The Russian veto on July 29th of the UN Security Council resolution to establish a tribunal to investigate the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last summer, which claimed the lives of all 298 onboard, may have been the least surprising of this summer’s international headlines.
Samantha Power, the US permanent representative to the UN, whose verbal clashes with Vitaly Churkin, her Russian counterpart, have recently become the staple of Security Council meetings, delivered a hard-worded statement in which she called the downing of the airliner, widely suspected to be the work of Russian-backed combatants in Eastern Ukraine, “an unspeakable crime” whose perpetrators “cannot remain unnamed and unpunished.” The Russian veto, she continued, denies justice to the victims and their families. Summing up Russian behavior, she said: “It is tragic that Russia has used the privilege entrusted to it to advance international peace and security in order to frustrate international peace and security.”
In politics, word choice always matters, but is “tragic” really the right epithet to describe Russia’s recent behavior at the Security Council, and in international affairs more broadly?
“Tragedy” has installed itself firmly in the lexicon of politics, particularly, it seems, where Moscow is involved. Last March, after the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to rid Russia of “shame and tragedies” of political killings (remarks that were promptly followed by a suspected poisoning of another opposition activist and a contributor to this journal, Vladimir Kara-Murza). Just recently, Ukraine’s ousted kleptocrat, Viktor Yanukovych, re-emerged to call the annexation of Crimea a “tragedy,” claiming that neither he nor Putin are responsible for this landgrab.
In everyday speech, “tragedy” generally refers to anything deeply saddening and regrettable. Yet when it comes to describing a political development such as the murder of an opposition leader, the change of international borders by force, the shooting down of an airliner with an antiaircraft missile, or the deliberate obstruction of a criminal investigation, “tragedy” is a poor choice of a word. To understand why, it is necessary to recover its original meaning.
Tragedy, of course, was born in ancient Greece. There, it was not simply an art form, but rather a depiction of the interplay between Fate and Free Will that determines man’s place in the universe. In this classical sense, a tragic hero is a man, usually of noble birth, whose daring (and hubris) condemns him to doom and destruction by the gods. American playwright Arthur Miller, in a famous New York Times essay, summed up the tragic hero’s plight as the refusal to accept the lot he deemed unjust, as active retaliation against circumstances that diminish his dignity.
As the tragic hero struggles to overcome his unjust fate, he nevertheless commits errors that lead to his ultimate demise. Yet, according to Aristotle’s Poetics, the tragic hero’s flaw comes not from his vice and depravity but from some weakness or an error of judgment, often followed by the humbling of his pride and enlightened realization of his true self. Thus, the lesson of the tragedy, in Miller’s words, is the discovery of a moral law.
Such a meaning of tragedy implies inadvertency and inevitability: tragedy ensues as an unintended consequence of individual choices, which may have seemed justified but are simultaneously firmly embedded in processes beyond human control. Thus labeling something as “tragic” in political and international life effectively absolves from responsibility those who should be brought to account.
Yanukovych’s designation of Crimean annexation as a tragedy has an equally revealing precedent. In 2006, he insisted that the Holodomor, the great famine of 1932–33 orchestrated by Stalin’s regime that claimed the lives of about 7 million Ukrainian peasants, was a “tragedy” rather than a genocide, the recognition sought by Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western president elected during in 2004 Orange Revolution.
Yanukovych, whose rigging of the 2004 elections had sparked the revolution, opposed such an indictment of the Soviet regime, to the point that he and his Party of Regions boycotted the 2006 Ukrainian parliamentary vote to designate the Holodomor as an act of genocide, although the law was ultimately passed with some compromise wording. Unsurprisingly, Russia staunchly protested the recognition of the Holodomor as genocide, and in 2008 the same Vitaly Churkin who later sparred with Samantha Power decried Ukraine’s repeated attempts to put the issue on the UN agenda as “acute confrontation.” Then, as now, Russia used its privileged position to block the issue at the UN.
While they hardly rise to the status of Stalin’s genocidal famine, do any of the messes created by the Putin regime qualify as a tragedy? The downing of MH17 is profoundly saddening for the families of all those who lost their lives for no better reason than being on an airplane traveling through skies that were supposed to be peaceful. Yet it is first and foremost a criminal act that was compounded by Russia’s abuse of its veto power to obstruct the international investigation of this event.
Samantha Power should have called such Russian behavior not tragic, but shameful and abominable. If shaming alone is insufficient to get Security Council members to take seriously their responsibilities for international peace and security, then the UN ought to think in earnest of instituting a procedure for suspending perpetually irresponsible members or overriding their veto power.
Sadly, the world’s criminal leaders and regimes must first be politically vanquished before they can be brought before The Hague, where, in a perfect world, Putin and his Kremlin circle should stand trial on charges of conspiracy and crimes against peace for their actions in Ukraine. Neither economic sanctions nor international isolation of the Putin regime are likely to bring about this kind of justice or remedy violations. But the least we can do is choose our words with care and keep our judgment clear: leave tragedy to tragic heroes and demand accountability of the real-life wrongdoers.
Mariana Budjeryn is a Ph.D. candidate at Central European University, in Budapest, Hungary.