Here is the measure of the Ukrainians’ courage: they fight, not because they think they can win, but knowing they will probably lose.
Outnumbered and outgunned, they fight on, because the alternative is to accept what cannot be accepted: submission to Vladimir Putin’s brutal dictatorship, submergence in his reconstituted Russian Empire, and with it the extinction of all their hopes of a free and democratic future. They fight because, as so many Ukrainians have put it, “we have no choice”: because not to fight would mean the end, not only of their hopes, but over time, of any memory of having once hoped.
This is what has so electrified the world. At a time when democracy has been in retreat across the globe – when belief in democracy, even in the democracies, has been receding – the sight of an entire nation willing to fight and die for it, even against a superpower, comes as something of a jolt. And raises the disquieting thought: Would we be willing to do the same?
The Ukrainians had told us before the war they would fight. I confess, I had thought their bravado would melt away once the shooting started, that the people who told reporters they would take up arms against the invader would instead stand helplessly as the Russian tanks rolled in, overwhelmed by the speed and force of the assault. It would have been entirely understandable if they had.
But they have not. That they have not is in one sense deeply shaming, individually and collectively. Every injustice tolerated, every fight avoided, not out of principle but out of fear, looks more contemptible in the light of their example. But it is also inspiring. If ordinary Ukrainians could find the courage to stand up for what is right, even against such a monster as Mr. Putin, so, perhaps, could we all.
Indeed, the courage of the Ukrainians has galvanized the international community, which has been moved to act against Russia with a speed and unity that would have been thought impossible until now. In part that is a moral imperative: the longer the Ukrainians fight, the greater the suffering they endure in the cause, the graver the sin in abandoning them.
But it is also a matter of strategic calculation. It was harder to justify pouring resources into what must at first have seemed a futile cause, against such a powerful adversary. But the more that Ukraine has looked like it could, if not win, at least stave off defeat, the more other countries have been willing to invest in its defence, even at the risk of sticking their necks out a bit.
Just how far they will be willing to go will be governed by the grotesque etiquette of nuclear brinkmanship. It would seem acceptable, for instance, for other nations to provide aid and weaponry to Ukraine – acceptable, in the sense that Russia would not consider it an act of war, with all the risks that implies – but not to enter the fight themselves. To shoot directly at Russian soldiers, that is, is an invitation to Armageddon, but hand someone the gun to shoot at them and all’s fair.
A naval blockade, on the other hand, is traditionally considered an act of war. But a financial blockade, aimed at bringing the entire Russian economy to its knees, is not. Or at least, it appears it is not, so far. These things are decided not by appeal to objective principle or agreed-upon rules, but by what each side is prepared to accept, or rather by what each believes the other is prepared to accept. Or might be induced to accept.
Hence the somewhat surreal debate over whether NATO should enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine. Opponents are right to point out this implies a willingness to shoot down Russian aircraft if they do not comply, and risk setting off a spiral of retaliation, possibly all the way to nuclear. Not enforcing a no-fly zone, on the other hand, implies a willingness to let Ukraine be defeated, which at this point looks to mean mass slaughter.
That seems to be where this is headed. The implicit bargain appears to be this: Mr. Putin is prepared to tolerate other countries supplying weapons to Ukraine, so long as they are prepared to acquiesce in Ukraine’s destruction. Our hesitation to disturb this balance is entirely understandable, if the alternative is war with a nuclear power. We are doing what we can, we tell ourselves, without putting our own populations at undue risk.
Still, I can’t help noting: Ukraine is at war with a nuclear power. Its soldiers are shooting at Russian soldiers every day. Mr. Putin could order a nuclear strike on it at any moment. And yet they fight on. Because they have no choice? No. Because they have chosen.
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