Russia’s Attack of Ukraine: 6 Questions With George Weigel

Why does the Russian invasion of Ukraine pose a major threat to global order and stability? And what more could Pope Francis do right now?

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the National Space Center construction site in Moscow on Sunday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the National Space Center construction site in Moscow on Sunday. (photo: Sergei Guneyev / Sputnik / AFP via Getty Images)

Papal biographer George Weigel has criticized Russia’s incursions into Ukraine since the annexation of Crimea eight years ago. Its attack of its neighboring country last week only reinforced Vladimir Putin’s ongoing campaign of aggression, Weigel writes

Senior Editor Joan Frawley Desmond interviewed Weigel, the distinguished senior fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, by email Feb. 27.


Why does the Russian invasion of Ukraine pose a major threat to global order and stability?

Because it is a completely unwarranted and unprovoked aggression, aimed at decapitating a peaceful neighbor and replacing its democratically-elected government with a government either pleasing to Mr. Putin or even willing to reunite Ukraine in some fashion with Russia. That is manifestly not the will of the Ukrainian people, including the overwhelming majority of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. If the world acquiesces in Putin’s aggression, the world will become a free-fire zone in which aggressors have the initiative and the forces of peace and freedom are constantly on the defensive. That is not a world that any of us should wish to live in.    


As you have noted, Putin has sought both to present Ukraine as not being a real country worth defending, and its government as being led by “Nazis and drug addicts.” In the U.S., voices on the right and in the Catholic Church have echoed some of this propaganda, at least until the past couple of days. Why has Putin's propaganda been successful, and should the Catholic Church in the US do more to publicly challenge such lies? 

It's not the business of the institutional Church to counter Putin's rancid propaganda, but it is the business of the people of the Church not to be fooled by ideologically-drunken media commentators and Catholic bloggers. The notion of Putin as some sort of defender of Christian civilization has always been risible: The man is a murderer, a thief and a liar. He poisons his opponents and he poisons the information space.  As for the new isolationism to which some U.S. Catholics seem susceptible, that makes about as much sense as the old isolationism of the 1930s. It’s a make-believe world, and acting as if it’s the real world always leads to trouble in the really real world. 


You have suggested that the U.S. should go on the “moral offensive,” and turn Putin into a global pariah. Have the U.S. and its NATO allies begun to do this effectively? 

Not really. Putin is one of the world’s wealthiest men, because he has stolen tens of billions of dollars from his own country. The West should identify his financial assets, including the fronts behind which he hides his money, and show the world the Xanadu-like properties he has built with the money he has stolen. Ukrainian friends are also launching a “Punish Putin” Project that will seek to have the Russian autocrat arraigned for war crimes at the International Criminal Court, as was done with the chief villains of the Balkans War of the 1990s. The object of all of this should be to convince the people who empower Putin by acquiescing in his thuggery that he is no longer worth supporting.   


Pope Francis recently visited the Russian embassy to press for peace in Ukraine. What more could he do right now? 

Pope Francis’ call for a world day of prayer and fasting for Ukraine on Ash Wednesday was helpful and heartening for my Ukrainian friends. I doubt that there is much the Holy See can do diplomatically, although it would be helpful if senior Vatican officials would stop blaming the war on a “conflict of interests” and use language like “unjust aggression” and “unjust invasion of a neighbor.” There is, however, a lot the Vatican could do to cleanse the moral atmosphere of the ecumenical space. The Russian Orthodox Church’s leadership has long been a bulwark of Putin’s regime. A few weeks before the invasion of Ukraine, Putin awarded the Moscow Patriarchate’s chief ecumenical officer, Metropolitan Hilarion, the “Order of St. Alexander Nevsky,” and a day before the invasion Patriarch Kirill sent a flowery tribute to Putin on the occasion of a Russian holiday honoring veterans. Kirill and Hilarion should be told by the Vatican that all ecumenical contacts between the Holy See and the Patriarchate of Moscow are suspended until they condemn Putin’s aggression and thereby demonstrate that they are churchmen, not merely agents of Russian state power. 


You quote one Ukrainian leader stating the following: “Evil will not stop itself. It needs to be stopped.” Is the U.S. still comfortable employing language like the “battle against good and evil,” or President Bush’s adoption of Pope St. John Paul II’s language on the “culture of life” and the “culture of death”? Will the Russian invasion force Washington and the American public clarity to confront our role in the world and the values we stand for? 

There is an awful lot of confusion in America about these questions, with some saying that our own faults as a society and culture mean that we're in no position to condemn aggression. I’m sorry, but if you can't tell the difference between a deluded public library holding a trans-friendly reading hour for children and a full-scale, lethal invasion of another country, you are far gone in ideology and detached from reality. I take a back seat to no one in deploring the cultural swill that too often surrounds us. That has to be addressed, and in movements like the parents’ movement to take back public schools, it’s being addressed. But mature citizens ought to be able to see there is no contradiction between working for a deep reform of American public culture and working to defend our friends when they are under attack.


Ukrainian Church leaders have argued that the defense of Ukraine's sovereignty is the new battlefield for Western civilizational values. Why is this the case? 

Because the Ukrainian “Revolution of Dignity” in 2013-2014, which led to Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine, was explicitly built upon the values of respect for human life and human dignity, a noble understanding of freedom, and a desire to build a responsible democracy. That is why the leaders of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church wholeheartedly supported that “Revolution of Dignity,” and why they support a flawed but growing Ukrainian democracy today. So should we.

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