Dead Men Tell Many Tales Reflection on one year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (Part II)
As one year since hostilities began approaches, we are left to contemplate the harsh realities the ongoing situation has yielded thus far and what insights can be gleaned from them. As already stated, we have learned that even in the 21st century, war driven by geopolitical ambitions is still a part of reality on the European continent, in the very vicinity of Western Europe, and not a phenomenon occurring in less developed regions of the world, where wars are often grounded in ethnic tensions, historical animosities, or poverty and internal socio-political instability.
Harsh lessons and the heuristics of hostilities
For all of Europe’s hopes that war was a thing of the past, the current developments have proven the contrary at the cost of tens of thousands of lives lost, immense structural damage and economic turmoil. European economies are already struggling due to the energy crisis and price increases; the situation is expected to continue in 2023 as well. One surprising outcome is that, while the Ukrainian economy took a heavy hit, the sanctions on Russia have done surprisingly little damage on the Russian economy by comparison to what was expected. According to the Wilson Centre, initial estimates in April and May 2022 said that the sanctions would wreck the Russian economy with a projected shrinkage of up to 15%. Nevertheless, as noted in a report by the European Council, Russia’s GDP has declined by roughly 3.4%, with a continued decrease between 2.3% and 5.6% projected for 2023, whereas figures provided by Trading Economics reveal that unemployment in Russia actually decreased from a peak 4.4% around February 2022 to a low 3.7% in December 2022.
By speculating its position as one of the world’s major suppliers of energy, selling it for rubles, and reconfiguring its economic and diplomatic architecture, Russia appears to have thus far significantly softened the blow that the sanctions would have otherwise dealt, though it still faces predictions of long-term regression. Moreover, a rather surprising outcome is that, for all the ruthlessness of Putin’s regime and despite several protests taking place in several important Russian cities calling for an end to the war, it would appear that, by and large, the Russian population actually supports Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Putin continues to enjoy a high approval rating and support for his decisions; while some Western media outlets kept prophesising Putin’s illness and death, this has seemingly yet to occur. This is in spite of the controversial conscriptions, in spite of the government’s brutal suppression of dissent, in spite of the deteriorated economic climate affecting the livelihood of ordinary citizens, and in spite of the EU and NATO’s hopes that the economic pressure would galvanise the population and especially the oligarchs to the point where it would either topple Putin’s via a coup or become a serious enough threat to force Putin to abandon his plans for Ukraine. Yet, the protests have been uncompromisingly quelled, while several oligarchs died in 2022 under highly suspicious circumstances.
The clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church has also joined in on cheering for Russia’s war against Ukraine, goading the population to take up arms against Ukraine with promises that those who die in the war would go directly to Heaven, and preaching that the individuals citizens belong neither to their families nor themselves, but to “Mother Russia” in a disturbing reiteration of de-individualising slogans spouted by communist-era demagogues.
The war consequently forces us to acknowledge the bleak reality that whatever hopes there ware of EU-Russia relations mending via dialogue, negotiation and compromise have been dashed, at least with the current generation of politicians, especially as Russia’s diplomatic discourse has devolved into little more than thuggish grunts and threats that sooner bring to mind club-toting, chest-thumping primitives than trained diplomats and specialists, with threats of nuclear pandemonium becoming more and more common in the speech of Russian officials and propagandists. Another fact is that the West, or at the very least the EU, is now facing yet another episode of its ongoing dilemma between making pragmatic decisions and upholding its moral principles. With one hand, it punishes Russia economically and aids the latter’s enemy while denouncing the atrocities committed due to the Kremlin’s ambitions. With the other, it pays Russia for its most profitable export – energy – thereby paradoxically also fuelling Russia’s war efforts against Ukraine, albeit indirectly. Therein lies a dour insight revealed by the war: that the West, especially the EU, is now experiencing the outcome of its strategic mistakes regarding Russia. For many years, the EU and Russia have found themselves in an uncomfortable stalemate, as, despite their political disagreements, they both needed each other economically. Russia has needed the EU for access to its markets as the EU was Russia’s largest trading partner, whereas the EU needed Russia for its energy resources which it continues to buy and which Russia has leveraged in retaliation to sanctions.
