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I'm Russian, But I Stand With Ukraine

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In July of 2008, when tens of thousands of Russian troops invaded Georgia, I found myself in a peculiar position. As a half Russian and half Georgian visiting family in Moscow, I had to pick a side: Russia or Georgia. I chose Georgia. Today, faced with a similar choice between Russia and the Ukraine, I choose Ukraine. And for the sake of Russia and the world, I hope that the West will choose Ukraine too.

As a permanent resident in the United States, my adopted home, I know that many here believe we can reach a diplomatic compromise. Let me assure you, appeasement will not work with Russia.

Vladimir Putin sees his role in history as the great rebuilder of a major global power humiliated by the Cold War. Putin invades countries that pose an ideological threat and provide geopolitical cache for his Russia. While I can't help but see parallels between today and the invasion of Georgia in 2008, even more striking are the similarities between pre-war Germany and Putin's Russia.

In the 1930s -- before the invasion of Poland, the fall of France, and concentration camps -- Germany, France, the U.K., and Italy signed an agreement we now see as a failed attempt to appease Germany. The Munich Agreement permitted Germany's annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia under the pretext of protecting German-speaking minorities along Czechoslovakia's border. Preceding the Munich Agreement, German forces stormed the Austrian border. This generated little to no response from the rest of Europe, which showed Germany that the European powers were set on avoiding war.

Five years ago, Western politicians refused to intervene in any significant way when Russian troops invaded Georgia. Russian soldiers, or as Putin calls them, "peacekeepers," continue to occupy a quarter of Georgia. Today, Russia is annexing the Crimea region of Ukraine in order to "protect" ethnic Russians in Crimea.

The West may not have been directly responsible for what followed the Munich Agreement, as today they are not directly responsible for Russian aggression towards its neighbors. We in the West are, however, accountable to Ukraine -- if for no other reason than in the '90s Ukraine relinquished its nuclear weapons in exchange for an agreement signed by the U.S., the U.K, and Russia guaranteeing Ukraine its territorial integrity.

This fight, however, is not only about protecting 45 million Ukrainians, or the nation's territorial integrity, or upholding international norms that date back to the Treaty of Westphalia. It is not just about Russia's naval base, oil routes, or European energy security. It's not even just about what Russia might do in the future if we don't stop them here.

In the Ukraine, we are witnessing the latest battle in Putin's ideological war. For years, he has promoted the idea that ex-Soviet states are incompatible with Western democracy. Invading Georgia and Ukraine prevents these states from pursuing a future free of corruption, oligarchy, and injustice, and undermines their fledgling steps toward democracy.

Russians still consider Ukraine part of Russia. Seeing their neighbor succeed where they have failed would undermine Putin's political stranglehold and energize the Russian people to seek a better future with real democratic reform. It would give the Russian people hope that an ex-soviet state can change from a corrupt oligarchy to a real democracy.

Those of us who care about the future of Russia -- for personal or political reasons -- must encourage the Untied States and Europe to take the necessary steps to give Ukraine the breathing room it needs to fully become this example.

The West has and should continue to apply strong economic sanctions to cut off Russian companies and banks from the Western financial system. In many ways, Russia is still a developing economy, and a blow like this would significantly lower Putin's popularity at home. This would not only help Ukraine, it would also create a path for Russians to seek a better government.

In July of 2008 I chose Georgia, not over Russia but because of it. I chose Georgia because I believed it could be an example for Russia and its people. Today, I side with Ukraine against Putin, but not against the Russian people. A democratic Ukraine can be an example for Russia.