Note: What follows is a talk that I presented on Tuesday, March 1, at a Teach-In organized by Indiana University’s Russian and East European Institute and held at the Hamilton-Lugar School of International Studies. I’d like to thank Sarah Phillips, Mark Trotter, and the the entire REEI staff for their work to organize the event, and give a shout out to Regina Smyth, for promoting the idea.
I’d like to thank the organizers of this teach-in.
It is my pleasure to be here to talk with you.
What is a teach-in? There is no simple answer to this question. For some, it is a campus setting, outside of normal classes, where professors offer guest lectures in a grand, metaphorical classroom, sharing their expertise with students at large and with the broader public—a very important function.
Many of my colleagues will approach today’s sessions in this way, and the expertise they share is invaluable.
I could do something similar, for there are many academic topics relevant to the invasion of Ukraine about which I might speak: just war theory and what it says about the justification and method of the invasion; the way different kinds of moral theories—utilitarian, deontological, pragmatic, existentialist—shed light on how we might think; the intellectual history of arguments about Russian imperialism or national independence or the power of the democratic idea.
I could offer some form of expertise on such topics, and approach this talk in the manner of a one-off class lecture. There would be real value in that.
But today my approach will be somewhat different, more polemical, more provocative, more political.
The format of the teach-in is commonly regarded as having begun at the University of Michigan in 1965, as part of the broader New Left protest movement against the Vietnam War. The famous anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, then a young professor at Michigan, is widely regarded as the principal organizer of the first teach-in, along with a group of professors and students. The original teach-ins were genuine educational forums in which concerned professors shared knowledge and perspective in dialogue with students. But they were also genuinely political events, not organized by university and departmental leaders– and indeed often organized in tension with university directives—and designed to articulate a definite political stand. (Sahlins, in an April 2017 piece in the Nation, wrote about the origins of the teach-in movement, and the similarities between the sixties events and those held in more recent times.)
I will speak here in the spirit of those kinds of events, expressing a definite point of view.
I believe it is very important for teachers to avoid proselytizing and polemics when teaching their course materials to students in their classrooms. I would not teach a class in the manner of the talk I intend to give today. But this is not a classroom. And students here—you— are adults and they are citizens, and it is as a citizen that I am speaking, to other citizens who, even if younger than I am, are fully capable of making sense of their situations, and their value commitments, and acting accordingly.
My purpose is to convince them—you— that basic considerations of freedom and democracy and ordinary civil life itself are at stake in current events.
To offer an account of why should we care about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Before I begin, I must emphasize that I am deliberately speaking of Putin’s invasion because it is Vladimir Putin, the President and quasi-dictator of the Russian Federation, who has launched this invasion. While he has much support in his country—though this is hard to gauge because there is neither free press nor are there free elections in Putin’s Russia– there are also many Russians who doubt the wisdom of this move or strongly oppose it. Some of them are bravely protesting the war as we speak. Putin is a dictatorial ruler of an authoritarian regime, and he made this decision pretty unilaterally, and the over one hundred thousand Russian soldiers who are in fact in the process of invading Ukraine are carrying out his orders.
It is not “Russia” that is responsible for the invasion. It is Putin and his small leadership group.
So now, why should we care about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine?
My answer is simple: we should care because of who we are, what we care about more generally, and what we believe as the people who are.
But who are we?
That is the central question about which I now will speak. In doing so I will eventually arrive at my own answer to the question of why we should care. But first I want to outline two very different possibilities.
Here is the first:
If we are people who believe that the greatest problem facing us today is the endangerment of White, Christian culture by nihilism, Marxism, liberalism, and “gender” ideologies that promote LGBTQ rights and undermine the traditional family, then we should care about Putin’s invasion—and support it. Because Putin has long claimed to stand against these ideas, and in defense of traditional, white, Christian, manly civilization.
If we are people who believe that the world today is being overrun by a nefarious cabal of capitalist financiers and Marxist intellectuals led by George Soros, the rootless cosmopolitan and Jew who founded a liberal university, Central European University, in the heart of Europe, and who has donated tens of millions of dollars to human rights groups around the world—if we believe this, then we should care about Putin’s invasion, and we should support it. Because Putin claims to be fighting these very things.