Myopic calculations and misplaced confidence
Both parties have usually sought to diminish reliance on each other, with Russia creating the Eurasian Economic Union and seeking some rapprochement with China e.g. by building the Power of Siberia Pipeline, while the EU has made some progress in its transition to renewable energy (though not enough to completely shake off the need for Russian energy; rather, the status of natural gas as a transition fossil fuel increased EU reliance on Russian gas to the detriment of locally sourced coal) and also has started seeking in earnest diversification opportunities for its energy supply. Yet, prior to the war, the EU didn’t seriously attempt to break its reliance on Russia. It would appear the EU had placed its confidence in this stalemate enduring and serving as a strong enough deterrent for Russia. The expectation was that Russia would not attempt to cause any serious geopolitical disturbances for fear of sanctions which would affect it economically and diplomatically far more than it would stand to gain from whatever it could hope to achieve, thereby going against its rational self-interest. Consequently, sanctions were expected to act as a deterrent, lest they enrage the population and push the oligarchs and/or the military to conspire against Putin’s regime which would either cause a regime change or discourage Putin from pursuing his agenda. This calculation makes perfect sense from the Western lens of rational self-interest. Indeed, it makes perfect sense when dealing with a functional democracy where authorities are supposed to answer for what they do, where people fully believe in their right to hold the government accountable for its actions and fully believe in their right and power to effect change by voicing their discontent, and where the economic environment is not politically polluted. However, the West’s confidence in its view of rationality was misplaced in this context due to fundamentally misunderstanding the drivers of Russian politics and Eastern European mentality in general.
Western cultures tend to be functional democracies, where authorities are held accountable for their actions and governance is carried out through democratic procedures and institutions; moreover, many Western cultures also have a relatively low distance from power (meaning equal treatment is valued, with little variance in social status, a more even spread of power, as well as a preference for decentralisation). On the other hand, Eastern European cultures tend to be at best flawed democracies with a high power distance (i.e. large gaps between people and authority figures, greater variance in social status, far greater centralisation of power) and a high level of uncertainty avoidance (hence a preference for avoiding unusual, chaotic or unforeseen situations). While in Western cultures, a predominantly individualistic mindset drives people’s decisions and actions, Eastern European cultures are predominantly collectivistic, where the overall group is above the individual’s desires and needs. Also, Western Europe was partially shaped by Catholicism which encouraged imperialism, exploration and, through its part in preserving ancient texts and founding universities, scientific progress, as well as by Protestantism which aided the development and spread of individualism and entrepreneurship. On the other hand, Eastern European cultures were influenced to a significant extent by Orthodox Christianity, with a stronger focus on protecting ethnic and national identity, encouraging preservation of traditions and the status quo, and weathering hardships as opposed to exploration and expansion; this was noticeable, for instance, in light of the struggle with the Ottoman Empire’s imperialistic campaigns and of the 19th century nationalism, where Orthodox Christianity was strongly interwoven with the identities of the emerging nation states in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. After the fall of communist regimes, Orthodox Christianity re-emerged in Eastern Europe as a central component of national identity.
A toxic version of collectivism and high distance from power was instated by communist dictatorships which ruled over Eastern European countries for about half a century, under which individual people and their lives had no intrinsic value beyond what they were capable of producing for the state. To the communist regimes, people were no more than mere cogs whose sole purpose for existing was to be fit into the appropriate machinery in order to contribute to the growth of the motherland; therefore, individualism was stifled, and individual initiative and significance were at best secondary to the group at large. The government’s absolute, unchallengeable control of politics and the economy with no say for the ordinary people, no possibility to discourage inadequate service by choosing a competitor on the market, no chance to penalise political incompetence through elections, and no recourse against the abuse committed by authorities cultivated a feeling of powerlessness, pessimism and indifference towards any matters beyond those in one’s everyday life. Worse still, the secret police in the Soviet Union and other communist states implemented a very tight surveillance system to monitor the populace for any sign of dissidence; this system included informers to spy on people, and citizens could be taken into custody on something as flaky as an unverified anonymous tip from a neighbour, with dire consequences for the accused. This has thus bred cynicism and distrust in many of the people who lived through those times, hence a lessened tendency for people to trust each other enough to rally for a common cause against an establishment that harshly deals with any challenge to its supremacy, though younger generations with greater access to information and exposure to Western media may see things differently.
