‘What is this insane war?’: a philosopher on Ukraine’s frontlines (2023)

In the fall of 2022, Bernard-Henri Lévy, one of France’s most famous and polarizing public intellectuals, traveled to Ukraine for a series of visits along the fault lines of the Russian invasion. He witnessed bombed-out apartment buildings in Kyiv, where he had once met with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and where civilians were still liable to be awakened in the night by Russian blasts. He accompanied miners deep into the earth in Pavlograd, toured the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, joined the Ukrainian navy on a patrol outside Odesa, met with commanders of an international legion in a nondescript room whose only decoration was, inexplicably, a Big Mouth Billy Bass.

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Such is the collage of lasting images captured in Slava Ukraini (“Glory to Ukraine”), Lévy’s documentary filmed over 10 trips to the country: devastating, resilient, admirable, often infuriating, sometimes surreal, at times relaxed and even a little funny. The 95-minute documentary, Lévy’s second film on the conflict, traces the three-month arc of the Ukrainian counter-offensive through many of the occupied eastern territories, from Kyiv to Bakhmut, Lyman, Izium, Kharkiv and Donbas, culminating with the liberation of Kherson in November.

The film plays as a war diary, each chapter a different location and a different tone, though all connected by a current of fury and defiance. Lévy begins his journey in the shadows of the war – a shot of a stuffed bear left on an empty swing, a smudged church icon half-buried in rubble, plenty of destroyed Soviet buildings; a woman wearing fatigues, pushing a stroller in heels (she tells Lévy she and her toddler live underground, for safety); mounds of sand in the woods which denote mass graves. By mid-film, he’s embedded with an international legion on the frontline of the counter-offensive, facing drone attacks that nearly destroy one cameraman’s car. And yet, life goes on – in Kyiv, children play and people casually chat as sirens blare.

“The big surprise for me was that there was no fatigue,” Lévy told the Guardian in a recent interview. “Normally after six months, eight months, one year, you are fatigued. But the fatigue was in the west, not in Ukraine.” Western audiences may have grown tired of reading about Putin’s unnecessary and cruel incursion on Ukrainian territory; many might not even know the war is ongoing. Lévy made his film, he says, to argue for a sense of urgency, and to showcase “the indomitable, untamable resistance, high spirit, courage, optimism of these people in spite of the ruins, in spite of the losses, in spite of the disaster”.

Lévy, a writer, philosopher and television personality ubiquitous enough in France to be known simply as BHL, has drawn criticism for the rigor of his methods (in one of his books, he seriously cited at length a philosopher invented as a satirical character by the writer Frédéric Pagès; he later complimented the author for the persuasiveness of his creation). Some have mocked the 74-year-old, born in French Algeria to a Sephardic Jewish family, for being a dilettante – a decadent, out-of-touch pop philosopher touring war zones in such conflict-ridden places as Bosnia, Darfur, Libya and Kurdistan.

Slava Ukraini, co-directed with Marc Roussel, does not necessarily counter those charges. Lévy’s strolls around the eastern front with a bulletproof vest strapped over a designer suit, and plays vox pop with Ukrainians with various shades of frustration or terror (many willingly tell their story or show off their dire conditions, both as a statement of fact and a testament to their resilience). His French narration trends flowery and pedantic (steelworkers are the “nobility of the proletariat” who “forged” victory; trenches toured on the front are “that archaic habit of men”). It’s never clear in the film how Lévy inserted himself into the Ukrainian foreign legion.

But the images he captures, as well as the testimonies from numerous Ukrainians, are striking and raw. There’s the woman making Ukrainian borscht over a fire in her backyard, tending a wish that the war will lighten enough to see everyone for her 70th birthday. An elderly woman who demonstrates, desperately and defiantly, how she spent a freezing night in a chair in her bathroom, the walls opened to the cold by airstrikes. There are countless shots of building skeletons, as well as several corpses. We see a photo taken of Lévy with the legion; weeks later, he can point to some of them who are already gone. War zones are chaotic, but the logic of the Russian offensive on civilian targets confounds even those fighting them. “What is this insane war, where the enemy attacks a city with no collective or strategic importance?” Lévy asks in voiceover.