If we are people who believe that liberal democracy itself is a sham promoted by talky liberals and angry Marxists –and Critical Race Theorists!—who wish to destroy our nation, disparage our history and humiliate us—then we should support Putin’s invasion.
If we believe that the fate of our world lies in the hands of Great Leaders who alone can save us—leaders like Putin, and Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Mohdi in India, and Orban in Hungary, and Trump in Mar-a-Lago—then we should support Putin’s invasion, for he claims to be the greatest leader of them all, and many of the others, especially Trump, seem to agree.
If we believe that “war alone keys up all human energies and sets the seal of nobility on those peoples who have the courage to face it”; that “the heart of nations,” and “the spirit of the people, elaborated down the ages in its language, its customs, its faith,” is more vital than weak ideas of human rights and international justice; that while “political doctrines pass, nations remain”; and that “the imperialistic spirit, i.e., the tendency of nations to expand—is a manifestation of vitality, and “renunciation [of power] is characteristic of dying peoples”—if we believe these things, then we should celebrate the fact that Putin is invading Ukraine.
For Putin believes in the Greatness of the Russian Nation, and its right to lead a “Eurasian” empire against the forces of darkness. And he believes in the shedding of blood, and the conquest of soil, in the name of Higher Values. And he believes that it is his Historical Destiny to lead this project of Russian Greatness.
Please note: the words I just quoted, above, were not from Putin, but from Benito Mussolini’s infamous 1932 manifesto, “The Doctrine of Fascism.”
But the sentiments expressed are very similar to the sentiments long extolled by Putin.
And they have also long been articulated by the man widely considered to be Putin’s intellectual guru, Aleksander Dugin. Dugin, a celebrant of the writings of Julius Evola, an Italian fascist philosopher, promotes the idea of Russia as a “Eurasian power” that stands against the “decadence” of “the West” and is duty-bound to fight against it. Dugin has been one of the strongest supporters of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, once stating that “the Russian Renaissance” goes through Kiev.
In his influential 1997 text book, The Foundations of Geopolitics, he claimed that “in principle, Eurasia and our space, the heartland Russia, remain the staging area of a new, anti-bourgeois, anti-American revolution . . . The new Eurasian empire will be constructed on the fundamental principle of the common enemy: the rejection of Atlanticism, strategic control of the USA, and the refusal to allow liberal values to dominate us.”
Dugin has indeed been quoted as having posted these words on his Facebook page: “We should clean up Ukraine from the idiots. The genocide of these cretins is due and inevitable… I can’t believe these are Ukrainians. Ukrainians are wonderful Slavonic people. And this is a race of bastards that emerged from the sewer manholes.”
To be clear, Dugin believes that it is necessary for Russian power to defeat and destroy these idiots and bastards—he is talking here about people like Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelenskyy and those who support him—in the interest of the “true,” authentic, wonderful Ukrainians who understand that their destiny is to be part of a pan-Slavic empire ruled by Russia.
If we are people who like Dugin’s ideas, and agree with him that Putin is a man of Greatness capable of advancing these ideas, then we should care about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—and we should not only support it, we should celebrate it.
Many self-styled “fascists” or sympathizers of fascism throughout the world like Dugin’s ideas.
One of them is Steve Bannon, the chief influencer on Donald Trump, who was present at the very beginning of the Trump administration, and at the very end—where in the days preceding and following January 6, 2021, he organized a “war room” with Rudolph Giuliani with the purpose of overturning the democratic election of Joe Biden.
The close ties between Bannon and other important Trumpists—Sebastian Gorka, Mike Flynn, Paul Manafort—and the Putinist ideology have long been documented. Bannon has long praised Dugin, and Dugin has returned the favor, referring to Bannon as his “soulmate.”
Bannon—one of the most popular “influencers” in the right-wing digital ecosphere– has praised Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. So too has Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and a range of other influential right-wing pundits at Fox News. Last week one of Trump’s strongest supporters in Congress, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, spoke at the America First Political Action Conference. Greene said nothing about Putin or Ukraine. But she did denounce Biden. More important is this news report, widely verified, of her introduction by conference organizer and white supremacist Nick Fuentes:
“The Georgia congresswoman’s appearance was introduced shortly after Fuentes asked for “a round of applause for Russia” and the crowd chanted “Putin, Putin” in response. In her remarks, Greene hailed the attendees as “canceled Americans” and delivered a familiar set of bromides, condemning abortion, environmentalism, Nancy Pelosi, and Justin Trudeau, while promising the crowd she was currently “working very hard for an American revival.”