Furthermore, as communist regimes implemented planned economies, this meant that the economic environment was inextricably linked with politics, and due to the manner in which communist regimes came to power, this led to the concentration of power in the hands of individuals whose positions as decision-makers were, for the most part, given not so much on the basis of proven competence and ability as it was on being politically connected and toeing the party line. As a result, communist regimes were not egalitarian, technocratic meritocracies, but problematic systems with inefficient economies. Their problems only worsened as, given the ideological battle between capitalism and communism, admitting to any inherent failing would have been a sign of unforgivable weakness, while the politically-appointed decision-makers would rather ignore a problem that could have brought any challenges to their authority and position. We notice a similar pattern even today in some former communist countries, as whenever an unfortunate accident occurs due to faulty public administration, the heads of the public institutions involved would rather attempt to deflect the blame by passing the buck to someone else than take responsibility for the failure and face the problem head-on. Finally, we must also note that in Russia, the state has long since held significant control over media outlets, and there have been highly suspicious deaths of journalists whose investigations have targeted Russia’s political class (the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006 comes to mind). Overall, the communist dictatorships, through their absolute control of the economy and politics, tight surveillance of the population, brutal suppression of dissent, repression of personal initiative and de-individualisation of the citizens, fostered a kind of learned helplessness that plagued the generations that experienced communist regimes and influenced the outlook of those that immediately followed.
Division, de-individualisation, disinformation, domination
Another factor to consider is Russia’s propaganda machine, including its infiltration of social media that aim at making it difficult (especially to its own citizens) to discern whether disgruntlement with the ongoing situation is a common trend or merely a minority opinion. Control over media outlets also allows Russia’s government to filter and alter the information that reaches the people, thus enabling it to present its invasion in the light it wants without allowing for honest debate in order to garner support. For example, a few years ago, the internet had no shortage of memes about Vladimir Putin being a tough, effective and no-nonsense president, and photo-ops such as those featuring him on a bear contributed to the development of his image as a manly doer in contrast with the “softer” Western leaders. In many ways, it is ironic that, for all his statements about Ukraine being run by Nazis, Vladimir Putin himself is similar to Adolf Hitler: both took over a country in a troubled context; both countries felt they had been unfairly dealt with by rival powers (Germany by the victors of World War I; Russia by the West after losing the Cold War and the dissolution of the URSS); both surrounded themselves with henchmen that ensured their political dominance was unchallenged; both managed to improve their countries’ economies; both had a strongly nationalistic discourse; both invaded a nearby country (Nazi Germany invaded Poland while Russia invaded Ukraine); hopefully, that is as far as the similarities will go. The point is that Vladimir Putin is, to many Russians, the politician that gave Russia its dignity and prestige back after it had been lost by incompetent, weak politicians and opportunistic entrepreneurs.
As Russia’s key economic sectors were dominated by a small number of businesspeople who took advantage of the chaos generated by the fall of the USSR, Putin’s ruthless approach enabled him to bring these businesspeople, more commonly known as ‘oligarchs’, under his clout, making an example out of Mikhail Khodorkhovski to make it plainly clear what would happen to those who would challenge his authority. Thus, he was able to exert strong political control over key industries in Russia, most notably leveraging Russia’s oil and gas to transform Russia into an energy superpower. That Vladimir Putin relied on former associates and acquaintances from his time as a KGB agent is no secret. The assassinations and imprisonment of several high-profile figures opposing Putin and the recent deaths of several oligarchs ever since Russia’s invasion began are as much a strategy to root out and eliminate opposition as they are meant to be a message both to other Russian politicians and oligarchs as well as to the West: that any challenge to the current regime in Russia will be swiftly dealt with; that any oligarch who will attempt to challenge him will be met with similar treatment wherever they may flee, and that the same branches of Russia’s services that are expected to oust Putin from power one way or another are actually serving him rather than opposing him; if a plot to remove him is underway, we will likely only know about it if and when it is attempted. Plus, the oligarchs themselves would have competing interests and have trouble finding a solution to fill in the power vacuum that would ensue should they succeed in staging a coup.
For the ongoing war, Russia’s rhetoric is built upon popular perceptions that Russia has been denied its rightful place among the world’s leading powers, that greedy Western corporations sought to plunder it of its resources during the transition, and that Western powers fear Russia and want to see it subjugated to their will; the Russian government portrays Western sanctions as an effort to harm the Russian people to deter Russia from its just war in Ukraine, and as a result the aggressor, in the eyes of the Russians supporting the war, is not Russia with its unlawful invasion, but the EU and the US for reacting to it. By associating a historical enemy of Russia (the Nazis) with Ukraine, and by claiming that Russian-speaking citizens are the victims of a targeted genocide by Ukrainian authorities, while also serving up views that Ukraine should be a part of Russia due to the historical significance of Kyiv in the development of what would later become Russia, the Russian propaganda has promoted the view that the war is something Russia is well entitled to; the Russian Orthodox Church also tries to confer an air of divine justification to the war rather than appeal for the cessation of hostilities against another Orthodox nation. Even as authorities commenced to conscript fighters from the civilian population, sparking some opposition, the Russian citizens’ opposition was not so much towards the war itself, which they continue to support, but to them being the ones doing the fighting; it appears it is indeed far easier to wage war when someone else is facing enemy gunfire and pulling the trigger.
