Ukraine and the Western Conscience

Various voices on the American right – Tucker Carlson, Elbridge Colby, and others – have recently argued that risking war with Russia over its bullying of Ukraine is a bad idea.  They note that Ukraine is not vital to our security.  That the real threat to our nation is China, not Russia.

We have a record of involving ourselves in wars that drag on fruitlessly, they argue.  We squander our influence by acting unrealistically on the world stage when we’re divided and weak.  And last year’s bungled Afghanistan exit proved our ineptitude and weakness, to anyone paying attention.

These views do have some merit.  We no longer live in a unipolar world.

The kind of global dominance achieved by the United States in the 1990s no longer exists.  James Kurth, the distinguished political scholar, explains why in The American Way of Empire. After the U.S. victory in the Cold War, Kurth says,  “the globalist economic elites of the United States,” working through both the Democratic and Republican parties, violated wise strategic principles in pursuit of a new and ambitious (and self-serving) world order.  Their “pride, greed and fantasies – indeed hubris” resulted in a “reckless multiplication of enemies” at home and abroad, the decline of real American power, and the dangerous world we have today.

All of which may be true.  But none of which addresses the moral dimension of Ukraine’s history and its current crisis.

In a January 22 public statement, the Ukrainian Catholic bishops of the United States noted that:

After eight years of war initiated by Russia, Ukraine has lost a substantial part of its territory. 14,000 people, including children, have been killed, 1.5 million have been internally displaced, several hundred thousand agonize near the frontline, and millions suffer from post-traumatic stress. There are 400,000 traumatized Ukrainian veterans of the Russian war and thousands who have lost their loved-ones.

How long will this continue? How many more shattered families, destitute widows and orphans, grieving parents and grandparents? How many more destroyed churches, mosques, and synagogues, schools and hospitals. . . ?

The war in Ukraine is real. It kills, maims, and destroys daily. An escalated Russian invasion will generate additional millions of refugees, more dead and injured, more tears and pain.

*

In a January 23 private email (used here with his permission), Archbishop Borys Gudziak, Philadelphia’s Ukrainian Catholic archeparch, added that:

The recent case for an American disengagement from Ukraine, written by an otherwise clear-headed U.S. columnist, is disappointing because it’s both shortsighted and morally empty.  For too many people, the historical consequences of appeasing Hitler remain a lesson not learned.  This amnesia emerges tellingly in the case of Western attitudes toward Vladimir Putin.

There were no Nuremberg Trials for communism; no punishment for the perpetrators of Soviet crimes against humanity; no justice for the tens of millions of Soviet-era victims in Ukraine and elsewhere.  The absence in the Western world, especially in its elites, of a moral consensus – a philosophical and political condemnation of the brutal depravity of the Soviet legacy – has led to our current, fruitless policies toward Russia.  For the president of Russia, the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.  Mr. Putin insists that it needs to be rebuilt.  Yet, such a prospect does not seem to generate real revulsion in the minds of many columnists, or the West in general.  There’s little moral outrage, hence little incentive for policies that would effectively address the mutations of post-Soviet Russian imperialism.  The assumption seems to be that we can be isolationist, and somehow the ugly consequences won’t reach us.

Today in the West, any hint, in any form, of Nazi-like rhetoric or revival is cut off ruthlessly in the bud – and rightly so.  The re-emergence of a Russian Soviet-style colonial appetite should be as unspeakable as any notion of a Nazi one.

The prospect of a wider war in Ukraine may be feared as something “imminent” and urgently to be avoided here in the West.  No one wants such a conflict.  But in Ukraine itself, the war is happening right now.  As already noted, it’s been ongoing in one form or another – with families receiving the bodies of husbands, fathers and sons killed in action – for eight years.  And yet, as the U.S. Ukrainian Catholic bishops stress, “[T]he people of Ukraine courageously endure.  As they stand with a gun to their head, they ask for our solidarity.”

**

So what can the American Catholic community do to help?  Pray, obviously.  Then, stay informed.  And finally, provide financial support to ease Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis.  Clean water, medicine, food, and clothing are all lacking among refugees and others near the frontline. (Donations can be made at ukrarcheparchy.us/donate.)

We Americans have always seen ourselves as the “good guys”;  flawed, yes, but well-meaning and at least trying to do the right thing in our dealings with each other and the world.  This hasn’t always been true.  And even when true, it’s led to some disastrously imprudent foreign interventions.  How the United States handles the coming weeks and months regarding Ukraine and Russian intimidation is, very wisely, in the hands of others.  But before those “others” decide how best to act, they should spend a few moments reflecting on the savage Stalinist persecution of Ukrainian Catholics that took place in the name of Marxist-Leninist “progress.”  And then they might profitably watch the 2019 feature film Mr. Jones. Millions died in the Holodomor, the deliberate, genocidal Soviet starvation campaign inflicted on Ukraine and its people in the 1930s, and captured brilliantly on screen in the story of Mr. Jones.

My point is simply this:  The idea that Ukrainians might forget or ignore the memory of Russian criminality in their country, for the sake of a dubious peace, is ludicrous.  The fact that the West has forgotten that memory, or chooses to forget it, is an obscenity.

 

Images:

* Praying for peace: Women light candles during a prayer service at a church in Kyiv, Ukraine. [CNS/David Mdzinarishvili, Reuters]

** A poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin is used as target practice along a trench on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near Zolote village, in the Lugansk region. [Photo: AFP]

You may also enjoy:

Brad Miner’s Love and Famine: a Review of “Bitter Harvest”

Leo Yankevich’s poem Holodomor, 1932-1933

Francis X. Maier

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the 2020-22 senior research associate at the Notre Dame Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.

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