Zohar Levy ’22 is a senior studying Linguistics and Modern Languages. She served as co-president of Stanford’s Jewish Student Association.
After my family sought a safe haven in the United States following World War II, I’ve often wondered why the country of my birthplace didn’t act sooner. Why didn’t the U.S. destroy Nazi railroads that shipped millions of Jews and others across continental Europe to their horrific deaths during the Holocaust? I’ve wondered how Western leaders could have possibly let Hitler get away with hateful and absurd ideologies for years. Today, I’m wondering why the U.S. isn’t stopping Vladimir Putin’s path toward an unimaginable annihilation of Ukraine, Europe and the West as we know it.
From behind our American TV screens and online newspapers, Putin’s so-called “special military operation” of Ukraine seemed impossible to imagine. Up until the moment when Russian troops and missiles crossed the border on February 24, 2022, citizens in the U.S. and in European allied-countries denied the plausibility that Putin could be this illogical and aggressive. The U.S. government released intelligence and a public information campaign rightly forecasting the invasion but has been criticized for miscalculating a quick Russian win and for not acting earlier (for example, by sending weapons in advance or encouraging the mobilization of Ukrainian troops).
These naïve assumptions about tragedies in Europe are not new to the Western mindset.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve studied the history of the Holocaust. As the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor from Vienna, I have listened to hundreds of survivor stories, visited monuments and museums, worked at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, conducted research about the migration of Jews escaping Europe and in many ways let the histories and values of Jewish survival and flourishing shape my life.
While the methods, ideologies and structures employed by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in the 1930s and 1940s are unlike the current invasion of Ukraine, I can’t help but see similarities emerge.
Putin has taken tips from Hitler’s playbook. Much like Hitler’s insistence that his 1938 invasion of Czechoslovakia reunited ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland with their German compatriots, Putin claims to defend ethnic Russians from Ukraine’s persecution. Then and now, Hitler and Putin’s romanticizing and reclaiming of past nationalistic empires cloak their disregard for other countries’ right to their national autonomy.
The unacceptably weak acquiescence of the West toward Nazi Germany rings eerily similar to the lack of substantive response to Putin’s campaign against Ukraine today.
Before February 24, the thought of a military campaign for the “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine seemed insane. Now it is real. War has once again taken over Europe. Pictures of slaughtered Ukrainian men, women and children have been flashing behind my eyelids for two months now. Putin has decimated countless communities, families and lives. The damage is far from over. The threat to democracy, to autonomy, to human rights, to peace, to global stability, is imminent.
The graphic and painful images of Ukrainian bodies, crumpled and lifeless in the streets, have been headlining the front pages of newspapers and prime-time television. As of April 6, over 10 million people, 25% of Ukraine’s pre-war population of 44 million, have been forced to leave their homes. Another 12 million “are thought to be stranded or unable to leave areas affected by the fighting.” We are hearing breaking reports of massacres and mass graves, threats of chemical and nuclear weapons, missile strikes of civilian areas and widespread rape and sexual violence. It’s time to listen.
Russian tactics and violence today are not so different from the initial invasions of Nazi Germany. And much like its isolationist strategy in the 1940s, the U.S. seems to believe that Putin’s war isn’t a direct attack on American democracy, or that the invasion of Ukraine isn’t already a World War. Like before, the U.S. is being naïve by primarily pursuing diplomatic solutions and sending weapons abroad.
Victor Pinchuk illustrates the problem simply in his op-ed “Ukraine Needs More Than Sympathy From the West to Beat Russia.” While the West concerns itself with ethical ways to contain the war, “Russia abides by no such restraints, using mass deception, false-flag attacks, forbidden arms, mercenaries and terrorists.” Hitler clearly did not play by the same code of Western ethics, either.
I want to make it clear that I do not wish to compromise on the crucial values of the free world in order to fight Putin’s immorality and lawlessness. This consideration of democratic and ethical values is exactly what sets the U.S. and her allies apart from Russian autocratic rule. With that being said, supplying weapons and aid to Ukraine, even alongside crippling sanctions on Russia and calls for a cease-fire, is not enough.
Putin has proved that he doesn’t care about the sanctions devastating the Russian economy and society. His army is bombing hospitals, train stations, schools and community centers. The Mariupol hospital airstrike of March 9 targeted a maternity ward, and many other medical centers have been bombed since. Later that month in Mariupol, Putin shelled an art school sheltering 400 Ukrainian civilians. Even if we terribly misjudge and overestimate the capabilities of the Russian Air Force, it is very unlikely that these strikes against defenseless civilians were a misfire.
These facts indicate that we are beyond diplomacy and conflict mediation. With little knowledge of what might come next, I turn back to history. I haven’t forgotten that U.S. involvement helped liberate Europe from the clutches of Nazi Germany.
In many ways, the stakes for the West to act this time are even higher. We cannot ignore the egregious crimes happening right in front of our eyes. With the democratization of news through social media and the internet, we are watching the bombings and the murders live. Nuclear weapons are no longer a theoretical Manhattan Project and could very well be used at any time.
I do not have a policy or military solution, nor do I have an outline of how to bring about peace and carry out justice. Even so, there is a pressing moral compulsion to take more action against these war crimes. I am not advocating for a declaration of war — indeed, war with Putin’s Russia would have tremendous consequences, including even greater loss of life and a possible global nuclear war. Is there a way to forfeit Russia’s seat as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council? What about cultural and diplomatic boycotts? Could we embolden other nation-state actors such as China or India to persuade Putin to stand down? I want to trust that the West is truly doing everything it can to help victims of Putin’s evil. There must be more that we can do.
Putin may not be winning on the battlefield. But his claim that “everything is going to plan” may not be incorrect. His actions in Ukraine have already proven a victory in undermining the values of the West, such as “the entire concept of international law.” At the same time, Putin has unintentionally and perversely reminded the West about what rights to peace, dignity, autonomy and justice mean, and how we have to actively protect these democratic values.
We in the West should be more disturbed and unsettled by this repetition of history.
How many more people slaughtered, families shattered, women raped, children orphaned, cities leveled, Ukrainian leaders kidnapped, graves filled and human rights violated before we act? At what number of displaced people and refugees will we say enough? What more needs to happen to Ukraine and its people?