In 1918 pandemic followed war. In 2022 war has followed pandemic. Few of us saw it coming. Up to the last moment, I thought Russian President Vladimir Putin would continue to chip away at Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking eastern territories, funding “separatists” and daring the rest of the world to do something about it. I personally thought Ukraine’s aspiration to join NATO unwise, because, after the Soviet Union’s demise, there were numerous border issues between the now independent former Soviet republics, and any guarantee of existing borders would see the Atlantic alliance taking sides in these complicated disputes. Moreover, the fact that russophones in eastern Ukraine had a weak sense of Ukrainian identity made it unwise for the west to interfere in a regional conflict.
The last week of February, all this changed irrevocably with Putin’s full-scale invasion of an internationally-recognized independent state. At the moment it is difficult to see where and how it will end. When Europe went to war in 1914, everyone thought it would be over in weeks. No one foresaw the grinding four-year stalemate that would devastate an entire generation of uniformed young men and civilians alike. When it was over, empires had collapsed, with the global order set up in 1815 in tatters, followed by a “Spanish” flu that disproportionately targeted the young in huge numbers. The ensuing Jazz Age and global Depression shaped my grandparents’ and parents’ generations in ways that continue to reverberate into the 21st century.
I will resist making predictions about how the current crisis will unfold. Like so many autocrats before him, Putin has nurtured dreams of imperial grandeur, fancying himself a latter-day tsar and hungering after territories lost at the breakup of the former Soviet Union. Up to now, he had been methodical in implementing his vision, occupying two pieces of territory in Georgia, the Crimean Peninsula, and, in effect, a narrow strip of land between Moldova and Ukraine, with the support of Belarus’ venal ruler Alexander Lukashenko.
Delusions & truth
Putin has now moved into cliché territory: he has put all his cards on the table, shown his true colours, upended the apple cart. Making comparisons to Adolf Hitler generally elicits finger-wagging because it is done too often by people trying to score political points against opponents. Nevertheless, it is difficult to avoid the parallels with the Nazi dictator’s dismemberment of Czechoslovakia over German-speaking Sudetenland and his pretext for invading Poland the following year.
But we should note the differences too. This war is not popular with ordinary Russians, as massive demonstrations in Moscow, St. Petersburg and elsewhere are indicating. Younger Russians with dim or no memories of the Soviet era will not be wearing “Make Russia Great Again” hats any time soon. Nineteenth-century nationalist dreams of glory are the delusions of an ageing despot living in the past.
Moreover, Ukrainians are fighting valiantly on the battlefield, defending their homeland against an invader. As I write, they have succeeded in slowing considerably the Russian advance into their country. Virtually the entire world is on Ukraine’s side, and Putin has now made Russia a pariah state, with external sanctions greatly strengthened. There has not been as clear a case of unjust aggression by a predatory regime in decades.
Finally, as Thomas L. Friedman points out in The New York Times, this is an 18th-century war being fought in an era of massive globalization of information. The first casualty of war may be the truth – another cliché again! But with Google, Facebook and Twitter enveloping the globe, it is that much more difficult to conceal the truth, including sensitive troop movements by Russian soldiers suffering from low morale. Our primary difficulty now will be to recognize the truth when we see it – to sort it out from the large amount of disinformation being disseminated by Moscow and elsewhere.
What can we do? There has always been a close relationship between Canada and Ukraine, with numerous Ukrainian Canadians living in the Prairies and the Niagara Peninsula. Let’s find concrete ways to help. In the meantime, we might do well to pray for Putin in the words of Psalm 109:8: “May his days be few; may another take his office!”
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