Heartbreaking in so many respects, Putin’s drive to extirpate Ukrainian independence is also a tragedy for the democratic prospect, writ large. Ukrainian nationalism, after all, is marred by its own dark legacy of intolerance, from the slaughter of Jews by Khmelnytsky’s hoards to the pogroms under Symon Petliura to the pro-Nazi fascism of Stephan Bandera. Unlikely candidates for democratic leadership among post-Soviet republics, Ukrainians peacefully toppled an authoritarian regime in favor of a freely elected government, headed not by an oligarch or former KGB hack, but by an actor, and a Jewish descendant of holocaust survivors. While the country’s political system remains plagued by corruption, Freedom House says its electoral process is marked by “dynamic competition among parties,” and notes that women’s rights rallies and LGBT parades take place openly and under police protection. In historical perspective, the democratic transformation of Ukraine’s political culture has been truly momentous, a symbol of hope at a time when democracy is in retreat around the globe.
Hanna Arendt traced the degeneration of the European nation state to its transformation “from an instrument of law to the instrument of the nation.” In his speech to the Russian parliament, Putin justified his own aggression in blatantly irredentist terms, claiming Ukrainian territory as historically Russian while describing the very existence of Ukraine as artificial. And so it was that the armed might of a nuclear superpower was removed from the realm of law and put at the disposal of an ethnocratic fantasy aimed at stamping a country of 44 million people out of existence.
If Arendt is right, the liberal democratic order, anchored in law and standing above the assorted proclivities of its constituent national groups, is the apotheosis of the modern state. Its defeat at the hands of the nation paves the way for unbridled totalitarianism. The history of Ukraine shows there is nothing inevitable about this process. Democracy can flower in the most unlikely of places. It can also wither and die.
The promise and the tragedy of Ukraine should give pause to all democratic societies. This includes Israel, where the internal contradictions of our own political system bode ill for its long term sustainability. While in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, a healthy debate rages about the limits of police power and the invasion of privacy, just over the Green Line in the occupied West Bank clerico-ethnic settler militias terrorize Palestinians and destroy their property with impunity, cowing the Israeli military into acquiescence. Ominously, Israel’s extra legal settlement enterprise — which views the state and its armed forces as just another tool at the disposal of some eschatological fantasy — has become the lodestar of political respectability on the Israeli right, and the arbiter of government coalitions. It is a dissonance that cannot long endure.
Modern states, it seems, contain the bacillus of their own degeneration. Trump, Victor Orban, VOX and the AFD show that no country, regardless of its history, is completely immune. The absence of a strategy to defend Ukraine from aggression, despite years of advance warning, is evidence of a festering isolationist contagion that crosses ideological lines. Does this point to an even deeper affliction in the free world? To survive, democracy must perpetually confront its malaise, vaccinate it back to the harmless fringes, overcome its debilitating effects on collective resolve. Before we can stand up to our enemies, we must believe in ourselves. Democratic resolve was tested in Ukraine. It faltered, and a powerful beacon of democratic transformation is being extinguished. Democracy will inevitably be tested again, perhaps in Taiwan, or in places we cannot yet imagine. Next time, we cannot lose.