Published February 28, 2022
Two sets of images, widely circulated online over the weekend of 26-27 February, graphically illustrate the difference between the forces now locked in combat – military combat and moral combat – in Ukraine.
In one set of images, lines of volunteers applying to join the Territorial Defense Forces of Ukraine surround recruiting stations in Ukrainian cities; in a parallel set of pictures, Russian police arrest Russian citizens peacefully protesting Putin’s war on Ukraine. In a second set of contrasting images, an almost jaunty Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is surrounded on a brief video by close aides, including the Ukrainian defense minister, and assures his people that their leaders remain in Kyiv with them, even as the Russian attacks on the Ukrainian capital intensify and some urge the Ukrainian government to evacuate; then there were was the video of Vladimir Putin meeting with his National Security Council, all kept at a safe distance from the autocrat as he publicly humiliates Sergey Naryshkin, the chief of his foreign intelligence service.
The Ukrainian volunteers and their stalwart political leaders bespeak one moral sensibility; the Russian police and their despot of a leader represent another. That striking difference has shaken the world out of its complacency and fear, although not yet sufficiently. And those who continue to defend Mr. Putin, by quietly forwarding Russian disinformation on Twitter or sending out inane tweets suggesting that the flaws of Western culture and politics preclude criticism of Putin’s tyranny, have defined themselves as moral cretins.
The military situation is constantly changing as the war continues into a fifth day, even as some things have become clearer. Putin and his military, perhaps believing their own agitprop that Ukraine is not a real country, expected a walkover once their invasion got underway in earnest; they have been severely disabused of that fantasy, as both the Ukrainian Army and the Territorial Defense Forces have exacted a serious toll in casualties and Russian materiel destroyed. The first ninety-six hours of the war have also confirmed Napoleon’s dictum that the moral is to the material in war as three-to-one: highly motivated Ukrainian forces have given unmotivated, confused, and poorly led Russian troops a serious beating.
Yet the material factor counts, and it was heartening to see European leaders agreeing on Sunday to pour military assistance into Ukraine – assistance that should be further amplified by the United States, especially in terms of anti-tank and anti-aircraft capability. Russian forces seemed to be regrouping on February 27, and there is little doubt that, resupplied and with more intense artillery support, they will resume their onslaught on Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other urban targets, with little or no discrimination between military and non-military targets.
In addition to bolstering Ukraine militarily, humanitarian assistance is also needed, immediately, to sustain the country in its hour of need and to aid the refugees created by, or fleeing from, the war. Initial appeals have meet with a generous response from American donors, and those looking to help out through Catholic channels can contribute to the Ukraine Solidarity Fund created over the weekend by the Knights of Columbus.
The Maidan Lives
If the first five days of the war have confounded certain widespread Western assumptions about Ukrainian military capability and will, they have also demonstrated that the 2013-2014 “Revolution of Dignity” centered on Kyiv’s Independence Square, the “Maidan,” has wrought a profound change in Ukraine’s civic culture. On the Maidan, it will be remembered, protesters displayed both Ukrainian and European Union flags, their message being that they wanted their country to be part of the free world, not Putin’s Russkiy mir (“Russian world”). In the eight years since the Maidan Revolution, commentary on Ukraine has often focused on the country’s continuing problems of corruption, many of which are the detritus of seventy years of Soviet rule, Soviet terror, and Soviet-sponsored genocide. No doubt those problems existed and exist. But parallel to those challenges and a raucous politics, inflamed (as everywhere) by social media and exacerbated by Russian disinformation, something else was going on: the growth of a more profound sense of national identity and the beginnings of a genuine civic culture, especially at the local level. Putin’s ongoing aggression in eastern Ukraine since 2014 unwittingly but surely accelerated that emerging national solidarity, which was strengthened in a previously unimaginable way by the full-scale invasion on February 24.
That Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has emerged as the embodiment of the spirit of the Maidan and the Revolution of Dignity has surprised many, perhaps even Yelensky himself. But he has certainly become the man of the hour and the face of Ukrainian determination and grit. His riposte to an American offer to help evacuate him from Kyiv to avoid assassination by Russian special forces – “I need ammunition, not a ride!” – was magnificent. So was his appeal to the leaders of the European Union on Sunday, when the typically cautious politicians of the EU took a phone call from him during their virtual summit. Before Zelensky’s call, they were hesitant. After his powerful plea to recognize that Ukraine was fighting for the European dream of a free world of free states living in harmony and solidarity, Euro-spines stiffened; massively enhanced military aid to Ukraine was promised; and more severe sanctions against Russia and its oligarchs were imposed.
Those sanctions should be strengthened even further, not least in response to Putin’s latest form of reckless bullying, putting his nuclear forces on alert. All of Russia, not just certain financial institutions, should be cut off from the SWIFT system of international financial exchange. Russian exports should be blocked, including oil and gas exports, which are the major drivers of the Russian economy and the major financial support of the Russian military. Comprehensive travel bans should be instigated against all Russian citizens, including a worldwide refusal of landing rights to Russian aircraft.
