Living in Poland, it’s very close to the war in Ukraine. I can drive from Warsaw to Lviv, on the western side of Ukraine. in just five hours.
The battle taking place in Ukraine goes back to the 1980s. It’s not new. It started in 1985 with Russia’s glasnost opening and then-President Mikhail Gorbachev. Back then, the leaders of the free world were U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. We believed, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, that the world had opened up and everything had changed.
But there was a promise. The promise was that, as the walls came down, the American and European alliance would not try to gain ground against Russia. The promise was that former Soviet Union satellite states such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary would not join NATO. Then they did.
Specifically, with Ukraine, Russia has an issue. Part of it is access to the Black Sea and, from there, to the world; but it is more to do with history. Giving Ukraine independence was Russia’s big mistake in President Vladimir Putin’s view of the world. Ukraine was called “Little Russia.” Kiev was Russia’s capital in the past. To have given independence to a core part of Russia’s history is the issue. That is what is driving the thinking to invade and take over Ukraine.
I personally find it difficult as I have many friends in Russia, Ukraine and Poland. I’ve spoken on stage alongside Putin and spent much time with colleagues in all of these countries. It is not madness that drives Russia but a feeling of loss. Loss of power, loss of substance and loss of ability.
Putin is neither a madman nor a butcher. He is driven by this sense of loss. Now, I am not trying to justify his actions. In Poland, we’ve seen close to 3 million Ukrainians arrive. That is a massive displacement of people, particularly when you put this in context. Poland’s population is near 38 million and so it now has almost one in 12 people from Ukraine.
But, again, to put this in context, I visited Lebanon a few years ago. Lebanon had a population of 2.5 million people before the Syrian war and then 1.5 million Syrian refugees arrived. Almost every other person in Lebanon was Syrian.
Did we talk about that? The mass displacement of peoples is something that the West talks about only when it’s over here. When it’s over there, do we care?
One of my friends living in Poland is Syrian who came here via London. He is a multi-millionaire thanks to technology and gaming. Another friend is an amazing fintech start-up guru who is Ukrainian.
This is where it gets difficult as we are humanizing refugees. You hear the word refugee, and what do you think? Someone who has to run? Someone displaced? Someone you don’t need to think about? Someone you want to care for?
When the people of the world were jumping into dinghies to get to Great Britain and drowning, did you care about them? When a little boy was found drowned on a beach, did you care about him?
What did you do?
This is the issue with war and what is happening in Ukraine right now. I am meeting many Ukrainians who are on the run. They ran with nothing but their most essential things. Many cannot return or, if they do return, they return to nothing. Poland has been amazing in its support of these people. Again, you may not be aware, but Poland and Ukraine also have a long history of tensions over borders. Poland and Ukraine are the two largest nations after Russia in the Slavic economies but, more importantly, Poland was, in history, the largest nation in Europe.
Many may not know this, but the Poland-Lithuanian alliance of the medieval times created one of the biggest powers in the world. Ukraine was part of Poland then.
Yet things change and, in particular, Poland and Ukraine fell out due to brutal attacks on the Polish people during World War II. This culminated in the massacres of Poles by Ukrainians in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia — districts between southeastern Poland, southwestern Belarus, and western Ukraine — and is an issue for more Poles, even today, as it is within living memory. The massacres resulted in thousands of deaths and frequently death by torture.
So I have been surprised by Poland’s response to the Ukrainian crisis. Or maybe not. The Polish people are amazing. They are very humble people. They don’t know how good they are and don’t brag about how great they are. They have a history of being in wars and battles, and once were the empire but now fight the empire.
The thing is, this is not unusual. Humans have fought the empire throughout history. In my travels of the world, whether Lebanon, Russia, Iran or the U.S., people everywhere just want a happy life. Every country has people who want friends and family and fun. Every country has people worried about their safety, security and system. Every country has good, honest people, run by leaders who are either mad, bad or good.
This is the issue we have today in Ukraine, and it is not a simple issue. Ukraine has always been a contested land. Putin believes it is Russian, and even today, a third of Ukrainians’ first-language is Russian. In history, Poles and Ukrainians hated each other. Now Poles have opened their hearts and doors to them. In history, there have always been wars, refugees and the displaced. It’s not just Ukraine, but Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan. Don’t forget the rest. Don’t ignore them. Every Ukrainian could just as easily be a Syrian or other. What are you going to do about it?
Chris Skinner is an independent commentator on fintech through his blog, the Finanser.com. His forthcoming book “Digital For Good: Stand for Something…or You Will Fall” (Marshall Cavendish Business, June 2022), explores the use of technology and finance to improve society and the planet.