What Greek tragedy can teach us about ending the war in Ukraine


Dr. Nicolai Petro is a leading expert on Ukraine and in particular what has been called its “rival identities”.

Dr. Petro’s latest book is unique in amplifying the voices of the ‘other Ukraine’.

On Tuesday, 28 February 2022, Anatol Lieven, Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, moderated a remarkable conversation with Dr. Nicolai Petro about his latest book, The Tragedy of Ukraine: What Classical Greek Tragedy Can Teach Us about Conflict Resolution (blackwells.co.uk, 19 December 2022).

The webinar description of this book states in part:

The Tragedy of Ukraine reflects on the ways in which ancient Greek tragedy can help us rethink civic conflict and polarization, as well as model ways of healing deep social divisions.

RI President Peggy Mason comments:

Dr. Nicolai Petro’s ideas exude a degree of wisdom and humanity that is sorely lacking in most of the Western discourse about the Ukraine war. Even readers who have seen the webinar will, I hope, find new insights from the summary below.

Petro uses tragedy as the “framework” for understanding what he calls the “long-term reiterating conflict” in Ukraine.

Anatol Lieven: Can you define tragedy?

Referencing Raymond Williams, Professor Petro states in part:

Tragedy is the result of individuals and communities not recognizing how they themselves, their actions, are contributing to the outcome that they least desire.

This classical definition of what tragedy entails “weds the concept of individual agency to the outcome.”

It is precisely our choice to do things the consequences of which we do not think through or … we continue to do the same thing in the name of abstract ideals.

A favourite ideal that often leads to tragedy is justice:

because the pursuit of justice at the cost of all other values usually boils down to the search for vengeance and it is … vengeance that builds and renews the cycle of tragedy for the next generation.

When we look at Ukrainian history and the history of many conflicts, this seems to be a recurring pattern:

We prefer temporary solutions to the difficult moral regeneration that is required … in true reconciliation which is seeing ourselves in our enemies and understanding how ourselves, our own actions, contributed to the response of our enemies.

What about the Ukrainian quest for “total victory”?

Dr. Petro:

the quest for total victory in Greek thinking is universally condemned as necessarily leading to the reproduction of the tragic cycle in the future…

Tragedy infuses political realism with the recognition that evil will never be eliminated from the world.

Therefore, the task of statesmen is to manage our relations with the groups and individuals that we find most objectionable in order to cultivate the maximum benefit that we can for international politics.

There is no perfect solution; it’s an ongoing endeavour [which] presumes there is no one group of nations that can claim complete moral authority.

Do you see both Russian aggression and a kind of “family conflict”?

Dr. Petro:

I see the reality of Russian aggression. …[but] I believe there are multiple issues at work.

If Russia were to somehow magically withdraw entirely from Ukraine … the internal [Ukrainian] contradictions would still be there.

Ukraine has two distinct visions — one a Galician [European] identity writ large in Western Ukraine and the other held by those in the East and South regions who do not believe the Galician identity is properly Ukrainian. Regarding the latter group:

They say we are perfectly fine being Ukrainians of a different sort, but we are thoroughly Ukrainian. However, our Ukrainian identity is not one that seeks to deny the role that Russian culture, Russian language, and our common orthodox religion have played in the formation of our Ukrainian identity.

That divide continues.

Has the war changed this?

Dr. Petro:

While wars do change attitudes, they do not change them for very long…. I am skeptical … of ultimately betting on the success of the Galician viewpoint on Ukrainian identity as basically eliminating its competitor in the East.

The official policies of the Ukrainian government for roughly 30 years have been to limit, constrain and eventually end, eliminate, or transform this alternative Ukrainian identity close to Russia. But, as late as 2021, this identity was the view of roughly 40% of the Ukrainian population:

I use one particular marker for that, which is of course Putin’s [2021] speech in which he said Russians and Ukrainians are “one people” and then a survey was done in Ukraine, identifying that this was a statement that Putin had made, and [asking] how many people in Ukraine agreed with this.

Nationwide it was 41%, and in the East and South, it was two-thirds.