Other speakers at the event made an array of racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic remarks, culminating in Fuentes reiterating his praise for the January 6 attack on the Capitol as “awesome” and celebrating Adolf Hitler. The white nationalist said of the media: “And now they’re going on about Russia and ‘Vladimir Putin is Hitler’ — they say that’s not a good thing,” he said with a smirk.”
Trump himself, along with his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, issued very public praises of Putin last week while the invasion was underway. As the blood has flowed in recent days, both have very mildly walked back their comments, denouncing the invasion of Ukraine—but not recanting their praise of Putin. Instead, Trump has used the Ukrainian crisis to reiterate the lie that Biden stole the election and is an illegitimate President, and that only he can deal properly with Putin.
Trump and his many followers have spent years raising up Putin and indeed collaborating with him. We must not forget that the Mueller Report documented extensive interactions and collaborations between the Trump camp and the Putin regime during the 2016 campaign. We must not forget that Trump was impeached by the House the first time for using aid to Ukraine as leverage to pressure President Zelenskyy to smear Joe Biden, and that behind this effort were very corrupt networks linking Trump’s closest aides to Putin-leaning Ukrainian oligarchs.
Trump and his closest supporters have not opposed the invasion. They have spoken out of both sides of their mouth on it, all the while praising Putin and drawing obvious affinities between Strongman Putin and Strongman Trump. Meanwhile, they echo some of the rhetoric that Putin has invoked to support the invasion.
Salon’s Kelly McClure reports that Donald Trump, Jr., Ben Shapiro, and Steve Bannon “ride on the back of Putin’s war to speak out against LGBTQ-plus inclusion.”
The Atlantic’s David Graham offers the best overall account, in a piece entitled “Putin’s Useful Idiots,” arguing that too many Republican leaders are serving as “Putin’s mouthpieces,” and too many others are afraid to speak out strongly against this.
If we are people who believe that Trump is the rightful president of the U.S., and that we need an American Putin who can work together with Putin to hold back the tide of liberalism and Marxism and Black women on the Supreme Court and to Make both Russia and America Great Again—then we should welcome Putin’s invasion.
To be clear, this Trumpist position has created real awkwardness for many Republican leaders, many of whom have sought to distance themselves from Trump on this issue, denouncing Putin’s invasion while simultaneously denouncing Biden. The Republican party is split on how far to go in denouncing Putin. But it is united on the need to attack Biden at every turn. (Sen. Mitt Romney’s loud and brave denunciation of Putin’s American supporters is an exception that proves the rule).
If we are people who believe that the defeat of the Democratic party is the moral imperative of our time, then we should care about Putin’s invasion, and welcome it, because it has occurred on Biden’s watch, and it can be used to weaken him and his party in the 2022 midterm and the 2024 Presidential elections.
It is thus clear that there are many reasons why we should care about the invasion, and welcome it—if we are supporters of a far-right agenda of attacking liberal democracy and promoting a new, traditionalist nationalism, which some intellectual proponents have taken to call “national conservatism.”
But is that who “we” are?
Is that who you are?
Is that what we as a people, a civic nation, a body of citizens joined together by a civil society and a constitutional democracy—is that who we are?
I hope the answer is no.
But never in my lifetime have I been wracked by so much doubt, and so much fear, about the answer.
I am not sure who we are, what we believe, what we as a collectivity support.
I am not even sure that we are any longer even in the barest sense a “civic nation” that is serious about pluralism, inclusion, and democracy.
But if we are serious about freedom and democracy, then we ought to care very much about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and we ought to do everything within our power—and within reason—to oppose the invasion.
We should oppose it because it represents a violation of our core political and human values, and because many very powerful people in our own country, including Donald Trump, the likely presidential candidate of the Republican party in 2024, are sympathetic to Putin and his invasion, and employ the same tropes in this country to support attacks on democracy.
It should be obvious to you that there has been a groundswell of opposition to the invasion in this country, and in many parts of the world, and it has grown as Putin’s military attack has become more destructive, and its obstacles—including the resistance of Ukrainians—have made Putin become ever more violent.
