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"The Russian War on Ukraine Is One of the Proving Grounds of Principle in Our Time"

Remarks from Kiev

Sergei Supinky/AFP/Getty Images

Below are Leon Wieseltier’s opening remarks at the Ukraine: Thinking Together conference in Kiev, given on May 17.  We will be publishing other contributions from the conference in the coming days.

This gathering in Kiev is the result of a casual remark. Last March, as I watched the progress of Putin’s imperialism beyond his borders and fascism within his borders, I ruefully remarked to Frank Foer that the moment reminded me of what I used to call my Congress for Cultural Freedom-envy—my somewhat facile but nonetheless sincere regret at having been born too late to participate in the struggle of Western intellectuals, some of whom became my teachers and my heroes, against the Stalinist assault on democracy in Europe. And all of a sudden, pondering the Russian aggression in Crimea, and the Russian campaign of destabilization in Ukraine, I realized that I had exaggerated my belatedness. I was not born too late at all. Our time is not lacking for fundamental historical challenges and the obligation to choose sides. Passivity—even sympathetic passivity—in the face of a war on freedom is as inadequate now as it was then. So I exclaimed to my friend, “But this is 1950!” As our predecessors went to Berlin, so we would go to Kiev. We contacted our comrade Timothy Snyder, whose eloquence about Ukraine has been fully the equal of his scholarship, and I proposed this event. Tim kindled instantly to the idea, and, with his extraordinary colleagues in Vienna and Kiev, we made a plan. And here we are.

All historical analogies are imperfect, but they are not for that reason false. The analogy between 2014 and 1950 is in some ways imprecise and hyperbolic: Putin is not Stalin, for example. But Putin is bad enough. Putin is very bad. It is not only evil in its worst form that we must resist. The discontinuities of recent histories must not blind us to the continuities. It is also the case—here is another discontinuity—that the United States and its European allies are not inclined now toward a geopolitical struggle that would in any way resemble the Cold War, which many Westerners regard as a dark and cautionary tale. I am not one of those Westerners: Unlike many American liberals, among whom I otherwise count myself, I regard the Cold War as a mottled tale of glory, because it ended in the defeat and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, which was indeed (for American liberals this is a heretical prooftext) what Ronald Reagan said it was—an evil empire. Some of us have been agitating back home for a more powerful Western response to Putin’s depredations in Ukraine; others among us have been more patient with the pace and the modulation of the American and European policy. But the discussion of policy must be preceded by a discussion of principle. The Russian war on Ukraine is one of the proving grounds of principle in our time. The Maidan is one of the primary sites of the modern struggle for democracy. History sometimes provides hours and circumstances that expose, and test, one’s beliefs, and the beliefs of the politics and the culture of one’s society. The crisis in Ukraine is such an hour and such a circumstance. Here in Kiev you are not only clarifying yourselves; you are also clarifying us. 

The Ukrainian desire to affiliate with the West, its unintimidated preference for Europe over Russia, is not merely a strategic and economic choice; it is also a moral choice, a philosophical choice, a societal decision about ideals, a defiance of power in the name of justice, a stirring aspiration to build a society and a state that is representative of some values and not others. We have come to Kiev because we accept what you accept and we reject what you reject—because we share the principles that you have elected to represent. We have come to say that we admire your revolution for those principles—not because they are ours but because they are right; because they are justified by reason and by decency; because they are, conceptually if not yet historically, universal. In America and in Europe, it no longer requires courage to champion these principles—the spectacle of our complacencies is plain for all to see; and so we are genuinely humbled by your courage, by your ethical obduracy, by your spiritual preparedness for the dangers and the obstacles and the cruelties that await you along your road to democracy.    

So what are these principles? 

There is, first and foremost, the principle of liberty. Liberty is not a gift of great powers that can be granted or taken away, or a charity manufactured by foreign diplomats in Swiss hotels. It is a right—the right of individuals and nations to determine their own destinies and their own way of life. These rights are either axiomatic or they are meaningless. Political liberty is premised on a conception of human dignity and human agency that dictators dread and set out to destroy. And there are many ways to destroy it: in recent weeks one reads more and more in the Western press about the “Finlandization” of Ukraine as a possible solution to the crisis, as if “Finlandization” is a compromise among reasonable people and not a soft form of imperial domination. One reads also about the “federalization” of Ukraine as another possible solution. The important point, the point that has been heroically proclaimed in the Maidan, is that whether Ukraine should be federalized, or in any other way reformed in its political arrangements, is for nobody but Ukrainians themselves to decide. It is because you are free, already free, free in your sense of yourselves and in your sense of your country, free as a matter of prior right and (in Jefferson’s precious term) of inalienable right, that Putin is attacking you. He fears your freedom.

Along with the principle of liberty, there is the principle of truth. The Russian campaign against Ukraine has been waged not only by means of “green men” and “people’s republics” and covert operations and diplomatic subterfuge, it has been waged also by means of lies—big lies, spectacular lies, the kind of lies that Orwell identified as one of the principal instruments of modern tyranny. The Russian propaganda machine is now fully the equal of the Soviet propaganda machine, which no doubt Putin remembers well and even fondly; except that Soviet propaganda was not proliferated digitally. A new technology is now available to an old mendacity. Putin’s war against you is a war against the proper description of reality.  That is how a fascist regime has the temerity to call you fascists. He is not deluding you, of course; he cannot rob you of what you know. But he is deluding his own people, and the deliberate and systematic distortion of the Russian understanding of reality has become one of the chief strategies of his authoritarianism. He also appears to be deluding significant portions of certain Western European publics. The Ukrainian understanding of reality, by contrast, has become a standpoint for resistance—an epistemological barricade, if you will—against the politics of deception and the manipulation of truth by power.             

