While living in Kraków in the mid-1990s, a Polish academic whom I respected very much baffled me. He said that although he appreciated that I learned to speak Polish, I should have studied Russian. Upon hearing me say that the Cold War was over, and that interest in learning Russian had waned in the U.S., he soberly responded that Russia’s imperialistic tendencies would again wreak havoc in the region and have wider geopolitical repercussions. I suspect many Poles at the time agreed.
In his 2013 book Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, the Polish-born former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote that “it cannot be stressed enough that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” In 2014 Russia annexed Crimea, a violation of international law that incited sanctions from the European Union.
Today, almost every Pole (94%) sees Russia as “a major threat” and has “no confidence at all” in Vladimir Putin. None of this should come as a surprise. Poles have been victims of Russian imperialism and aggression for centuries. Recently the Polish ambassador to the U.S. Marek Magierowski stated the Polish government, as well as the Baltic States, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Romania and others on the “Eastern flank,” have been “vindicated” regarding their longstanding warnings about Russia’s “growing aggressiveness and neo-imperial ambitions.”
I begin this essay on the war in Ukraine with Polish perspectives for a reason. Many of my fellow citizens and colleagues in the academy in the U.S. do not grasp the reasons for the war and its monumental stakes. Central and Eastern Europe is often misunderstood, ignored, or deemed “second class” or “uncivilized territory” by “Western” intellectuals and policymakers, as British historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote years ago. Only 34% of Americans can locate Ukraine on a map. Yet, some of my compatriots opine that the Ukrainians should lay down their arms and accept whatever “peace” Russia dictates, though this seems to be more popular among public intellectuals like Noam Chomsky than the general U.S. population. These calls have prompted even Ukrainian anarchists and socialists who dislike the Ukrainian government to demand that Western intellectuals see them as “subjects with desires that should be respected.” Their primary desire is to preserve Ukraine’s existence.
My own perspective is deeply shaped by the extensive time I have spent in Poland and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe. My ties are both academic and personal, as half of my family lives in Poland. Intellectual debates about the war in Ukraine divorced from the violent history of oppression in Central and Eastern Europe frustrate me. Let me state my view as clearly as possible: this war is about annihilating a country and its people and continuing Russian expansionism if left unchecked. Moreover, there is only one way to prevent these calamities from happening: the Ukrainians must defeat Vladimir Putin and his forces, which will require tough sanctions, courageous nonviolent resistance, and continued economic and military assistance from NATO and EU countries.
Before I make this case, I want to address a criticism that I have heard of people who hold views like mine about the war in Ukraine. I am not “hawkish” or a “warmonger.” I argued against going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I am critical of U.S. imperialism and neoliberal capitalism, but I believe that two things can be true at the same time: the U.S. has often been on the wrong side of history, but can and has also assisted subjugated nations defeat hegemonic foes. For example, I deplore what Ronald Reagan did to the labor movement in the United States, but I have come to acknowledge – with insight from my friends in Poland and Czech Republic – the positive role he played in helping their countries topple communist regimes. The U.S. and Western European nations bear some responsibility for the genocide in Rwanda and Srebrenica, but the US-led NATO intervention in 1995 prevented further slaughter of Bosnians. NATO also ended Milosevic’s brutal ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999.
Unfortunately, some progressive friends and colleagues seem unable to acknowledge the depth of the evil Russia has perpetrated in Ukraine because they do not want to be seen as hypocritical apologists for U.S. militarism. Americans must condemn the evils of our own past but we must also remember Russian atrocities like the Holodomor genocide, the Katyń genocide, war crimes in Syria, Georgia, and Ukraine. Russia’s deliberate strategy to terrorize and destroy civilian lives in Ukraine today is a tactic used in Syria.
