As the war in Ukraine unfolds, I am both horrified and hopeful. Day by day, the suffering of the Ukrainian people is ever worse. Yet, as well, the limited effectiveness of the brutal military actions of invading forces are likewise revealed day by day. Here, six notes on the horror, five notes on hope, and six reflections between hope and horror, followed by judgments, all with some special attention given to contributions to the ongoing forum of the Democracy Seminar on Ukraine .
This war makes no sense beyond the hallucinations of one man, it is beyond me to fully understand them.
There is immense suffering as Russians use brutal tactics to occupy and subdue Ukrainian cities. I don’t know how far Putin will go and note with despair that Putin’s ambitions seem to have no limit. There seems to be no boundaries of indecency in Russian urban warfare.
This war signals the breakdown of the post-WWII international order: the U.N. and all that goes with it, officially and unofficially. Things are falling apart, fitting the pattern of global regress.
There is a real possibility of the expansion of the war to frontline countries from the former Soviet Union: Moldova, Georgia, perhaps, more ominously frontline NATO countries: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and from the former Soviet bloc: Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia.
There is serious danger of cyber warfare, which presents ominous threats to the financial system. This, along with the profound effects sanctions on Russia is having upon the global economy, not only affects me emotionally; it is materially upsetting my life, and the lives of all of us worldwide. I am concerned especially for my family, friends and colleagues in Europe.
Nuclear war is possible, as a cornered and unstable Putin faces the limits of his invasion.
The frustrated Russian advance and its turn to extreme brutality could end in military desertions, a Russian military collapse, and perhaps even popular or elite rejection of Putin. This seems unlikely, but it is far from impossible.
More likely: the frustrated advance could lead to a negotiated ceasefire, enabling a peace settlement that provides some face-saving concessions to Putin, but where Ukraine maintains its sovereignty and its democracy.
But even if Russia prevails militarily, Ukrainian armed and civil resistance will just as likely develop in ways that mean that the Russian occupation of Ukraine will fail. Some semblance of military victory likely would lead to a dramatic political defeat.
This could support the prospects for democracy not only in Ukraine, but also in Russia, and could be a turning point against the tide of global authoritarianism. While Francis Fukuyama predicts this outcome, as is his custom -the end of History part 2 – I rather think of it as a distant hope that would require many wise political actions between now and then.
Between the horror and the hope:
Neither complete victory of Russia nor the complete victory of Ukraine is likely in the immediate future, though in the long run, my bet is on Ukraine.
Between horror and hope, there is the struggle to make matters better, instead of worse. In my terms it’s a struggle for gray democracy (the topic of a forthcoming post) and gray peace. Not ideal, but better than bloody war.
The successful defense of Ukrainian independence and the consolidation of its democracy will likely involve a long march, combining what in 1976 Adam Michnik called a new evolutionism, with Russia unable to administer the Ukrainian population even if it succeeds in this the first phase of its war on the Ukrainian people.
This would involve a combination of a self-limiting non-violent opposition, resembling Solidarność in Poland of the 1980s, and strategic violent resistance resembling the resistance forces in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Immediately this could lead to possible positive and negative results. It could forestall a successful occupation and lead to a Russian political defeat, laying the groundwork for a revived democracy. On the other hand, the horrors of the present moment could intensify and extend into the foreseeable future. The political challenge is to make the positive result more likely and the negative less likely, and to support the possible positive outcome more thoroughly and to diminish the impact of the negative result as much as possible, i.e., to strengthen the constitution of democracy and political freedom, and weaken authoritarianism. Note: both these tasks are more a matter of politics, than that of military action.
And the politics has implications far beyond Ukraine and Russia, at best supporting a semblance of the happy end future Fukuyama confidently predicts, or, at worst, supporting the future that authoritarians around the world anticipate, including Putin and those who celebrate his genius, such as Donald Trump.
Judgments from a distance
Both Putin and his circle, and those who buy into their propaganda, or don’t know how the world looks outside of the repressive propaganda bubble in which they live, may still imagine a winning end to this war. On the Ukrainian side, I imagine that those who are struggling to maintain an independent, democratic Ukraine know that the unconditional surrender of Putin and the Putinists is not likely, although sometimes President Volodymyr Zelenskyy seems to lose sight of this when he speaks of the battles in Churchillian terms, and advocates more intensive NATO involvement, such as enforcing a no-fly zone. It is essential, through military and political actions, to disabuse the Putinists of their illusions and make it clear that they cannot “win” in any meaningful sense. It is equally important for the Ukrainians to come to an understanding of what they must defend to the death and what they have to pursue politically, with an understanding there will be significant differences of political opinion. They will have to decide how and for how long military resistance should be the primary way to pursue their goals: when the defense of a territory becomes untenable, when strategic retreat may be more desirable than the attempt to hold a city as it is destroyed, and its residents decimated. They will have to decide when violent and non-violent resistance, as alternatives to military force, should be the means to repel the invaders.
As they do so, they should keep in mind that while it is quite evident that the effectiveness of non-violent action is limited, there are also limits to military action. Political power, as Hannah Arendt argued, centers on the capacity of people to act in concert, strengthening their collective identity, and doing together what cannot be accomplished individually. Ukrainians have generated much power in response to the Russian invasion, and they will have to decide how to use this power. And they may have to decide what political concessions need to be made: agreement to not pursue NATO membership? Recognition of the annexation of Crimea? The territorial independence or increased autonomy of the Donbas? Including the lands that the Russians have dominated in recent years? Or the entire region?
