What Ukraine Means

Published May 2023

First Things

On February 24, 2022, something considered so unlikely in the twenty-first century as to be almost unimaginable happened: A large ­European state mounted a full-scale, full-­spectrum invasion of another large European state.

The invaded state posed no threat to the aggressor’s security, only to its leader’s warped ideology. And in another chilling parallel to the mid-1930s, scripts written in that low decade returned with a vengeance: The aggressor polluted the global information space with a barrage of propaganda and lies, while some in the West, echoing Neville ­Chamberlain, asked why they should be concerned about a “quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing.” Now, after a year marked by bestial cruelty on one side and astonishing courage on the other, the Russian war on Ukraine stands before us as a pivotal moment in contemporary history. Grasping what that moment means is essential in devising wise policy that promotes peace, security, and freedom for both the United States and Ukraine; failure to understand just what is at stake in Ukraine will lead to inept policymaking and raise the specter of a Hobbesian world in which all are at war with all.

So what does Ukraine mean? What has the Russian war on Ukraine this past year ­revealed?

What Ukraine means for world politics is that the seemingly stable post–Cold War settlement in Europe was in fact a truce.

What Ukraine means for Russia is that its political culture is suffering from a false historical-­cultural narrative that has metastasized into a form of paranoia, accelerating the country’s descent ­into kleptocratic autocracy and international pariah status.

What Ukraine means for Ukraine is that an impressive process of nation-building, which has accelerated since 2013, must be continued and intensified amid a war for national survival.

What Ukraine means for the United States is that there is no holiday from history and no escape from world politics for America and Americans.

At the macro level of world politics, the Russian war on Ukraine has falsified the post–Cold War conviction of many in Western Europe, and some in North America, that a Europe without wars was possible. Perhaps there would be occasional flare-ups in the ever-restive Balkans. But big wars between big states were a thing of the past, it was thought, because alternative security arrangements, underwritten by economic interdependence, were securely in place.

What seemed like a version of Immanuel Kant’s system of perpetual peace turned out to be a truce, however, because non-quantifiable forces were at work beneath the surface of history, much like the geological forces at work beneath the crust of the Earth. And those forces finally erupted. On this geological analogy, a spasm of earthquakes in parts of Ukraine did not wake Europe and the United States from their Kantian slumbers in 2014. Then came the volcanic eruption of February 24, 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine with the clear intent to destroy that country’s sovereignty—or, failing that, its economic, social, and cultural infrastructure. And the Kantian dream was shattered.

The experience of the past year also means that culture is far more a driver of history than most Realist accounts of world politics allow. Russia’s war on Ukraine is a war against the post–Cold War European order and, more broadly, the political culture of the West. One important cultural driver of this war is a false history according to which Moscow is the sole legitimate heir of the baptism of the Eastern Slavs in 988 (an event that actually occurred outside Kyiv, at a time when Moscow was a forest inhabited by wolves and bears). The historical complications of Eastern Slavic demographics notwithstanding, this Russian narrative—­according to which Ukrainians are at best “little brothers” to the Great Russian hegemon, and at worst no nation at all—is simply false, as a matter of history. But this false storyline lay behind the imperialism of the fifteenth-­century Muscovite prince, Ivan the Great, known as the “gatherer of the Russian lands,” and it underwrote Russia’s imperial expansion for centuries. It endured even into the late Soviet period; thus, in 1988, Mikhail ­Gorbachev’s Soviet regime spent great sums renovating Russian Orthodox churches in preparation for that year’s millennium celebrations, which wrote Ukrainians entirely out of the story of Eastern Slavic Christianity that began in 988. And whatever Vladimir Putin’s true convictions about these matters, the man who once called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century has been quite happy to use this false history to legitimate his determination to extinguish Ukraine as an independent state and to restore a Russian empire. (The great symbol of this absorption of Ukraine into Russian mythology is the 52-foot-tall statue of the Kyivan prince Volodymyr, who led the conversion of the Eastern Slavs to Christianity, which Putin erected in central Moscow in 2016.)

