The Ukraine-Russia War brings to mind some of the central themes about the concept of tragedy.
Tragedy, according to Aristotle’s Poetics, comes about when a good man – usually a head of state or someone with considerable power – has a character trait that becomes excessive and leads him through a tragic action to have a tragic fall. It is not tragic, though it is a cause of pathos, if a storm kills 5,000 people. Tragedy, however, arises from tragic flaws and human actions.
Shakespearean tragedy, though different in various ways, broadly takes this view, as well. Yet, American tragic figures in 20th-century drama, like Willy Loman from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, are very different and some critics say the American common person never rises to the level of a tragic figure.
Adolf Hitler would not qualify as a tragic figure for Aristotle’s theory of tragedy or Shakespeare’s tragic plays. Hitler was not a basically good man but a horrible man – a brutal dictator, one of the most heinous men who ever lived. His actions throughout World War II, even granting unfair reparations implemented by Great Britain, France and the US after WWI on Germany, were among the worst actions ever committed by a human being.
Hamlet could not make a decision. Othello had excessive jealousy. Even the deluded, unaccomplished Willy Loman wanted what was best for his family when he killed himself for the life insurance policy for his family.
In the context of the Russia-Ukraine war, President Vladimir Putin does not appear to be a tragic figure. He, like Hitler, comes across as a horrible man, a brutal dictator, someone who sent his army into Ukraine without cause. Although there are complex reasons behind the invasion, including security fears, NATOs movement east since 1991, Russian business interests in Ukrainian wheat, the breakup of the USSR, and historic ties between Russia and Ukraine, the invasion was clearly morally unjustified and unjustified from the standpoint of international law.
The evolving geopolitical situation, however, may lead to a circumstance in which President Joe Biden and President Volodymyr Zelensky could become tragic figures.
How Biden and Zelensky may be tragic
Putin is humiliated by the loss of the USSR and it is unclear to many experts how much further humiliation he can take. The war has not proceeded as planned. Putin and his high-ranking lieutenants have explicitly and implicitly warned the West that if they interfere too much in their special military operation, nuclear war may be the result.
If Putin cannot seize total control of the Donbas region (he currently has about 70%, according to The New York Times, as reported at the beginning of June) which has great economic value to him and if Zelensky remains completely uninterested in giving up any territory officially, Putin may become stuck and humiliated.
At a certain point, as former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, Senator Mitt Romney, and former US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen have warned, Putin may attack Zelensky’s forces, towns or cities with tactical or strategic nuclear weapons to force a surrender. NATO and the US might respond to a nuclear attack with their own nuclear attack, and this would lead to a nuclear war and possibly a World War.
Thus, excessive dedication to defending freedom could be the tragic flaw that leads Zelensky and Biden to jointly pressure Putin into nuclear war. Nuclear war would not be one of their goals but an unintended consequence of their inspired collaboration. Sometimes two people are jointly involved in creating a tragedy, as was the case with Brutus and Cassius who conspired together to murder Caesar in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
If negotiating with Putin and giving him some territory in the Donbas region might prevent a nuclear war, then not negotiating and instead continuing the united effort against him could have dire consequences. Hence, Zelensky and Biden must be very careful.
There may be an opportunity in the days and weeks ahead for Biden to pull himself back from his aggressive defense of Ukraine and see if he can broker a peace. Biden could emerge as a statesman and peacemaker, and depart from his role as the leader of the NATO attack on Russia via military support and financial sanctions.
The overall war itself does feel like a tragedy – it is certainly a devastating, miserable, immoral waste of human life, property, and dreams. Putin himself does not rise to the level of a tragic figure, but Zelensky and Biden could become tragic figures if they blindly pursue the defeat of Russia and the value of freedom.
The writer ([email protected]) has taught political philosophy at five universities and is editor of the interdisciplinary volume Leveraging: A Political, Economic, and Societal Framework (Springer, 2014).