Best Defense

Dragoon Ride (6): What Eastern Europeans say as they watch the U.S. and German militaries head toward Russia

Ultimately, the ability to find common ground will bind us together, even while unscrupulous, ill-intended agents seek to undermine that collective good, particularize us, drive us apart, and set us against one another.



By Adrian Bonenberger
Eastern Europe rock music correspondent

The first time I noticed a civilian response to Dragoon Ride was the afternoon before the 2nd Cavalry Regiment crossed into Poland. It was at the corner of (East) Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. The day was fine: sunny, warm, with a light breeze. Lovely. Three Germans in their 70s observed a NATO unity ceremony from a raised bike path one hundred yards away. They made insolent and disparaging remarks about military life, its emphasis on pride, and the inescapable vanity inherent to any spectacle.

Somewhere between their Statler and Waldorf routine, my own complicated relationship with the military, and the well-meaning, earnest young soldiers, it occurred to me that part of the story with NATO — the biggest part, in fact — was how the exercises were being interpreted.

In Poland, several days later, at the city of Torun, hundreds of people thronged a narrow expressway in hopes of watching 2CR’s 4th squadron drive across a bridge secured by U.S. and Polish airborne. When I walked across the road, I noticed that someone in the crowd had raised a U.S. flag. By the time I returned 10 minutes later, it had vanished. The surrounding civilians spoke with me about America, and pointed to a fortuitously-located “Nestle!” mural on a nearby building. My impression? The Poles showed up to witness the Americans, not a NATO exercise.

This runs counter to the official narrative. After a couple weeks with U.S., German, and British soldiers, having witnessed many spontaneous pro-NATO/pro-American demonstrations around the vehicles and individuals, I get bored. I want to hear what the Poles, Lithuanians, and Estonians are thinking away from the flagpole, away from the Strykers and the paparazzi. I’ve seen thousands of commuters waving at U.S. military columns, hundreds of enthusiastic and curious civilians at the public events or at rest stops — but what’s it like in the bars and cafes, on the boardwalks and boulevards? Over the next few days and countries, I speak with dozens of individuals in a variety of situations and contexts. Here’s a representative collection of those talks, jotted down in notebooks or on whatever was at hand.

A bartender in Vilnius, after serving me an Old Fashioned (not the worst I’ve had, not the best either): “Anakonda, yes, NATO, I know it. What do I think? It’s good. Maybe you don’t know Lithuania history. It’s a small country. In Two World War, many problems. Germany, Russia. NATO is good.” The bar later plays music from Taylor Swift and the Killers.

Young man sitting on bench beside the Wisla River in Bydgoszcz, listening to someone play the guitar: “This is great! NATO, Poland, USA, very great. Poland is strong country, but it needs NATO. What Russia is making attack in Ukraine, it’s very bad, very bad. With NATO, Russia can’t do nothing, they can’t attack. NATO is peace.”

A young Estonian woman at bus station in Tallinn: “I know about NATO. I don’t care about it, it’s not good, not bad. I worry maybe it makes some trouble with Russia.”

In Torun, middle-aged mother pushing blond child in a stroller: “We are so happy for NATO, and America cooperation, yes? You know, for many years, Russia was here. It was very bad for people, very dangerous. Putin wants to make again the Soviet Union — do you understand? So we are very, very happy to see NATO.”

Young woman, cafe, Kyiv, Ukraine: “It is very important for NATO [pronounced Nah-toe] and the USA to show Putin that they are strong. You see, here, what Putin does in the East and Crimea. It’s a disaster. For Ukraine, it’s real dream to be part of NATO and Europe.”

Young man, same cafe, Kyiv, Ukraine: “NATO should not take Ukraine until we make a reform. The most important is to fight corruption. That will not happen if we make NATO or E.U. too early.”

Young woman watching Russia-Wales on her laptop in an Estonian Restaurant: “Of course NATO is good, most of the people here, Russian or Estonian, they don’t have a problem with it. There are the ‘Gray Passport’ people [Russians with no national passport who moved to Estonia in the 70s or 80s and who never bothered to replace their defunct Soviet passports], and some hooligans who oppose NATO, but they aren’t many. For Estonia, though, we don’t worry too much about Russia — we look at what happened to Georgia and Ukraine and we know what could happen, but when you live next to Mordor — you know what I mean? — you don’t worry about it every day.

For the sake of comparison, on a bus from Vilnius to Tallinn, a young Italian couple on vacation:

HE: “NATO is controlled by America. Bush, Obama — they are always looking for war, looking for trouble.”

SHE: “America goes into Iraq, Afghanistan, all with NATO. It’s like Vietnam, and Cuba. Why is America always making war?”