Thus the claim by such distinguished scholars of world politics as Henry Kissinger and ­Zbigniew Brzezinski—that Russia without Ukraine can be neither a great power nor the center of an ­empire—is both true and insufficient. Russia without Ukraine is also a Russia that must confront the historical fiction that has shaped, and warped, its national self-concept and self-image for centuries.

The war on and in Ukraine has also clarified—or should have clarified—that there is no such thing as a self-regulating international order. Someone—some power or powers—will define the ordering of world affairs. Finland and Sweden have recognized this empirical fact of international public life in their application to join NATO. Others in the West—in France, in Germany, and in the Congress of the United States—have not. But when Putin says that his ultimate goal is “the collapse of Western hegemony,” he must be taken seriously.

By “the collapse of Western hegemony,” Putin means the destruction of the systems of international security and international exchange that have prevented a global conflagration since 1945. That same network of alliances, diplomatic agreements, and international institutions also created the conditions for billions of people to lift themselves out of poverty. No sane person in the West ought to want Putin’s dream to come true—no matter how much we rightly deplore the sludge exported by Western culture, and no matter how much we rightly criticize the bottom-line-only approach to international economics, the green wokery, and the elitism of the “Davos People.”

A world after the triumph of Putin’s efforts to reverse the achievements made possible by the West’s victory in the Cold War would be a far worse world for everyone, as the global economic wreckage wrought by Putin’s war over the past year should have demonstrated. And this concern to protect the international order is not “philanthropic.” To borrow from President Franklin Roosevelt when he tried to alert the American people in 1940 to the dangers posed by the potential triumph of Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo’s Japan, such a world would be “a shabby and dangerous place to live in—yes, even for Americans to live in.”

The international systems that Putin deplores under the rubric of “Western hegemony” can and must be reformed. What Putin wants to put in their place can and must be resisted and defeated.

In addition to the devastation it has wrought in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s war has done enormous damage to Russia. Effective political opposition to Putin’s dictatorship has been essentially eliminated. Brave opposition leaders such as ­Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza have been imprisoned, along with thousands of anti-war protesters. Public criticism of the war, or of the Russian military’s warmaking, has been banned as treasonous. Thus in Arkhangelsk, a nineteen-­year-old university student, Olesya Krivtsova, was threatened with a sledgehammer while being arrested for protesting Putin’s aggression against Ukraine on social media; she now faces ten years in prison.

These draconian measures of social control, plus the fact that Russians live within what a dissident Russian TV journalist, Marina Ovsyannikova, rightly called a gigantic “propaganda bubble” that regularly informs the Russian people that the West wants to destroy them, have led to the virtual extinction of a functioning civil society capable of holding the Russian state accountable—or of even wishing to do so. Putin’s war has also exposed and intensified the subordination of the Russian Orthodox Church’s leadership to Russian state power, as demonstrated by statements that border on the blasphemous blessing of aggression and murder by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia.

The ongoing falsification of the deep Russian past has been matched by a falsification of more recent Russian history. A new bust of Josef Stalin, whose only parallel as a twentieth-century mass murderer might be Mao Zedong, was unveiled in Volgograd (formerly “Stalingrad”) to mark the eightieth anniversary of the Red Army’s victory there in World War II. The unveiling came just before ­Vladimir Putin’s visit to Volgograd on February 2, during which, it is safe to assume, he did not criticize the record of the man who once said that “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”—and who was arguably responsible for more Russian deaths than his onetime ally Adolf Hitler.

