Sacrifice and Responsibility

Ukraine in Focus

Ukrainians continue to demonstrate their readiness to sacrifice in the defense of their country, but they also have an acute sense that they should not have to bear this burden. 

"Looking at the courage, unity, support and the heroics of our troops, 90% of Ukrainians believe Ukraine will win. The question is the price. …[T]he loss of all the lives feels different. These are losses that could and should have been prevented. They are something neither we nor the outside world should get used to," writes Nataliya Gumenyuk for the Guardian

Responsibility for this preventable loss of life lies at least in part at the feet of those now loudly voicing their solidarity with Ukraine. Mykola Riabchuk writes for Die Zeit (in German) of the decades-long "fatal blindness of the West," allowing Moscow to “set the grand narrative, and with it a discourse in which simple facts are obscured and twisted.” Andrii Portnov offers a penetrating analysis of discourse about Ukraine, especially in the German-speaking world, for NZZ (in German). He observes that this discourse, fixated on internal divisions and suspicions of nationalism, not only overlooks the vibrant pluralism that animates Ukrainian society but blinds people to the reality of Russian aggression towards Ukraine. And in an interview with FAZ (in German), Yuri Andrukhovych says of the Russian threat, “This development was clear to see. It amazed me over the years how little attention was paid to it. Practically no one took Ukraine’s difficult position seriously. I had the experience of people saying, oh, sure, he’s just a writer, these are just his fantasies.” 

Ukrainians have experienced the deadly consequences of Moscow’s grand narrative first-hand for years, since the annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas in 2014. They are experts in parsing Putin’s language and rhetoric, a vital element in understanding the nature and end goals of Russian aggression towards Ukraine. The perversion of the concepts of genocide, fascism, and “denazification” by Putin himself and Russian propaganda more generally, and the ways in which this paves the ground for atrocities, is laid out by Timothy Snyder (on IWM’s Ukraine in Focus blog, originally on his Substack), Sławomir Sierakowski for Project Syndicate, and Peter Pomerantsev for Time

Now that the world can no longer ignore Putin’s designs on Ukraine and the criminal means the Russian regime is willing to employ to achieve them, there is a responsibility to find some way to hold the aggressors to account. In the Financial Times, Philippe Sands calls for the creation of an international criminal tribunal to investigate the crime of aggression against Ukraine. "There can be no appeasing of Putin. Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea and now all of Ukraine. On it goes. Let him reap what he has sowed, including the legacy of Nuremberg. Investigate him personally for this most terrible of crimes." 

There is also a chance to formally recognize that Ukraine belongs to Europe: Timothy Garton Ash calls in the Guardian for EU leaders to immediately accept Ukraine as a candidate for EU membership. "Unless the EU makes this courageous move, the message from west European capitals to besieged Europeans in Kyiv and Kharkiv is, in effect, ‘thank you for the way your heroic struggle is helping us create a more united, stronger Europe, but there’s no place in it for you.’ In this moment of existential challenge, Europe can do better than that."  

Europe can do better than that – and Europe can be made better by recalling the values that animated the European project, values that Ukrainians are fighting to uphold. As Volodymyr Yermolenko describes in the Economist, today’s Ukraine is “a story of the strength of the European idea— which today’s Europe sometimes shies away from. It is a story of European humanism, rooted in Ancient Greek philosophy, through Roman republicanism, to Italian city-republics, the ideas of the Enlightenment and of anti-Nazi resistance. Through their resistance to Mr Putin’s empire, Ukrainians are showing that this humanist tradition has the strength, energy and courage to defend itself.” 

Indeed, as Gumenyuk writes in a moving consideration of democracy and war for the Washington Post, “Right now, here in Ukraine, we’re seeing democracy in action — in the streets and on the battlefields. Until recently, defending democracy meant voting, organizing, fighting corruption, building up civic institutions. Now it means something else. Ukrainians are fighting to save the people — in the most literal sense. And everyone is involved, from top to bottom.” These days, Ukrainian democracy is engaged in an existential battle to defend itself and all of us. Our responsibility is to acknowledge what is at stake, and act accordingly. 

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Read The reality of war has been a part of the Ukrainian experience for eight years now, since the Russian invasion of the Donbas, and Ukrainian culture has grappled profoundly and movingly with that reality. A digital version of an outstanding poetry collection, featuring Serhiy Zhadan, is available here.  

Listen Podcast appearances from the IWM community this week include two with Marci Shore: Background Briefing and How Do We Fix It?.  

Watch Philippe Sands joined other experts and Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba for a discussion hosted by Chatham House launching a declaration calling for a criminal tribunal to try those responsible for Russian aggression in Ukraine.