Volodymyr Zelensky, the embattled President of Ukraine has taken the world by storm. It seems everyone on Earth is singing his praises. It can be easy to feel that he deserves his legendary status. It is almost impossible to imagine him as anything less than a superhero pushing back against tyranny and saving the world. Is this a realistic characterization that anyone can live up to?
The war in Ukraine is a devastating and painful mess of towering misfortunes. In making sense of this disaster, it is very difficult to separate ourselves from the finality of what may seem inevitable. We try to interpret this tragedy in ways that make sense to us, we fall back to our ancient stories of good versus evil, David versus Goliath. Yet unfortunately our ancient stories and modern analogies are no use to us in the 21st century, in reality they don’t help us understand the danger the world faces.
They do present convincing arguments when there is derisory emphasis on peaceful solutions to the war. We have to ask what is the goal in this war? We can assume the goal is to save lives, we can assume the goal is victory. By learning what’s most important we can more greatly understand the progress being made. Of most importance is for the war to de-escalate immediately.
It must be understood that escalation takes us in the wrong direction, because a war against a nuclear armed power can’t be won. Without this crucial realization the most impossible things become possible, like a hero saving the world. Of course it’s essential to have inspiration and motivation in trying times, but it’s also essential to be practical.
The reason why we should not admire Zelensky is because he doesn’t seem very committed to de-escalating the war. He has said that acquiring more weapons will definitely make him win the war; a powerful argument on its own, but when one considers that only a negotiated settlement can end the war, it dissolves into an impossible promise.
Zelensky’s seeming intransigence makes the possible solutions to the war even more bewildering. If a noble goal is to prevent a nuclear war, shouldn’t there be more emphasis on diplomacy? Yet Zelensky relentlessly implores the world for more and more weapons. Without any appearance of alternatives it’s very easy to assume that more weapons are the answer to ending the war and bringing peace.
At the same time he has both praised the idea of diplomacy and has dismissed it as being worthless, while simultaneously vowing to fight to the last city. Still, to promise things that are impossible does no one any favors. Most troubling of all are the arguments against diplomacy which have been echoed by millions of people who may not have considered the necessity of de-escalation.
This is where most of us have difficulty understanding what the next steps should be. In light of our ancient stories of good versus evil, we feel so strongly that Russia must be defeated. There is no other possibility in our minds than the absolute decimation of Russia. Yet Noam Chomsky has stressed from the very beginning of this war that Putin must be given a way out; not victory, but an escape, or as Chomsky emphasized, the worst may happen. This makes a peaceful end to the war even more hopelessly unpopular.
This is not a suggestion that Russia is blameless, only an explanation of what is necessary to make sense of this war, and how to end it. Without this all-important consideration we will be stuck in endless myth-making. The answer to this war is not more weapons. The answer is to push for diplomacy from all sides. The US, the UK and Ukraine must devote themselves to a diplomatic solution instead of further escalation. Everything must be done to prevent a nuclear war, especially when peace is possible.
Edward Alvarez writes from San Diego. Ralph E. Shaffer, professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona, contributed to this article.