The Russian invasion of Ukraine is now 101 days old and counting. What began as a rapid regime change operation has devolved into a grinding war of attrition to seize territory in the east and south of Ukraine. Before the latest invasion, the Russian state controlled just over 7 per cent of internationally recognised Ukrainian soil. In annexing Crimea, it had rebranded approximately 4.5 per cent as Russia. Today Russia occupies about 20 per cent of Ukraine. To put that number in perspective, Russia has seized more than the total area of the Republic of Ireland since February 24. The amount is increasing, slowly but surely. All indications are that Russia plans to annex this land after staging a propaganda camera-ready referendum this summer.
That is the territorial score. The human costs are immense. As we all know, millions of Ukrainians have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Thousands have died in the past three months on both sides. No one knows exactly how many because neither side wants to reveal their losses. Tens of thousands are also missing, some locked away as prisoners of war. President Zelensky conceded recently that Ukraine was losing 60 to 100 soldiers a day just in the Donbas, and sometimes 500 wounded in action. It is reasonable to surmise that this war takes upwards of a hundred new victims each day, while leaving hundreds more with shattered bodies.
Beyond Ukraine, while the world’s media attention span wavers, this war is becoming more geopolitically precarious by the day. A central reason is that supporting Ukraine has become a sacred cause among Western powers. This is perfectly understandable. Yet this creates a dynamic that makes escalation of the war beyond Ukraine more likely and resolution more difficult.
The imperial hubris of Russia’s invasion swept aside business as usual with Russia in Europe. European hydrocarbon trade with Russia fuelled Putin’s war machine. The horrific violence and war crimes perpetrated by Russian troops further inflamed matters. Material interests had to bend to moral values. The war has induced rhetorical hyperinflation which has burdened it with signifiers that it cannot and should not have to bear: Ukraine is fighting for freedom, for democracy, for European civilisation, for all of us so we do not have to fight the Russians – nicknamed ‘orcs’ by Ukrainian fighters – ourselves.
One American television reporter, embedded with Ukrainian forces in March, pointed to the Russian lines and declared: “This is where democracy ends, and over there is where autocracy begins.” Now the battle for Ukraine has become a barely disguised proxy war between the West and Russia, between the fellowship of Nato and Mordor.
Most Irish people are familiar with causes framed as sacred. Sacred values are the values that a moral community treats as transcendent, beyond the common trade-offs and compromises of everyday life. A sacred cause is not amenable to rational cost-benefit analysis, to material calculations of self-interest and collective interest. They are what define a community, what expresses its highest ideals. A sacred cause is worth dying for. Religion gives us sacred values and causes but so also does nationalism, the act of dying for one’s country, martyrdom for the ideal of an indivisible territorial homeland.
Devotion to a sacred cause is problematic when it denies the material realities of the world, and the fact that others may hold different sacred values. Conflict deepens and compromise becomes taboo. There are worrying signs that this dynamic is taking over how the Russia-Ukraine war is approached.
The West has been remarkably united in its response to the invasion, and taken radical steps to isolate Russia from the global economy. Yet the leaders of France and Germany are routinely vilified by some supporters of Ukraine for even talking to Putin. Sanctions seem never enough. Moral outrage and fury are directed at public intellectuals for suggesting the need for negotiations and a peace agreement. The leaders of Britain, Estonia and Poland are moral entrepreneurs for a hardline crusade against Russia. Compromise is weakness.
The vision of a sacred fight has radicalised the Biden administration’s response to Ukraine crisis. Amid divisive domestic sacred values struggles over foetuses (the right to abortion) and firearms (the right to bear arms), the US political class has rallied to the idea of Ukraine fighting for freedom, and escalated US involvement in the war with ever more lethal weapons. Biden cast the fighting in Ukraine as the latest battle in a long Cold War struggle for freedom in a speech in Poland in March. “We have a sacred obligation... to defend each and every inch of Nato territory with the full force of our collective power,” he declared. But he went much further, declaring: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”
Never has a US President called for the ouster of the leader of a rival nuclear superpower. US defence Secretary Lloyd Austin declared that the US goal in Ukraine was to weaken Russia. Others have more bluntly asserted that the US aim is to help Ukraine defeat Russia. This week the US Congress approved a $40 billion military aid package to Ukraine to do just that. Included are US-made long-range artillery that Ukraine hopes will turn the battle in its favour. At the same time, the US presumes that Putin will not see any of this as an attack on Russia.
Fighting Russia is a sacred cause in Ukraine but also a curse. There is no doubt that Russia’s invasion has radicalised Ukrainian society and brought forth a courageous response. But Ukraine, a flawed democracy before the war – Freedom House ranked it ‘partly free’ in 2021 – is now under martial law. In March, Volodymyr Zelenskiy suspended the Opposition Platform for Life, a political party with 44 seats in the 450-seat Ukrainian Parliament, and a series of smaller parties, because of their alleged “links to Russia”. The Opposition Platform opposes Russia’s invasion but supports Ukraine’s neutrality. Anti-war viewpoints are censored and dubbed enemy propaganda.
Amid the multitude of inspiring reports about Ukraine’s wartime resistance, some now reveal a more complicated picture. Public opinion in Ukraine, to the extent that it can be measured, is more uncompromising now than before the war. A phone survey of 2,000 respondents in mid-May by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, for example, found 82 per cent agreed that “under no circumstances should Ukraine relinquish any of its territories, even if this prolongs the war and threatens its independence”. But probe further and there is a diversity of opinion in Ukraine about Crimea, the Donbas and beyond. Not everyone in Ukraine wants to fight and die in the Donbas. Many are aware there will be a territorial cost for peace.
Gerard Toal is professor of government and international affairs at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.