Thus, we can begin to get a clearer picture of why public opinion has still remained behind Vladimir Putin in spite of the sanctions, why the deterioration of the economic climate did not work up a wave of unrelenting protests that would force the government’s hand, why Russia continues a war that, as of January 2023, brought it no major long-term benefits, and why the oligarchs have yet to orchestrate a coup to overthrow Russia’s current political rulers, and why even before the outbreak of the war, large scale protests with far-reaching political and social consequences never took flight in Russia. The Soviet past and cultural makeup has led to the ordinary citizens harbouring a sense of detachment from the decision-making process and of having no real power beyond a vote that does not matter much in the end, seeing as Russia’s elections are anything but fair and free, even today. This outlook creates the perception that any opposition is futile as power would be taken over by someone else just as bad as the current establishment if not worse, and this is where the high uncertainty avoidance comes into play, with people preferring to withstand and weather the current hardships since they feel any effort to actively change things is doomed to fruitlessness. It is also quite telling that the majority of Russian citizens supporting Putin and the war are from the older segments of Russia’s population, while the protests calling for the end of the war were conducted mostly by young people with a different mindset. The fact that Putin criminalised even referring to the so-called “special military operation” as what it really is – a war, and an invasion – served to further minimise opposition.
These crucial elements appear to have been lost on the EU in its approach to Russia, and measures that, in a country with a proper democracy or at least a more empowered population, would have generated widespread protests and possibly some significant change, did not produce the same effects in Russia; this bears some similarity to how Napoleon expected the Russian Empire to surrender if his Grande Armée, which had already suffered very heavy losses, were to capture the Russian capital of Moscow, only to find it burned to the ground. Napoleon knew from his experience in warfare that occupying a country’s capital was a sound strategy to force an opponent to surrender. However, the Russians’ response to set their own capital ablaze to employ a scorched earth strategy against Napoleon is a testament to the same doctrine based on which the USSR’s leadership did not seem fazed by the nearly 28 million civilian and military casualties suffered once it entered World War II, and based on which Russia now continues to rev up its gears of war in spite of the significant economic and human losses: that Russia doesn’t care how much it loses as long as its opponents lose more. It is a way for Russia to project power in an attempt to intimidate its opponents by signalling that it is willing to endure whatever losses it must and go to absurdly extreme lengths, and that even if its opponents can withstand the same amount of punishment, Russia is willing to take everyone down along with it – if it cannot have victory, it will not let anyone else have it.
Heads they win / Tails you lose
This doctrine and mindset is also the key to understanding another bleak reality, namely that negotiations with Russia have unfortunately turned into a zero-sum game, and Russia has little regard for anything other than projecting its power over its opponents. This was perhaps best illustrated during French President Emmanuel Macron’s presidential visit to Russia shortly before the war began, on 8 February 2022, in an attempt to defuse tensions between Russia and Ukraine. During that meeting, Putin infamously had Macron seated at the opposite end of a six-metre long table, and then, in the press conference following their meeting, Putin flippantly said that he felt Macron was “tormenting him by talking too much”. Seating the French President at several arms’ length and then publicly speaking of him dismissively as if he were a nagging child tugging at his sleeve said all there was to be said not just about Putin’s opinion of his French counterpart, but also about the latter’s ability to singlehandedly represent European interests and lead negotiations in a situation with such high stakes as this. Macron’s choice to travel to Russia independently and not as part of a European delegation looked more like a publicity move to garner domestic support for the 2022 elections and to showcase France’s ability to act as a leading mediator in European affairs. Macron’s confidence in securing an important diplomatic breakthrough by obtaining guarantees from Putin himself that he “wouldn’t be the one to escalate hostilities” only made it look instead like an embarrassing diplomatic failure in light of Russia’s invasion sixteen days later.