There are many reasons why people here have objected to the invasion.
The sheer brutality and destructiveness–of human life, of property, and of institutions—is one.
The refugee crisis that it has caused is another.
The danger that the invasion poses to bordering nations, and the dangers of escalation into a conflict with NATO, is another.
Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons are another.
If we are people who care about our world, we cannot afford to not care about the invasion of Ukraine.
We should care because the invasion is causing serious harms to many millions of people.
And we should care because too many people here care in the wrong way, supporting Putin either openly or covertly, and supporting the things for which Putin stands, things that are genuinely threatening to the values of a pluralistic, liberal democracy.
In thinking about this, we can do worse than to revisit a much-quoted passage in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Most famous for its discussion of civil disobedience, the essay leaders with an equally important explanation of why King, not a resident of Birmingham, nonetheless cares about Birmingham, and has come to Birmingham to support its citizens at a moment of crisis. King wrote:
“Several months ago the affiliate here asked us to offer guidance and support to their democracy campaign, and also requested that we be on call to engage in nonviolent direct-action if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here. But more basically, I am here because injustice is here . . . Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by at home and not be concerned about what happens here. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who inhabits the world can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.“
Who are we, here today, who should care about Putin’s invasion of Russia, and should deplore it, fear it, oppose it?
We are participants in a major university in a global republic of letters, and citizens of the world’s largest constitutional democracy.
Many of us know Ukrainians whose lives have been placed in danger, and they are reaching out to us.
Many of us know Poles, Romanians, Slovakians, and Moldovans whose countries are now the front line in the effort to provide humanitarian relief to over a million Ukrainian refugees fleeing their country, and they are reaching out to us.
Many of us know Russians who are braving the weather, and the harsh tactics of a police state, to protest Putin’s invasion, and Putin’s authoritarianism. And they are reaching out to us.
Our university and its many departments and programs have organizational ties with Ukrainian universities and academic institutions.
Our country has organizational ties with Ukrainian institutions and with the Ukrainian government, with whom it has long had diplomatic relations and who it considers an “ally.”
Our country is the principal force behind NATO, which is pledged to defend the borders of member-states neighboring Ukraine—Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and the nearby Baltic states.
Our country has 90,000 U.S. troops permanently stationed in Europe, most in Germany, as part of its commitment to NATO.
This is an organizational tie, it involves legal and political commitments, and it is something that all American citizens should care about.
If we are people who care about these things, we must regard the invasion of Ukraine as a dangerous violation of international law, human rights, and peace in the region that must be countered and reversed.
We are citizens of a constitutional democracy.
Ukraine is a constitutional democracy.
Ukrainian democracy is relatively recent. It is imperfect (ours is too!). And it is the form of government that most Ukrainians want. They took to the streets in 2004, and again in 2014, to insist on their right to such a democracy.
Putin aims to destroy this democracy.
There is a transnational network of authoritarian leaders, movements, and groups that hates constitutional democracy and seeks to replace it with more nationalist and authoritarian regimes that reject liberal values, multicultural pluralism, and diversity.
Putin is the leader of this network, he is the role model for most of its leaders, and if he succeeds in “regime change” in Ukraine, he will demonstrate for the world the possibility of similar changes elsewhere.
If we care about democracy, we must oppose this.
The injustices that Putin is now committing on Ukraine are a threat to justice everywhere.
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
Putin is pulling the strings of this garment tight around the throats of Ukrainians—and around our throats– trying to suffocate freedom and democracy and to replace it with autocracy.
It is up to us to do everything in our power support Ukrainians in defense of their democracy, by speaking out loudly; by contributing generously to civil society organizations providing on-the-ground aid to vulnerable Ukrainians; by supporting Russians who are speaking out loudly against their autocratic president; and by pressing our government to do everything possible short of direct military intervention to support the legitimate government of Ukraine, and the citizens behind it—by further sanctioning the Russian regime, and by providing assistance, logistical support, humanitarian relief, and arms.
Reasonable people can differ about what mix of polices might best support Ukraine.
But if we Americans are a people who care about freedom and democracy, including our own freedom and democracy, then there is no question but that we ought to care deeply about the violence that Putin’s government and its army is inflicting on the Ukrainian people, and we ought to do everything we can within reason to oppose it.
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.