But there is definitely a ‘rally round the flag’ phenomenon right now:

I just am tremendously skeptical of the value of surveys taken in the midst of a conflict. I see them as basically without value.

What of the economic dimension?

Jacques Attali, the founding director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, wrote recently that it is hard to envision Ukrainian prosperity outside a European context that includes Russia.

Dr. Petro:

Following to some extent in the footsteps … of Jacques Attali … I don’t see any alternative for Ukraine to return to prosperity without massive Russian investment. Russian investment, were it to be allowed and encouraged in Ukraine, would be much more eager to come than the alternative Western sources of investment.

What of foreign aid?

Dr. Petro:

I see the aid being offered [as] impressive in numbers, but in the context of a national economy, it’s a pittance.

Interested investors are to the east of Ukraine

Dr. Petro:

What really will allow Ukraine to revive is not the aid that is doled out by international funding, much of which will have to be repaid, but private investment, private investors that say ‘Ukraine is a place I wish to invest for 20-30 years or more.’

The countries that historically, culturally, have an interest in that are not to the West; they are [mainly] to the East of Ukraine….

Anatol Lieven counters:

It would seem that the European Union ruled out that option as long ago as 2013 when they rejected suggestions from [Italian Prime Minister] Romano Prodi, amongst others, that they make an attempt to balance Russian and EU economic connections.

Dr. Petro:

That is one of the … colloquially speaking tragic aspects of this, that we are talking about a policy that will delay Ukraine’s recovery in my opinion….

I don’t see any prospect for meaningful economic recovery of Ukraine in the next generation without Russia being involved in that process.

In contrast to this vision, what has happened since 2014 is:

The deformation of the Ukrainian economy under the careful ministrations of the former President Petro Poroshenko, who destroyed the industrial base, largely located in the east, for his own political reasons and followed the advice of some of his Western advisors to create out of Ukraine an agricultural superpower.

But that alone does not put them on a sufficiently independent economic standing. It actually makes them dependent on their buyers and suppliers.

Ukrainian nationalism and reintegration policies

The legal foundation and framework for the Ukrainian government’s “reintegration” policies, which it intends to apply both to Donbas and Crimea, are two-pronged:

  • The retention and possible expansion of current restrictions on the public use of Russian, and
  • The possible “deportation” of individuals from the East and South who “flout the law” regarding the use or promotion of the Russian language.

Dr. Petro:

This simply reiterates and gives again a legal and state foundation to policies that have been in the repertoire of the Ukrainian nationalism since the 1930’s.

Anatol Lieven:

Given that deportation also occurred on the Russian side, are in fact the populations being pulled apart in ways that will make reconciliation in future impossible?

Dr. Petro:

Moving as quickly as possible to a ceasefire at least opens the door to the possibility of further peacemaking which begins the process of reconciliation, which begins the process of healing, which will take a very long time, but that is the path to reconciliation.

That’s a realistic assessment of what happens in history.  Hate, I think, is the hardest thing to sustain. It’s much easier to lose hate as time passes. That’s a natural process.

Russia’s radically contradictory agendas

Anatol Lieven:

Putin has pursued two radically contradictory agendas in Ukraine since 2014, on the one hand claiming to defend a Russian Ukrainian identity while simultaneously trying to break off and seize Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine.

Dr. Petro:

Right, which is precisely why I am least interested in Russia’s objective and most concerned in my assessment of what needs to happen to strengthen Ukraine and to give it the internal wherewithal to resist foreign depredations — [which] is the reconciliation of the various strands of Ukrainian identity.

It will be of much greater significance, I feel, how Ukrainians themselves feel about that aspect of their identity in southern and eastern Ukraine than what Russia wishes to impose.

Russian speakers in Ukraine are Ukrainians first and rarely identify with Russian politics or with Russia’s political agenda. They do, however, have their own agenda for themselves and their country:

One of the great factors limiting the healing of Ukraine and its rebirth as a strong nation, as an integral nation-state, is the inability of the government to deal with this group of the population because it is pursuing a mono-ethnic policy rather than a pluri-ethnic policy.