The Russian motivation, as he can see it, is “to really negate, deny, destroy the Ukrainian identity”, said Lévy, dating back to what he calls the “real beginning” of the war, when Russia invaded the Crimea in 2014 with little international blowback. “Putin starts from the hypothesis that Ukraine does not exist, that Ukrainian culture does not exist,” he said. “Therefore in order to make the reality match with his creed, what can he do? Kill, bomb, destroy, scorched earth. If I dare give a certain logic to this crazy war, it is in the logic of the denial of the Ukrainian identity. This barbarity matches with this logic of the denial of the very existence of Ukraine.”

‘What is this insane war?’: a philosopher on Ukraine’s frontlines (1)

As a result, Lévy views the war, in and out of the film, as a conflict for nothing less than the soul of Europe, the future of liberalism, and the sanctity of human rights. “I think that without the resistance of the Ukrainians, maybe the Baltic states would be invaded at this moment. Certainly the Chinese would have started their operation on Taiwan, and so on,” he said.

“I’m not sure the west understands, really, what is at stake,” he added. “I made those movies, and especially the last one, to try to convince. At least to remind the truth, and if possible to convince.”

The sentence he heard most from his many conversations with Ukrainians – be it soldiers, mothers, miners, children, grandmothers – was that “we not only defend our fatherland, we defend yours, because we defend Europe.”

“The Ukrainians often thank us for our help. It should be the reverse,” said Lévy. “We should thank them. This was my feeling constantly – the ones who should thank is not them but us.”

Lévy is careful not to speculate on the future of the war in the film, instead focusing on eyewitnesses. But after numerous trips, he has a “conviction that the Ukrainians will win”. It’s just a matter of how long, at what cost, and with what help from western nations. “Every week, every day, has a real cost,” he said. “And by delaying this victory, by refusing to speed, the west takes huge responsibility. The more the victory of Ukraine is delayed, the more the disaster grows.”

Slava Ukraini premiered in February in France and will open in US theaters this month. But of particular significance to Lévy was a screening this past week at the United Nations, where Russia just wrapped a shameful tenure as president of the security council. “I hope that they will see what I know,” said Lévy of the many diplomats in attendance that night. “I hope that they will figure out what they owe. And I hope that this will have an effect in some of the states that will be represented that night.”

  • Slava Ukraini is out in US cinemas now with a UK date to be announced


Are there any documentaries on the Ukraine war? ›

Ali Rogin: This is Bernard-Henri Levy's second documentary on Ukraine since the full scale invasion began in February of last year. It takes place over four months at the end of 2022 and spans 15 cities from the capital city, Kyiv, to Kharkiv in the northeast, to then newly liberated port city of Kherson.

How much territory has Ukraine lost? ›

A new Guardian analysis of Institute for the Study of War data shows that, after once having seized as much as 51,000 sq miles (132,000 sq km) of Ukrainian land, Russia has since lost a fifth of this. It now controls 40,000 sq miles of Ukrainian land, entirely in the south and east.

Who is at war with Russia? ›

The Russo-Ukrainian War, previously referred to as the Ukrainian crisis in its early stages, is an ongoing international conflict between Russia, alongside Russian-backed separatists, and Ukraine, which began in February 2014.

What is the documentary about Ukraine refugees? ›

"Don't Leave Me Behind: Stories of Young Ukrainian Survival" chronicles the lives of Ukrainian teenage refugees. Executive Director and Producer Nathaniel Lezra told us what it was like covering the conflict.

What are the horrors of the Ukraine war? ›

  • 1 Indiscriminate attacks, attacks on civilian targets. 1.1 Use of cluster munitions. ...
  • 2 Ill-treatment, torture and willful killing of civilians. 2.1 Mass killing of civilians. ...
  • 3 Civilians as human shields.
  • 4 Sexual violence.
  • 5 Deportations. ...
  • 6 Mistreatment of prisoners of war. ...
  • 7 Looting.
  • 8 Genocide.