From the relative safety of New York (we are all vulnerable to a nuclear war), it is not for me to answer these questions for the Ukrainians. And with this in mind, I do want to express my confidence and support for those who are fighting for their lives, for decency, and for freedom and democracy. I am struck by the leadership of Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He is indeed the hero we now need, as Jeffrey C. Isaac explained in a recent piece . I am in awe of the power of the Ukrainian armed forces, which was not anticipated by most commentators. And I am also in awe of the power of the Ukrainian government and civil society. While Zelenskyy personifies this power, behind him are millions. I mourn their losses and admire their persistence, despite all they are going through. I know, to paraphrase a 19th century Polish motto, that they are fighting not only for their freedom, but also ours.
Yet, those of us outside the immediate warzone are implicated in this crisis, and we have our own judgments to make. If we make the wrong move, we could provoke the tyrant in Moscow. The likelihood that the war would expand to other countries would increase, first to Ukraine’s immediate neighbors and perhaps then beyond. With this looming, the reluctance to establish a no-fly zone on the part of NATO, it seems to me, makes sense.
I understand that from the point of view of my friends and colleagues in the battle zone, who are calling for increased foreign military support and involvement, the worst is now happening, and they want to use all possible means to stop it. That the war should not spread, understandably, is not their focus. But for those of us beyond Ukraine’s borders, this must be our concern, especially when it comes to the real possibility of nuclear war. The fate of the earth lies in the balance. Putin doesn’t seem to recognize broadly accepted norms and boundaries. His words reveal untrammeled violence, as Irena Grudzinska Gross carefully and frightenly explains in her contribution to the Democracy Seminar, “Medusa of War.” He has embarked upon a war of territorial conquest that is, as Petra Gümplová has argued here, “a momentous transgression.” He may also transgress norms and expectations about nuclear warfare.
Of course, no matter what we do, there is no guarantee that he won’t do this. And while the possible horror is beyond imagination, it is on the near horizon. I believe that at no other time in my life, including during the Cuban Missile Crisis, has nuclear warfare been more likely than now. Then the stand-off was between two systems, with competing ideologies and interests, and rationalities. Now it’s Ukraine and the United Nations, including most of its diverse and competing interests, against an individual Putin and his kleptocracy, and those living in the shadows that they have created and enforced. I know that Putin’s ideas don’t come from nowhere, that his “final solution of the Ukrainian question” has its ideological support. That, in fact, a justification of the invasion of Ukraine and the celebration of the victory was written even before the war was initiated, as Pavlo Shved analyzed in his post, and that this comes out of a pretty standard far right nationalist view of Russian history. But how that view is applied is not a matter of a party platform, or the result of a broad public discussion, or even out of a politburo or ministry of ideology and propaganda. It’s all in the brain and utterances of one man, and where his humors take him to a frightening degree, we all will go. We just don’t know what will make him stop and when he will stop.
Such is the horror, but I want to end on a more hopeful note, concerning political power and violence.
The debates about what is to be done from near and far, I believe, overemphasize the power of physical force, and underestimate the power of politics. It’s imagined that the fate of Ukraine will be decided by a military battle and that non-violent protests and concerted civil action is ultimately powerless: thus, the urgency of the calls for a no-fly zone. But this doesn’t take into account political power set apart from physical force: what Hannah Arendt understood as the true understanding of politics and its power, as the opposite of coercion. For her, politics end where coercion begins. She highlights politics as the power of people coming together, as equals, in their differences, and developing a capacity to act and then acting in concert. While I don’t necessarily agree with the radicalness of her position, I think she provides a critical insight that has practical implications for the resistance to Putin’s war machine in Ukraine.
Political power, apart from military might, is very real and its basis is not in “the barrel of a gun,” as Mao Zedong and many realists imagine. It has been strikingly evident in recent weeks that the Ukrainians have real political power, in their official institutions, and in their capacity to oppose the invasion as civic actors. It’s the power that was key to the victory of Solidarność as it led Poland to its peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy. It is the power in the United States that has provided the alternative to the power of capital, racism and sexism, in the labor, the civil rights and women’s movements, and crucially it is the power now most evident in Ukraine in a time of war, which was beautifully on display in the Maidan Revolution, as my Democracy Seminar colleague, Marci Shore, has illuminated.
It’s a mistake to romanticize and over emphasize the power of such political action. But it is also a mistake to underestimate it, or to cynically dismiss it at this time.
Such political power does have its limits when facing the barrel of a gun no doubt, and for this reason, I’ve long realized that I personally can’t be a pacifist, and I now celebrate the military campaign of the Ukrainians against the invading forces. But military power also has its limits. This is clear as Russia’s superior armed forces have been humbled in the past weeks, and this has to do with the superiority of the Ukrainians political power. That superiority gives me hope for Ukraine, as they and we together must face the horrors of this unjust war.
I’ll end with a difficult practical question for Ukrainians and for their supporters around the world, driven both by horror and hope: when should we lean on the military and when should we lean on Ukrainian political superiority? In other words: up to what point should a city or a locality or the nation be defended militarily and when should the political power through violent and non-violent resistance and independent civic action be depended on, given the barbarism of Putin and his supporters?
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology Emeritus at The New School for Social Research.