a Newsweek interview–“We have to convince Russia that the imperial era is over”–still rings clear. (6) But as Georgia scampers to “investigate” the origins of the war, forming a Parliamentary Committee to look into Russian acts of aggression prior to August 2008, one cannot help but see a paradox. The supposed league of good little guys should theoretically be lauded for rising above their self-image as victims to stick it–together–to the oppressor. The only problem is that in this one the big bad bully might just have been in the right. While Russia’s–and Georgia’s–true motives are yet to be uncovered, wholly new economic concerns have now replaced those of national security in the minds of most Ukrainians. In a recent phone conversation, my father complained about the repercussions of the American financial crisis and the ensuing radical drop in the value of Ukrainian real estate; Danya is back to worrying about whatever it is 18-year-old boys around the world worry about. When I ask them about Russia, my father laughs and replies, “let us figure out how we’ll have food to eat today, and maybe we can worry about Russia tomorrow.”