I think that is tremendously shortsighted, and I hope — although I fear it might be — I hope it is not ultimately suicidal.

Russian Ukrainians and civic nationalism in response to the invasion

In Anatol Lieven’s view, setting aside the case of Crimea, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian Ukrainians remained loyal to Ukraine. This could have become the basis for a very powerful declaration of Ukrainian civic nationalism, but quite the opposite, a doubling down on ethnic nationalism, seems to have occurred.

This raises the question:

What does the future hold for Russian Ukrainians?

Dr. Petro:

Wherever the boundaries are finally drawn, there will be some immigration away and those most devoted — in eastern and southern Ukraine — to the Russian aspect of their identity will probably not feel comfortable staying in a highly nationalized Ukraine.

But even if the number were to shrink from 40% to 10%, that is still a politically and culturally significant constituency:

Certainly, the EU would have to take notice of and … provide some sort of recourse to [this minority] if the Ukrainian government were to pursue truly exclusionary policies at their expense.

Much will depend on the international context

After the war ends, however, there will be a new international context in which these concerns will again become much more important in the context of building the future Europe that presumably most people want to live in.

And the fact that these minority rights are put on the back burner now, I think is really temporary, and it would behoove Ukrainian politicians to think about that future and how their own cultural policies will fit into a broader European institutional context.

[Moving on to audience questions]

Possible paths to a peace settlement beyond a ceasefire? Terms of a settlement?

Dr. Petro:

There are so many variables that parsing them is literally the job of teams of negotiators, but I do think there is a logical sequence to be pursued, and it is in that spirit that I understand the Chinese initiatives and similar initiatives … undertaken by the Vatican and … by former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

What unites all three of those initiatives is the following sequence: first ceasefire, a separation of the forces and some status quo on the ground that ends the fighting:

After that, it is precisely the ending of the fighting that opens the door to longer-term negotiations over a peace settlement.

Multi-tiered negotiation process for a comprehensive settlement

Vital to the success of any settlement reached is that it is multi-tiered, serving to both guarantee Ukraine’s security and, at the same time, form part of a larger pan-European security arrangement which, because it never came about after the end of the Cold War, left so many unanswered questions for Russia about its role in Europe and for Europeans about their objectives in Eastern Europe and toward Russia.

Dr. Petro:

So it seems to me that if we could first secure a ceasefire, with a true commitment out of that ceasefire to pursue negotiations, these negotiations should be pursued both on a bilateral and pan-European level.

But is this possible with Putin in power?

Anatol Lieven:

But do you think this is possible as long as Putin remains in power, because … we can condemn so many actions by the West and by the Ukrainian government, but still, in the end, this criminal invasion was Putin’s own decision?

Dr. Petro:

You negotiate with your counterpart whoever that is — that’s real diplomacy.

If the West decides there shall be no negotiations with Putin, we would all suffer, but the most immediate group to suffer and whose suffering will be prolonged by the refusal to negotiate, to even discuss the possibility of negotiating with Putin, would be the Ukrainians themselves.

And that would be an awful outcome if that could be prevented by negotiating with the Devil himself.

Demonization of Russia in Western media

Anatol Lieven:

Is the demonization, not just of the Putin regime, not just the contemporary Russian state but Russian culture in general in some western commentary contributing to the internal divides in Ukraine and to the difficulty of, at some stage, moving towards a compromise peace?

Dr. Petro:

I think it is axiomatic that the demonization of your enemies cannot lead to reconciliation…. Demonizing people, cultures … when has that ever led to anything positive?

And frankly it just gives more ammunition to Putin to argue that the West is out to get Russia. Sometimes I am amazed at how neatly some Western extreme rhetoric fits into the Kremlin narrative and they think they’re opposing Russia and Putin when they are actually strengthening him; it’s remarkable.

Russian ethnic chauvinism

Anatol Lieven:

Are we seeing as a result of this war a lurch within Russia to a much narrower and more ethnic chauvinist version of Russian nationalism?

