Thistlethwaite: Putin’s war against the West
The horrors of Putin’s attack on Ukraine are clear. What may be less clear is that all of us who live in democracies are also in his sights.
We need, therefore, to understand the full scope of what is happening. Vladimir Putin is trying to set the world clock back centuries, back before democracy and before rules of war were established.
The question is: Will he succeed?
Democracies around the world are undoubtedly fragile and war has never been just, but to date, participatory political systems and limiting the violence of conflict have worked.
People are better off, in the main, in democratic countries and when they are not being attacked.
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But without a doubt, Putin wants autocracy to triumph over democracy and total war waged on civilians to work.
Putin is committing war crimes in Ukraine. But he is also committing crimes against humanity. These crimes must be seen to include the strategic sabotaging of western democracies (such as influencing the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump) and relentlessly undermining confidence in them. He is not shy about his efforts to destroy democracy. Ahead of the June 2019 G20 summit in Japan, Putin said “’the liberal idea’ — the dominant western ideology since the end of World War II which includes things like multiculturalism, the rule of law, and respect for human rights — has ‘become obsolete’ and ‘outlived its purpose.’”
That means you and me. I don’t know about you, but I refuse to give up on democracy and the rule of law.
Russians are daily losing what freedoms they had before the invasion of Ukraine. Independent media outlets have been suppressed and Russians who come out to protest the war have been arrested.
Freedom of speech. Freedom of the press. Freedom of assembly. Freedom of religion. Freedom to petition the government. These are far from “obsolete” and they are more essential than ever. Politicians who favor autocracy are always trying to attack the media, criminalize peaceful protest, limit speech and so on. Can you “say gay” now in Florida? The whole struggle over “banning” certain books is also an attack on free speech, a culture wars weapon used by the right wing in this country.
I refuse to let democracy fail and I hope you feel the same. Free kids must be allowed to think and read freely. So must the rest of us. Creeping autocracy must be resisted at every turn. Everyone gets an equal vote.
I refuse to give up on the rules of war. Today even “conventional” weapons are so lethal, the rules such as not targeting civilians are ever more crucial. Thus it is clear Putin is committing war crimes in Ukraine. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on CNN’s “State of the Nation” on March 6 that preliminary reports suggest that Russia is deliberately targeting civilians as part of its invasion, which, if true, would amount to war crimes under international law.
The kind of weapons currently being used against civilians include cluster bombs and vacuum bombs, both of which constitute war crimes. Putin has rattled the nuclear sword, putting his nuclear capacity on alert.
So, yes. Putin must be investigated for war crimes. International criminal courts move glacially, but for history’s sake, the case must be made.
It is crucial, however, to see the attack on Ukraine as an attack on western democracies and indeed on the concepts of democracy, the rule of law, and restraining war.
We are in a global struggle of ideas. I know where I stand and I hope you do too.
Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is president emerita and professor emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.