Valentyna told me that not long after Russian troops arrived in Yahidne, her village in northern Ukraine, a tall, blond soldier came to use her bathroom. She asked him what the Russians were doing in Ukraine. “We want you to be with us,” he told her, “for you to be with Russia.”
In Yahidne, the reality of being “with us” meant the following: The Russian soldiers herded some 300 villagers into a cellar underneath a school next to their artillery, turning them into human shields. The oldest villager was 96. “We are here to protect you,” the Russian soldiers told them. But they held the villagers in the cellar for about a month, and 10 died after Russians did not provide proper medical care. Others, including Valentyna, a pensioner who lives alone, stayed in their homes, which Russian soldiers ransacked, looking for money and loot.
I went to Yahidne in mid-April, not long after it had been liberated by Ukrainian troops. The village is not an unusual example of the brutality that Russia tries to sell as brotherhood in Ukraine. Throughout the war, being “with us” has been synonymous with atrocity: the mass bombings of schools, homes and hospitals, and the rape and execution of civilians.
It’s also been synonymous with humiliation.
To humiliate people is to exploit your power over them, making them feel worthless and dependent on you. It is clear, then, that the Russian military seems intent on humiliating Ukrainians, taking away their right to independence and their right to make their own decisions. This war is an act of imperialism, a colonial war meant to destroy another nation’s right to exist and to subjugate it. But it is not empire building in the sense of a coldly considered plan for territorial gain and economic resources; it is the next act of Vladimir Putin’s empire of humiliation.
Read the full story in The New York Times here.