The Ukraine invasion could embolden authoritarian regimes, says philosopher and filmmaker Bernard-Henri Levy. The writer was in Israel last week to show his new film Why Ukraine which looks at his experience on the ground and front line of resistance against Moscow’s invasion. Levy says that there may be repercussions of the Ukraine conflict and he points to other flash points, such as Turkey’s threats to attack Kurdish areas of Syria.
The conflict could also embolden Iran, he says. “They are strongly allied with Putin and Russia. Iran belongs today to an alliance, a big alliance that is a real one acting on the world scene: The axis of China-Russia-Turkey-Radical Sunni Islam and Iran.
“This war between Ukraine and Russia has effects all over the world,” Levy says. “It is rare that this situation happens: a war between two countries, one that is not even declared, because the Russians claim not to be at war – and the West, who helps pretend not to be at war – so there is a pretense not to be at war. Nevertheless the strange thing is that this new war has effects all over the world. For example what you said about the Kurds. It could have a tragic effect for my dear brothers of Kurdistan.”
BHL, as he is sometimes called, is a passionate supporter of the Kurds. Turkey has been using its membership in NATO to blackmail the alliance, and Ankara has even sought to make it more difficult for democracies such as Finland and Sweden to join. “Turkey is trying to have a counterpart for its involvement in NATO against Russia – and the counterpart could be to have free hands in Rojava [The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria], and this would be so cynical if it happens; so scandalous and so horrible; it would be another disaster.
“If the Russians ask to be paid back for their apparent support for NATO… I don’t believe at all in the sincere support of Turkey for NATO… But if they ask a retribution for this fake solidarity, if they ask for free hands in Kurdistan, it would be a tragedy – an additional tragedy,” Levy says.
“I spoke a few days ago with friends in Kurdistan and this is what they fear at the moment. There is an increase and acceleration of the sporadic attacks on their territory; you have some rockets on Rojava, sometimes every day.”
We discussed the debate about the Ukraine war and its effects. Levy points out that there are those who argue the conflict in Ukraine represents countries sleepwalking into a large conflict. This kind of argument is put forward by those who draw parallels to the era before World War I and see the US, Russia and others walking toward a larger conflict. “This comes from an Australian historian, Christopher Clark… The idea that the First World War was an absurd war that we entered like sleepwalkers. I don’t believe that – there were big causes due to nationalism, German imperialism, etc; the Sarajevo pattern is absurd.”
Precursor to a larger conflict?
There may be better historical parallels to the Ukraine war, a conflict that sets the world on a new trajectory and influences a generation. One example could be the Spanish Civil War before World War II. “The Spanish reference is more accurate and appropriate,” Levy said.
“Because it is an invitation for all of us to take sides, there are two ideas of the world, conceptions of civilization and models of society which are at stake and fighting against each other. The Spanish war was a rehearsal of what would explode three years later.” Then, “it was a big ideological clash between democracy and fascism. Today it is a clash between democracy and an authoritarian, neo-fascist and neo-imperialist country.”
One concern regarding the Ukraine conflict is the potential for fading interest in the West. Many countries in the West and their media tended to emphasize the conflict when it began, but there is a tendency in the 24-hour news cycle for people to grow fatigued or bored of a cause.
I asked Levy if he sees that as the case here. “Yes, it is beginning. You can see it in the rank of Ukraine in the news that is going slowly down – it went from headlines [to] descending on TV, newspapers and websites; you have growing influence by the defeatists and their theories. I see this fatigue coming,” he said.
“De Tocqueville said one characteristic of democracies [is that] they are easily slaved to versatility of opinion,” Levy said. “That is the Achilles’ heel of democracy. We are facing that for sure with Ukraine. That is why I sped to finish my documentary; I did it in record time. There is no time to lose. Every day of fatigue by the West is a victory for Putin.”
The philosopher sees other dangers, such as the continued threat of Islamist extremism, which could affect Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and other countries. He points to threats across parts of Africa, noting that Turkey, whose ruling party is rooted in the Muslim Brotherhood, has growing influence in places like Somalia.
As BHL describes a world torn between authoritarians emboldened by Russia’s invasion and the democracies of the West opposing Moscow, there are questions about which sides some countries will take.
Some of the West’s partners in the Gulf, for instance, are not publicly supportive of promoting democracy. Even India, the world’s largest democracy, has been ambivalent during the Ukraine conflict.
What about Israel, a democracy that has partnerships with many non-democratic countries and political parties that don’t necessarily care about democratic values abroad?
“They should,” Levy said. “That’s a problem: We have the best science and generals and authors, but there is a curse on politicians – since the time of the bible, since the time of General Gideon and the Book of Samuel, since the invention of the Kingdom – since then you have a strange situation. The Jewish people produces so much excellency in every field, except in politics; there is a black hole in which falls politics. It is like a malediction.” There are exceptions among Israel’s political leaders, he points out, especially those in the past – such as Shimon Peres.