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On the frontlines in eastern Ukraine

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“Okun” on the frontline on July 18.

“Okun” on the frontline on July 18.

Enemies call each other names. They also tell fibs about the foe. I was recently reminded of this as I moved along the frontlines in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. These territories were invaded by the Russians in February 2014. A war, euphemistically described by Kyiv’s politicians as an “anti-terrorist operation” (ATO), is still being fought there, daily.

Vulgarities aside, many Ukrainian soldiers have taken to mocking the so-called “separatists” by calling them “vatniky,” the name used for the padded winter jackets (vatnik) worn by the Russian military, in this context meaning their opponents are nothing more than a dull-witted bunch of drunks and criminals.

For their part the “separatists” and their Russian backers have tried to retaliate, ridiculing Ukrainians by referring to them as “ukrop,” the word for dill, which many Ukrainians admittedly do enjoy with just about anything they may be eating, from boiled potatoes to borshch.

Instead of taking offense, however, Ukraine’s soldiers and even the public have embraced this once-derogatory term for their nation, so robbing it of offensiveness. You can buy a T-shirt declaring yourself an ukrop from many stalls found along the roadway descending from St. Andrew’s Church in Kyiv’s upper town to the historically commercial neighborhood of Podil. I did.

The Russians also circulated some rather odd rumors, insisting, for example, that Ukrainian troops were killing Eurasian bullfinches because their white-blue-red coloration was reminiscent of the Russian tricolor, a nefarious plan apparently intended to also secure more territory for a local species of titmouse, a bird whose blue and yellow plumage evokes Ukraine’s national flag. I saw both types of bird flying about – ornithologists need not worry.

Another apocryphal claim the Russians spread was that Ukrainian troops were chowing down on local infants; with black humor the Ukrainians admitted to the “truth” of this fairytale while advising those spreading the story that they too would relish eating babies if only they knew how to properly prepare them as a food dish – perhaps by adding a dash or two of ukrop?

Now, in fairness, some Ukrainians also have rather strange ideas about this war. Two friends of a soldier on leave in the western Ukrainian region of Bukovyna heavily overindulged while celebrating his homecoming. The next day, when the three lads went to a local market, the two merrymakers from the previous evening were looking rather worse for wear, shuffling along with the soldier, heads bowed. Jokingly, the veteran proclaimed every volunteer at the front was gifted two Russian “raby” (slaves), like those straggling behind him, as a reward for having served – provoking an outcry as some gullible folk began complaining their returned sons hadn’t received their prizes. This, they exclaimed excitedly, was proof of official corruption as officers were “obviously” cheating enlisted men by taking more than their “fair share” of two prisoners each.

In fact, while many a Russian trooper has been captured by the Ukrainians – Moscow’s insistence that there are no Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory is nothing but a lie – most of the latter are exchanged for Ukrainian POWs. It is deemed better to secure the release of one’s own people rather than holding onto “guests” no one wants on Ukrainian soil.

Traveling in this war-devastated region I couldn’t help but recall the old children’s rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” From having observed the patriotism and pluck of Ukraine’s fighting men and women, I know they won’t be beaten by the mere smears and jeers of their enemies. But, however courageous they are, these 21st century Kozaks do need the West’s help, not just ritual condemnations of Russian imperialism and selective economic sanctions, but the delivery of defensive weaponry to match what the Russian Federation has deployed against them. If so provisioned they say they will win their just war because they are fighting for independence and for Ukraine’s return to its rightful place in Europe.

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