And so, Putin has crossed the line.
During an Ubu-esque meeting in which he chastised his minions as though in a bad Ernst Lubitsch film, he recognized the independence of the separatist territories of Donbass.
And so here we have the West ridiculed; Ukraine defeated; and thousands of men and women who have fought for eight years to maintain the freedom of Luhansk and Donetsk, handed over to thugs.
In the fog of provocations and lies still to come, we must satisfy ourselves, for now, with recalling the following:
No. 1: Russia has no right to Ukraine. None. No right to amputate, and no right to dictate its alliances. Of course, geopolitics is an affair of power relations. But right remains right. This dictates that peoples are not pawns for the powerful in the Great Game of empires. That the United States and Russia, when Ukraine renounced in 1994 its nuclear arsenal, formally took over guaranteeing Ukraine’s security. In violating borders, Putin has betrayed his word. He has revealed his true face. He has banished himself from the concert of nations.
No. 2: Ukraine, he said, has a common history with Russia. But, remember this: It was a colonization. And then, under the Bolsheviks, the strategy of the “iron sweep” to rid Odessa of its anarchists. Then, with Stalin, the Holodomor, the extermination by hunger, that made at least 4 million victims. The rest—the bad literature about the so-called “fraternity” of the Slavic peoples, the fable of the “Kievan Rus’” that would be, in the late ninth century, the cradle of a Russia yet to exist— just smacks of propaganda. Either Putin knows this and is playing the fool, or he is ignorant of it, and we should recommend he read Vasily Grossman, Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, or more recently, Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine. As for us in the West, we had one and only one task: As in Afghanistan, Kurdistan, and everywhere peoples strive to embrace democracy, help Ukraine unfetter these bonds of subjection, misfortune, and death.
No. 3: Putin, beyond the hour-and-a-half of verbal diarrhea he unleashed on us, has a goal. Only one. To weaken Ukraine. To bring it to its political knees. To break the democratic élan launched eight years ago by the citizenry assembled in Kyiv’s Maidan. His method was calumny, offense, the transformation into fascists of the hundreds of youths who died clutching the starred flag of Europe. And he had another method: sending the little green men of the FSB to Donbass with batches of Russian passports; the open mustering of his army to stop an alleged genocide; then, in the days that followed, an occupation in the style of Prague or Budapest. He did both. It’s a historic crime against Ukraine and a frontal attack on Europe and the West.
No. 4: We hear this one a lot: The diplomats will have to be back on the scene to help Putin calm down, to stop him, to help him save face. Maybe. I don’t know. But one thing is sure. We should not reverse the roles and lose sight of the fact that it was Putin, and he alone, who broke the taboo over war in Europe. We must remember that it’s Ukraine, and Ukraine alone, that honor commands us to save from an atrocious and announced offensive. And, even if things end there and we can breathe a sigh of shameful relief, it behooves us to never forget how, well before today’s troubles, from last December and January, the Kremlin described Europe as a wide-ranging “theater of military conflict” (Alexander Grushko, deputy minister of foreign affairs); brandished the threat of a “preventive” nuclear strike of the kind Israel wields against Iran (Andrey Kartapolov, chair of the Duma’s Defense Committee); and let partisan and friendly media (Svobodnaya Pressa) announce that, in the case of an enlarged NATO, Russia would vitrify “all of Europe and two-thirds of the United States in thirty minutes.” No peace agreement could erase these staggering declarations, without precedent, which I assembled in a piece from Jan. 18. Or else, it would be a Munich-style peace.
No. 5: Does all this mean that we should not take into account Russia’s feeling of being surrounded, mistreated, humiliated? I think that this humiliation is a myth. I remember how NATO, since 1994, proposed to Russia a “partnership for peace.” How Russia was invited to join the Council of Europe and the G7. I remember the 2002 NATO-Russia summit in Rome. And Barack Obama’s July 2009 visit to Moscow, offering a reset of all nonconventional weaponry. And the self-imposed limits, up to and including Donald Trump and Joe Biden, on the number and reach of American weapons deployed in Europe (even while Russia violated its agreements). I can see no other example of a fallen empire that benefited from such sweet consideration from its adversaries. And I believe that the legend of Russian humiliation is the last trap that must be avoided.
This is what the next red lines should be, after the disaster in Donbass.
Beyond that would reign a diplomacy that, true to the etymology of the word, would consist of bowing obsequiously before force.
The same causes producing the same effects, it would be the return of the terrible 20th century.
Translated from the French by Matthew Fishbane.
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 most recent film, Slava Ukraini, premiered nationwide on May 5, 2023.