It is generally agreed that the breakup of the limited degree of unity which the Hapsburg Empire represented was unfortunate for all concerned. Other forces are now at work which are struggling to create a new form of unity…To these forces, Czechoslovakia has been tragically slow in adjusting herself. It is idle at this late date to attempt to apportion blame for this fact between the country’s own statesmen and its foreign advisors. The adjustment—and this is the main thing—has now come. It has come in a painful and deplorable form.

American diplomat George F. Kennan journaled the preceding critical reflections upon the Munich agreement of 1938 amid his newfound duties in Prague, and later recorded them in his Memoirs, 1925-60 (1967: 95). Substitute the words Hapsburg with Soviet, and Czechoslovakia with Ukraine, and one receives an updated analysis of the chronic ineffectiveness of the international law of the United Nations at the heart of the subversion of the united, sovereign, and democratic Ukraine memorably depicted in the folkish dark comedy Donbass (2018), the documentary The Earth is Blue as an Orange (2020), and the dramas Bad Roads (2020) and Reflection (2021), all acclaimed films of the recent Voices from Ukraine (2022) collection.  

Under the Ukraine Constitution of 1996 (art. 133), the nation is mainly divided between the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and 24 regional oblasts, of which the extreme eastern Donetsk and Luhansk are usually said to comprise the contested Donbass, the spearhead and salient of the Russian penetration. As this subversion intensified following the annexation of Crimea, a Trilateral Contact Group consisting of Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE finalized skeletal demands at Minsk in February, 2015 for an armistice followed by regional self-determination and disarmament, together with infusion of humanitarian and economic aid. The action and drama of the above selections is set during this precarious regime of Munich-like appeasement, but prior to the dramatic escalation of February, 2022 that galvanized international attention. The ironic depictions of shelling by unseen enemy forces, a cacophonous local rada, civilian reprisal against a captured Russian agent, and pitiless criminal violence of veteran filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass (2018) suggest a civil as opposed to an international war. The more intimate and explicit Bad Roads (2020) of Natalya Vorozhbit focuses less on the violent movement than on the social paralysis of Ukrainian communities overrun by Putinist hoodlums, including through its pursuit of the nightmare of indecent assault amid captivity.

Although primarily a poet and children’s author, Iryna Tsilyk produced the raw footage documentary The Earth is Blue as an Orange (2020). Set in Krasnohorivka, Donetsk Oblast, the film opens with single-mother Anna, her four children, and pet cat and turtle sheltering at home from enemy bombardment, with the former at one point stating revealingly, “It’s even worse than 2014.” One of the daughters later successfully matriculates at university further west. Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Reflection (2021), finally, follows the unhappy journey of surgeon Serhiy, detained, tortured, and forced to confess to terrorism by the pitiless state security of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic. All these recorded or dramatized horrors unfold amid primordial snowdrifts and within a Hobbesian social order where the term fascist—much like racist in the West—serves as the universal epithet and allegation. 

In the eventual all-out assault of winter, 2022, Russian propaganda invoked the mythology of the sacred or Great Patriotic War (1941-45) to help justify its external aggression, and much subsequent analysis has not wrongly examined World War II for strategic instruction and insight. But the irregularity, anonymity, and venality of the enemy forces combined with the inconstancy, indecisiveness, and illegality of enemy contact apparent throughout the Voices from Ukraine film assortment appears to demand a rather different prism, analogy, or referent. The violent conflict in the Donbass in many ways more closely resembles The Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) in Germany, where marauding ideological hosts burnt, raped, and pillaged their way across amorphous contested space, with future historians eventually able to impressionistically trace movement and crudely assign motive. 

As Thomas Hobbes, Samuel Pufendorf, but above all Hugo Grotius would explain, the lasting resolution of that Thirty Years’ War had to assume the comprehensive form of a Peace of Westphalia reconstituting the entirety of international relations, the derivative basis of which is a United Nations Charter from 1945 restricted to peace-loving Member states (4.1) who commit to settling their differences without resort to force (2.3). Thus the sole imperative though not sole justification for American military aid to Ukraine ought to be to help the Kyiv government defend itself pursuant to the UN Charter, which by extension includes the 1996 borders acknowledged by international law. 

There can be no normative objection to fighting, or to helping others fight in defense of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, as such. But there can be reasoned, or realist objections to the provision of military aid to partisans engaged in lost or hopeless causes, or of civilian aid to people simply lost or hopeless. The part that very few are willing to say out loud is that most of the national borders acknowledged by the UN Secretariat and colorfully appearing on a globe or world map are imaginary, with little to no correspondence to lived experience. As Western states struggle to patrol their borders, African states struggle to even identify their dividing lines with other nations, with the rest of the world falling somewhere in between. Increasingly transnational totalitarian and authoritarian actors, especially in Eurasia, appear to have recognized how to take advantage of this chronic ineffectiveness or gap within international law, furnishing just such encroachment, expropriation, provocation, or other seditious mayhem as will achieve de facto although not de jure international lawlessness, whilst generally stopping just short of the threshold of nationwide reprisal and worldwide condemnation. 

In the case of Ukraine, it is at this point both rational and moral to henceforth represent to President Zelensky that the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, notwithstanding their admitted Ukrainian character under international law, appear irretrievably lost; and that consequently he might consider not so much trading land for peace, as deciding what lands he and his people shall consider essential for peace.                                            

Valentyn Vasyanovych, (dir.), Reflection (2021); Iryna Tsilyk, (dir.), The Earth is Blue as an Orange (2020); Natalya Vorozhbit, (dir.), Bad Roads (2020); Sergei Loznitsa, (dir.), Donbass (2018).