Ukrainians Take Up Arms in Self Defense
Security and liberty, we’re again reminded, rest on a foundation of force. We can offload responsibility to protective laws and institutions, but they may fail. Ukrainians found to their horror that it fell to them as individuals to defend their country and themselves when a nation entrusted to guarantee their independence instead proved to be a predatory threat. In similar but (thankfully) less bloody fashion, Americans learned that police empowered to defend them can also be abusive. That doesn’t mean we give up on protective institutions, but we need to have the ability and willingness to defend ourselves.
“We will give weapons to anyone who wants to defend the country,” Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted on February 24 as Ukraine’s armed forces struggled against Russian invaders. While he referred to military weapons, Ukrainians also stripped gun stores in anticipation of the invasion. “Gun shops have sold out of some weapons, such as AR-10 and AR-15 assault rifles,” noted The Guardian. Additionally, Ukrainians volunteered for military service and assembled Molotov cocktails. It’s genuinely moving to watch people take on such responsibility. But it’s also evidence of failed guarantees embodied in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.
“Washington brokered with Kyiv and Moscow the terms under which Ukraine agreed to eliminate the strategic missiles, missile silos and bombers on its territory and transfer the 1,900 nuclear warheads to Russia for disassembly,” the Brookings Institution’s Steven Pifer wrote in 2014. “A key element of the arrangement—many Ukrainians would say the key element—was the readiness of the United States and Russia, joined by Britain, to provide security assurances.”
Russia, a party to that arrangement, now besieges Ukrainian cities. Britain, the United States, and countries outside the Budapest Memorandum are providing weapons and other support to Ukraine but are highly unlikely to directly intervene because Russia’s President Vladimir Putin controls thousands of nuclear weapons that he threatens to use.
Fortunately, Ukraine’s military is performing better than expected. The country also has a motivated population and “2.2 to 6.3 million” guns in private hands even before it liberalized gun laws last week, according to the University of Sydney’s GunPolicy.org. Armed civilians, many with military training, are unlikely to stop the invading force. But they can bleed it, and they can extract a continuing toll from the Russians, though many of them will undoubtedly pay their own price.
If Ukrainians now must take responsibility for liberty and safety back in their own hands, so Americans have also confronted the dangers posed by relying on police. Through events less apocalyptic than those in Europe, people saw that law enforcers could abuse their powers, but that they also suffered when those same police were unavailable to keep the peace.
In summer 2020, after the death of George Floyd, the U.S. and countries around the w
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