Further Thoughts on Ukrainian Heroism and its Tragic Limits


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March 14, 2022

Further Thoughts on Ukrainian Heroism and its Tragic Limits

  • NATO
  • Putin
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war
  • Zelinskyy
Rally in solidarity with Ukraine, Time Square, New York, March 5th, 2022
Rally in solidarity with Ukraine, Time Square, New York, March 5th, 2022

From the moment that Russian troops first attacked his country on February 24, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelinskyy has bravely rallied his country, and much of the world, in opposition to Putin’s aggression. Since that time Ukrainians have fought bravely against the inefficient but brutal Russian military onslaught. They have been an example to everyone in the world who cares about freedom.

Two weeks ago I wrote that Zelinskyy is “the hero we now need.”

I stand by this. It is difficult to imagine a leader more courageous in the face of threats to his country and in the face of actual violence.

To use a phrase coined by 1960’s American student radicals, and powerfully analyzed by Todd Gitlin—former President of SDS, and a dear friend who passed only weeks before the invasion—“the whole world is watching” Zelenskyy and the resistance to authoritarianism he is leading, and most of the world is watching with admiration.

Zelenskyy is truly a hero.

And yet, as Albert Camus once quipped, all heroes have “feet of clay.” Zelenskyy is human, and thus imperfect (indeed it is precisely the way he has risen to this awful occasion in a very human way that constitutes his heroism). And it hardly detracts from his bravery or from the nobility of his cause to point this out, and to consider its implications for the politics of the noble Ukrainian struggle and its limits. For his heroism has limits, precisely if we consider it in political and not simply moral terms. And while it pains me to write about the limits, I consider an honest assessment to be one essential aspect of my support for and solidarity with my Ukrainian friends.

In my earlier piece, I likened Zelenskyy to the image of Homeric heroism extolled by the political theorist Hannah Arendt: fearlessness in the face of vulnerability, and “[the] courage and even boldness . . . present in leaving one’s private hiding place and showing who one is, in disclosing and exposing himself.” Zelenskyy remains heroic in this sense. He discloses himself daily in the face of death, and he will not give up, and he articulates a sentiment widely shared among the vast majority of Ukrainian citizens and the millions of people across the world, including myself, who support them—the sentiment that the Ukrainian nation will not stop fighting for freedom.

Zelenskyy vividly and bravely articulated this a few days ago in a widely-viewed Zoom-video address to the British Parliament. Deliberately evoking and invoking Churchill, he declared that “We will not give up and we will not lose. ‘We will fight until the end, at sea, in the air. We will continue fighting for our land whatever the costs. We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets.”

Braver words have never been spoken. I understand and admire these words, just as I understand and admire my many Ukrainian friends, most in hiding, who are roused by these words. And I also understand why attached to these words are powerful pleas, made more poignant by their real desperation and their moral validity, for a much higher level of NATO military assistance, especially the provision of MiG fighters and the establishment of a “no-fly zone” over Ukrainian air space.

These requests are very compelling.

But they are also questionable, and insofar as they feed the possibility of a wider war, perhaps even reckless.

I have come around to this conclusion with qualification and only with great reluctance.

The above-quoted Churchillean words just didn’t sound right to me when I first heard them. But it was only the relentless arguments of my amateur-historian son Adam that that caused me to realize why: because “we will fight until the end” is simply too over the top, especially in the era of nuclear weapons, and especially when the dangers of nuclear war cannot be limited to a particular place, and threaten entire regions and indeed the entire world. This is what is meant by all of those, from President Biden on down, who observe that a NATO or U.S. war with Putin’s Russia is likely to be a third world war, and such a war is simply unimaginably disastrous.

The heroism of “we will fight until the end” is incredibly compelling for those who express such sentiments in the face of aggression. And I do not begrudge them such sentiments. Indeed, I believe that if I were in their situation, I would say the same thing.

But I am not in their situation, and from my vantage point, I must observe that such words are rousing but also disconcerting, and for this reason: Ukrainians who understandably speak them with concern for their own country are also speaking about a danger, and for a world, that alas exceeds them, their experience, and the fate of their country.

Let me be clear here: I am identifying a situation that is truly tragic, in the “classical” sense of tragedy.

