History Brought Us Here
But Ukraine's heroism reminds us the future belongs to the free.
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by Michael Ignatieff
As the invasion of Ukraine enters its third week, a bloody denouement in Kyiv looms ahead. Even a nuclear war has entered the domain of the possible. To get our bearings, to figure out what to do, we need to understand how we got to this point. As Isaiah Berlin liked to say, we need to be able to see the pattern in the carpet.
This war did not begin in 2022. It began in 2007, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Munich Security Conference, refusing to accept the post-1989 settlement in Europe. This was followed by his invasion of Georgia in 2008 and his occupation of Crimea and the Donbas in 2014. We failed to see the pattern then. We must see the pattern now.
To understand why Kyiv is under attack today, we need to go back to Budapest in 1956, when a national uprising was defeated by Soviet tanks. Then in 1968, another movement for national freedom ended when Soviet tanks entered Prague. After that came Warsaw in 1981, when a people who had pioneered the first free trade union in Eastern Europe were locked down under martial law. The tanks were Polish, but the orders to deploy them came from Moscow.
This story of four Eastern European capitals, all under attack from Russia, over the past 70 years makes nonsense of the claim that NATO expansion eastward caused this crisis. After this history, Eastern Europeans understood that if they didn’t have a NATO security guarantee, they couldn’t keep their democracy. The West didn’t impose NATO upon Eastern Europeans: they demanded it and we would have been derelict not to have provided it.
Eastern Europeans have always understood that an authoritarian Russia, whoever rules it, has never tolerated a free state on its borders. Mr. Putin’s brutality has a pedigree. It mirrors the brutality of the czars toward the Poles in the 19th century and the brutality of Joseph Stalin toward his empire’s national minorities. Like his predecessors, Mr. Putin crushes his foes at home and abroad. Blaming it all on his demonic, even demented, personality misses the deep historical continuity in the use of Russian power within and beyond its frontiers. Equally, from the Decembrists of 1825 onwards, there have been courageous Russians willing to risk banishment and imprisonment to denounce oppression. Their courage reminds us that our conflict is not with the Russian people but with their regime.
The deepest root of the Ukrainian catastrophe is the tragic failure of Russia to take a democratic path. The first missed opportunity was after 1905, when leaders like Sergei Witte and Pyotr Stolypin tried to save the czarist autocracy by reforming it. Other figures—like Vladimir Nabokov’s father, and my own grandfather, Pavel Ignatieff, who served in the upper reaches of the czarist regime—wanted more than a reformed autocracy. They passionately believed that Russia could become a parliamentary democracy on the British model. That hope died with the end of the First World War and Vladimir Lenin’s seizure of power. Seventy years of tyranny followed. The next rendezvous with hope came after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Boris Yeltsin failed to lead a democratic transition and delivered the state over to a KGB operative named Vladimir Putin. If Ukraine is threatened with destruction in 2022, it is because of the democratic opportunity that Russia missed between 1991 and 1999.
In each of the previous cases where Russian tanks and armor intervened to crush free peoples, Hungarians, Czechs and Poles appealed to Western Europe and the United States to intervene. Their pleas went unheard. In each of these cases, Western governments decided not to risk nuclear war. Their restraint saved the peace but betrayed the peoples of Eastern Europe. This time is different. The sanctions package and the supply of weapons suggest that the West has decided it cannot afford betrayal this time.
The reason is simple. Mr. Putin’s war aim is destructive of the entire international order. It is nothing less than the destruction of the Ukrainian people as a self-governing nation and their forcible incorporation into the Russian lands. If he succeeds in conquering Ukraine, none of us in Europe will be safe.
That is why we are willing to take greater risks to stop him than the West ever entertained in 1956, 1968 and 1981. We should be clear about the risks. It is not out of the question that as Europe and NATO funnel in weapons to the Ukrainian fighters, Mr. Putin will be tempted to threaten military action against NATO itself, possibly Poland. Mr. Putin has already threatened to use nuclear weapons, and if his gamble fails, and he faces defeat and loss of power, we cannot exclude the possibility that he would use a tactical nuclear strike to hold on through sheer terror. Only a calm resolution to stick by our Article 5 guarantees to the NATO front-line countries will see off that threat.
Mr. Putin has gambled everything on the invasion. The question is not whether his gamble will fail, but only how long it will take before it does. When Nikita Khrushchev ordered the tanks into Budapest, it bought the Communist system a further 40 years in power, but in the end Hungary regained its freedom. Leonid Brezhnev’s tanks in Prague gave the Czech Communist regime 20 more years, but it was brought down by the people in 1989. Russian backing for Wojciech Jaruzelski in Poland gave the Communists barely a decade and his puppet regime was discarded. Sooner or later, and probably only after Mr. Putin falls, a Russian ruler will realize, as Mikhail Gorbachev did, that brute force cannot extinguish a people’s desire to be free. A people’s memory is a stubborn thing and what Ukraine has endured in the past week will never be forgotten or forgiven.
