Fog of war

Of the many things I find unsettling about modern life, one of the more perplexing is the fact that, despite having a multitude of news sources literally at my fingertips, I often find myself unsure that I have anything other than a superficial appreciation of what is actually going on in the world, let alone why it is happening, or what I should think about it. I don’t know if things really have become more complicated in the last 20 years or so, or if it merely seems that way because of the cacophony of instant opinion that assails us at all hours these days; it certainly doesn’t help that my critical faculties are not what they once were. Whatever the cause, I have largely resigned myself to being in a more or less constant state of disconcertion, which, I tell myself, is really a manifestation of Socratic Wisdom.

This is all very well when it relates to matters that are fairly insignificant, like ephemeral cultural trends, but occasionally something comes along that is obviously more consequential, and that I feel sure my younger self would have had a strong and settled opinion about. In such cases it seems dishonourable to avoid clearly speaking one’s mind, though I can’t shake the feeling that the more critical the issue, the more important it is to acknowledge the extent of one’s ignorance.

So, what are we to make of the war in Ukraine, as the conflict enters its fourth week? Some things at least are clear; the war is an unmitigated and completely avoidable tragedy, the responsibility for which lies entirely with the Russian government, and the only reasonable demand that can be made is for a return to the status quo ante bellum. It gets murkier however, when one tries to understand how such a disaster came about, or what might happen next.

First, the causes. The Russian narrative – that the war is a defensive operation, provoked by fascist aggression against the inhabitants of the Donbas – is so obviously preposterous that it can only be construed as a signal that Moscow sees Ukraine as so far inside its sphere of influence that there is no need to offer even a semi-plausible explanation for the action. However the tone of the dominant western narrative, which implies that Vladimir Putin has simply lost his mind and launched the invasion on a whim, seems equally unsatisfactory. I think that Putin has a clear motivation – to re-establish Russia’s status as an undisputed Great Power – and a rational strategy to achieve this, by demonstrating that his forces can operate freely within the former Soviet borders, while withstanding the economic response of the West. Whether this strategy will succeed is another question of course, but it can’t be dismissed as madness.

As to what will happen next, well that’s where the uncertainty really kicks in. Without knowing exactly what Putin’s immediate goals are, it’s hard to see where he might be willing to compromise. Western media analysis has been rather dismissive of Russian performance on the battlefield, but it seems likely that, unless there is increased NATO involvement, the Russians will eventually wear the defenders down. I think they will avoid a direct assault on Kyiv, and focus on an effective blockade of the southern ports. The Ukrainian army may be able to slow this down, but does not seem to have the capacity for the sort of offensive that would be needed to expel the invaders. Putin may be calculating that, if the war drags on, the willingness of European governments to bear the direct and indirect costs of the conflict, and the associated sanctions, will begin to fray, and the Ukrainians will be compelled to agree an armistice on Russian terms.

That outcome, which would involve months more of death and destruction, is actually the optimistic scenario, as it assumes that the war does not escalate beyond the borders of Ukraine. The Kyiv government has been talking of the conflict as a clash between European liberal civilisation and totalitarian despotism, which I think is an overstatement, as Putin’s actions are in line with a long tradition of Great Power politics, albeit elevated to an extreme degree of ruthlessness. Kyiv’s position is understandable in the circumstances, but, equally understandably, European leaders have merely paid lip-service to the idea, while ruling out a direct confrontation with Russia. The temptation to whip up anti-Russian sentiment as a distraction from domestic problems may prove irresistible to some though, especially in this country, and since there is always the chance of misunderstanding when such rhetoric is flying around, the situation could become very dangerous, very quickly.

So that’s my brief analysis, for what it’s worth. I feel a little calmer for having thought about it, and better able to focus on doing what I can, which is to contribute to the relief effort. There is nothing good about war, but if the events in Ukraine remind us even a little of our common humanity, then perhaps it won’t all have been for nothing.

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