The war on and in Ukraine has also revealed the deep corruption of Russia’s once-vaunted armed forces during Putin’s decades in power. Financial skimming and graft in the procurement process were evidently widespread, exemplified by defective Chinese-made tires on Russian personnel carriers that burst during the early stages of the invasion. The war in Ukraine has also revealed a large technology gap: Second-generation NATO weaponry in the hands of Ukrainian soldiers has proven quite effective against fourth- and fifth-generation Russian weaponry. Then there is the question of leadership. When Russian forces faltered almost immediately in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance, it was not least because of the Russian army’s lack of well-trained NCOs and junior officers prepared to take the initiative in real-time battlefield decision-making. In the aftermath of the failed attempt at a quick victory, the invaders relied more and more on the mercenaries of the Wagner Group (thousands of whom were recruited from Russian prisons and labor camps) and the brutal Chechen irregulars provided to Putin by his onetime foe and current ally, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

The combination of inept leadership, technological inferiority, and poorly motivated troops has led over the past year to enormous Russian casualties (often referred to as “cannon meat” in Russian parlance). In early February, U.S. government officials put the number of killed, wounded, and missing at “approaching 200,000.” Other reliable estimates put that figure at closer to 270,000—which, if accurate, would mean that, statistically speaking, every Russian involved in the invasion of February 24, 2022, has been killed, is in hospital, or is missing. These casualty rates are unsustainable, even for Russia. And as knowledge of these figures has seeped through Putin’s propaganda shield, young Russians are leaving the country in droves, not ­only to avoid conscription as more “cannon meat,” but because the Russian future looks so bleak.

A war whose stated purpose was the restoration of Russian greatness has become the war that has finally stripped the mask from post-Soviet Russian corruption, incompetence, and self-delusion, while further exposing the extraordinary social and cultural damage done to Russia by seventy-four years of communism.

What has the war on and in Ukraine revealed about Ukraine?

Ukrainian president Volodymyr ­Zelensky has won the admiration of a great many people around the world for his inspiring articulation of his people’s cause. It is important to understand, however, that President Zelensky, whose poll ratings were cratering in the months before the war, has been following his people as much as leading them. For Ukraine is in the midst of an impressive project of national self-renewal that ­Putin’s war has, paradoxically, both threatened and intensified. The threat is obvious: the prospect of national extinction. The intensification requires a little explanation. For Ukraine’s astonishing and sustained resistance—which embodies a national commitment that shows no signs of slacking—cannot be explained solely by the understandable desire to punch a bully in the nose.

While the roots of today’s Ukrainian national identity reach back a millennium, the national fervor, grit, and resilience displayed these past twelve months can trace their immediate origins to what Ukrainians call the Maidan Revolution of Dignity. After a corrupt and Putin-friendly president, ­Viktor Yanukovych, buckled to Kremlin pressures and reneged on Ukraine’s “association agreement” with the European Union, a mass public movement took to Kyiv’s Independence Square, the “Maidan,” to demand a reversal of Yanukovych’s decision. From November 21, 2013, until February 24, 2014, the Maidan movement held out, even against armed force.

When it finally triumphed and Yanukovych was driven into exile in Russia, one veteran demonstrator said, insightfully, “We came to the Maidan looking for Europe and we found Ukraine.” For in those often frozen winter months of demonstrations and prayer vigils in the heart of the nation’s capital, Ukrainians discovered each other—and their coherence as a nation across ethnic, religious, and linguistic lines. The “Ukraine” that has resisted, and in some cases beaten back, Putin’s aggression is the Ukraine that came to national self-awareness on the Maidan in 2013–2014.

In the years that followed, a bottoms-up process of civic and political renewal has taken place. Post-Soviet Ukraine suffered from a top-down system of governance in which Kyiv controlled just about everything. Economic and political development aid from the West since the Maidan Revolution of Dignity has focused on building the infrastructure of Ukrainian democracy—social, political, and economic—from the local level up. The result has been a Ukraine in which a critical mass of people feel a real stake in the country’s future and believe they have a role in building that future. Since the Maidan, Ukrainians have ceased to be passive subjects of a faraway, centralized, and unaccountable governing system and have developed a robust sense of citizenship.

