Letter From the Editors

Media outlets all over the world were abuzz this week with news of a series of shelling attacks in several border towns in Russia’s Belgorod Province. Two Russian guerrilla groups that fight for the Ukrainian side – the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps – claimed responsibility for the attacks, which killed at least 13 civilians.

Kommersant journalist Aleksandr Chernykh spent part of a day in Belgorod Province talking to residents who were evacuated during the shelling. These included a small group of retirees who have lived in the area all their lives and speak a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian. The article closes with a quote from a man who says laconically: Bylá odná straná kogdá-to. A stáli vragí. Vot i vsyo. The first and third phrases translate straightforwardly as: “It was one country once. . . . That’s the whole [story].” However, the phrase in between could be taken to mean “But they became enemies” or “But we became enemies.”

It makes one wonder how people in border areas feel about governing authorities making decisions on where to draw dividing lines. For example, one young man interviewed by Chernykh supports the Russian military campaign (judging by the “Z” bumper sticker on his car), but not the government itself. He says frankly: “In general, I’d like to see all those f*cking officials evicted from Moscow – let them live here . . . at least one year the way we do.”

Ethnic Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh may feel similarly about their prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, who has been showing willingness to concede to Azerbaijan the territory they have fought so hard to maintain. On the other hand, freelance journalist Bashir Kitachayev has interviewed some Azeris who are not so keen on this turf battle. For example, a young man with the alias “Murad” says he opposed the 44-day war in 2020 because he had no desire “to die for the sake of the ruling elites’ golden toilets.”

Today’s ethnic Serbs in Republika Srpska – an officially recognized entity within Bosnia and Herzogovina – are not fighting a military battle, but they are rankled by pressure to join the West’s economic battle against Russia. So far, the republic has not adopted sanctions against Moscow, and is in fact planning to switch to payments in rubles for Russian natural gas.

Meanwhile, this week’s Group of Seven meeting escalated that economic battle by expanding the sanctions blacklist to include some businesses that are operating in China. Gennady Petrov reports in Nezavisimaya gazeta that “this is the West’s first obvious blow to Chinese businesses cooperating with Russia. The declaration adopted at the G‑7 summit makes it clear that it may not be the last.” Petrov quotes from the declaration that China is called upon to “press Russia” to “completely and unconditionally withdraw its troops from Ukraine.”

But Beijing, following its historical custom, is not overtly taking sides in the Russia-Ukraine war. In fact, it is making new efforts to propose its own peace plan. According to Ekspert, “This is a win-win: Next to the G‑7, which is presenting Russia with yet another ultimatum from Tokyo and placing a bet on nothing but Ukraine’s victory, Beijing looks like a universal peacemaker, and more importantly, the guardian of a stable world order with guarantees for global capital, the primacy of the law and a ‘safe haven’ for investments.” Ekspert describes the Chinese peace initiative as “the only alternative to an international crisis for the rest of the world.”

We suspect that the Belgorod retirees aren’t contemplating an international crisis, but just want to go back to their home villages. So, what about the translation puzzle we mentioned earlier? Our editorial staff did not reach agreement on whether these civilians consider themselves part of the war or not. “They became enemies” or “We became enemies”? The choice is yours.