President Trump recently called for Russia to be readmitted to the group of the world’s leading industrialized nations, saying, “This used to be the G-8, not the G-7. Something happened a while ago where Russia is no longer in.”

That “something” – the theft of Crimea and the subsequent invasion of Ukraine – “happened” in 2014. This has resulted in thousands of deaths and thousands more refugees. I was a Fulbright English teaching assistant in Ukraine two years ago; I taught some of these refugees at the displaced National University of Donetsk. My students reported food shortages, no electricity and grandparents too poor to leave. More plaintively, these teenagers faced the loss of being Ukrainian.

To underline the gravity for these individuals, I am reminded of a grim joke: “What is the difference between Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin?” “Hitler waited five years after hosting the Olympics to invade Ukraine.”

The Ukrainian conflict has faded from American minds. It’s a time where we’re frantically trying to keep up with every presidential tweet. The peaceful Maidan protests in 2013, Crimea, Donetsk – they are all “a while ago.” We only tangentially connect these events with the present investigation into alleged Russian election tampering. Putin, however, sees a direct link, and until he feels that Ukraine is safe from American interference, the war will drag on.

To understand this link, we need to delve into a relationship that has little to do with the United States. Russia regards Ukraine as being fundamentally Russian. Treated as the feminine to Russia’s masculine, Ukraine was called “Malaya Rus” – “Little Russia” – for centuries. This sense of ownership has meant that Ukraine, more so than any other Russian satellite state, has been punished when it pulled away.

The Holodomor stands as the starkest example of this. It’s the genocide you’ve never heard about. Fearing budding Ukrainian national identity, Josef Stalin closed that country’s borders in 1932-33. This led to the deaths of upward of 10 million people. While many countries have recognized the Holodomor as genocide, Russia refuses to do so, arguing that 1932-33 was a famine that hit all of the Soviet Union equally.

Pattern look familiar? Attempt to pull away from Russian influence, receive Russian punishment, watch Russia deny punishment. Substitute “Maidan” for “national identity,” switch “invasion” for “genocide” – the level of denial is the same.

Like Stalin’s regime, Putin’s leadership rests on a brittle foundation. There is no obvious person to follow him. Further, far from being multi-faceted, the Russian economy lives and dies on oil. It is a system that cannot weather threats. Any threat to his power, Putin has to react. To him, Maidan was tantamount to a declaration of war. By the United States.

Russians have always tried to hack us. After Maidan, however, things took a dramatic turn. Russia began publicly releasing information, beginning with a covertly recorded conversation between Victoria Nuland, then an assistant U.S. secretary of state, and Geoffrey Wyatt, then U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. The conversation seemed to support the Russian claim that the U.S. had funded and manipulated the Ukrainian opposition specifically in order to weaken Russia. For Putin, the U.S. had diplomatically seized Little Russia, and Putin would retaliate.

From Maidan, Russia vastly ramped up its hacking operations, often making no effort to hide. And Putin’s greatest hack? The election of Donald J. Trump. Putin loves Trump for several reasons: The Russian leader hates Hillary Clinton; he possibly has kompromat (compromising material) on Trump, and, most importantly, he finds Trump easy to manipulate.

Slyly, Putin has described Trump as “flamboyant.” That’s not a compliment. For Putin, perhaps the world’s greatest diplomatic chess player, Trump’s driving concern with self-image is a weakness to be exploited – perhaps by dangling the promise of damaging information on your opponent, knowing that your desire to win overrides fair and legal play.

So yes, “something happened a while ago,” but we cannot betray Ukrainians, my students, by dismissing its importance and relegating it to the past. Their peers, their parents gave their lives. I say this, loving Russia and her people. It has been my home for most of my adult life.

In many ways, Putin has saved his country from implosion. However, I am also realistic. Putin will not forget what he feels was American aggression in Ukraine. His impassive and plastic surgery-enhanced face hides deep fear. Neither he nor his government will back down from the underhanded tactics they use to undermine American democracy. They can’t, and they don’t see why they should have to. All is fair in love and war.

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