I am a Christian theologian who abhors war and believes that all other reasonable means should be exhausted before the use of lethal force is undertaken. At the same time, I am convinced that there are times – albeit rare – when the evil is so great that no measure other than force will prevent grave atrocities on a massive scale. Christians must believe in the power of grace and the Holy Spirit to redeem everyone. In the case of Ukraine, we can hope and pray that Russia will change its ways and negotiate a just peace, even if it is highly unlikely. And we should lionize and support the brave Russians who protest against the war, even as most Russians express support for it. However, we cannot ignore the human propensity to do evil, sometimes on a massive scale, which Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Reinhold Niebuhr, and other Christian theologians lucidly recognized. To do so is to deny history.
As Saint Augustine contended, the “iniquity of the opposing side” sometimes tragically requires the duty to wage war against them (City of God, XIX.7.929). Moreover, as David DeCosse and Jackie Turvey Tait demonstrate in their contributions to this symposium, the modern popes including St. John Paul II and Francis have acknowledged a nation’s right to use force in self-defense when facing grave threats to its existence – even if Pope Francis has sown some confusion on the matter as Rubén Rosario Rodríguez rightly maintains. According to a Ukrainian delegation from the Ukrainian Catholic University received by the Pope on June 8, Pope Francis told them that a nation has a “right to self-defense, otherwise it would be like committing suicide.” In addition, DeCosse, Rosario Rodríguez, and Ramón Luzárraga have cogently argued in this symposium that the war in Ukraine meets the criteria of a just war.
A Twenty-First Century Fight for the Right of Nations to Exist
In the present fateful moment, I am reminded of these stirring words from Pope John Paul II:
“Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, it should be stressed that it was also of key importance for Europe of the second half of the 20th century. As the peak act of the fight for the independence of Poland, it was to some extent the beginning of the formation of independent states in Central and Eastern Europe. […] If Europe is to become a «homeland of homelands», it is necessary that the right of the nations that have made their voices heard in this process be respected by the whole European community. Without a guarantee of equal rights of all nation states that emerge in Europe, there can be no peaceful coexistence on our continent.”
The same should be said today about the war in Ukraine. The valiant Ukrainian people, led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, are fighting for their right to exist, and for a Europe free of Russian aggression. From the war’s outset, the renowned historian of Eastern Europe Timothy Snyder has been warning of Russia’s genocidal intent. He points out that already ten years ago Putin deemed “an enemy” anyone who did not affirm “Ukrainians were part of Russian civilization.” Ukraine must be purged of such people through what Putin calls “denazification.” According to Snyder, this intention to destroy Ukrainians who do not see themselves as Russian has been elaborated in a “genocide handbook,” which was published by the Russian Press Agency RIA Novosti in April 2022.
Undergirding this goal of annihilation is a distorted notion of history that holds “Ukraine cannot be a real country, and everyone involved and their descendants must be Russians or a brotherly nation to Russians.” The claim that Ukraine is a “fake nation” that should not exist has been used in the Russian media and by numerous Russian leaders. “To assert that there is no nation and no state is to claim the right to destroy them,” as Snyder maintains.
Snyder has been sounding the alarm about Putin for years. In a 2018 article he warned of Putin’s enchantment with the Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin, who “provided a metaphysical and moral justification for political totalitarianism, which he expressed in practical outlines for a fascist state. Today, his ideas have been revived and celebrated by Vladimir Putin.” In his 2019 book The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America Snyder notes that in the first half of the twentieth century, “Ilyin wrote of ‘Ukrainians’ in quotation marks, because he denied their separate existence beyond the Russian organism. To speak of Ukraine was to speak of a mortal enemy of Russia. Ilyin took for granted that a post-Soviet Russia would include Ukraine” (23). In my judgment, anyone who wants to better understand the war in Ukraine should read Snyder’s work. For those without the time to read his books, some of his most important insights can be gleaned from this interview, this podcast and his recent essay “The War in Ukraine is a Colonial War.”
As former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power documents in her book Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, the kind of dehumanizing language that Putin uses about Ukrainians typically happens before and during genocide. In response to President Biden naming the ongoing slaughter in Ukraine genocide, Power said he was “speaking to what we all see with our own eyes… Intentionally trying to wipe out Ukrainians, because they are Ukrainians.” She also stated that “the facts are as plain as day” and that the Russian atrocities have shocked her in spite of her decades of research on the subject.
