Ukraine's Future Hinges on Holding the Moral High Ground Now
Ukraine's Future Hinges on Holding the Moral High Ground Now
If you lean toward supporting Russia in its invasion of Ukraine, or if you’re a pacifist convinced of the inherent criminality of armed conflict, you’ll find evidence that, for all of its adroit messaging, Ukraine’s conduct during the war is hardly impeccable.
There’s the recent United Nations report that appears to confirm Vladimir Putin’s frequent accusation that the Ukrainian military uses civilians as “living shields” — a practice banned by the Geneva Conventions — by deploying in residential areas and buildings from which people have not been evacuated. Both the UN and some reputable human rights organizations also have questioned Ukraine’s treatment of Russian prisoners of war.
There’s the alarming story of Ukraine’s former human rights commissioner, Lyudmyla Denysova, who told horror tales of child rape by Russian soldiers that could not be independently confirmed after getting her daughter a contract with the international aid organization UNICEF to run a telephone helpline. The daughter apparently provided the evidence-free material to Denysova, strengthening the Russian narrative that Ukraine is faking evidence of Russian atrocities.
There’s former Ukrainian ambassador to Germany Andriy Melnyk’s stubborn defense of Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, whom Poles and Israelis consider a genocidaire but whom many Ukrainians, especially in the country’s west, revere for his single-minded pursuit of his people’s independent statehood. Melnyk’s scandalous apologia for the nationalist assassinated in Germany by the KGB has added fuel to Putin’s claim that Ukraine needs “denazification.”
Finally, examples abound of Ukrainians profiting from the national emergency. In April, the Ukrainian parliament lifted customs duties to speed the import of vehicles for the military and emergency services. In the next two months, almost 100,000 vehicles were imported, including a Ferrari, a McLaren and other expensive cars; on July 1, the customs duty was reimposed. Given how corruption-rotted Ukraine’s economy has been throughout the post-Soviet years, stories of wartime graft, profiteering and abuse of Western assistance will doubtless increase once peace is restored.
You could dismiss these unsavory examples simply by recalling the most fundamental fact of the war: Ukraine is the side that has been attacked and invaded by its much bigger neighbor. It is the wronged party and the underdog. All independent reports overwhelmingly blame Russia for wreaking outrage on civilians, from targeting residential areas to documented cases of rape and summary execution. Russian propaganda lies on a grand scale. Putin’s increasingly fascist, almost-totalitarian regime has no right to talk of denazifying anyone.
And let’s be clear: Western human rights activists and UN officials arguably lack the moral standing to hold Ukrainians to account. For all the military aid Western nations have sent, they have not put boots on the ground for Ukraine. So any aberrant behavior on Ukrainians’ part must be weighed against the trauma they have endured by watching Russians pillage, kill, raze entire cities to the ground — with the world effectively standing on the sidelines.
Yet such a blanket dismissal would be a cop-out. Here’s why.
Modern Russia and Ukraine have been forged by the same brutal Soviet tradition: Win at any cost, give no quarter to enemies, lie if that’s what it takes to win, grab your chances wherever you see them. Information on Ukraine’s military losses is more carefully guarded than that on Russian KIA and MIA numbers, and not even the UN knows how many prisoners each side has taken. Just as Russia has thrown waves of young soldiers from its poorest regions into the meat grinder of urban combat, so Ukraine has engaged in ruthless triage, sacrificing troops and civilians in some cities that have been all but erased to bleed the invaders and keep them out of the rest of the country. “War will wipe the slate clean,” as they used to say in Russia and Ukraine during World War II. The unsentimental, bitter tradition is, in part, why the belligerents are worthy of each other militarily — and why few nations would do better fighting against either Russia or Ukraine.
But while Russia is unlikely to subject itself to any public reckoning for its crimes even if it loses on the battlefield — t-shirts emblazoned with “I am Russian and I’m not ashamed” say it in so many words — Ukraine’s civilizational choice in favor of the West and its status as a country that has lost more lives than any other this century in an effort to remain a sovereign democracy do not allow it to adopt this kind of attitude.
Regardless of the military outcome of the conflict as it’s been conducted in recent months — as a war of attrition fought for bits of territory — Ukraine’s stalwart effort to retain its statehood and independence represents a decisive victory. Now, despite the urgency of staving off further Russian gains and the hope of reversing the ones already made, Ukraine also must consider what kind of country it will be once some kind of peace is re-established — and what kind of country it doesn’t want to be.
Will it enter the post-war reality perpetually embittered and perpetually entitled, always complaining that it didn’t get enough help during the war and isn’t getting enough for its reconstruction efforts? Will it justify political repression by the need to eradicate Russian influence? Will it sink again into the familiar quagmire of thievery as its elite tries to seize the day while Western aid is still forthcoming? Will it, like some Balkan nations after the Yugoslav wars, cover up for its war criminals and honor Nazi collaborators as its spiritual precursors?
Ukraine is no stranger to bad choices made after its most heroic moments — witness the botched state-building efforts after both of its 21st century revolutions.
This time around, however, there are hopeful signs, even amid the invasion’s horrors. Not only was Human Rights Commissioner Denysova fired by the parliament, but Ukrainska Pravda, one of the country’s top news outlets, published an investigation into her unconfirmed claims and her daughter’s UNICEF gig. “This story doesn’t attempt to cast doubt on Russians’ rapes in Ukraine,” Ukrainska Pravda wrote. “But untrue stories about it only play into the enemy’s hands.” It’s hard to imagine a Russian news outlet following a similar logic.
Ambassador Melnyk has been fired, too, along with several colleagues. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy provided no explanation for the move, but the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry officially distanced itself from Melnyk’s defense of Bandera. Clearly, the Ukrainian government — at least under this president and with the current pro-European agenda — is not going to reinforce the nationalist’s cult, which has flourished since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. Keeping up good relations with a neighbor such as Poland, which has accepted millions of Ukrainian refugees and donated generously to the war effort, takes precedence over misplaced national pride.
As for the way Ukrainians are fighting, Zelenskiy’s increasingly successful drive to procure Western long-range artillery and the skillful use of the new weapons to take out Russian ammunition depots signal a welcome shift from earlier, forced scorched-earth tactics. Ukraine’s desire to fight a more modern war rather than engage in grueling 20th century-style trench and urban warfare is evident — and, even if Western allies won’t send troops, at least they can help shift the character of the battlefield action.
As the world’s attention inevitably drifts away from what has become a protracted, slow-moving conflict, Ukraine cannot afford to backslide and become indistinguishable from its enemy. Much to their credit, Zelenskiy and his team appear to be aware of the danger. Holding the moral high ground that Ukraine has gained at huge cost is as important as battlefield heroism if it is to win a better future for its people, not just the fight over territory.