|Volodymyr Zelensky has virtually single-handedly demonstrated the world-historical importance of sovereignty and its mechanisms. Before his courageous insistence on Ukrainian sovereignty, the world—including the United States, with its offer of a helicopter ride for Zelensky out of Kyiv—was already treating the Russian subjugation of Ukraine as a fait accompli and the continuation of business as usual. Russia was using in Ukraine the methods that it had already successfully practiced in Chechnya, Syria, and Belarus while the rest of the world stood by to allow such methods to become normalized. By taking his stand in Kyiv, Zelensky was declaring to the Ukrainian people and the rest of the world that Russia’s invasion was in fact not a normal action that had to be accepted. Suddenly, Russia’s years-long undermining of the idea of popular sovereignty in different parts of the world had been called out as a transgression, leading to global insights about recent history and our role in its development. The nations of Europe above all, but also the United States, have had to face the extent to which their energy policies were contributing to Russia’s reshaping of global norms. Zelensky has forced us to take a stand one way or the other in deciding the political shape of the world for the foreseeable future.
Of course, Zelensky’s heroism was predicated on the willingness of a significant majority of Ukrainians to follow his lead in risking their lives and livelihoods to oppose the Russian invasion, thereby enacting the practical reality, and not just the rhetoric, of Ukrainian sovereignty. But to become effective as a collective effort, their actions depended on his leadership in representing to us a Ukrainian popular will. Political identity requires a degree of unity, and this unity must be represented in order to take form.
Zelensky’s rhetoric and the Ukrainian people’s actions have continued to demonstrate how the war is inextricable from the moral and political foundations of our existence in the world. However one judges their interventions, it is undeniable that they have involved all of us in urgent considerations of our stance toward the war and thus our political role in the world.
In order to further explore these insights and the new challenges they have uncovered, we have planned the next Telos conference in New York from March 30 to April 1, 2023, as a discussion of the forms of war. We invite all of you to participate in our discussions. Please see our call for papers here.