Jeffrey Isaac’s essay on “Volodymyr Zelenskyy, The Hero We Now Need” (Democracy Seminar, February 27, 2022) helps to provide perspective on the specifics at stake in Ukraine. It weaves key points into a coherent whole. Ukraine’s Zelenskyy is a hero to all “who stand for freedom and liberal democracy.” In the face of Putin’s bombs, tanks, and threats to execute him, Zelenskyy displays political and physical courage. Should his brutal adversary prevail, Zelenskyy’s heroic stand may ultimately be vindicated by history, as was the case in the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in 1956, where political leaders willing to speak truth to Russian imperialist power were killed or neutralized but eventually honored for their patriotism after the fall of communism. We cannot know the outcome of the present battle for Ukraine, but the possibility of escalation and the danger of nuclear confrontation exists, Isaac observes. Nevertheless, we must do everything in our power “to support Ukrainian independence and democracy and to oppose Putin’s invasion.”
My precis cannot stand in place of Jeffrey Isaac’s full argument nor capture all of the nuances of his analysis. I call attention to the thread of his argument that brings into focus a specific concern I have been harboring since the crisis in Ukraine emerged. Have we framed the assault on Ukraine—as a heroic last stand for freedom and democracy—too narrowly and absolutely? Does this framing minimize, even to the point of precluding, the possibility of resolving the crisis short of a devastating escalation?
Finding my voice on Putin’s invasion has been made difficult by the brutality of his assault against the Ukrainian people and its far-reaching implications. It is difficult to see beyond Putin’s audacity and culpability, even when acknowledging that there are complicating factors of more and less significance. Certainly, one such complexity (one that has been much rehearsed in recent days) was the decision taken by NATO, following the demise of the USSR, to move the alliance east toward Russia. No less a figure than George Kennan warned at the time that NATO’s decision to expand eastward would lead to the very kind of trouble now seen in the invasion of Ukraine. He wrote that “expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.” It should be expected to inflame Russia’s “nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies.” Such a decision was doubly unfortunate, Kennan observed, “considering the total lack of any necessity for this move.”
Still, this marker of the complexity of geopolitics does not excuse or lessen Putin’s aggression. Nor does it assuage the troubling move to the political right and the rise of authoritarianism in the U.S. and the world at large. The stakes for liberal democracy are high.
Isaac’s appeal to the possible judgment of history—specifically, with reference to Istan Bibo’s declaration for freedom and truth in calling his people to resist nonviolently the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, a call suppressed at the time but celebrated and vindicated decades later—is a narrative of heroism that brings to mind a matter to which we should attend: the possibility of resistance leading to nuclear annihilation. Is putting Russia’s nuclear forces on alert just a bluff, or is Putin motivated enough to resort to nuclear war with the West? How do we calculate the odds and sort out the potential consequences of fighting for freedom and liberal democracy versus nuclear holocaust and perhaps the end of humankind? Do we call Putin’s bluff, assuming that it is a bluff? Is this invasion of Ukraine analogous to Hitler’s aggression, from which we must draw the historical lesson of responding firmly and quickly?
I confess to feeling a deep hatred for Putin and to wishing for his ignominious demise, but I cannot help but worry over the framing of this confrontation with Russia as a heroic stand for democracy. I am sickened by the horror perpetrated against the Ukrainian people by Putin, but I am also deeply worried about the possibility of an uncontrolled escalation. Apparently, Russians generally did not believe Putin would invade Ukraine. Apparently, they viewed him as a rational actor looking after the interests of his country and not someone who would start a war. They were wrong about him. He may be more obsessed than calculating. Could his irrational side take control and cause him to exercise the nuclear option?
Thus, I wonder if we might frame the exigency at hand in less heroic terms. A heroic stand in Ukraine could be the last of last stands, one that brings an end to human history. Already there is talk of a possible third world war, which is ominous, to say the least, in an age of nuclear arms with intercontinental ballistic delivery systems. “We haven’t seen anything like this since really Hitler invaded Poland in World War II. I just hope this is not the beginning of World War III,” says Michael McCaul, lead Republican on the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. If we think the only options are Churchillian valor or Chamberlain’s discredited strategy of appeasement, we have no choice but to stand resolutely against Putin at the risk of nuclear winter. But do we want to think in strict dualisms such as hard versus soft, strong versus weak, heroic vs. cowardly?
If the conundrum of defending liberal democracy without escalating the war Putin started in Ukraine is a valid construction of our predicament, the challenge is to find a workable framework for managing the crisis. My waking nightmare is that humanity is beyond redemption, that our ability to destroy the source of life is greater than our resolve to pursue an ethical and realistic way beyond the impasse. I am amazed we survived nearly a half century of cold war without a nuclear conflagration. Will luck hold?