How many troops does Ukraine have left? ›

Armed Forces of Ukraine
Ukrainian Armed Forces
Active personnel~700,000 (2022)
Reserve personnel1,000,000 (2022)
Deployed personnel40,114 (2021)
25 more rows

How many tanks has Russia lost in Ukraine? ›

The collected data shows that 1,239 of the tanks had been completely destroyed, while 106 are partially damaged. In addition, 113 of the armored vehicles have been abandoned, with 544 captured by Kyiv's forces.

What percentage does Russia control in Ukraine? ›

War in Ukraine: Russia now controls only 16% of Ukrainian territory.

How do Russians feel about the war? ›

At the national level, public polling of Russian attitudes toward the war have shown support remaining relatively stable since the Feb. 24, 2022, invasion: On average, Russians still seem to support the war, even if not with the overwhelming positivity that the Kremlin might suggest.

What language is spoken in Ukraine? ›

According to the 2001 census, 67% of the population speak Ukrainian and 30% speak Russian as their first language. Ukrainian, the official language, belongs with Russian and Belarusian to the East Slavic branch of the Slavic language family.

Who is the US at war with? ›

Who is America at war with right now?
CountryDates of Conflict
Afghanistan2001 – present
Iraq2003 – 2011, 2014 – present
Syria2014 – present
Somalia2001 – present
1 more row
Mar 9, 2023

Who has the most Ukraine refugees? ›

By early November, according to the UNHCR, the number of Ukrainian refugees recorded across Europe was around 7.8 million. The countries receiving the largest numbers of refugees were Russia (2.9 million), Poland (1.5 million), Germany (1 million) and the Czech Republic (0.4 million).

Can you help Ukraine refugees? ›

Many Ukrainians in the United States are supported by the Ukrainian Humanitarian Parole (UHP) program and by private sponsorship through Uniting for Ukraine (U4U). In some cases, however, Ukrainians may need additional support.

Why should we take in Ukraine refugees? ›

We estimate that Ukrainian refugees could raise the size of Europe's labor force by some 0.6 percent by the end of 2022, and by 2.7 percent in the countries with the largest numbers of arrivals, where Ukrainian refugees will ease labor shortages.

How to stop worrying about Ukraine war? ›

Try to find something that can distract you, such as a good book, or some gentle music. Eat well – try to ensure you look after yourself by eating healthily. Be careful of alcohol intake – it can be tempting to up your intake of alcohol at this time, but remember this can make things worse in the longer-term.

What are the harms of the Russia Ukraine war? ›

The war triggered a massive shock to the global economy, especially to energy and food markets, squeezing supply and pushing up prices to unprecedented levels. Compared with other economic regions, the euro area has been particularly vulnerable to the economic consequences of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

What are the negative effects of war in Ukraine? ›

More than 8,000 people have been killed, with the actual number likely much higher. Over 5.4 million have been internally displaced. There has been catastrophic damage to civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and schools.

Who has the strongest military in the world? ›

1. United States Of America. US Military has the biggest defence budget in the world. They are known for their most powerful Air Force on the planet, named as United States Air Force (USAF).

How many troops does USA have? ›

The United States is also the world's third largest army in terms of manpower, with about 1.4 million active military personnel in 2022. The United States military consists of different service branches, including the Army, Navy, Airforce, Marine Corps, and Space Force.

How many troops does Russia have left? ›

In terms of active-duty personnel, they are the world's fifth-largest military force, with 1.15 million and at least two million reserve personnel.

What is currently the best tank in the world? ›

The German-made Leopard 2 tank is widely regarded as the best of its kind in the world, combining both speed and accuracy, and capable of hitting targets 5km away while on the move.

How many fighter jets does Russia have? ›

Russia, on the other hand, has roughly 370 MiG-29, -31 and -35 fighters as well as 350 Su-27, -30 and -35 fighters, according to Flight International's almanac.

How many Russians support the war? ›

The Levada Center, Russia's veteran independent pollster, found that respondents who said yes to the direct question of whether they supported the war fluctuated between 74 and 76 percent in April and August, declined to 71–74 percent in September and December, and climbed back to 75–77 percent in January and February.

