Ukraine: A Test of the West’s Courage

In 1978, Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave a compelling commencement address at Harvard, in which he compared the qualities of ‘the West’, in which he was then living, and the Soviet Union, in which he had grown up. I was thinking about his remarks this past week, because they are pretty illuminating about the ‘why’ behind what is going on in Ukraine.

(His speech has had a big impact on my thinking about politics, and it is worth a read in its entirety:

Last week, in a pretty shameless way, Russian troops marched into the Ukraine and took part of its territory. They used the old and somewhat tired excuse of ‘protecting ethnic Russians’. In reality, Russians living in the Ukraine were never under threat. Why would Russia be so brazen, when it is so economically dependent on the West, and also militarily weaker?

Something to think about from Solzhenitsyn’s famous address:

“A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society. Of course, there are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life.

Political and intellectual bureaucrats show depression, passivity, and perplexity in their actions and in their statements, and even more so in theoretical reflections to explain how realistic, reasonable, as well as intellectually and even morally worn it is to base state policies on weakness and cowardice. And decline in courage is ironically emphasized by occasional explosions of anger and inflexibility on the part of the same bureaucrats when dealing with weak governments and with countries not supported by anyone, or with currents which cannot offer any resistance. But they get tongue-tied and paralyzed when they deal with powerful governments and threatening forces, with aggressors and international terrorists.”

Russia’s government sent troops into the Ukraine because, rightly or wrongly, they agree with Solzhenitsyn’s assessment of the West – that we as a community of nations lack the courage to respond in a meaningful way to their brazen act of aggression.

We will soon see whether or not Russia has miscalculated. Will they be met with a continuing strong economic and diplomatic response, forcing them to change course, or will Western leaders eventually drop their protest and continue with business as usual. So far, the signs have been encouraging. With the active encouragement of our Prime Minister, leaders through the western world have challenged Russia in strong terms, compared this action (quite aptly, in my opinion) to Nazi aggression, and taken some concrete steps on the economic front. Let’s hope that this courage continues. Let us hope that the west has regained some of the courage which Solzhenitsyn found absent in 1978.