It is the nakedness of the aggression that appalls and sickens. Vladimir Putin’s crushing onslaught of Ukraine, unruly vassal, in mad pursuit of his dream of restoring Russia to its glory days of Soviet superpower status, has appalled and sickened the watching world. Putin’s assault has stripped the term “naked aggression” of its abstraction and made it vivid and visceral. We, the world, recoil, as the biggest European war in 75 years flames into life.
The rise of the autocrat and the decline of the liberal, democratic, rules-based international order keeping the peace since World War II is of late much written about and lamented. This socio-political trend is not a meme but real and ominous, but its reality and ominousness did not penetrate a world otherwise engaged. Not, that is, until Putin’s naked aggression in Ukraine. Now we understand — we see — what an “autocrat” is and what autocrats do: Use brute force (another abstraction brought to lurid life) to force a free people in a neighboring state to kneel. Tyrants oppressing an unfree people cannot possibly tolerate freedom next door: The threat to their own regime is too great, too near.
That brute force brought against Ukraine is on horrifying display in myriad images — of citizens suddenly converted to refugees, heading by car or on foot to the Polish border; of citizens sheltering in subway stations and underground parking garages, with weeping parents helpless to protect their children wide-eyed with shock. Too often such imagery becomes aestheticized, as representing “man’s inhumanity to man.” But with Ukraine, images are doing their proper work: moving a battered world to find its heart and humanity again, to say: That’s wrong. Almost en masse, the world is with the underdog, Ukraine.
For me, the image resonating with multiple meanings is of the Russian tank racing at a Ukrainian car and swallowing it whole (video here). Brute force at its most brutal, lethal, metallic. But it’s what happened next that astonishes, and moves so deeply: Fellow Ukrainians rushed to the rescue of the driver and, after a frantically improvised “Jaws of Life” effort, pulled him free (miraculously, the driver survived the devouring). That image also prefigures the astonishing response of the Ukrainian people themselves: to rush to each other’s defense, to unify in a life-and-death crisis, to stand and fight against insanely long odds. But will Ukraine, eventually, be devoured by Putin’s Gargantua?
Not if the Ukrainian people can help it. Men and women are enlisting in the army; ordinary citizens, including the elderly, are collecting their government-issued weapon (one middle-aged man, interviewed by a reporter, said he’d “ask Google” for instructions on his weapon’s use). Impressively, ordinary Ukrainians are clear about why they are fighting: Having fought for their independence twice in the last 30 years — at the end of the Cold War when the Soviet Union broke up and they declared Ukraine a democracy, again in 2014 when, in their “Dignity Revolution,” they voted out a kleptocratic puppet of Moscow after he vetoed closer relations with Europe — Ukrainians are ardent in their embrace of democratic values: freedom, self-determination, not answering to any foreign power, dignity and respect.
And, crucially, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, stepped up, he did not flee when the Russians, amassed at his border for weeks, began invading. Of the U.S. offer to evacuate him, Zelensky responded: “I need ammunition, not a ride.” Not every historic moment finds its hero, but in Volodymyr Zelensky, it has. A former comedian who starred in a hit TV series about a high-school teacher whose rantings about government corruption land him in the presidency, Zelensky since his election in 2019 was, in fact, proving a disappointment for not delivering on his campaign promise (and his everyman TV character’s raison d’etre): cleaning up government corruption. And, skin grown thin, he’d tangled with the press dogging him about it. But with this war, Zelensky has found his vocation — rallying his people with daily “we’re all in this together” messaging and appealing to the international community for help. He acknowledges he is Target №1 for Putin’s special forces, and his family №2; yet he stays and contends. A true hero for these dangerous times.
What shame — a moral blot — if the international community allows Ukraine to be devoured, consigning it to the role of mere pawn, “collateral damage,” just another case study of the fate of small powers in big-power politics, or even worse, a “teaching moment” for faltering democracies elsewhere.
Long ago as an international relations major, I came across a Yugoslavian proverb illustrative of the fate of small powers: “Rock falls on egg, too bad for the egg. Egg falls on rock, still too bad for the egg” (Yugoslavia, a small power, no longer exists). But: “Too bad” simply does not cut it anymore as acceptable policy outcome, not with the human carnage live-streamed from Ukraine direct to us in the outside world. And, too, we know Thucydides’ “truth,” that “The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must”; however, the line prior reads, “the question of justice only enters where there is equal power to enforce it.”
That “equal power” enforcing peace and ensuring justice among nations, large and small, is the liberal, democratic, rules-based international order set up in World War II’s aftermath — an order that was truly a new thing under the sun, designed to protect against History’s long and tragic saga of tyrants doing whatever they can and humanity suffering. Institutions like the United Nations, notably its Universal Declaration of Human Rights declaring the dignity of the human being vis-a-vis the state; the NATO military alliance, dedicated to collective security (Article 5 states an attack on one member state is an attack on all); an international court system to adjudicate violations. In sum: Henceforth, no more naked aggression, no more cross-border land grabs, the causus belli of WWII when Hitler devoured neighboring states.
Over time, though, these institutions have experienced drift, loss of purpose. Democracy as this order’s signature model of governance has declined, in efficacy and number, since its zenith in the post-Cold War era, a struggle America won when the Soviet Union imploded and democracy exploded into life around the world. The cause of democracy’s decline? Corruption, abuse of power, incompetence, and, deadly for rules-based order, a too-human predilection to push boundaries and break rules. Meanwhile, seeing this order weaken and fracture, and ready to push into the resulting power vacuum to retrieve lost glory, that age-old figure, the tyrant, re-emerges — and at present tyrants are winning and democrats are losing. See: Resurgent Russia, China. (This devolution Robert Kagan describes in his brilliant primer The Jungle Grows Back.)
