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 world had huge protests backing the Black Lives Matter movement. It wasn’t Floyd alone; pent-up anger over acts of police abuse, many against racial minorities, brought people into the streets. But fueled by simmering tensions and the stresses of pandemic restrictions in the U.S., some protests exploded into riots and overwhelmed law enforcers.
“Police in Minneapolis catalyzed Wednesday night’s violent protests by killing George Floyd on Monday,” Reason‘s Christian Britschgi noted at the time. “They’ve since done a terrible job of protecting innocent property owners from being victimized by the rioting that’s erupted in response to Floyd’s death.”
It was a double-whammy of disillusionment in the institutions established to protect Americans that drove many people to take responsibility for their own protection.
“Americans bought guns in record numbers in 2020 during a year of unrest – and the surge is continuing,” CNN reported last March. “Industry data and firearms background checks show nearly 23 million guns were purchased in 2020, according to Small Arms Analytics, a consulting firm based in Greenville, South Carolina. That’s a 65% increase compared with 2019, when 13.9 million guns were sold.”
The experiences of Americans alienated by police and frightened by unrest don’t entirely compare to those of Ukrainians battling invaders. But people in both situations were thrown on their own resources when protective arrangements failed. That doesn’t mean they are resigned to unilaterally fending for themselves. To the contrary, Ukraine seeks NATO and European Union membership as well as military assistance, while proposals in the U.S. for reform of law enforcement are far more popular than calls to fully defund police. But there’s no doubt that multiple institutional arrangements to guarantee safety have taken hits to their credibility. Ultimate responsibility for security and liberty lies with those willing and able to, if necessary, use force.
But this isn’t entirely a victory for individual empowerment, at least on the international scene. As with all things involving war, there’s a stinger for freedom. Political leaders impressed by Ukraine’s performance against superior forces won’t miss the fact that the country had a large pool of veterans on which to draw because of continuing conflict and the use of a military draft to supply personnel.
“Prior to the war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, the country was planning to move away from conscription,” reports Forces.net, part of the British Forces Broadcasting Service. “In October 2013, then-President Yanukovich abolished mandatory military service. However, after rising tensions with Russia conscription was reinstated again.”
Last October, The Economist observed that conscription is making a comeback. “This renewed interest has many causes. One is the return of a gloomier world in which hard power, rather than diplomacy, can shape national destinies.” Finland, which fought the old Soviet Union, has a draft. Among the Baltic states bordering Russia, Lithuania reinstated conscription before the world grew even gloomier this year and Estonia expanded its draft; the country also trains and arms insurgents against occupation.
“Under the program, members must hide the weapons and ammunition, perhaps in a safe built into a wall or buried in the backyard,” according to The New York Times.
Conscription, like civilian arms ownership, disperses responsibility for defense in a world that may not be able to rely on diplomatic arrangements and small, professional forces as much as once hoped. But while civilian weapons empower people, coerced military service enhances state authority. Individuals will be asking more of themselves in the years to come but, unfortunately, governments are likely to do the same.