Reacting to War
The world spins.
The sun sets on a nation under attack.
The sun rises on a desperate awareness of a new, dire, and unpredictable crisis.
Panic spreads across Ukraine as the sounds of death echo across its cities and countryside. We must think first and foremost of those facing the brunt of the invasion, especially the civilians who will inevitably be caught in the crossfire of conflict. We can picture the parents desperately trying to soothe the fears of their children, even as they wonder with sickening uncertainty about how they can protect their families.
The tragedy ripples outward. A sense of stability has been shattered in Europe, and around the globe. There are other countries, like the Baltic states, who must wonder what Putin’s plans are for them. There is the NATO alliance, tested in new and urgent ways. And there are the world’s leaders who must decide how to react so as not to risk escalation but also not let this injustice stand unanswered.
What Putin’s motives really are for destabilizing our world order are hard to definitively discern. Perhaps he himself doesn’t know. A return to a perceived Soviet-era glory? A determination to leave his mark as a man of conquest and consequence? A twister of history and fact who believes his own lies? Likely some of all of that, and more.
Reports are that many in Russia are shocked by the turn of events. Do they really want a war? Against a country with whom millions share close ties of friends and family? The chaos Putin has unleashed in their name will reverberate back across the Russian state. What will happen when young Russian soldiers come home in coffins? What will it do to the Russian economy?
A lot of the justification for this conflict, including among Putin’s cheerleaders in the United States, has been that this was provoked by the West, that it was due to the encroachment of NATO to the Russian borders. The tides of history are difficult to separate into simple cause and effect. Many others have noted that NATO expansion has been used as an uneven rationale for Russian grievances. Far more damaging to Putin’s visions of Russian power is the example that Ukraine poses as a counternarrative. Here is a country that could thrive outside of Russia. It is a democracy that challenged Putin’s autocratic vision of Russian destiny. In that way it is similar to what Taiwan means to China.
And here is where I gather hope. I believe that the vast majority of peoples around the globe do not yearn for war. I think most will side with the Ukrainian people, even if world leaders have trouble in the short term mustering an effective response. We have seen a march of authoritarianism and attacks on a world order that has, for all its faults and needs for improvement, nonetheless provided for an era of broad peace since the end of World War II, especially in Europe. Under this umbrella of peace, an internationalized culture has flourished, especially among younger generations. This talk of empires and lines on the map feels dangerously dated, the deadly games that old people play with the lives of the young.
Putin is empowered by an autocratic government he has made pliant to his will. He uses the grievances of fabricated history to justify his actions. He stokes divisions and plays to the faded dreams of a past that never existed. This is also the playbook of some actors in American politics. We must all awaken to the danger.
Might this be the spurring of a great response? Might this be the wake up call the world needs? Might countries reinvigorate old alliances and create new ones to repulse aggressors? Are these the last gasps of the unresolved conflicts of the 20th Century? Or is it something new entirely?
At this point there can be no certainty in any direction. But I hope that by staring into the abyss, we can find a way to understand all that is at stake. Out of upheaval can come new ideas and energy. Outrage can be a motivator for resolve. Putin has started a war that could, in the long term, have the exact opposite results from those he intended. I suspect he will be considered a villain in the histories he does not have the power to rewrite. And I hope that the ultimate response to that villainy is a new commitment to peace, security, and democracy.