Along with the principles of liberty and truth, there is the principle of pluralism. The crisis in the Ukraine is testing the proposition that people who speak different languages can live together in a single polity. That proposition is one of the great accomplishments of modern liberalism. Putin repudiates it. He shrinks nationalism into tribalism. His view, in the name of which he claims territory and steals territory, is that people who speak different languages cannot live together and should not live together; that sameness is preferable to difference, and homogeneity to diversity; that languages, and therefore cultures, are monolithic and insular and exclusive, and that this insularity and exclusiveness should be expressed in the organization of societies and states, so that like will live only with like and like will be governed only by like; that intolerance and conflict are legitimate corollaries of cultural pride; that the mingling of languages and cultures is not enriching to an individual and a nation but depleting, not a refreshment of identity but a threat to its purity. But you know better; and with you, we know better. 

In politics, beware of purity: the ideal of purity is always antithetical to the ideal of democracy. And beware it also in culture, where it is a dangerous illusion: there are no pure cultures, and there are no languages in which both good and evil cannot be expressed and enacted. There is no language that cannot, with some degree of accuracy, be understood in translation: many things are lost in translation, but never the possibility of human communication, human understanding, human cooperation. Differences should be respected, not sanctified. We are not all imprisoned in our particularisms, unless we choose to make them into prisons. The task for politics is to make differences go together without making them the same; to achieve not uniformity, but harmony.  

Along with the principles of liberty, truth, and pluralism, there is the principle of the moral accountability of governments and states. In a famous statement in 1977, whose typescript happens to be housed with our friends at the Institut fur die Wissenschaft vom Menschen, Jan Patocka declared that “the idea of human rights is nothing other than the conviction that even states, even society as a whole, are subject to the sovereignty of moral sentiments: that they recognize something unconditional that is higher than they are, something that is binding even on them, sacred, inviolable, and that in their power to establish and maintain a rule of law they seek to express this recognition.” Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, and the jingoism that he has embraced to explain it, constitutes a denial of the moral accountability of which Patocka wrote— an outrageous doctrine of Russian exceptionalism, according to which the moral norms that constrain states in their relations with their citizens and their neighbors – the constraints that are at the heart of a liberal world order—do not apply to the Russian state, which answers only to itself and its traditions. For this reason, Putin’s war against Ukrainian democracy is of a piece with his war against Russian democracy: they are manifestations of the same political depravity. 

And as we affirm the moral dimension of politics, we must affirm also the moral dimension of geopolitics—the insufficiency of “realism” and economicism for the analysis of history and for the design of historical action. Democratic countries have a responsibility toward other democratic countries, and toward democratizing countries. This mutuality may be expressed in ordinary times in alliance systems and in extraordinary times in emergency assistance—I mean consequential emergency assistance. Our values, moreover, are also strategic assets, since in the long run the sentiments of populations matter more than the sentiments of regimes, and peoples do not soon forget the support they receive in their quest for freedom. Conscience must have a place in foreign policy. I wish I could report to you that the democratic countries of the West feel this mutuality, this responsibility, intensely right now; my own country certainly does not. But the historical delinquency that goes by the name of “retrenchment” in America and “globalization” in Europe means only that we have more work to do, more minds to persuade, more hearts to move.

So these are our principles, the convictions that compelled us to journey to Kiev. But there is one more reason that we are here. It is a less abstract and intellectual consideration: We do not want you to feel abandoned and we do not want you to feel alone. It would be too sentimental for me to suggest that your spirit is all you need; you need also money and weaponry. But without your spirit, no amount of money and no amount of weaponry will beat back your enemy. For the Western powers, as I say, this is not a golden age of internationalism, and it is not hard for us to imagine your disappointment in, and even your contempt for, the response of our countries to the crisis in your country. Throughout the world, dictators and warlords and terrorists are acting without impediment and without fear of impediment. Sometimes they enjoy the support of various authoritarian states. The societies that are the victims of these villains, by contrast, are finding themselves left increasingly to their own devices. They look for intervention but intervention does not come. This unjust asymmetry was foreseen a long time ago by John Stuart Mill. “The doctrine of non-intervention,” he wrote, “to be a legitimate principle of morality, must be accepted by all governments. The despots must consent to be bound by it as well as the free States. Unless they do, the profession of it by free countries comes but to this miserable issue, that the wrong side may help the wrong, but the right must not help the right.” As you watch the wrong help the wrong and the right not help the right, the world must feel friendless to you. So we have come to say to you: we are your friends. 

We intend this gathering to be an act of intervention—an intervention of the spirit. We bring not meals ready to eat but words ready to be heard and ideas ready to be pondered. In the coming days we will have much to say to each other and much to learn from each other. Thank you for welcoming us to the Maidan. It is genuinely an honor to be here.