Reality, Idealism, and Ukraine

The stakes for Ukrainians and Russians in this are existential; for Americans sitting behind computers, they are a luxury item to be indulged in, to signal one’s “virtue” by condemning the villain and praising the plucky underdog.

I voted twice for George W. Bush, acts which I have lived to regret. The second time, I did so without any firm interest in the Iraq War—though, like many, I deferred to the president out of habitual respect for authority and the belief that he was being attacked by what I thought of as a partisan, liberal press.

I was concerned, of course, about such things as abortion, same-sex marriage, and other culture war issues that intersect directly with Church teaching. Everything else came a distant second for me. 

Only with the passage of time and reflection did I reconsider my position. The revelation of how much deception went into selling the Iraq War, and just how little thought I gave to the damage it might cause, finally changed my mind. If I had known how many people would die, how much devastation would be wrought on the people of Iraq, and the Middle East more generally, I would not have voted for George W. Bush in 2004. Or at least, I hope I wouldn’t have.

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Appeals to loyalty and to the desire of ridding the world of easily identifiable villains are powerful, and I am not certain I could have resisted them even had I been shown how awful the outcome could be. I say this not to denigrate myself but to emphasize how difficult it can be to view distant events in a sober, detached manner; to see them as they really are.

As of this moment, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has evoked powerful emotions among all Americans, Catholics included. I deplore and condemn the illegal and aggressive war started by Vladimir Putin, and my sympathies are with the Ukrainian people. This is especially true of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, whose history is one of sorrow and suffering along with enduring faith. I have known some Ukrainian Catholics who are wonderful people and fervently patriotic, as well as devoutly Catholic. My hope is that the war ends quickly, with a negotiated settlement as soon as possible. 

Watching the reaction of people on social media, however, posting Ukrainian flags and changing their profiles to its colors, and denunciations of Vladimir Putin as akin to Adolf Hitler worries me greatly. Similar rhetoric was deployed in the run up to the Iraq War, and people are once again beginning to take sides in a conflict they know little about. It is understandable to feel sympathy with Ukraine, since it is the victim in this war. Less understandable are those expressing solidarity with Putin because of his perceived defense of Christian civilization. It is highly dangerous to project our own politics onto that of nations halfway across the world; even more so when we do this out of immediate reactions, without regard for context or knowledge of the situation.

This is especially true in the way people characterize Putin. The man is a brutal and cold-blooded autocrat. But he is not insane, nor some supernatural villain. (Nor, might I add, should one conflate a country’s government with its people. Putin is not the equivalent of the Russian people.) Whatever one thinks of him, he has reasons for his actions, which are easily summarized. Russia objects to the expansion of NATO close to its soil and has repeatedly made this known for many years. 

Though it may seem like a behemoth to Americans, Russia is a declining power and fears an American government which has in the past twenty years toppled several governments it has deemed insufficiently “democratic.” Two separate revolutions in Ukraine, in 2004 and then in 2014, were supported by the American government. This is what led Russia to seize and annex Crimea in 2014, and that led to war in the eastern part of Ukraine.

Since then, the United States government has refused to rule out Ukraine’s possible membership in NATO. Russia sees this as a threat to its sovereignty, and this is what has spurred Putin to invade. (The fact that the U.S. government has invaded countries without being seriously held accountable for it is not lost on Putin or his advisers.)

None of this makes such an invasion anything but a crime. But it does mean that it cannot be understood as the attempt of a madman to take over the world. There is much history between Ukraine and Russia which I cannot go into in a short essay, but Russia’s western borders have long been a genuine security concern for Russia. Both Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler invaded Russia from the west, and this is why Joseph Stalin sought to make several satellite states out of East European countries following World War II. 

Furthermore, while Putin’s view of Russian history is idealized to the point of delusion, Ukraine is a nation with a complex history. The western part of Ukraine, ruled for centuries by first Poland-Lithuania and then the Austrian Empire, is far more Westernized than the eastern parts, which contain a large Russian-speaking minority and only became part of Ukraine during the Soviet era. This means that Ukraine is pulled in different directions—in the west toward the EU, and in the east toward Russia—so much so that two eastern provinces have broken away and formed independent republics.

The U.S. government deserves some blame for this situation, since it has been holding out the allure of NATO membership for Ukraine for years now. This has emboldened the Ukrainians to reject diplomatic overtures from Russia, even though they might have resolved tensions. It is understandable that Ukrainians who want to free themselves from Russian influence might chafe at having to compromise with someone like Putin, but the reality is that they do not have the power to do otherwise, and no Western power is going to ride to the rescue and defeat Putin for them. 

Ukraine’s government is very corrupt and ineffective, and given its geographic and historical importance, no Russian leader, let alone Putin, will allow it to become a military host for a foreign power. As long as it remains internally divided and weak, which is not likely to change any time soon, Ukraine will be subject to Russian influence, no matter what it does. The best it can hope for in the near future is to become a neutral “buffer” state between the West and Russia, however galling a prospect this may be for them. 

Let me repeat myself: none of this justifies what Putin has done. But it does show how complicated this whole situation is and why rash measures should not be advocated. To his credit, President Biden (whom I otherwise have little respect for) has taken a moderate line so far in response. He knows America can do nothing militarily to help the Ukrainians. Russia is a nuclear power, and it would be suicidal to make war against it. 

Sometimes, unfortunately, one cannot redress injustices in this world. We would all like to see Ukraine free and independent of people like Putin, but this is not in the cards. Most Americans are decent folk, and they would love to live in a world without dictators such as Putin. But we do not live in such a world, nor are we likely to this side of Heaven. 

And this is why involving oneself emotionally in the conflicts of other nations is a bad way for Americans, and Catholics in particular, to follow what is going on in Ukraine. The stakes for Ukrainians and Russians in this are existential; for Americans sitting behind computers, they are a luxury item to be indulged in, to signal one’s “virtue” by condemning the villain and praising the plucky underdog. Catholics should, by all means, aid the Ukrainian people in this crisis in whatever way they can, of course. But as to how they should view this terrible conflict, let me end with the words of a wise statesman, who advised his people to:

Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all…inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. 

Those are the words of George Washington, from his farewell address. While praying for an end to the conflict, we would do well to keep them in mind (and even better, practice them) when we approach events in the distant reaches of the world with which we are little, or not at all, familiar.

  • Darrick Taylor

    Darrick Taylor teaches history at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas.

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