* * *

Not sure what to expect when I set off on my tour of Eastern Europe, I was surprised to encounter a variety of ideas and opinions about NATO and the European Union. While reactions tended to be neutral or positive, with very few people expressing open hostility toward the alliance, the longer I spoke with a given person, the more equivocal their stance/response. In the balance, I cannot say that many people in Eastern Europe are categorically enthusiastic about being part of NATO, or the NATO exercises, but they do feel a sense of excitement, tied to their particular understanding of the area’s history. This historical sense always comes down to fears over nationalist or imperial Russian aggression and repression versus concerns about abuse or exploitation by the federal alternative.

Having said that, most Europeans in the East — from Germany to Estonia to Ukraine — expressed a powerful anti-authoritarian streak. This more than anything has alarmed Putin. The place that this anti-authoritarianism manifests itself most clearly is in the sphere of music and culture, which finds its basis in the West (specifically the United States), and continues to represent the greatest hope for rejuvenation and democracy the world knows. When people heard that I was an American, the first thing they wanted to talk with me about, before NATO, before anything else, was their favorite western musician.

One example of this is in Ukraine’s recent Eurovision victory, with the singer Jamala’s rendition of 1944 — a story about people in Crimea encountering the double loss of oppression by Nazis replaced by a more perfect oppression by Soviets. While Eurovision is (on its face) a competition based on performance, where the victor is presumed to be the best musical artist of the group, there is a powerful political element to the program. The selection of a Ukrainian (and, specifically, a Crimean) to win the award points to a large, emotional, latent sympathy for Ukraine active among most Europeans. Whether or not the media or the governments of Europe reflect this sympathy is totally beside the point, in this case — the desire for Ukrainian victory is, purely expressed, the will of the people.

The response I’ve witnessed among many European soccer fans to the Russian team’s woes is similar—their fans’ behavior in Marseille didn’t help matters (and was especially bad timing considering the Brexit vote, which would have boosted Putin’s standing and dealt the EU and European cooperation a bad blow). In a crowded bar in Tallinn, Estonians jeered and laughed as Wales pounded Russia 3-0 — whatever latent potential existed for Estonian sympathy toward their eastern neighbor did not manifest itself on that night.

Again and again, this is the reaction I hear among citizens of the Baltic States and Poland, rarely mirrored in Western media or in the statements of its politicians: It’s terrible what Russia is doing in UkraineI can’t believe Russia annexed Crimea. To put this in its proper context, the Poles and Ukrainians of my grandparents’ generation fought a brutal undeclared war over for three years, wherein 70,000 Poles and 20,000 Ukrainians were killed, and hundreds of thousands resettled forever — an undeclared war that unfolded as a sequel to another declared war during my great-grandfather’s time, each overshadowed by both World Wars. Villages, cultures, and ethnicities were erased where they had existed for centuries before. In most areas of the world, this type of bloodletting would inspire generations of hatred and antipathy.

Instead, most Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Latvians, and Estonians see Ukrainians as having befallen an ancient calamity that could easily strike them at any time. The name of this calamity is Russia (in this case, a type of Russia, expressed by Vladimir Putin). Again and again, even among those skeptical of NATO, I spoke with people who wanted above all to retain their sovereignty independent of Russia. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and ongoing support for the separatists is the single greatest unifying factor in NATO and the EU — it has been so powerful as to actually erase the bad blood of generations between Poland and Ukraine — bad blood that runs deeper and hotter even than that of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It is almost unimaginable, the amount of real hatred that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has seemingly buried for good in Eastern Europe.

In Kyiv, I attend an Okean Elzy concert. Okean Elzy is the most popular pop-rock group in Ukraine, and well-known regionally outside Ukraine’s borders. Its lead singer, Slava Varkarchuk, has a voice like Bruce Springsteen, the stage presence of a Eddie Vedder in his prime, and a face like young Jack Nicholson. Outside the concert, young men and women sell Ukrainian national flags. When the concert begins, they appear in peoples’ hands, wrapped around their shoulders. I’ve never seen anything like it, not even at country concerts in southern America in the years following 9/11. People wave their arms in the air along to the music, reminding me of the tendril-like weeds waving in the Wisla River. Most know the words to every Okean Elzy song, singing along lustily — several of the most intensely-echoed songs deal with war, the war in the east with Russia, and Euromaidan. During these songs, three people light flares in the audience, although I am unable to determine whether this is part of the show. Others wave Ukrainian flags with abandon, ecstatically participating in the memory of their revolution, and empathizing with the Ukrainian soldiers who’ve died on the front or are fighting there still.

The idea that there are Russians and Poles who listen to Ocean Elzy — that people from other countries hear Slava’s voice as he testifies to the injuries inflicted upon his country — offers the best real hope for a peaceful future. NATO has been seen as bad in the past, and will be viewed with suspicion and skepticism in the future, as Russia’s economy falters and its military strength ebbs (as it has in the past), toppling yet another Russian dictator (it always happens this way with despots). Ultimately, the ability to find common ground will bind us together, even while unscrupulous, ill-intended agents seek to undermine that collective good, particularize us, drive us apart, and set us against one another.

Photo credit: U.S. Army

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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