Dr. Petro:

I must confess I don’t see that transformation in the domestically-oriented rhetoric. The evolution I’ve seen… — which I am sure the Kremlin interprets as the result of the rejection by the west of Russia’s offer to join it — [is] instead of the formation of a new Eastward-looking multi-ethnic Rossiiskii, more than just a Russia concept.

So there is to be, if there isn’t already, a Eurasian civilization, and Russia forms the anchor for this Eurasian civilization, which includes many different components but that has clearly, sadly from my perspective, turned its back on Europe.

But Dr. Petro hastens to add:

Now, when a political leadership turns its back on one part of its heritage and directs itself toward another, that doesn’t mean … it’s the end of that strand of thinking.

That strand is still there, and it could always re-emerge in subsequent generations under visionary leaders with different objectives, different ambitions.

He concludes:

There’s always an ebb and flow to the tide of history, but right now under Putin 2.0, or 3.0, he is directed toward reinforcing Russia’s Eurasian identity in order to push a greater connection both south toward the Turkic peoples and eastward toward China.

And geo-strategically, that may not be an unwise choice because many Russian thinkers for centuries have argued that Russia’s caboose in Siberia has been too neglected. I don’t know if Putin has the wherewithal, the vision or the resources to really create that eastward expansion, but it is something that visionary Russian thinkers … have [long] argued will be at the basis of Russia being truly — in 18th century terms — a super power.

Ceasefire.ca asks:

Is this what Ukraine or the West really wants or needs?

To view the full video, click on the arrow below.

Addendum: Ukraine is not winning the war

Professor Stephen Walt in a recent article writes that, despite the public rhetoric on full display at the Munich Security Conference, where a Ukrainian victory was the order of the day,

Most of the people I spoke with expect a continued grinding stalemate, perhaps leading to a cease-fire some months from now. Western aid for Ukraine is not aiming for victory; therefore, the real goal is to put Kyiv in a position to strike a favorable bargain when the time comes.

And see the latest report from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Centre (Russia Analytical Report, Feb. 21-27), which includes the following statement:

Assessing the first year of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Graham Allison and Stephen Kotkin underline the brute fact: Ukraine is not winning.

Russia responds positively to China’s peace plan

On a more promising note, Russia has responded positively to China’s peace plan to end the war with Ukraine, saying that its details should be the subject of careful analysis and that the process to halt the conflict will be long and “stressful.”

Other commentary on the Chinese plan also notes that it

sends clear signals that Beijing’s support for Moscow is neither univocal nor limitless.

President Biden increases rhetorical support for Ukraine

While maintaining public support and alliance cohesion through optimistic rhetoric does make sense, even as one prepares to cut a deal, here is what is worrying Professor Walt:

The Biden administration’s rhetorical support for Ukraine keeps increasing, and it continues to promise us some sort of happy Hollywood ending.

He astutely notes:

Biden’s trip to Kyiv was a bold move that underscored his stamina and personal commitment to helping Ukraine, but it also tied his political fortunes to the war’s outcome more directly and visibly.

In short, Biden is painting himself into a position where anything less than complete victory will look like failure.

Ceasefire.ca comments:

Ukraine does not need more cheerleading from President Biden. It needs some very hard thinking about meaningful first steps towards a ceasefire and disengagement of forces. The Chinese proposals — and Russia’s response — are an opening that should not be squandered.


Legendary Pentagon whistleblower and life-long campaigner for nuclear disarmament Daniel Ellsberg revealed on 2 March 2023 that he has terminal cancer, with only months to live.

As well as tweeting out the news, he sent a letter to many peace organizations, the text of which is available HERE in PDF format.

We quote in part:

It is long past time–but not too late!–for the world’s publics at last to challenge and resist the willed moral blindness of their past and current leaders. I will continue, as long as I’m able, to help these efforts. There’s tons more to say about Ukraine and nuclear policy, of course, and you’ll be hearing from me as long as I’m here.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons (ancient Greek theatre)

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Tags: Daniel Ellsberg, Diplomacy, Greek tragedy, Nicolai Petro, Ukraine war