Two years ago, no one expected that this revitalized sense of national civic identity would result in great numbers of civilians forming volunteer national defense units to aid the Ukrainian army in defending Kyiv. But that is what happened. “We are fighting for each other,” Ukrainians tell Western visitors. That sense of shared responsibility for the nation has been reinforced by the brutalities of the Russian occupiers. As Oleksandra Matviichuk, executive director of the Nobel Peace Prize–­winning Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties, told Jay ­Nordlinger, Ukrainians are fighting, not just for the territory that is historically theirs, but for the people living in those areas:

This war started not in February 2022 but in ­February 2014 [when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea and occupied parts of eastern and southern Ukraine] . . . I am very aware of what Russians did to people in the occupied territories. I have interviewed hundreds of people. They have told me how they were beaten, how they were raped, how their fingers were cut off, how they were crammed into wooden boxes, how they were tortured with electricity. One lady reported that her eyes were dug out with a spoon. We will never leave our people alone in these occupied territories. It would be inhuman to leave them . . .

Or as Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi put it to ­Timothy Garton Ash, “The Ukrainian army is 42 million people.” That is, the entire country is engaged, one way or another, in resisting Putin’s stated determination to eradicate Ukraine.

This striking process of nation-building must and will continue, not least by an ongoing process of cleansing Ukrainian society and the Ukrainian economy of corruptions that became deeply entrenched during the Soviet period of Ukraine’s history. In early 2023, for example, President ­Zelensky acted against a powerful oligarch and a dozen corrupt senior government officials. As Daniel ­Twining of the International Republican Institute wrote on February 8, “Far from sweeping graft under the rug during a struggle for national survival, Zelensky’s administration has doubled down on holding senior leaders accountable—because corruption has been a driver of malign Kremlin influence in Ukraine and combatting it aggressively is part of the country’s fight for an independent democratic future.” Maintaining and extending that commitment to fight corruption will be essential in maintaining Western support for Ukraine going forward.

As Ukraine continues to fight what its people rightly understand to be an anti-colonial war against a neo-colonial aggressor, it will also face challenges in protecting civil liberties and strengthening civil society institutions. One issue is the legal status of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. A draft law introduced in December 2022 proposed to outlaw the activities of “religious organizations affiliated with centers of influence in the Russian Federation.” Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church rightly objected, arguing that this would make a banned church ­into a martyr-church, and proposing instead that the focus be on individuals (however religiously affiliated) who are traitors. Major Archbishop Shevchuk also stressed, however, that “our northern neighbor, who is killing us today, cannot use any of the churches for his geopolitical purposes.” That this kind of wise counsel is available publicly in Ukraine, while the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow sets up straw men and issues apocalyptic threats, publicly stating that “any desire to destroy Russia will mean the end of the world,” suggests that Ukraine enjoys a vibrant civil society while Russia is burdened by a sick and corrupt one.

President Zelensky faces challenges that will further test his character and political skills. By necessity under today’s wartime conditions, Ukraine is largely being governed by the presidential administration, whose actions and decisions are publicized by television news that, by presidential decree, broadcasts identical content and often features government officials. There is real information exchange in Ukraine because of social media and the internet. But the question of a virtual governmental monopoly on TV news ought to be addressed before the country’s March 2024 elections, laying the foundations for a free media environment while taking into account the fact that oligarchs once warped the Ukrainian information space by their ownership of TV channels.

As he considers his country’s further development into democratic maturity, and his own future beyond his likely reelection in 2024, President ­Zelensky would do well to remember what King George III said when told that President George Washington would not personalize and perpetuate his presidential power by seeking a third term: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

What Ukraine means for the United States is that the United States must take the full measure of its interests and responsibilities and engage in a foreign policy debate that recognizes facts while reckoning with a ­variety of policy options, none of which are ­risk-free.

A serious foreign policy debate would not be conducted in sound bites; nor would it engage in chippy epithets about the dangers of “blank checks”; nor would it grotesquely misrepresent the war as “a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia.” Neither would such a debate dismiss decades of often effective support for nascent democracies around the world with sweeping denunciations of (as one “national conservative” put it) “the crusading spirit—the need to make the world safe for democracy or engage in nation-building.” Dwight D. Eisenhower was not pilloried for titling the memoir of his service in World War II Crusade in Europe, or for using a flaming, biblically inspired sword as the shoulder patch of those assigned to SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force), which was tasked with liberating Europe from Hitler’s legions. Would the world today be FDR’s “shabby and dangerous place”—would the United States be safer and more prosperous—if America had turned its back on “nation-building” in Germany and Japan after that war, or if a bipartisan consensus had not supported the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of postwar Europe?