All of which would strengthen the hand of the Ukrainian negotiators who began to meet with Russian officials on the Ukraine/Belarus border on February 28. Because, as one international affairs analyst put it to me Sunday night, every day that Ukraine holds on increases its chances of victory exponentially.
The Churches and the War
February 27 weekend also saw stirring calls to solidarity within Ukraine and with Ukraine from two of Europe’s most impressive Catholic leaders, Major-Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and Archbishop Wojciech Polak of Gniezno, the primate of Poland.
First, a transcript of Major-Archbishop Shevchuk’s video address on Sunday, which he delivered with fortitude, grace, a smile, and the calm that comes from deep faith:
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ! Greetings from Ukrainian Kyiv!
Today is Sunday, 27 February 2022. We survived yet another horrible night. But after night, there comes day, there is morning. After darkness, there comes light, just as after death there comes resurrection, which we all today radiantly celebrate. On this Sunday we will celebrate the presence among us, the presence here in Ukraine, of the Risen Christ.
But on this Sunday, the residents of Kyiv will not be able to go to church because of the government mandated curfew and everyone should stay at home because of the threat to their lives. But in that case, the Church will come to the people. Our priests will descend to the underground, they will descend to the bomb shelters, and there they will celebrate the Divine Liturgy. The Church is with its people! The Church of Christ brings the Eucharistic Savior to those who are experiencing critical moments in their life, who need the strength and hope of the resurrection.
Today I would like to ask all those who have the opportunity to go to church: go to the Divine Liturgy! Today, go to Confession. Everyone receive Communion. Today, receive the Eucharistic Christ, to sacrifice for those who cannot go to church, to sacrifice Holy Communion for our soldiers. Today our life is in their hands. To sacrifice for those who are wounded, for those who are discouraged, for the refugees who are on the roads during this crooked war in Ukraine. Today I would like to thank those who are defending Ukraine in various ways.
We see that the government services, especially in Kyiv, are working at the highest level. We once doubted, wondering if our government institutions were strong. We saw that our government has passed its tested for strength, and is continuing to pass. Along with our army, I would like to thank our State Emergency Service of Ukraine, who today are pulling people out of obstructions; our medics, who in this night saved hundreds of lives; our firefighters, who put out hundreds of fires throughout Ukraine. I would like to thank everyone who is working, each one in their own way, for victory in Ukraine. I would like to address our people abroad, our brothers and sisters in various parts of the world: I thank you for your compassion with us. I thank our bishops in Australia, Argentina, Brazil, North America, Western Europe, who organized great national solidarity in those countries where you reside with our Ukrainian people. I thank all those who are striving to tell the world the truth about Ukraine, who are gathering humanitarian aid, medicine, or are simply praying for the victory of Ukraine.
We believe that, just as morning comes after night, just as after death comes resurrection, after this horrible war there will be victory for Ukraine, which this new day relentlessly and steadily brings closer. Allow me to impart to all of you, from here, from the hills of Kyiv, from the first-throned city of Kyiv, to impart to you this resurrectional and joyous blessing of God: May the blessing of the Lord be upon you, through His grace and love for humankind, always now and ever and for ages of ages.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
On Sunday, Archbishop Polak participated in a Ukrainian Greek Catholic liturgy in the Church of the Holy Spirit in Inowrocław, Poland, at which he had this to say:
We, Poles, know the suffering of the loss of independence. How much does it cost to recover and maintain it. Today I want to say that the Ukrainian people have the right to sovereignty and independence, to self-determination, to live in peace and hope. You have the right to live and no one, no dictator or madman, no Russian invader has the right to take it from you, rob you of your dreams and your hope, destroy and kill you. Therefore, from the very beginning, from the first moments of danger to your beloved homeland, we are with you, we pray with you and for you, we look for ways to help you, to stop the cruelty of war with you, to limit its deadly harvest, to restore peace and hope in Ukraine…
Then there was Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow. Despite the fact that the leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church allied with the Moscow patriarchate, Metropolitan Onufry, had denounced the Russian invasion, the Russian patriarch offered a quite different message on Sunday: not a word of condemnation of unjust aggression, but a reiteration of the cultural, historical, political, and ecclesiological falsehoods that have helped underwrite the Putin regime’s efforts to recreate the Soviet Union under the guise of the Russkiy mir:
God forbid that the present political situation in fraternal Ukraine so close to us should be aimed at making the evil forces that have always strived against the unity of Rus’ [the medieval state centered in Kyiv] and the Russian Church, gain the upper hand. God forbid that a terrible line stained with the blood of our brothers should be drawn between Russia and Ukraine. The Lord may give them strength and wisdom to repulse the attacks of the evil one while serving their people in faith and truth promoting peace by all possible ways.
May the Lord preserve our Church in unity. May the Lord protect from fratricidal battle the peoples comprising the one space of the Russian Orthodox Church. It must not be allowed to give the dark and hostile external forces an occasion to laugh at us; we should do everything to preserve peace between our peoples while protecting our common historical Motherland against every outside action that can destroy this unity.
The drama continues, in Ukraine and elsewhere. So does the clarification of the moral contest underway. History will remember who understood that contest – and who didn’t.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).
George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Catholic theologian and one of America’s leading public intellectuals. He holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.