Ukraine, Russia, and the World: A Conversation with George Weigel

Published February 24, 2022

Catholic World Report

EPPC Distinguished Senior Fellow George Weigel spoke with Carl E. Olson of the Catholic World Report about the current and fast-moving situation in Ukraine.

CWR: In yesterday’s syndicated column, titled “On Ukraine,” you stated that “a Russian invasion of Ukraine has not been ‘imminent;’ the invasion is ongoing.” And now there are over military attacks taking place on Ukraine. As of what right now, what is your assessment of what is happening in Ukraine?

Weigel: Vladimir Putin has confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt that he is a pathological liar as well as a thief, kleptocrat, tyrant, and murderer. For months he has been saying that the Russian forces gathering on Ukraine’s borders were not the spearheads of an invasion; now Russia is conducting a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by land, sea, and air. What Putin’s short-term goal is remains unclear, but he would certainly not cavil at bringing down the government in Kyiv and installing some sort of puppet regime, which I cannot see the Ukrainian people accepting quietly.

Putin’s speech as the full-scale invasion began on February 24 was nauseating. Ukraine is a country with a democratically elected president of Jewish heritage whose first language was Russian. To say, as Putin did, that this man and the government he leads require “denazification” set a new low for Kremlin prevarication.

Ukraine poses no security threat to Russia. None. Neither does NATO. All such claims on Putin’s part are disinformation and propaganda. The threat Ukraine poses is the possibility that a free, prosperous, and democratic Slavic nation-state could emerge on Russia’s borders — a living alternative to Putin’s kleptocracy, which has failed the Russian people by any measure: economic, social, cultural, and political.

Putin trusts his own people so little that, in the first hours of the invasion, he ordered that only official Kremlin-authorized “news” on the war in Ukraine be published by any Russian media or social media outlet. That there are peace demonstrations in parts of Russia suggests that Putin’s war is not so popular as he might imagine it to be, but those demonstrations, in a tightly-controlled police state, are not likely to have much impact on the hard man in the Kremlin.

CWR: President Biden has announced further sanctions, while President Putin has threatened “consequences you have never seen” to countries that interfere. What are some possible responses from the U.S. and European countries? What approach do you think should be taken?

Weigel: The gold standard, so to speak, of economic sanctions would be to cut Russia off from the SWIFT system of international financial exchange. I was glad to hear Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the U.K. tell the House of Commons on February 24 that such a move was certainly on the menu of options being considered by western countries. The Moscow stock exchange lost many billions of dollars in asset-value in the hours after the February 24 invasion and pressure to continue that degradation of Russian assets should be maintained.

But in addition to sanctioning Russia, Putin, and the kleptocrats who depend on him, it is important to pour western aid into Ukraine: military assistance, to be sure, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry, but also financial and economic assistance. Part of Putin’s game may be to so disrupt the Ukrainian economy that the Ukrainian currency collapses and with it, the present government. We should be doing everything in our power to thwart that.

Western leaders have also got to explain to their own people that we in the West are going to have to bear some burdens in all this, including higher energy prices and possible cyber-attacks from Russia — to which we should respond with appropriately robust countermeasures.

CWR: What are Putin’s motives, based on both his recent remarks and his presidency overall?

Weigel: Vladimir Putin is a child of the old KGB and has made it clear for two decades that he regards the defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War as a disaster — a disaster amplified by the fact that his former allies rushed to join NATO in order to be protected from a revanchist, imperialist, post-Soviet Russia.

Putin’s recent speeches have also displayed an almost psychotic hatred of Ukraine and Ukrainians, to the point where entirely sober-minded analysts with whom I am in contact wonder whether the Russian autocrat is coming unhinged. Hatred of Ukraine is one facet of Putin’s evident personal investment in a Big Lie about the historical and cultural heritage of the eastern Slavic peoples, which to his mind seems to be a heritage For Russians Only.

This warped view of history includes the historically and ecclesiologically untenable notion that the Russian Orthodox Church is the sole legitimate heir of the baptism of the eastern Slavs in 988. Thus I found it both interesting and somewhat encouraging that the leaders of the two competing Orthodox communities in Ukraine, including the community that has maintained close ties with the Russian Orthodox patriarchate of Moscow, condemned Putin’s invasion and defended Ukraine’s sovereign integrity.

