When asked in 1917 if the French army would hold, then president of France, Raymond Poincaré, responded, “It will hold if the rear holds.”
Well, the same is true for the Ukrainian army.
On all fronts it has been astoundingly valiant.
At a terrible cost, it has driven the Russians from Kyiv, Borodyanka, and Mykolaiv.
Signs point to a possible counterattack in the lost territories of Donbas.
And the demoralization of the Russian army, the shortages of munitions and spare parts for its tanks, the casualties it has suffered, mean that Putin’s victories are more brittle than is acknowledged, and that the summer of 2022 may, one day, appear as the equivalent for his “special operation” of what the summer of 1941 was for Hitler and his Operation Barbarossa.
The problem is … the rear.
Or, more exactly—since, in the strictest sense, the rear, meaning Ukrainian society, has shown a spirit of resistance equal to that of its fighters—the problem is the rear behind the rear or the bloc of allied countries supplying weapons.
The problem is the state of public opinion in the West and the mandate that it provides—or does not provide—for Western governments to continue delivering the weapons that Ukraine urgently needs to withstand the onslaught of the country-continent that is Russia.
Some worrisome signs have appeared.
In one corner we have the patter about “escalation,” which is allegedly causing us to fall, like “sleepwalkers,” into the “gears” of war.
In another corner, we have “the price of gas”—akin to Ambassador Paul Claudel’s price of bacon in his 1925 dispute with the Surrealists—which supposedly justifies all sorts of ignominious behavior.
In yet another corner, the “dictatorship of emotion” from which clearer heads attempted to free us. (Against this putative dictatorship, are we being invited to choose a form of freedom whose central principle is cold-heartedness?)
In short, the worry is this fatigue, this weariness, this wearing away of compassion that British essayist and war reporter David Patrikarakos diagnosed so well in his June 24 Daily Mail article.
Was our anger over Ukraine no more than a brushfire?
Was the solidarity we showed in the early weeks of the war more a pose than a firm position?
Do the names of the destroyed regions of Ukraine constitute not a martyrology but only a sad waltz?
And what of the streets of our towns and villages hung with blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian sky and of its wheat, from which the world’s bread is kneaded? Are these Monet’s “La Rue Montorgueil” or Manet’s “La Rue Mosnier,” where French flags flew from the windows after the occupants had washed their hands of the massacre of the Paris Commune?
That is what Putin is counting on.
I picture him in the cold calm of his dacha passing time and measuring, with the obsessive precision of a KGB agent, the time required for a public saturated with images to become inured to the suffering of Ukraine’s fighters, to the violence wreaked on aged citizens, to trembling children.
Putin no doubt sees the democracies as capricious and changeable, frivolous and fickle. All he has to do is wait.
Like Lavrov and Medvedev, his frothing pit bulls, he is thinking that in Berlin, Paris, Rome, Washington, and even London the horrified cries will drop an octave, die down, and eventually go silent.
And he knows that when that day comes, people will find every reason in the world to look away as he will give Volodymyr Zelensky the last blow and stockade.
This calculus must be thwarted.
The machinery of changing mood and encroaching fatigue must be halted.
For if it were to run its course, it would be the death knell for a European people living and dying in the name of Europe’s values.
It would signify that we of Old Europe are like the heroine of Beckett’s masterpiece Happy Days who, under her delicate parasol, had her legs, her midsection, then her entire body buried in an embankment of sand from which only her lips protruded, mouthing words, or rather chatter, that became more voluble as it ceased to make sense.
From Iran to China (with its sights on Taiwan), from the balconies of the ancient Ottoman Empire to those of a new Islamist caliphate eager to reemerge, all eyes are on this spectacle.
The petty dictators, who dream of destroying everything that is most noble, most universal, and most beautiful in the European experiment, are waiting for us at this turn in the road.
It is now or never.
We can either discourage despots by showing up in force at our rendezvous with the people of Ukraine—or we can admit that we abetted our own moral collapse, our slide into senility of spirit and slow descent into death, processes that touch not only individuals but also peoples and systems.
Democracy or tyranny.
A gust of courage or the flapping wing of imbecility.
In the face of Putin’s challenge, that is the question.
Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 30 books including The Genius of Judaism, American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and The Empire and the Five Kings. His new book, The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope, was published on October 25, 2021 by Yale University Press.