At present, given that the Russian regime’s political legitimacy is founded in its capacity for brute force, any concession would be a projection of weakness, which would not only be an encouragement towards the Kremlin’s challengers within Russia that it may not possess the force it claims to possess, but would also weaken Russia’s position towards its allies and embolden its geopolitical opponents, thereby diminishing Russia’s power to make demands during negotiations. That is also why, when Russia first amassed large numbers of troops at Ukraine’s doorstep, early hopes that it was just posturing were plainly misguided: had Putin withdrawn all those forces sent there without a concession from Ukraine or the West, it would have been obvious it was merely a bluff and an unthinkable sign of weakness. Ergo, if Russia steps back on its claims with regards to Ukraine’s territory or its accession to Western military structures (which, along with Ukraine joining the EU, would largely put Ukraine outside Russia’s sphere of influence), it would be a huge loss for Putin, complicating both his domestic and external political calculations; in addition, should Russia lose the war, it would more likely than not have to pay Ukraine heavy reparations and bear a long-lasting stigma diplomatically and economically. If, on the other hand, Russia wins the war by either eliminating Ukraine’s leadership, routing Ukraine’s army or managing to have its requests granted, it would be a major blow to the West’s prestige and a major victory for Russia, as Russia would most likely boast about winning against its enemies despite the West trying to stifle its economy with harsh sanctions while funnelling its best military and financial resources into “Nazi” Ukraine; however, Russia’s image would then be irreparably damaged.
Conversely, should the EU and US encourage Ukraine to concede to some of Russia’s claims, particularly the territorial ones (as some controversial though, as yet, unconfirmed claims suggest), even if it would bring an end to the war, it would still be a major moral and diplomatic loss for the West, insofar as not only would it show that the West did not have the capacity to cope with the effects of Russia’s war, that the sanctions backfired and that the mettle of its advanced military tech was not enough to prevail against Russia, but it would also mean that the West tacitly validates Russia’s illegal invasion as a legitimate means for achieving geopolitical goals. It would mar the EU and United States’ credibility and international standing. The only option for Russia is to continue its war efforts, while the only option for Ukraine is to continue fighting to ward off the invaders, and the only option for the Western powers is to ensure that Russia does not win. Nevertheless, this would entail the prolongation of the loss of life, economic damage and inestimable human suffering. The continued downturn in economic prosperity and standards of living may well also provide Russia with an opportunity to stimulate divisiveness among its adversaries e.g. by supporting pro-Russia factions in the EU (such as the Alternative for Germany party in Germany) to organise protests and galvanise the population against governments, which would present EU member states with another conundrum i.e. finding a middle ground between combating disinformation and protecting freedom of speech, although for now the majority of the Western public opinion supports Ukraine.
It is a situation with no clear winning solution for any of the parties involved, as each option involves a sizable economic, diplomatic or geopolitical cost. Judging by what the situation looks like at present, the war can only end if Russia wins something that will at least enable it to save face and claim the war was a success (e.g. parts of the Ukrainian territory, if not all of Ukraine), if Ukraine’s government is removed and replaced with a puppet regime that will be completely submissive to the Kremlin’s will, if Western powers decide to stop backing Ukraine, if Russia is defeated militarily and runs out of resources, or if Putin and his regime is ousted from power one way or another to be replaced by someone who wants the war to end and negotiate peace terms in earnest. If there is an actor that stands most to win from the current state of affairs, it would likely be China. In spite of the fact that China’s economic growth was stunted in 2022, standing at 3%, its second lowest level in 50 years, this was mostly due to the effects of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Zero-Covid policy and the restrictive measures associated with it. Plus, with a projected growth rate of 4.7% for 2023 according to Nikkei Asia, it still ranks above the United States’ 2% growth rate in 2022 and expected 0.2% growth in 2023. The ongoing war itself, despite pessimistic expectations early on, seems to have had little effect on it as per an OECD report cited by Asia Financial, as China’s oil and grain reserves provided some protection against rising energy and food prices, while China’s exports also remain relatively unaffected.
Although, as stated earlier in this analysis, China has opted for neutrality on the war and has been calling for an end to hostilities, it has not shied away from blaming the United States for worsening the conflict by militarily supporting Ukraine (therefore egregiously ignoring the fact that, without that support, Ukraine would have long since fallen to Russia’s illegal invasion). What’s more, China’s increased trade with Russia and growing imports of Russian energy means that Russia will become more and more dependent on China, as its increasing economic isolation from the West would further consolidate China’s role as Russia’s foremost economic partner, while also giving China an economic edge in the form of a relatively cheap and steady supply of energy from an energy rich country; as China dropped its investments in its Belt and Road projects in Russia for fear of sanctions, this means that precious investments that the Russian economy needs are interrupted, so Russia’s reliance on exports of energy remains strong. What this means is that, with China benefitting greatly from Russian energy while Russia’s economy is not sophisticated enough and relies mostly on exports of energy, Russia’s increasing dependence on China renders the balance of power between the two increasingly uneven, and Russia would risk becoming in Europe what North Korea has become in East Asia: an extension of China’s will through which it can counter the influence of Western powers and expand its own geoeconomic clout.
