Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
Rabbi Steven PruzanskyCourtesy

If platitudes were weapons, Ukraine would by now be advancing on Moscow.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, unprovoked except by paranoia, has been devastating and deadly for Ukrainians and Russians but has also exposed the moral weakness of the West. Ukraine has been overrun by clichés – Western expressions of sympathy, empathy, compassion, commiseration, concern, condolences, solidarity, respect, admiration, and warmth. Ukrainians have been the focus of an infinite number of prayers and the beneficiaries of the newest Western sign of support – hashtags.

In place of weapons they have received words, and even with weapons now pouring in to Ukraine, it seems evident that this is being done to assuage Western consciences more than to change the strategic equation or enable Ukraine to survive.

With the West having from the beginning ruled out the use of force, and currently even rejecting repeated pleas for the creation of a no-fly zone, the carnage in Ukraine continues unabated. Its ultimate conclusion rests in the hands of one unpredictable Russian man who can either look for a settlement that preserves some of his interests or carry on with an invasion that will result in the deaths of tens of thousands and the destruction of a country.

If Russia prevails, it is hard to conceive of a more Pyrrhic victory. If Putin assumed that Ukraine did not constitute a legitimate nation, Ukraine’s spirited defense of its territory and people proves otherwise and will make for one very unpleasant occupation.

It is hard to say that war could have been avoided. I was in the camp of those who believed that Putin would not invade but would succeed in gaining most of his strategic objectives without the need for an invasion. After all, prior territorial seizures in Ukraine were tacitly accepted by the West with strong words but little else. The immediate response to the invasion – sanctions (which for decades now have not deterred Cuba, North Korea or Iran from seeking their strategic aims) – was extremely unlikely to deter Russia which, after all, withstood the 872 day Nazi siege of Leningrad that claimed one million Russian lives.

Projecting Western notions of morality or politics onto Putin – he’s down in the polls, he’s losing popularity, he doesn’t care about the material welfare of his people – was always fanciful, and irrelevant in any dictatorship whose survival depends not on popularity but on raw power

Ukraine, even under Zelensky, has not once voted in support of Israel at the UN. There is also a sizable Jewish community in Russia that is protected but still vulnerable
Putin was certainly emboldened by the fecklessness of Western leadership – a feeble American president, a Europe dependent on Russian energy, and a materialistic, flaccid West tired of war and even tired of paying for defense. When you continually announce ahead of time what you will not do, what troops or weapons you will not send, and even wink at acquiescing to a “minor incursion,” you have essentially invited aggression. Then again, this war was unnecessary, the product of Putin’s paranoia that somehow, for some inexplicable reason, NATO wishes to invade Russia and Putin’s job is to prevent that.

But why would NATO – which has never invaded anything – want to invade Russia? It is a concise application of the Talmudic principle (Kiddushin 70a) that “He who disqualifies others…does so with his own flaws.” A revanchist aggressor sees everyone around him as a revanchist aggressor as well.

And what Putin also failed to anticipate was the resolute courage of President Zelenskyy, a stark contrast in vigor and values to most Western leaders for whom courage usually consists of a snarky tweet against a universally accepted and convenient target. Zelenskyy’s fearlessness is extraordinary in modern times, especially given the stakes and his options.

But what of the West – and what of Israel and the Jewish people? Focusing on the humanitarian crisis is an appropriate response but it is post facto and serves to deflect from the main problem. To be sure, it is complicated. It was Lord Palmerston, the 19th century British Prime Minister, who declared with great perspicacity that nations "have no permanent alliances, only permanent interests.." And each country responds according to those interests. That the West (not to mention Russia) guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the Budapest Agreement when Ukraine relinquished its nuclear arsenal in 1994 is as relevant as was Eisenhower’s 1957 guarantee to maintain Israel’s freedom of passage through the Straits of Tiran (a guarantee forgotten a decade later and provoked the Six Day War).

The Western focus on saving refugees – while pursuing policies that do nothing to inhibit the creation of more refugees – is benevolent but hollow. Standing by while civilians are being massacred, and sufficing with unleashing a torrent of verbal condemnations, makes the bystanders feel better about themselves but does little to help the victims. The purveyors of platitudes are talking to themselves far more than they are talking to the aggressor. Raising funds for refugees is noble but preventing the creation of more refugees is even nobler.

Israel’s role is certainly, and mindbogglingly, complex. On the one hand, the moral outrage cries out for action, not just words. On the other hand, Israel has pursued good relations with Russia for over a decade now, as a counterforce to US vacillations and the encroachment of Iran. It is not an alliance but the occasional convergence of interests. In 2016, Russia allegedly quashed an Obama-proposed UN Security Council resolution endorsing the creation of a Palestinian state.

Ukraine, even under Zelensky, has notonce voted in support of Israel at the UN. There is also a sizable Jewish community in Russia that is protected but still vulnerable. To condemn Russia outright jeopardizes Israel’s interests. To ignore wanton attacks on civilians jeopardizes Israel’s moral posture. It is realpolitik at its most agonizing.

And yet. Doing the right thing always entails some risk; otherwise it would be simple and unremarkable. In six weeks, when Jews commemorate Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) one of the persistent themes we enunciate is how the world stood by and did nothing, how they heard the cries of the victims and were silent. Well, yes, that is so because the world usually stands by and does nothing. The “world” is amoral; it is the responsibility of the human beings who inhabit that world to infuse it with morality. When those human beings make their calculations, and struggle over the complexities, and weigh their interests and their values on opposite sides of the scale when confronted with unfolding atrocities, we easily discern how evil can proliferate. During the Holocaust, each nation – and each individual – also wrestled with competing interests and values and the results were painfully evident.

There are three possible responses to evil: public protests against the crimes, apathy in the face of human suffering or even hostility to the victims. But when all three responses eventuate in passivity and inaction, the protests are not much more than virtue-signaling, and are not much more edifying than the latter two reactions. We don’t have much to complain about if our reactions are similar to the reactions of others. And it should make us even more awestruck by the actions of the Righteous Gentiles who risked their lives to shelter Jews. That has never been the norm of human behavior.

What has become the norm is that after every atrocity, someone will piously intone “never again,” and then someone else will piously intone “never again” after the next atrocity, and so on. It is certainly better than indifference. How much better? That is a question each person has to answer. It would seem that a no-fly zone is the least the West should do at this point. There is a slight risk of a nuclear exchange (Putin, I hope, is not suicidal), but the alternative is to give nuclear powers carte blanche to indulge in mischief around the world. This is a notion that Russia is testing, and which Iran is watching carefully. Israel should take note as well.