Courtesy of Cornell University

Bernard-Henri Lévy spoke to the Cornell community about the ongoing crisis in Ukraine on March 2.

March 2, 2022

French Intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy Shares Anxieties, Hope Regarding Ukraine Crisis at Cornell Webinar

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On March 2, the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell hosted a conversation with renowned French public intellectual, political activist and author Bernard-Henri Lévy on the subject of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, where he had witnessed human rights abuses in a 2020 pre-pandemic dispatch to the eastern part of the country. Ukraine has been under attack by Russian military forces since Feb. 24.

This panel comes amidst a significant uptick in interest in Ukraine across campus. In the week leading up to this event, there have been two rallies in support of Ukraine on Ho Plaza, and the University plans to host more events on the Ukraine crisis, with an upcoming Mar. 4 conversation with Cornell experts including Russian writer and dissident Dmitry Bykov, who is currently being hosted as a “scholar at risk” by the Einaudi Center.

“I’m so sorry to have been right — I’m so sorry to have felt coming the savage war that is going on right now,” Lévy stated in the webinar, which was moderated by IOPGA director and former House Representative Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), and Senior Member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.). Lévy had reported his experience at the dispatch as part of his 2021 book The Will to See, which follows him into eight international hotspots of humanitarian crises including Somalia and Afghanistan. 

Lévy told attendees that current events reflect what he had announced in his chapter pertaining to Ukraine two years ago.

“At this time [of the dispatch] the brave men were defending the line, sheltering themselves from the provocation, and they were expecting without believing in it the moment where we are today,” Lévy said. “They can win, in spite of the locality of their material, in spite of the fact that these iron monsters are prehistoric monsters dating from World War II, but I believe because of their spirits and bravery and feeling to fight for their family land values, I believe they can win.” 

Lévy also argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin miscalculated the capabilities of the Ukrainian military and the willingness of Ukranians to accept Russian rule. 

“He thought they’d hail and welcome the invading army,” he said. 

Smith agreed, and said he believes Russia is not prepared to wage this war. 

“I don’t think Russian people, or even military, are prepared for what it is they’re up to,” Smith said, citing interviews that he had watched of Russian soldiers claiming to believe that they were peacekeepers. “Putin has people going out on his own streets, people coming out saying we don’t want this.” 

On the subject of human rights, Smith suggested holding Putin accountable as a war criminal, noting that he is in the process of putting forward a House resolution to do so.

“These people in Rwanda and Liberia who committed crimes never thought they’d be held accountable, so now it’s Putin’s turn,” Smith said.  

The panelists also discussed possible remedies to the conflict and actions that the United States could take. Smith said he favored ratifying sanctions on Russian oil and natural gas. 

“Now we have a situation where the money to sustain this atrocity is coming from oil and gas, and if we shut that down … that’s the next step for us to take,” Smith said.

Aside from sanctions, Lévy drew inspiration from Albert Camus’ “Letter to a German Friend” to encourage American congressmen to write an open letter to the Russian people. 

“We have to address the Russian people to tell them that they are not our enemies, they are misled by their bad leader,” Lévy said. “An address cosigned by all the Democrats and Republicans, published in every important newspaper would have a great effect. This is a concrete idea.” 

Lévy also stressed the importance of the U.S.’s collective condemnation of Putin’s acts. 

“If the American people and congress are nearly unanimous in condemning Putin, this is the only thing that Putin can take seriously,” Lévy said. “Putin is strong because he believes in our weakness. Because he thinks we are retreating.” 

Later, during a question and answer period, Lévy elaborated on the importance of unity in the face of Putin’s aggression, arguing that knowledge of Putin’s ideology and twenty years of studying Putin’s speech has convinced him that Putin will step back from the brink of nuclear war if faced with a united front.

During the panel, Lévy shared a Whatsapp text that he claimed to have just received from a mid-ranking Ukrainian officer tuned in to the webinar. 

“‘Please thank the congressman … for supporting my motherland and its people. I don’t know how many of us are going to survive this bloody mess Putin has made; please help us before it is too late … as Russians struggle to wipe Kyiv off the face of the earth,’” Lévy said, reading the text from his phone. 

In an interview with the Sun, Lévy acknowledged that the light is on the Ukrainian crisis while the shadow on atrocities of similar magnitude in third world countries. However, he stressed that the fate of the world depends on the situation in Ukraine. 

“Today there is fire in the house of Europe, in the house of the world, and the source of the fire is in Kyiv,” he said. 

However, Lévy expressed that he retained hope. 

“For me, the hope is Zelenskyy,” he said. “His incredible bravery, the way he stands by his words and values, refusing to fly away, remaining there, [knowing that] taking the risk [is] better than surrendering.” 

He also reiterated his faith in what he termed the awakening of the West.

“The American Congress deciding that the unsustainable has been reached, that Putin is a threat for the world is a source of hope,” Lévy said. “In other words the awakening of the West – its values of freedom, sense of resistance, refusal of tyranny and brutality. It is a great world, and the great reality that this world is back in the debate, for me, is a source of hope in the time of misery we are living in.” 

In spite of the hope, Lévy shared anxieties regarding the fragile situation at Ukraine’s capital.    
“I will go back to the dinner my wife is waiting for,” he concluded, “but I will not sleep tonight. I will remain in front of CNN with a huge sense of anxiety mixed with hope, because I know that each hour can be the last for Kyiv.”