The Polish legal expert Dariusz Sielicki, who tried war criminals for genocide as an international judge of the Supreme Court of Kosovo, has also determined that genocide is taking place in Ukraine. He has stated the “scale of the killing of civilians in Bucha,” which aimed to “destroy the population, or a portion of the population because of their membership in an ethnic, national group” fits the definition of genocide. He refers to the decisions of international tribunals in other cases, such as Srebrenica, and concludes that genocide is occurring.
While a formal, legal determination of genocide has yet to be made in the case at the Hague, more than a dozen world leaders have denounced the genocide in Ukraine. The New Lines Institute and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights recently produced a chilling report, which describes Russia’s desire to terrorize and destroy a significant portion of the Ukrainian population through deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure, a systemic pattern of rape and sexual violence, and forced deportations, including approximately 180,000 children. The report concludes:
“Russia bears State responsibility for (a) direct and public incitement to commit genocide and (b) a pattern of atrocities from which an inference of intent to destroy the Ukrainian national group in part can be drawn, in breach of Art. III(c) and Art. II. In addition, the report conclusively establishes the existence of a serious risk of genocide, triggering the legal duty of all States to prevent genocide under Art. I of the Genocide Convention.”
As legal scholars have written, whether or when international law requires military intervention in the face of genocide or other war crimes is unclear. But as this report contends, the International Court of Justice stipulated in the case of Bosnia v. Serbia that the 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention requires use of “all means reasonably available to them” by the 152 nations that ratified or acceded to it to prevent or halt genocide (38).
The desire to destroy the Ukrainians demonstrates the clear need for members of NATO to assist Ukraine in its fight for survival, rather than acknowledging blame for the war as some U.S. based realists, libertarians, progressives, and Christian theologians erroneously assert. Even Pope Francis joined this chorus, “referring to NATO barking at Russia’s gate,” a claim that earned him criticism in Poland among Catholic theologians, including Rev. Prof. Jan Słomka.
For starters, the assertion that U.S. officials vowed not to expand NATO is “highly contested,” as pointed out by three Ukrainian scholars in an open letter to Chomsky. According to Mark Kramer, director of the Cold War Studies project at Harvard, “declassified materials show unmistakably that no such pledge was made” (55). Moreover, Russia directly violated the 1994 Budapest memorandum, which required Ukraine to give up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for a commitment by the United States, Russia and Great Britain to respect and protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. The U.S. pledged to protect Ukraine should Russia breach its promise. In addition, NATO repeatedly attempted partnerships with Russia, including the 2002 NATO-Russia Council, which was suspended after the invasion of Crimea.
Above all, the nations of Central and Eastern Europe have a right to join an alliance that they believe will protect their sovereignty. As Hanna Suchocka, Poland’s Prime Minister in 1993 and Ambassador to the Holy See from 2002-2013 declared, Poland wished to join the E.U. and NATO because of their “shared values and interests.” Like Pius XII, Pope John Paul II himself spoke positively of NATO. He met with members of the NATO Defence College, telling them: “As agents of security and freedom on behalf of your individual nations, you can make a genuine contribution to the establishment of peace. By doing so you will perform a work of supreme love for mankind.”
Bemoaning NATO’s existence or its Eastward expansion – as if the people of Central and Eastern Europe are less worthy of freedom than those in France, Germany, Sweden, or Finland – ignores and repeats the betrayal of Yalta (which as I learned looms large in Polish consciousness). Our only regret should be that the Ukrainians have been left out of the alliance, with tragic consequences, whereas neighboring countries such as Poland, the Baltics, and now Finland and Sweden, have joined.