Zelinskyy is right to do what he is doing, and every Ukrainian who cheers him on is also right. Right. I offer no criticism of them.

But it is also right to say “no, we are sorry,” with genuine regret, to the request that the U.S. be willing to risk all-out war in defense of Ukraine.

Because this request asks too much, and presents too much risk, for all concerned.

It could be said that it is not for others to assess the risk for Ukrainians. This is true. But neither is it for brave and admirable Ukrainians to assess the risk for others, especially when, seriously, it is not money or even lives that are at stake, it is the devastation that a nuclear war—even if limited to tactical weapons—would inflict on Europe, and the danger it would pose to humans everywhere. There has never been a nuclear war (WWII was not a nuclear war, even if the terrible bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushered in the age of nuclear war). And, as the late Jonathan Schell beautifully argued in his 1982 classic, the very possibility of such a war places nothing less than the fate of the earth itself at risk.

It is an unfortunate fact that Vladimir Putin–an evil autocrat responsible for waging this violent attack on Ukraine– is in control of one of the world’s two most powerful nuclear arsenals, and his actual threats to use nuclear weapons are exceedingly dangerous and must be taken very seriously precisely insofar as he is both a dictator and a sociopath. Because nuclear war is not an option.

In designating Zelensky as a true hero, I drew upon the discussion of civic virtue, and Homeric agonism, famously valorized by Hannah Arendt in her 1958 The Human Condition. But Arendt herself elsewhere furnished us with the resources for thinking about the limits of this model in contemporary times, in two important though rarely read pieces: a 1954 Commonweal essay entitled “Europe and the Atom Bomb,” and a contribution to a 1962 Partisan Review symposium on “The Cold War and the West.” Commenting in 1962 on the ways that new technologies of war—especially nuclear weapons—completely erase the distinction between civilians and combatants, she insists that the threat of war threatens the very possibility of politics, and that “only if we succeed in ruling out war from politics altogether, can we hope to achieve that minimum of stability” that makes politics possible.

What follows is a critique of the logic of “fight to the end” that is as cogent today as it was then:

To try and decide between ‘better dead than red’ and ‘better red than dead’ resembles nothing so much as trying to square the circle. For those who tell us better dead than red, forget that it is a very different matter to risk one’s own life for the life and freedom of one’s country and for posterity than to risk the very existence of the human species for the same purposes. . . But this is not to say that its reversal has any more to recommend itself.”

Arendt points out that both sides of this “preposterous alternative” betray a “reckless optimism,” in the first case that “the losses may not be as great as some anticipate, [and] our civilization will survive,” in the second that “slavery will not be so bad.” Particularly dangerous, she insists, are those who do not fear nuclear war. For their commitment to defending freedom “to the very end” rests on ancient beliefs—that to be a slave is less than human and that martial courage is the essence of freedom—that it is no longer possible to hold.

To put it in other words, we do not live in the world of Achilles and Hector, and Homeric bravery can be a recipe for disaster in contemporary world politics.

Arendt wrote these words years after publishing a powerful essay extolling the 1956 Hungarian uprising and the “promise of freedom” it represented. Indeed, she discusses this uprising in her symposium essay; and a version of the entire discussion eventually made its way into her 1963 classic, On Revolution, which ends by celebrating the Hungarian uprising.

Why do I point this out?

Because while Arendt supported the Hungarian uprising, and deplored its suppression by Soviet troops, nowhere did she ever call for direct U.S. military intervention in that conflict. To the contrary, she feared that any direct U.S. involvement in either of the two simultaneous conflicts of Autumn 1956—the Hungarian uprising and the British-French-Israeli seizure of the Suez Canal—might lead to the disaster of another world war.

The point of her 1962 symposium contribution and of her 1963 book is not that freedom has no place in a world of nuclear weapons. It is that in a world of nuclear weapons, it is not war between nation-states, but only “revolution”—in her admittedly idiosyncratic sense– that can perhaps sustain freedom.

The analogies between Ukraine today and Hungary in 1956 are limited. While Hungary was a Soviet satellite occupied by Soviet troops, Ukraine is a sovereign state, and a political democracy, that has its own army and has been literally attacked, invaded, and bombarded by Russia.

