Putin is at war with his own people

A Ukrainian-American from Chatham reflects on war. Putin is "so cruel and ruthless."

click to enlarge Lena Beneke during a 2011 family vacation in Italy.
Lena Beneke during a 2011 family vacation in Italy.

All too often technology and distance desensitizes us from overseas crises and conflicts, and the people suffering and dying in their midst. In unfortunate circumstances such as these, some individuals understand only the language of violence.

Ukrainian-American Lena Beneke knows this all too well. Beneke, a married mother of two boys, has lived in Chatham, Illinois, for the past 16 years but was born and raised in the northeastern town of Sumy, Ukraine, before the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. She left Ukraine for the United States in 2003. In Ukraine she was a language arts/literature teacher, and has previously done substitute teaching in Chatham.

Having kept in daily contact with family back home since the start of the current war, she views the Russian invasion of Ukraine as completely unjustified and holds Russian President Vladimir Putin directly responsible.

"Absolutely no justification for Putin's actions. So cruel and so ruthless. No justification at all," she said.

As Russian military forces massed on the Ukrainian border in December and January, Americans were largely of the opinion that an invasion of Ukraine was imminent. But not so in Ukraine, maintains Beneke.

"A week ago, I think I was very naïve," she said during our March 3 interview. Prior to the Feb. 24 invasion, most Ukrainians felt an invasion wasn't in the cards, she said.

"It was hard for us to believe because the Russians are our brothers. We fought together in the Second World War. It's just so unbelievable. To the very last minute nobody believed. Even the first couple days nobody believed it. It is complete insanity what Putin is doing."

Beneke believes Putin is duplicitous by nature and will say anything to bolster his government's narrative. 

"He has three masks that are pulled in and out. He can say one thing now, in five minutes he will say another thing. There is absolutely nothing he says that you can believe."

The widespread perception of Russian military invincibility has been shattered since the initial invasion. Logistical constraints, low morale and overall disarray of the Russian military have frustrated the Kremlin's plans.

 "Russian tanks and military trucks are running out of gas or are having mechanical issues. Russian soldiers are surrendering, robbing and looting Ukrainian grocery stores," noted Beneke.

"What's appalling is that a lot of Russian soldiers are young boys 18-20 years old who are thrown onto the battlefield as meat."

Despite an unfolding humanitarian crisis, the war hasn't been without its bright spots. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's leadership has been unwavering during Ukraine's darkest hour. 

"He's considered a hero. So heroic and so determined. He doesn't give up," said Beneke of Zelenskyy. "His patriotism and devotion are extreme."

Beneke recalls that when the United States offered to extricate Zelenskyy from Kyiv, he responded, "I don't need a ride, I need ammunition."

Selfless leadership and inspiring actions may be key ingredients needed to overcome the Russian invasion, given the overwhelming odds against the Ukrainian military.

Many of Russia's pretexts for invading Ukraine have been met with suspicion. Putin maintained that "denazification" and demilitarization of Ukraine were primary goals of the invasion and characterized the Ukrainian government as "drug addicts and neo-Nazis," but Beneke isn't convinced.

"I don't know why Putin thinks the world believes him," she said. "It's an absolute lie."

She notes the irony underlying Russia's rhetoric. 

"Zelenskyy is a Jew. How can a Jew be a Nazi?"

Beneke views the war as an existential struggle for Ukrainians, and she may be right. There have been reports of indiscriminate attacks on Ukrainian civilian centers and Russian deployment of banned weapons.

"We have to defend ourselves. We don't have a choice. If we surrender, that's it. We'll end up like North Korea. Putin will treat Ukrainians worse than his own people. That's why the fight is so fierce. We don't want anything to do with his regime."

Many say Putin has already lost the war of Ukrainian public opinion.  For all Putin's talk of brotherly love and shared cultural and historical ties between the two states, Moscow's unprovoked aggression against the Ukrainian populace has backfired. Nationalistic fervor and fierce revulsion to Moscow's invasion have galvanized not only Ukrainians, but much of the world.

"We're all Slavic people. How can Putin forget the history of brotherhood? We are all alike. He's basically invading his own people," said Beneke.

Andrew Leonard of Chatham is married with one daughter and two Golden Doodles. He works for an IT consulting company. On the side he is a published writer with numerous articles on geopolitics. Some of his work may be found at https://medium.com/@leonard82.

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