It is, of course, difficult to attempt to forecast long-term considerations based on what may be, for now, short-term developments; for all we know, the war may not last that much longer for its effects to become permanent. Assuming Ukraine wins or reaches a compromise with Russia, it is also not beyond the realm of possibility that the West would be weary of imposing extremely harsh penalties on Russia for fear of not creating the same set of circumstances at the end of World War I that led to Germany starting the even bloodier World War II. Moreover, it is also likely that, whatever the outcome of the war, the Western democracies may deem it fit to not alienate Russia for fear of not pushing it under China’s influence. What can be ascertained for the moment, though, is that, as Russia and China’s Western rivals are weakened by the consequences of the ongoing war, China seeks to consolidate its advantage. Case in point: Taiwan. The CCP has begun menacingly flexing its muscles towards the island state that it has long viewed as China’s rightful territory, issuing thinly-veiled threats towards Taiwan while simultaneously warning any foreign powers that support Taiwan increasing its defensive capacity to back off. It is not beyond reason that China would see the ongoing international context as a chance to further its interest in the region, as China’s rivals would have to walk a fine balance between managing complex internal problems brought about by the delicate economic situation versus pursuing foreign policy strategies in Ukraine or in faraway regions such as Taiwan, as the more the internal situation worsens, the more their taxpaying citizens would grow restless and feel that their governments care less about them and more about geopolitical agendas.
A notable turn of events came in late 2022, when the CCP decided to no longer enforce its Zero-Covid policy. The infamous scenes where people were forcibly quarantined without access to basic goods and residents were screaming from their apartment buildings in Shanghai led to protests in November against the harsh stiffness with which the Chinese authorities implemented this policy. As a result of no longer enforcing the policy, such scenes are expected to no longer be repeated; this sudden decision to no longer enforce the Zero-Covid policy has been interpreted by some as a silent admission of failure and a concession to the people to prevent nationwide civil unrest. By no longer enforcing measures to restrict the spread of Covid, the CCP practically puts the responsibility for its citizens’ safety in the hands of its citizens, resembling in a way Sweden’s approach to dealing with the pandemic. This therefore may have the benefit of improving containment of Covid on mainland China assuming people would be mindful enough to protect themselves and those around them in case of infection, and it would salvage a bit the CCP’s image by no longer forcibly quarantining people. There is a yet deeper strategic dimension to this that has less to do with the ineffectiveness of the CCP’s policy, however, as this also means that businesses no longer need to fear widespread lockdowns and shutdowns of their activities, thereby allowing the Chinese economy to grow whereas the economies of its rivals are expected to slow down, which would offer China powerful leverage to take better advantage of the current global context. Overall, it appears China is taking steps to ensure its economic resilience and growth in a time when competing powers face gloomy predictions of a dire economic crisis.
Removing the rosy tint from the looking-glass
One final insight to focus on as one year draws near is how information warfare shapes public opinion, the importance of being vigilant and critically filtering all incoming information to form an objective, well-informed opinion in an age where the overwhelming amount of information and data available can obfuscate rather than illuminate, and how difficult that is in a time of war, as propaganda is a weapon that all parties involved inevitably use against their opponents. As the saying goes, “the first casualty of war is truth”. The truth of that statement has been thus far roundly confirmed. In the case of Russia, much effort has been invested in presenting the war as just action against a morally repulsive enemy that sought to subject people of Russian origin to genocide and would have attacked Russia sooner or later. The Russian Orthodox Church has also contributed to the propaganda, and instead of pleading for peace to end bloodshed and atrocities, extols the war as some sort of holy mission that Russians should embrace. Russia’s state-owned televisions have no shortage of warmongers feverishly calling for bold attacks against Ukraine and its Western allies, and in late 2022, a propaganda ad made the rounds depicting a once prosperous European family freezing in their home for Christmas due to falling out of Russia’s good graces (with a not-so-subtle implication of living in a now war-torn area as a result of escalation of hostilities). It is likely the ad was directed more towards the Russian population to assure it of Russia’s power, particularly as Russia is much behind its initial schedule of quickly conquering Ukraine.