At the same time, there is one way that the analogy holds: in Ukraine today, as in Hungary in 1956, it is simply too dangerous to seriously contemplate an actual war between Russia and the U.S. and NATO. If taken to the extreme, the logic of “we will fight to the death for our freedom” can only lead to mass destruction for Ukrainians and many others, starting with the noble Romanians, Polish, Hungarian, and Slovakian people now welcoming Ukrainian refugees, and ending with . . . we cannot know and do not want to know.

Can the Ukrainians hold out for long against Russian troops without the kind of military intervention that cannot reasonably be provided them? How much devastation and mass murder is Putin willing to inflict for the sake of his “intervention,” and how much more death and destruction can Ukrainians endure before the costs of fighting, and the futility of further fighting, begin to loom larger and larger? Is it possible that a combination of military losses, the economic cost of sanctions, and the unfolding of protest activity in Russia can force a Russian withdrawal in the near future? Can Putin be pressured into a serious negotiation, and is it possible for Putin and Zelenskyy to arrive at some feasible compromise, probably the best possible outcome of this terrible war?

We can’t know the answer to these questions.

But we can know that barring some miracle there is likely to come a time when the Ukrainian military resistance will weaken, and Kyiv will be more or less fully encircled and tactically overcome by Russian tanks, and should such a time come it will no longer be possible for the Ukrainian government to even pretend to govern Ukraine. It would then become necessary for most Ukrainian soldiers and militia fighters to lay down their arms or to go into hiding, and the brave Ukrainian government to go into exile, and those brave Ukrainians who remain in their country to rethink the methods appropriate for their freedom struggle in this new situation.

It can only be hoped that “we will fight until the end” means not “we will never lay down our arms,” but rather “we will fight militarily until the last moment that it makes sense to do so, and at that point we will continue to fight by other means, whether through guerilla insurgency, sabotage, or civil resistance.”

To expect anyone to simply lay down before an oppressor is unreasonable and immoral. It must always be legitimate to fight against injustice, and especially when the injustice is brutal—and Putin’s war is very brutal.

The question is not whether to fight, but how to fight.

There can be no doubt that the Ukrainian fight for freedom will continue; that some combination of guerilla warfare, sabotage, and civil resistance will persist so long as Russian troops and tanks remain in Ukraine; and that it will be incredibly difficult for Russian troops to hold major cities in the face of urban insurgency. It is possible that protracted resistance can force Putin to some kind of compromise. We can only hope that Ukrainian resistance will succeed, and support it. But such resistance is different than a full-on war.

In declaring that (inter-state) war was no longer politically possible, i.e., that it was a disaster for any politics, Arendt did not mean that independence struggles or forms of resistance to authoritarianism were no longer possible. To the contrary, such struggles loom large in her 1962 essay and in On Revolution. She meant that such struggles, covered broadly by the category “revolution,” must not be modeled on interstate war and must not center on the mobilization of violence and on the acquisition of a monopoly of violence. This argument is becoming more and more relevant to the future of Ukraine.

Miracles do occur in politics.

It is possible that a combination of the military and economic costs of war, in the field and at home, will lead Putin to back down or will lead key members of the elite that surrounds him will remove him so they can back down, and that this will happen soon, and the status quo ante in Ukraine will be quickly restored.

This would truly be a wonderful miracle, and I wish for it.

But the thing about miracles is that they can’t be predicted and they are rare, and so it is the height of folly to count on them.

From the very start of the Russian war on Ukraine, serious commentators had interesting things to say about the efficacy of non-violent forms of civil resistance. At the important website Waging Nonviolence, George Lakey argued back in late February that “Ukraine doesn’t need to match Russia’s military might to defend itself,” and David Hunter argued that “Ukraine’s secret weapon may prove to be civilian resistance.” On March 7, a few days ago, Maria Stepan argued there that “It’s time to take inspiration from Ukraine and double down on global democratic solidarity,” rightly insisting that we can do much more to aid and support the brave Ukrainian citizens, and their Russian counterparts, who are employing strategies of civil resistance to protest and to resist Putin’s war.

I did not believe that the arguments for civil resistance made sense a few weeks ago, mainly because it was simply impossible to imagine that the legitimate government and army of Ukraine would simply go away. And I am not now prescribing this for Ukrainians, who continue to impose serious costs on Putin’s invasion, and who alone can decide what makes most sense for them. But each passing day makes the insights contained in these arguments about civil resistance more compelling.