What does Putin want? ›

First, he wants to subjugate Ukraine, tearing down its statehood. Secondly, he hopes, by strangling Ukraine, to force the West to accept his ultimatum — rebuilding in Europe a Yalta-esque order with spheres of influence and securing a Western pledge to not interfere in Russia's geopolitical backyard.

How much power does Russia have over Ukraine? ›

As of today Russia continues to illegally occupy Ukraine's Autonomous Republic of Crimea (26 081 km²), the city of Sevastopol (864 km²), certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions (16799 km²) — in total 43744 km² or 7,2% of the territory of Ukraine.

What is the best source for Ukraine war footage? ›

DATTALION is home to the largest free, independent, open-source database of Ukraine war footage. In addition to compiling footage from across Ukrainian and russian-occupied territories, Dattalion hosts a database of verified eyewitness accounts of russian aggression, war crimes and acts of genocide in Ukraine.

What is the TV series about the Ukraine war? ›

Servant of the People (TV series)
Servant of the People
No. of episodes51
Executive producerVolodymyr Zelenskyy
ProducersVolodymyr Zelenskyy Andriy Yakovlev Boris Schefir Olexiy Kiryushenko
16 more rows

What is the controversy with Ukraine and Netflix? ›

Ukraine's culture minister Oleksandr Tkachenko said he issued a complaint to Netflix, branding the depiction as an "offensive caricature" that is "unacceptable." "Is that how Ukrainians will be seen abroad? As those who steal, want to get everything for free, afraid of deportation?

Is the Ukraine war the most documented war in history? ›

With more than 8000 open investigations, the Ukraine-Russia war will likely be the most documented armed conflict to date. The multilayered investigation and documentation responses to the conflict should provide ample evidence for any accountability regime that may be established in the future.

What is Ukraine largest source of? ›

Ukraine is normally the world's top producer of sunflower meal, oil, and seed and the world's top exporter of sunflower meal and oil.

What do we source from Ukraine? ›

Ukraine is a major exporter of sunflower, maize, wheat and barley.

What is the most popular news source in Ukraine? ›

The most watched television channels in Ukraine are the commercial ones 1+1, Inter, StarLightMedia Group, which operates six TV channels such as STB, ICTV, New channel.

What is the new war TV series 2023? ›

The series revolves around a member of an extremist terrorist group called (Al-Zafer), who is trying to carry out a number of terrorist operations in Egypt, but he is being pursued by the se...

What language is close to Ukrainian? ›

It's a Slavic language, which means it's related to languages such as Russian, Czech, and Polish. This is a huge language family with lots of linguistic diversity, so modern Ukrainian shares some commonalities with its closest relatives, Russian and Belorussian, and fewer with its more distant cousins (like Czech).

Is Ukraine TV still on? ›

Ukraina (Ukrainian: Україна; officially TRC Ukraina, Ukrainian: ТРК «Україна») was a national Ukrainian-language TV channel, owned by Media Group Ukraine. It began broadcasting as a regional, Donetsk TV channel on March 13, 1993, with getting a national status in 2004. It ceased broadcasting in July 2022.

Is Netflix still banned in Russia? ›

The streaming service confirmed that it pulled its service on Sunday after it found operating in Russia "too challenging given the increase in sanctions and growing payment challenges," the Wall Street Journal reported. It did not specify what would happen to existing subscriber accounts.

Why is there no Netflix in Russia? ›

Is Netflix Blocked in Russia? Netflix doesn't work in Russia because the streaming service has pulled out of the country. The best way to access Netflix there is to use a VPN.

Does Netflix support Russia? ›

Netflix, which has only about 1 million subscribers in Russia, suspended its services in March and has halted the development and acquisition of all Russian-made or commissioned TV shows and films.

Which country sent the most soldiers to Ukraine? ›

In total aid (military, financial and humanitarian combined), the European Union and its countries have provided the most to Ukraine, according to Kiel Institute, whereas the United States has by far provided the most in military aid.

How many countries condemn the war in Ukraine? ›

Niger – Niger was one of 87 signatories to the UN letter condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Which country has the best war record? ›

Which countries have won the most battles?
RankCountryWon battles
2The United Kingdom / England1105
3United States833
6 more rows
Jan 10, 2019

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