At the same time, Ukraine’s side has been supported by both Ukrainian and Western media outlets. Similar tactics centred on highlighting the fortitude of its troops as well demoralising and demonizing the adversary have been employed. The focus for Ukraine has been on highlighting the bravery of its soldiers, the victories earned and the savage abuse of the Russian troops along with news of desertion from Russian ranks and the invading army’s obsolete equipment. The fact that the war has taken this long instead of the quick victory hoped for by Kremlin, coupled with Russia’s status as the invader and the known tendency for invaders to commit atrocities during invasion further lent credence to Ukraine’s side and fuelled support for Ukraine. A notable morale-boosting exercise was when, early during the invasion, news of a skilled fighter pilot called the Ghost of Kyiv that took down scores of Russian jets circulated online; much debate took place on whether the existence and alleged exploits of the pilot were real or not before the Ukrainian authorities eventually confirmed it as a myth. However, there are some aspects that are, for their part, questionable. For example, in the early phases of the war, there were videos featuring Russian prisoners of war in press conferences where they denounced their actions and their orders, and begged forgiveness from Ukraine for what they did. As the Washington Post rightly points out, despite being welcomed as sincere by Western and Ukrainian audiences, there is no certainty as to whether these confessions were coerced or sincere, and may even constitute a violation of ethical considerations and legal clauses as per the Geneva Convention.
An interesting trend in the coverage of the war is presenting the conflict between Ukraine and Russia as one between democracy and autocracy; this has been noted in a tweet by US President Joe Biden, while CNN, Times Higher Education, Time Magazine and The Atlantic portray Ukraine as fighting in the name of democracy itself. The problem, however, is that the war has mostly nothing to do with the clash between democracy and autocracy. Russia’s attack on Ukraine is motivated by purely geopolitical reasons as, by joining NATO and the EU, Ukraine would remove itself from Russia’s sphere of influence to a very large degree, and bring NATO’s borders even closer to Russia’s. This is backed by the fact that one of Russia’s key demands has been for Ukraine to remain neutral and out of NATO, a point reiterated during peace talks. Additionally, Russia seeks to create a thorn in Ukraine’s side to keep it anchored under its influence and to preserve its role as a buffer zone with NATO by separating from it several key areas, including the energy-rich Donbas region. This happened in September 2022 when, to the disapproval of the international community except (perhaps unsurprisingly) North Korea, Russia formally annexed several parts of Ukraine’s eastern regions: Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhia, following mock referenda held in these territories, the results of which supposedly reflected the local populations’ desire to join Russia. Lastly, it appears that Vladimir Putin’s ambition in Ukraine is to re-establish the power Russia once had during its imperial days, as reported by CNN.
Also, Ukraine itself, despite the progress it has made over the years to improve its democracy, is still far from the bastion of democracy some outlets portray it as. According to Freedom House, Ukraine is ranked as a “Transitional or Hybrid Regime” in terms of its implementation of democratic governance, and “Partly Free” based on how well political and civil liberties are respected. The Rule of Law index for 2022 has Ukraine ranked 74th out of 139 states overall, 102nd in terms of regulatory enforcement and 91st in terms of criminal justice. In 2019, The Guardian warned that the rise of ultranationalist ideologies and far-right factions posed a serious threat to Ukraine’s democracy, whereas ReliefWeb expressed concerns about the far right’s influence on Ukrainian politics. In 2020 BBC commented on Ukraine’s “massive problem” with corruption, and Euronews covered views on how, despite initially high hopes that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s term would bring reform and progress in fixing some of the country’s systemic problems, the situation at that point looked pessimistic with many voices expressing their concern that the direction the country was going was wrong, citing mismanagement and possible “malign influence of powerful people”. In 2021, in the wake of the Pandora Papers disclosing the secret offshore accounts of several heads of state, The Guardian and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project discussed on Zelensky being involved in a network of secret offshore accounts along several close political associates, with various transfers taking place even before Ukraine’s presidential elections in 2019. The point here is that, whereas before Russia’s invasion, much focus was pointed at Ukraine’s systemic problems, the discourse has since shifted to how Ukraine’s struggle against Russia is for the sake of democracy itself.