Thus, the historic significance of Putin’s strike on the fledgling democracy Ukraine: Will tyranny tip the balance toward force over freedom? This is a test, this is a test — a test that has enormous consequences for the world going forward (or backward), the world our children and grandchildren will inhabit.
Faced with existential threat, this international order is uniting and fighting back as one, rallied by the American president. NATO has sent more troops to its new member states in the former Soviet sphere. The European Union, acting unusually fast, is directing millions financially to Ukraine’s defense. Germany, departing from its post-WWII role, is sending arms to Ukraine; Chancellor Olaf Scholz in a Bundestag speech captured our “watershed” era — as the struggle between Force and Law (video and transcript). France’s president Emmanuel Macron keeps the diplomatic track open.
America, formerly the guarantor of the international order with its vast military, now plumbing its new role, is leading a sanctions regime aimed at crippling Russia’s economy, notably its oligarchy that controls 85% of Russia’s GDP. This sanctions regime, despite cavils, is having instantaneous bite: The ruble fell 30% in one day. In a move ideally followed by the rest of Europe, Germany cut off its Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline deal with Russia, a major blow to Russia’s dominant industry. BP and Shell have followed suit.
And now, Putin threatens nuclear war(!) — a truly ominous escalation (video here). This tyrant plays a bully’s game: punching down, then when that doesn’t work — the Ukrainian resistance clearly is more than he anticipated, his own military is under-performing — he resorts to nuclear blackmail. President Joe Biden, steward of an equally sizeable nuclear arsenal, and understanding overreaction could trigger World War III between two superpowers, has reacted with measured calm.
Will all this be enough to stop Putin, force retreat? That is the question at this tense moment.
Will his tanking economy impinge on Putin’s mad dreams? Already his military deployed to Ukraine is running out of gas and food, per reports. Will the demonstrable fact impinge, seen in massive anti-Russia/pro-Ukraine demonstrations surging around the world and playing out on TV screens and smartphones beyond his capacity to control: that he, Vladimir Putin, has turned Russia into an international pariah? Nations around the world now bathe their iconic monuments in the Ukrainian national colors of blue and yellow: If that seems a flimsy gesture, remember world opinion and status count for much with Putin. Will it also impinge: the demonstrable fact, also screening around the world, that citizens of his own murderous regime, at mortal peril to themselves, have flowed into Russia’s streets in protest? (Over 6,000 in 103 Russian cities have been arrested so far.) One young woman went on record telling an interviewer she did not want to live with Putin’s war on her “conscience.” Further, Russians abroad are denouncing him (also here). Still: Can anything impinge and convince Putin how historically badly he has miscalculated?
In ways Putin can’t comprehend, his lunatic screeds are teaching the world one lesson: the value of fact and truth, much devalued of late. Nobody, except some credulous Russians (and some credulous Americans), believes his rationale for invading Ukraine — to “denazify” this non-sovereign entity and save it from its “drug-dealing” leadership. The former is rot; the latter is rich, given Russia was (again!) caught doping in the recent Beijing Winter Olympics. Tyrants play dirty.
(Not parenthetically, but I’ll stuff the forthcoming in parentheses anyway, as it is so shameful: Donald Trump and his mindless ilk, in extolling Putin’s “genius,” constitute a fifth column of sympathy for freedom-destroying tyranny here in America. GOP senator Mitt Romney properly calls it “almost treasonous”; I’d delete “almost.” But it’s par for proto-tyrant Trump. If Democrats can’t beat back this Putin-loving lickspittle, and beat him soundly, they shouldn’t be in politics. Understand: For Putin and Trump, to make their countries “great again,” brute force is the driver. Let us also remember: The U.S., a great power, on the phoniest of pretenses attacked Baghdad, Iraq, not so long ago, 2003, in a campaign of “shock and awe.” The shame drove many of us into the streets in protest.)
Back to the existential matter at hand: Ukraine’s survival. Through the vagaries of geography and History, Ukraine finds itself at the fulcrum of international power-politics undergoing major revision — toward stronger democracy or back toward tyranny. Back against the wall, Ukraine president Zelensky has petitioned the European Union for expedited membership and filed suit against Russia in the International Court of Justice at the Hague. In the field, Ukraine’s outmanned military is fighting mightily. In the streets, the Ukrainian people are literally placing their bodies in front of Russian military vehicles. Says one brave soul: “We have chosen, not a Russian path, but a European one.” That’s the voice of a democrat. Ukraine’s national anthem opens with “Ukraine is not yet dead.”
What, if anything, can stop the madman Putin? If Putin is not stopped, the world will be reordered in radical ways, none to civilization’s benefit (also here and here). Dare we hope for a palace coup in Moscow…? And, understanding the nuclear implications of the forthcoming and the abrogation of the rules of war, but in response to Ukrainian president Zelensky’s cry, “Why are we alone here?”: As a 40-mile-long Russian military convoy now bears down on Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv, what if unmarked fighter jets, in massive number, suddenly scrambled in from all directions and attacked the Russian convoy….?
In such fluid moments, new developments can alter everything. Right now, the odds for Ukraine are so very long; will she prevail? Will the liberal, democratic, rules-based international order secure Ukraine’s continued existence? For Ukraine’s sake, for our own sake, for humanity’s sake, we should pray it does.