More recently, new democracies in central and eastern Europe have arisen with American support in democracy-building and under a protective ­NATO security umbrella (to which, to be sure, they have contributed). However flawed they are—and all democracies are flawed to one degree or another—the new democracies that have arisen from beneath the rubble of the old Warsaw Pact have become staunch allies. The founding democratic generation remembers the support they received from the West when they battled totalitarianism as human rights activists in the last decade of the Cold War. These new democracies have also been exemplary allies of Ukraine in its current existential fight for survival, with one notable exception.

Moreover, a foreign policy debate worthy of a great power cannot be conducted through what former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin once dubbed “pseudo-events.” A mature great power will ignore political theater concocted to draw media attention to the actors involved, such as, for example, H.Res. 113, the “Ukraine Fatigue Resolution” recently authored by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R–FL) and co-sponsored by ten House Republicans. The resolution, which states that “the United States must end its military and financial aid to Ukraine, and urges all combatants to reach a peace agreement,” is little more than irresponsible posturing for the sake of a few minutes on Fox News. It sends a dispiriting message to the brave people of Ukraine who look to the United States for leadership in the cause of freedom, and who have consistently expressed their deep gratitude for American aid. And what kind of signal does it send to wobbly allies in France and Germany, still imagining that Putin can be appeased? Above all, what signal does it send to Vladimir Putin who, like all bullies, looks for signs of weakness and irresolution?

The costs of American support for Ukraine are well within reason, given the $1.6 trillion in discretionary spending in the fiscal 2023 federal budget and America’s economic capacity. In 2022, the financial, humanitarian, and military aid the United States (population 330,000,000) provided Ukraine ranked behind the aid given by Poland (38 million), Lithuania (2.8 million), Latvia (1.9 million), and Estonia (1.3 million) as a percentage of GDP. The omnibus spending bill passed at the last moment by Congress in December 2022 included $38 billion for Ukraine in 2023, which was far less than what Americans spent in 2022 on frozen and retail pizza. Yes, accountability for U.S. aid is imperative, both for the American taxpayer and for Ukraine’s own development as a functioning democracy and a trustworthy ally. But to suggest that the United States cannot afford to support Ukraine—or cannot afford to support Ukraine while deterring ­China—is not plausible.

Appeals to foreign policy Realism, twenty-­first-century style, as a reason to disengage from Ukraine are equally unconvincing. A true Realism about what Ukraine means for the United States was well articulated by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas in a February op-ed article:

We should back Ukraine to the hilt because the likeliest alternative isn’t peace, but rather another “frozen conflict” that favors Russia and harms our interests. Russia would retain key strategic terrain and much of Ukraine’s industry and agriculture. Food and energy prices would remain high, potentially starving many nations and exacerbating the migrant crisis in the West.

Meanwhile, Russia could rebuild its strength and seize the rest of Ukraine when the opportunity arose. Such an outcome would create millions more Ukrainian refugees, drive inflation higher, and worsen supply-chain disruptions. Russia would ­also extend its border deep into Europe. Next on the chopping block would be Moldova, site of another frozen conflict. And after that, a NATO nation.

Stopping Russia also will allow the U.S. to focus on the greater threat from China. A Russian victory would force us to divert more resources for a longer time to Europe to deter Russian expansionism, creating persistent threats on both fronts. But a Ukrainian victory and a durable peace will secure our European flank as we confront China.

America is not going to be great, stay great, or become great again—choose your slogan—if we do not soberly face the reality that America’s interests are deeply implicated in the outcome of the war in Ukraine. Rebuffing Putin’s aggression and sustaining Ukrainian sovereignty will make the world, and Americans, safer, while demonstrating to China that the mature democracies that are the backbone of a decent global order have not decayed into fecklessness.