Ukraine and Beyond
As my colleague historian Lynne Hartnett pointed out, Putin asserted Russia’s right to “privileged influence” over “post-Soviet” states when he became president in 1999. He is trying “to reclaim his nation’s stature as an imperial power.” Fiona Hill, a former U.S. National Security Council specialist considered to be one of the foremost experts on Putin, wrote in the same vein in her book about him. In short, Vladimir Putin “is a fighter and he will fight dirty if that’s what it takes to win. He won’t give up in Ukraine or elsewhere in Russia’s neighborhood” (386). According to Hill, Putin has made clear he wants a “New Yalta” and that Russia’s sphere of influence should include “all the space in Europe and Eurasia that once fell within the boundaries of the Russian Empire and the USSR” (393). The long-time analyst of Eastern European affairs Anne Applebaum contends Putin must be defeated because “victory in Crimea did not satisfy the Kremlin. Victory in Kherson will not satisfy the Kremlin either.”
The well-known Polish Solidarność dissident Adam Michnik echoes these concerns, noting the failure to intervene against Russian aggression in Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Crimea has emboldened Putin and made him “more dangerous than his predecessors.” Former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed the same view. He also argued for sending NATO armaments to Ukraine because if Ukraine loses NATO will have to go to war with Russia. Russia, he said, “won’t stop in Ukraine.” General Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO who headed the military intervention in Kosovo, agrees: “Putin’s objectives are not limited to Ukraine.” Officials in Bosnia, Moldova, Poland, and the Baltic countries have all expressed concerns about possible Russian invasions.
Are weapons the only answer to Russia’s threat to Ukraine and beyond? As I said earlier, well-targeted sanctions and Ukrainian nonviolent resistance are part of the long-term solution. But sanctions alone will not prevent genocide or end the war. Contrary to what some have argued, nonviolent resistance alone will not stop the Russian juggernaut. Even some proponents of nonviolence resistance have acknowledged as much.
I am aware of the research by scholars like Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan heralding successful nonviolent civil resistance. I have a deep appreciation for the nonviolent revolutions in Eastern Europe of the 1990’s. I wrote a book about the inspiring Solidarność movement. But that was a conflict primarily between Poles, who shared a common language, culture and love of their homeland and ultimately did not want to shed blood on Polish soil yet again. Nonviolence worked there because of a confluence of social, economic, and political circumstances. As scholar of civil resistance Sir Adam Roberts has noted, if we examine what happened “undogmatically,” nonviolence was a “central factor” in toppling communism Central and Eastern Europe along with others, including “defense preparations of NATO” (34). Regarding Ukraine, Christian ethicist David Gushee gets it right: “just peacemaking opportunities matters only if there are two sides willing to make a just peace. Despite occasional nice noises from the Russian side about peace, their bombs keep falling on Ukraine’s surviving families.” The Poles, Czechs, etc. did not have to contend with the airstrikes against civilians and carpet bombing that Putin is utilizing to annihilate Ukraine and achieve his imperialistic agenda.
Putin is not Gorbachev. As the leaders of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Kyiv wrote, “Russia is headed by a paranoid man” who simply cannot accept that Ukraine “is not a controlled territory with a puppet government, but a free country of free people, which is an integral part of European civilization.” In addition to humanitarian assistance, they have therefore pleaded for military shipments to Ukraine’s army and a no fly-zone over the Ukrainian sky, a step NATO nations have deemed too dangerous.
The United States and its allies must not treat the threat of nuclear war cavalierly, but simultaneously not be paralyzed as Hill maintains. They should prepare for all scenarios while continuing to find ways to help Ukraine win this war without triggering World War III, a task requiring the most competent and conscientious experts. Given the posture of Putin and the nature of his objectives, we should admit this must entail military assistance – unless once again we are willing to make a mockery of “Never Again” and to look the Ukrainians in the eyes and tell them their battle is not just. We can also believe, together with Michnik and others, that in the long run “Russia is not doomed for Brezhnev or Putin.” The Russian people will one day be free, but the Ukrainians cannot afford to wait.
 See Samantha Power, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 329-476.
 Joanna A. Gorska, Dealing with a Juggernaut: Analyzing Poland’s Policy Towards Russia, 1989-2009 (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2010), 64.