The moment has come, after months of insistent, indignant jabber from Vladimir Putin that he has no intention of invading Ukraine: Russian forces have invaded Ukraine across a broad front.
This act by Vladimir Putin and his military is atrocious in precisely the way that Adolph Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 was atrocious. In fact, Putin’s playbook is very similar to Hitler’s playbook: spurious claims about ancestral rights to territory, phony claims about provocative attacks by Poland (1939) and Ukraine (2022), defiant histrionics to the world about Russia’s right to the territory of Ukraine. This is an atrocity for a fundamental reason: it involves attack against a non-aggressor nation, it is unprovoked, it will undoubtedly lead to massive suffering, dislocation, and death of innocent Ukrainian citizens. Putin demonstrates that he — and now the country for which he is unopposed dictator — have complete disregard for international law, the rights and dignity of non-combatants, and the legal and moral importance of sovereignty.
The point deserves to be underlined: Putin is a dictator, and contemporary Russia is a dictatorship. Independent critics are imprisoned, persecuted, and assassinated; political organizations that dissent from Putin’s rule are suppressed; and ordinary citizens are intimidated. Even oligarchs are treated harshly if they fail to support Putin’s regime.
And what about Ukraine? Ukraine’s history since 1920 is a story of vast suffering, much of it at the hands of Russians and the Soviet regime. The mass and deliberate starvation campaign conducted by Stalin in 1931-33, the Holodomor (link), led to the deaths of perhaps four million Ukrainian villagers during the famine years. Stalin’s campaign of terror against his own people took a major toll on Ukrainians before and after World War II. The dictatorship of Soviet rule was harsh and unforgotten in Ukraine today. The devastation and death toll of fighting and Holocaust in 1941-43 in Ukraine against invading Nazi armies and Einsatzgruppen led to over a million deaths of Ukraine’s Jewish population, and vast military and prisoner-of-war casualties. Kiev itself was the site of the largest single site of mass killings of the Ukrainian Jewish population, Babi Yar. To be aware that once again, artillery fire, air strikes, and missiles are in the skies of Ukraine is unbearably sad for the Ukrainian people and for everyone who cares about peace and human wellbeing.
The great Ukrainian writer Vasily Grossman, citizen of Berdichev, had greater wisdom, even as he witnessed the atrocities of Nazi extermination of the Jews of eastern Europe, the defense of Stalingrad, and the eventual defeat of the Nazi regime. In Life and Fate he wrote:
I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never by conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning. Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil, struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer. (Life and Fate, Part II, chapter 15)
Grossman never surrendered his belief in freedom, peace, and the dignity of the individual human being — even as he witnessed the atrocities of the Gulag, the anti-Semitic campaigns of the 1950s, and the reckless and despotic behavior of the Soviet dictatorship.
Putin’s decision is the act of an international outlaw and cannot be forgiven. Massive, enduring, and punishing sanctions must be the response of the rest of the world. And perhaps Ukrainians can take some hope from the anthem of their countryman: “evil will never conquer”.