Finally, what does Ukraine mean for the future of the West?

Western civilization is suffering from a wasting disease of self-absorption, based on defective ideas of the human person, human community, and human happiness. The dominant cultural forces in the West insist that we are mere bundles of desires, all of which are morally commensurable or equal; that the gratification of those desires is the meaning of happiness; and that seeing to the satisfaction of those desires is, in the name of human rights, the primary responsibility of the state. Meanwhile, woke culture, spreading out from our institutions of higher learning like a plague and infecting the bureaucracies of the administrative state, is creating a society of silos in which race-­mania, “gender identity,” and “isms” of all sorts are somehow supposed to foster living in solidarity, although they are fostering precisely the opposite: social fragmentation leading to perilously high levels of mental illness, violence, and public irrationality.

Over the past year, Ukraine and Ukrainians have provided the West with an alternative vision of the human condition.

By looking death in the eye and refusing to flinch, Ukrainians, both soldiers and civilians, have reminded the West that we are more than our ­subjectivity—that we can know, embrace, and live by truths greater than “me.” We can make sacrifices. We can exhibit courage. We can refuse to be mastered by evil. We can live in a solidarity that is based on the truths built into the world and into us.

Since the Maidan Revolution of Dignity, Ukraine, without realizing it and often imperfectly, has nonetheless lifted up before a self-absorbed and often decadent West the four foundational principles of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church: personalism, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity.

Under brutal assault for a year now (and indeed since the Russian invasion of the Donbas and Crimea in February 2014), Ukraine has stood firm for the inalienable dignity and value of every ­human life.

During a year of savage warfare, Ukraine has lived the moral truth embedded in the principle of the common good, that each individual’s exercise of his or her freedom should contribute to the welfare of all, not merely to his or her own advantage, aggrandizement, or survival.

Since the Maidan, Ukraine has been building a decentralized system of governance that reflects the social doctrine principle of subsidiarity in its respect for local initiative, bottoms-up ­decision-making, and support for those in need of subsidium, assistance. The subsidiarity principle is also embodied in the innovative battlefield tactics of Ukraine’s armed forces and by what Gen. Mark Hertling, former U.S. Army commander in Europe, has called their “culture of adaptability.” Volunteer civil society groups crowdfunding materiel Ukrainian soldiers say they need, including drones, provide another example of subsidiarity at work.

And Ukraine has displayed the distinctive civic friendship—the sense of mutual responsibility that bridges demographic divides and lies far beyond the woke identity-silos—that embodies the social doctrine principle of solidarity.

Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War has two memorable passages that have been pondered for millennia. One, the “Melian Dialogue,” is a classic statement of realpolitik in its harshest form, as the Athenians tell the Melians, who claim a natural right to remain neutral between Athens and Sparta, that questions of justice do not bind greater powers in their conduct toward lesser powers, after which the Athenians proceed to destroy Melos. The second is Pericles’s funeral oration for the Athenian dead after the first year of the war, in which the great orator (according to Thucydides) says that “the secret of happiness is liberty and the secret of liberty is courage.”

Having refused, at tremendous cost, to resign themselves to the fate of the Melians, the people of Ukraine, maintaining a remarkable and inspiring morale under relentless assault, have given twenty-­first-century expression to Pericles’s formula for happiness—but they have also added something of great value to it. For if the secret of happiness is liberty and the secret of liberty is courage, the secret of courage is faith: faith in a larger reality than ourselves; faith in a destiny beyond this life and its great but inevitably transient satisfactions; faith that we are creatures capable of nobility and self-giving, not merely self-assertion and willfulness; faith that solidarity is possible amid plurality; faith that courage can overcome evil, some day.

That is what Ukraine means. And that is why we owe a great debt of gratitude and solidarity to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. This article is adapted from his twenty-first William E. Simon Lecture.

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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