In reality, Ukraine’s fight is a nation’s fight to defend its territories, its people, its autonomy and its sovereignty. Whatever political, economic and administrative problems it struggles with internally, none of that is any justification for any external force to mount an unprovoked armed invasion against it, especially when no proof is provided for the alleged threat the invading force claims to fight against. Therefore, although it is clear that Ukraine still has a lot of controversies and problems to sort through before it can be seen as an example of a properly functioning democracy, this is completely irrelevant to its right to defend its territory and fight for its sovereignty, and it does not in any way make Russia’s invasion any less illegal or its actions any less deserving of opprobrium. It is perfectly fine to cheer for Ukraine and oppose Russia’s aggression without whitewashing Ukraine’s systemic problems. We must not fall into the trap of a black-and-white, either-with-us-or-against-us mindset that sacrifices objective, critical thinking in favour of groupthink for the sake of falling in line with one camp or the other. Such thinking eventually leads people to distort, disregard or rationalise reports that run contrary to their expectations and biases, which makes it that much harder to discern the truth from disinformation, and may obscure problems that also deserve attention. One such instance occurred in the early days of the invasion, when several reports emerged about people of African, Middle Eastern or Indian being discriminated against by Ukrainian troops on racial grounds during evacuations, being forced to wait for white people to be transported to safety before they were allowed to board the trains and busses. Similar treatment was reported at the Polish border.
If such accounts are indeed true, then they are deeply disturbing from a human rights perspective, all the more so as they corroborate with the situation in 2021 when thousands of asylum seekers from conflict-torn areas in Africa and the Middle East were denied entry to the EU after being forcefully stopped at Belarus’s border with Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, with the hyperlinked sources also mentioning instances of violence and mistreatment, in stark contrast to the warm welcome that the Ukrainians fleeing in the wake of Russia’s invasion have received upon crossing over in the same countries. The notion that a human being’s life is worth less than another’s based on the colour of their skin or their religion is simply not defendable. Even in the current context, although one may argue that it is logical for Ukrainian authorities to ensure the safety of their own citizens first, it would be a hypocritical argument seeing that many foreign governments have offered significant financial and humanitarian aid to Ukraine even as they have their own domestic issues to deal with and citizens facing various problems that could have greatly benefitted from the resources that were diverted to Ukraine. Had Western governments applied the same reasoning of putting their own citizens’ economic wellbeing first instead of supporting Ukraine and its fleeing citizens, things would have gone far worse for Ukraine, and without Western help in the form of humanitarian assistance, financial aid, military equipment, diplomatic support and valuable intelligence, Ukraine would have long since been defeated by Russia.
Another controversy recently occurred after Zelensky signed a law limiting the rights of minorities residing in Ukraine to study in their own languages. As the law also targets the Romanian minority, this has generated strong disapproval from Romania. From a purely pragmatic perspective, this law can be understood as an attempt to forcibly dilute the ethnic identities of Ukraine’s minorities to assimilate them, likely to diminish ethnic diversity that Ukrainian authorities may see as a threat to Ukraine’s integrity (further underscored by Ukraine’s legislation disallowing dual citizenship). The presence of Russian-speaking minorities in Eastern Ukraine has been used by Russia as an excuse to attack Ukraine, though it still would have found another excuse to invade even if there were no such minorities. From a juridical point of view, Ukraine will have to review this aspect as accession to the EU requires protecting minorities. From an ethical point of view, this law is a very unfortunate answer to the exemplary warmth and compassion with which the Romanian population and authorities alike have welcomed Ukrainian refugees, especially given the efforts of Romanian authorities to help Ukrainian children continue their education in their native language. Nearly three quarters of children have continued their education through online classes taught in Ukrainian, keeping with the Ukrainian curriculum, while 6% attended classes taught in the Ukrainian language at Romanian schools. According to UNICEF, about 5500 Ukrainian children have received access to formal and non-formal education in Romania while more than 15 000 were given individual learning materials. Thus, whatever intention may underlie this law, it is far from a proper way of showing gratitude to the nation that helped Ukraine’s citizens in their hour of need, and not something that should be overlooked.
In lieu of a conclusion, it would be opportune to highlight a few positive aspects and silver linings that can be distinguished amidst the gloom of war. One positive aspect worth mentioning is the resilience and strength that Ukrainians have displayed in the face of a more numerous and better armed adversary; whatever problems Ukraine may be dealing with domestically, its people’s defiance in the face of the much feared Russian army and the relentlessness with which they have stood their ground is inspiring and commendable. Another silver lining was that, for all the negative consequences the war has had on Western economies, most of the Western population has thus far shown solidarity with Ukraine’s fight and sided against Russia, endorsing the sanctions against the latter’s invasion even as they complicate the already troubled global economic context. Perhaps the most brilliant silver lining is the kindness and hospitality with which ordinary citizens have received the people who have been forced to leave their homes by the conflict, offering them food, accommodation and support, with no political interest, no ulterior motives, no material gain in sight, and no incentive other than heeding their conscience to do the right thing. In a time when war brings out the worst in people, it is encouraging and uplifting to see some people rising to their best.