The military resistance that Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelinskyy is bravely leading is righteous and it remains practically justified. But it is quite possible that the days in which it will remain practically justified are numbered, and at some point soon a combination of its limits and its costs—in lives and in the very buildings and spaces that make Ukraine what it is—are likely to make it less and less justifiable.

Who can say?

Only Ukrainians, from Zelenskyy on down, can say.  The matter raises very intellectually and emotionally difficult question of political judgment, and Ukrainians must decide for themselves whether and how to continue the military fight and when to shift to other means of fighting.

But we who are not Ukrainians but who support them owe it to them, and to ourselves, to be honest about what is possible and what is not possible; what forms of heroism can be enthusiastically endorsed and what forms must eventually be called out for their stubbornness; and what kinds of solidarity and assistance, including military assistance, can be provided, and what kinds must regretfully be declined.

Ukraine is being laid waste by Putin’s military and the authoritarian and imperialist aspirations of his regime. This is crime, it is a moral offense, and it is a threat to democracy everywhere.

And this is very, very bad. And only Putin and his supporters are to blame.

But even victims of aggression, precisely because they are human beings with dignity, have agency, and confront limits.

There is no “good” to be achieved for Ukraine in the weeks and months to come, only a choice between the least bad of a range of bad alternatives. We who support our Ukrainian friends must do everything within reason to continue to support them, in the hope that it helps to lead to a real end of the invasion and a serious negotiation in which Putin makes real concessions and perhaps even withdraws to the status quo ante. But the situation is bleak, and there are limits to what we can reasonably do, limits that sadden and frustrate us, and no doubt more greatly sadden, frustrate, and perhaps even understandably anger our Ukrainian friends.

It is especially necessary to say this, now, because the noble appeals of President Zelenskyy are now being embraced here in the U.S. by many who are not real “friends” of Ukraine and its democracy, but are quite willing to risk an all-out war with Putin if it can both strengthen the U.S. military profile vis a vis China and weaken President Biden. There is a real debate here in the U.S. about whether to give Zelenskyy the “no-fly zone” he requests. And many of us here who strongly support the Ukrainian fight cannot support this and cannot embrace a rhetoric of “freedom at any price” in the face of nuclear danger.

This does not mean that Putin’s threats ought to be sufficient to deter support, including military aid, to the Ukrainian resistance. Putin has a real fight on his hands, and it is both morally and practically necessary for the U.S. and NATO to support the Ukrainians so long as they are fighting back. But, barring a genuinely catastrophic move by Putin—an actual attack on NATO, the use of a tactical nuclear weapon, or perhaps the massive use of chemical weapons—it is essential that the U.S. and NATO show the kind of restraint that Biden has so far succeeded in maintaining. Ukrainian leaders ought to understand this even if they wish it were otherwise. In the same way, they hopefully will understand that there may come a time when the strategies and tactics of resistance to Putin will have to change, as agonizing and tragic as this may be.

Churchillean rhetoric is powerful. But it is also dangerous in an age in which genuine weapons of mass destruction are available and a pathological dictator has made it plain that he respects few limits and is willing to threaten their use.

Because of my concern, respect, and admiration for my Ukrainian friends it is hard for me to say these things. It is not what they want to hear—and I don’t blame them, and indeed it is not what I want to say. And it is precisely out of concern, respect, admiration, and solidarity, that nothing less than honesty will do as we face the dark days ahead.

March 14, 2022

Note*: I would not have written this essay were it not for the insights pressed upon me by Adam Kent-Isaac, whose arguments have challenged my sentimentalism and compelled me to frontally engage the limits of the Ukrainian struggle I very urgently support. Thanks to Adam; my friend Bob Ivie, whose critique of my earlier piece also pressed me to further extend, and modify, my argument; and Bob Orsi, Oana Baluta, and Jeff Goldfarb, and especially Mihaela Miroiu for their quick and excellent suggestions.

Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. Editor in Chief of Perspectives on Politics, a flagship journal of the American Political Science Association, from 2009-2017. Author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One (2018), Professor Isaac has published in a range of public intellectual venues, including Public Seminar, Common Dreams, Dissent, the Nation, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Guardian.


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