CWR: There is obviously a great deal of media coverage and punditry about this situation. What are some errors and falsehoods that need to be avoided and rejected?

Weigel: The Big Lies to be rejected, no matter what their sources (including certain Fox News personalities and certain Catholic websites), would include at least the following:

  • This entire situation is the West’s fault. Exactly backwards: this is all Putin’s doing, and what fault lies with the West lies in not taking him more seriously years ago and figuring out effective ways to deter him from his stated goal of reversing history’s verdict in the Cold War.
  • NATO poses a threat to Russian national security. Many NATO countries are functionally pacifist; NATO poses no more threat to Russia than it does to Papua New Guinea.
  • Russia has a “right” to a “sphere of influence” around itself. It doesn’t. That is sheer imperialism. And to compare Putin’s claims to the Monroe Doctrine is nonsense on stilts. The Monroe Doctrine was aimed at retarding the further advance of imperialism in the name of the national sovereignty of free states. What Putin is doing is advancing imperial claims that deny other countries their sovereign rights.
  • This is none of our business. It is very much our business and anyone who doesn’t recognize that is being willfully blind or is besotted by ideology — perhaps both. If Putin is allowed to dismantle by force the security architecture of Europe, Xi Jinping will be encouraged do the same thing in east Asia, and the world will be faced with decades of chaos in which tyrannies are calling the tune. Didn’t the twentieth century teach us anything about what happens when tyrants are allowed to invade and subjugate free peoples? And don’t we have a moral obligation to help people, under attack, who have asked for our help in defending themselves? The Kitty Genovese Syndrome — ignoring pleas for help from a victim — usually makes for very bad policy and an enormous amount of suffering. Moreover, when Ukraine agreed in 1994 to surrender the nuclear weapons it had inherited from the now-defunct Soviet Union, the United States agreed to guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity. If we renege on that pledge, the appropriate lessons will be drawn in Tokyo, Seoul, and perhaps Taipei, and nuclear proliferation will likely accelerate.
  • We  should focus our attention on China, which is the major threat to American interests. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping made it quite clear right before the Winter Olympics that they have now forged an alliance of interests, the primary interest being overturning the post-Cold War world order to their benefit. You can’t ignore lethal, unprovoked Russian aggression and expect that that will have no impact on China’s strategic calculations, beginning with Taiwan and later, the Philippines.

CWR: What role, if any, is the Russian Orthodox Church playing in this aggression against Ukraine?

Weigel: I have to think that many devout Russian Orthodox believers find this war appalling. But their leaders, including Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and the Moscow patriarchate’s chief ecumenical officer, Metropolitan Hilarion, have bathed Putin in sycophancy for years. On February 23, shortly after Putin’s incredible anti-Ukraine tirade, Kirill threw bouquets of compliments at the Russian autocrat and  Russia’s armed forces, which were, Kirill said, promoting Russia’s national security. Less than a day later, the missiles and bombs began falling on Ukraine. Kirill’s subsequent statement as the invasion intensified was an anodyne call for peace with not a syllable of criticism of Putin’s aggression.

In this context, one wonders what it will take for the Holy See to recognize, finally, that the Russian Orthodox leaders with whom it is in contact are agents of Russian state power before they are churchmen.

CWR: Any further thoughts?

Weigel: It has been one of the great graces of my life to have become friends with many members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. The UGCC has played a crucial role in building civil society in post-Soviet Ukraine, not least by creating the remarkable Ukrainian Catholic University in L’viv, the finest institution of higher learning in the country.

The leader of the UGCC, Major-Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, his fellow-bishops, clergy, and their impressively active laity deserve the generous support of Catholics throughout the world. They, and their fellow-countrymen, also deserve far more support than they have received to date from the Vatican. Well may we join Pope Francis in a day of prayer and fasting on Ash Wednesday for peace in Ukraine. But let us all — including the Vatican — acknowledge who has broken the peace: and who has been doing do for the past eight years, during which 14,000 lives have been lost to Russian-supported forces and some million people internally displaced.

Photo by Дмитрий Трепольский from Pexels

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.

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