Crisis management between nuclear-armed adversaries cannot afford to depict the decisive moment as a test or verification of strength that somehow has been placed in doubt. At least one party has to operate on the assumption that its virility is not in question, that finding a way forward does not weaken its security or undermine its standing on the world stage. That, so far, is not the way in which the Western narrative of Russian aggression is playing out. We hear instead that Putin has calculated he can prevail in Ukraine and beyond because the West is weak; therefore, the U.S. and its NATO allies must prove they are strong, that they have not lost their nerve or their ability to fight and to win, that they have not gone soft.
Stephen Walt is among those who cast a critical eye on this attitude that the U.S. must prove its strength and resolve. “The United States is still the world’s mightiest country . . . but there are limits to what it can accomplish,” he argues. The U.S. does not have the “capacity to dictate political arrangements all over the world.” Yet, its foreign-policy elite remains unable to acknowledge “the limits of U.S. power and set realistic objectives.” Walt rejects a “black-and-white view of the situation in Ukraine,” which he considers an automatic reflex that makes a bad situation worse. Russia’s “core objective,” he maintains, is “to keep Ukraine from joining NATO.” Putin sees this as a vital interest worth fighting for, and his immediate neighbor Ukraine is vulnerable to Russia’s substantial military assets. Yet, the U.S. and NATO have not budged “on the central issue dividing the two sides,” the issue of Ukraine’s “geopolitical alignment.” The West still insists on Ukraine’s right to join NATO sometime in the future, when and if it meets membership criteria. Western leaders cannot resolve this crisis, Walt insists, unless they give Russia “some of what it wants on this core issue,” especially when the opponent holds local military superiority and cares more about the outcome.
Speaking from a “realist” standpoint, Walt maintains that understanding the Russian perspective does not amount to agreeing with the adversary’s position when fashioning an appropriate response. Nor does it make one “a naïve apologist for Putin.” Hawkish posturing is no substitute for a sober assessment of the situation. Yet, “the West insists on viewing this crisis not as a complicated clash of interests between nuclear-armed states but as a morality play between good and evil.” Despising what Putin has done does not warrant a stance of “simplistic alarmism” which treats compromise as anathema and Putin’s total capitulation as the only acceptable outcome rather than deploying diplomacy to reduce the risk of escalating the war.
That said, the problem of defending liberal democracy while negotiating with Russia on its core issue remains unaddressed within Walt’s realist perspective. It is one thing to observe that U.S. power is insufficient to rid the world of evil or to create a global order of liberal democracy, but that does not speak to the question of how to support liberal democracy in Ukraine while acknowledging the reality of Putin’s determination to keep Ukraine out of NATO. Certainly, authoritarian Russia poses a realistic constraint on our options, and we must also remember that our own democratic house is not in order.
In this regard, I think Isaac is correct to channel Hannah Arendt on the point that political actors are marked by what they do, by their willingness to speak and act, and by disclosing and exposing themselves in a dangerous world. Moreover, to the extent this applies to the ideal of democratic citizenship, we might consider it to be a quotidian act that does not require special heroic qualities of the actor. There are no simple solutions to the crisis in Ukraine, as Isaac observes, just as he seems to acknowledge the necessity of “very careful support” for Ukraine from the U.S. and NATO.
The question is what falls within the power of citizens “to support Ukrainian independence and democracy,” to support Ukrainians “as they develop and deploy their own means of political empowerment”? Toward an answer to this question, Isaac gestures to means of generating “coercive force,” including “acts of solidarity and philanthropic support for Ukrainians” and for Russians resisting Putin’s war and authoritarianism but also supplying Ukraine with weapons, imposing economic sanctions on Russia, and insuring that the borders of NATO countries remain inviolable.
My cautionary note is to broaden the heroic perspective by recognizing that such a shift from political action to coercive force is fraught with the danger of conflating one with the other and allowing the defense of democracy to serve as cover for militarism, a militarism that could escalate all the way into a nuclear confrontation if diplomacy is not undertaken to address what is arguably Putin’s concern over NATO’s expansion. Of course, there is the counterargument that the underlying issue over Ukraine is not NATO versus Russia but Europeanization versus Russification (see, for example, Philip Green, “The Nation and Putin, Revisited).
This argument, at least as Philip Green develops it, underscores Putin’s culpability and affirms the correctness of the decision to expand NATO eastward. Surely there is room for reasonable differences of opinion over identifying the key issues without losing sight of the need for serious give-and-take diplomacy in circumstances where escalation could be terminal. I say this not as a proponent of realism, idealism, or any other school of thought in international relations. I say it instead out of concern for the potential consequence of thinking in terms of belligerency versus diplomacy and from an uneasiness over an overly narrow perspective on heroism that might too easily be coopted by a militaristic mindset. It is a warning, from my own disciplinary perspective, to beware of the risk of rhetorical creep.
Robert L. Ivie is Professor Emeritus in English (Rhetoric) and American Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.