Reflections on a year of full-scale war

24 02 2023

Here are a few quick thoughts on the anniversary of Russia’s tragic decision to fully invade Ukraine.

1) The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a full-scale atrocity, with tragic consequences for millions, and indicative of the utter moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the Putin regime. Everything I’ve said and written about it before, including the way it has been a “turning point” in world affairs, remains true, but mostly on the negative side of the ledger. The positive — such as its potential for reorienting Europe away from dependence on Russian fossil fuels and toward renewable energy, and its potential for strengthening democratic movements around the world — remains only partially attained, if at all.

2) Like Ukrainians in general, whose resistance to the Russian onslaught has been remarkable, President Volodymyr Zelensky has done wonders in so many ways. But one thing neither he nor his western supporters have succeeded at — as this New York Times analysis shows — is convincing the global South to support Ukraine in its struggle. Wartime emergencies call for military support, but diplomatic pressure on Russia also needs to increase, which means that Ukraine’s foreign policy must broaden.

There are no good reasons for postcolonial democracies like Lula’s Brazil and the ANC’s South Africa to remainneutral” in an anti-imperialist, anti-colonial struggle. (Pressure on them to do better should increase.) Zelensky and western supporters, however, also need to make clear that that’s what this is (an anti-colonial struggle), and that no “tradition” of cold war “nonalignment” makes sense any more. We’re in a new world with new allies and new enemies, whose contours will increasingly be shaped by new conflicts. One of these — and one whose “war ecology” (to use Pierre Charbonnier’s astute phrase) shapes the nature of this conflict already — is that between fossil-fuel authoritarians (the likes of Putin and Trump) and climate-transitioning democracies (of whom the EU, Biden’s US, and Lula’s Brazil can be leaders).

It’s high time to shed the old lenses and shape a new global reality. In that, Ukraine can stand at the forefront.

3) I recently argued that the cultural dimensions of the Russia-Ukraine conflict cannot be denied. As shown in this excellent New York Times investigation and photo-essay (“A Culture in the Crosshairs,” Dec. 19, 2022), cultural sites have sometimes been deliberately targeted by Russia, and otherwise have simply been part of an indiscriminate barrage of terror against the Ukrainian population.

If Putin’s goal of geopolitical power has long been supported by a complementary goal of strengthening Russian imperial culture — the “Russkiy mir” he regularly touts — and of denying Ukraine’s (the largest non-Russian post-Soviet republic’s) longstanding resistance to it, Ukrainians have also risen to the level of successfully resisting Russian cultural imperialism through defending their own culture and nationhood. As cultural nationalists have long argued, cultural promotion — including the revival and strengthening of the Ukrainian language — can be an essential part of national self-determination.

But the same idea of broadening Ukraine’s foreign policy can apply to internal policy, including cultural and economic policy. What this implies, for me, is an intentional turn toward seeing national self-determination as part of a wider global struggle for democracy, social justice, and climate transition. I have no illusions that Ukrainians can move forward in building anything when missiles are still targeting Ukrainian cities, so the details of any such shift will remain to be determined (and fought for) once the war is over.

But the vision can be articulated now. And it is one that can encompass much more than the Europhilia, Ukrainophilia, and pro-Western orientations that are often expressed. It can encompass democracy as a global project of social justice and climate justice, resistance to all manner of geopolitical imperialisms (most of them based on carbon capitalism and authoritarian conservative resistance to change), and transition to a renewable and sustainable society.

In all these respects, Ukraine could become a global leader. But first we must stop Russian aggression and end this war.



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