As for the “West,” we now are relearning that soft power is no substitute for hard power. Sanctions, as Bulgarian political commentator Ivan Krastev has reminded us, don’t stop tanks. The nuclear umbrella gave us the excuse to slash military expenditures on conventional weapons. Western democracies disarmed themselves, believing either that conflict was unthinkable, or that if it did come, nuclear weapons—and Article 5—would save the NATO front-line states. Mr. Putin didn’t make that mistake.
Every NATO state will have to follow the German lead in re-investing in their military. Canada will have to rearm, so that it has credible assets that can be deployed forward to the NATO front-line states and to its own northern frontiers with Russia. The Russians need to understand that if they stage a military incursion across the NATO border—Lenin’s bayonet probing—they will be met by force, and if that fails to hold them, they will be met with nuclear weapons, at first tactical, and then as necessary, strategic too.
This is what Article 5 guarantees, and we had better be in deadly earnest. We are back to a pre-1989 world and negotiations about a new security order in Europe are over. Vladimir Putin wanted to decide the future of Ukraine and Eastern Europe by renegotiating the 1989 settlement that ended the Soviet Empire. But who, now, is ever going to negotiate with Vladimir Putin? The talking is over. Ostracism is the order of the day.
After rethinking hard power, comes the rethinking of energy policy. An opportunity has opened up to wean Europe off dependency on Russian oil and gas, and the quicker the continent can supply itself with Liquefied natural gas from non-Russian sources the better. Accelerating the European energy transition, bringing online the next generation of smaller, safer nuclear reactors to provide base load, together with wind and solar for variable load, will break the infernal cycle in which Russian aggression drives up the price of oil and fills Mr. Putin’s coffers.
Another opportunity opens up as well, to pry apart the Russo-Chinese alliance. Our emphatic response to Mr. Putin already warns the Chinese leadership they risk the same if they attack Taiwan. The Taiwanese, like the Ukrainians, pose no threat to their neighbor, but like Mr. Putin, Mr. Xi denies their right to co-exist as a free people. Mr. Xi faces a momentous choice. He could tell Mr. Putin to stop, or he could decide to stay silent so that he can press ahead against Taiwan. If he attacks Taiwan, he needs to know he will face the same consequences as Mr. Putin: fierce resistance, and ostracism and expulsion from the community of states.
Finally—and authoritarians never seem to grasp this—world politics is never just a cold matter of geostrategic calculation. When a people’s freedom is at stake, the battle becomes deeply personal. It always surprises tyrants to discover that people can care about other people’s freedom as much as they care about their own. In 1992, when I first went to Ukraine, I met lots of young Canadian-Ukrainians who had shown up in Kyiv to help a young state dig itself out of the ruins left behind by 70 years of Soviet tyranny. One of them was a gutsy twenty-something named Chrystia Freeland, now Canada's deputy prime minister.
Later on that same visit, I drove south to a small village two hours south of Kyiv in the sugar beet fields. I was looking for a little Russian Orthodox church. When I found it, I discovered my family names on the gravestones. My great-grandfather and grandmother had land around the village and they lived and died there. It was their home. Kneeling by their graves in the crypt of that village church, I felt that Ukraine was where my story began, just as many descendants of Ukrainians feel their origin stories begin there too. Yes, my roots are Russian, but my people understood there was a place called Ukraine, with a language and a culture and a tradition of its own. So as their descendant, when I think about the Russian soldiers sent to occupy that little village, I know where I stand.
In the churchyard, I talked with villagers who told me their story: the forced starvation of the Holodomor, when they ate grass to survive; the days in 1941 when the Germans shot their Jewish neighbors and threw them into pits; the years when their church was shut by the Communist authorities and the crypt was turned into a butcher’s shop. As this litany went on, an old woman in a kerchief, sitting beside me, began to cry. I’ve never heard anything like it, an unceasing guttural howl from the depths of her body. It was as if one woman was expressing all the sorrow of her people’s history. It is the sound I hear as I write this, the sound that binds me to the sorrow of Ukrainians today.
This loyalty to places and people far away, this commitment to their liberty, is a fact tyrants always ignore. Across the world, there are people, far away from Ukraine, who feel their stories begin there, and who watch barbarism descend upon their land and feel an implacable determination to ensure that barbarism does not prevail. This determination, the conviction that comes out of the land, out of origin stories, is one of the realities that tyrants will never understand, and it creates a solidarity across the globe that will ensure Ukrainians live free again one day.
Michael Ignatieff is Rector Emeritus of Central European University in Vienna. His most recent book is On Consolation: Finding Solace in Hard Times.
A version of this article was printed in The Globe and Mail on March 5, 2022. It is reprinted with permission.