Updated: Mar 12, 2022
After decades of practice, Putin brought his rhetoric of “no choice” to near perfection, on the perfect occasion: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
For an extended of this post, see the Cornell Sun.
Five years ago, a friend visiting Kyiv sent me a photograph from Maidan Nezalezhnosti “Independence Square.” Freedom is Our Religion read the bold banner covering the city’s House Trade Unions building, which was damaged by fire during the 2014 Revolution of Dignity: the mass protests that overthrew the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.
It was an arresting, and puzzling, banner: if freedom is religion, does it have a god? Is it man? What worship, indeed sacrifice, would such religious freedom demand? What are its articles of faith? And, of course, what happens when this freedom is put to its utmost test, that of “bad faith” – the doctrine of “no choice”? Unfortunately, we are about to find out.
Practice makes perfect and might makes right? The twin adages could hardly find a more insidious agent than Russian President Vladimir Putin. After decades of practice, Putin brought his rhetoric of “no choice” to near perfection, on the perfect occasion: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In his address to the nation on February 24, Putin effectively described his foreign policy as completely reactive, mechanically caused by external forces that always leave him – and Russia – with only one course of action.
Annexing Crimea? Intervening in Syria? “We had no other choice. The same is happening today. They did not leave us any other option for defending Russia and our people, other than the one we are forced to use today.” This was no in-passing comment, but a leitmotif that became yet more apparent when Putin explained his move to Russian businesspeople: “I would like to say first, and that’s the main thing you have to understand: what is happening… we were not given any other chances to act otherwise… we couldn’t react any other way… we had to do it because the very existence of our country is at stake.”
Politics is often like that: the more existential, the less existentialist; the more one frames matters as life and death, the less one presents their decisions and actions as volitional. We have seen it throughout the pandemic: Politicians told us that because life is on the line, we must do this and that, and we often followed suit. The politics of bad faith prospers because it is effective: if there is "no choice," there is no need for justification, let alone for truly taking responsibility. But it need not be so: even if, indeed especially if, it’s a matter of survival, there is always a choice (and to state the obvious, Ukranian independence hardly risks Russia's existence).
Now the question turns to the people of Ukraine and to the West. Now that it is war, now that is a matter of life and death, do they too have “no choice” but…? If the Dignity Revolution turned freedom into religion, what will the 2022 Russian invasion to Ukraine make of it? If the Ukrainian people are about to lose their independence, again, what will they make of their freedom?