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How did the war become possible?

The problems facing war-torn Ukraine today are the product of more than unjustified Russian aggression. Indeed, they are emblematic of an international political system mired in problems. If we are to avoid such conflicts in the future, we must implement sweeping changes at both a national and global level.

June 9, 2022 - Valerii Pekar - UkraineAtWar

Ukrainian Motherland Monument in Kyiv. Photo: Francisco Anzola flickr.com

Many years of persistent effort by political, intellectual, civic and religious leaders around the world have been aimed at ensuring that there will never be another great war in the world. This is especially true in Europe, which was the main theatre of the two world wars. Despite these efforts, a great war has broken out, in as much as the Russo-Ukrainian War is not a local conflict. How did this become possible?

With great regret we have to admit that this war became possible because political, intellectual, civic and religious leaders around the world, despite their good intentions, made many mistakes.

This article is my attempt to formulate ten reasons for the current war. These were ultimately prepared for an Integral Practitioner Convergence event recently held in the US. Analysis of these reasons and practical conclusions will help to make the conflict in Ukraine one of the last great wars in the world (certainly the last war in Europe). Refusal to analyse and put the findings into practice would mean that the next war will simply be inevitable.

  1. Imperialism

The main cause of the two world wars was imperialism, the struggle of empires for resources belonging to other nations. Humankind has learned numerous lessons from these wars, including the recognition of the right of nations to their own sovereign states. Many empires ceased to exist. But not all of them.

Russia is one of the last empires in the world, a dinosaur from the 20th century not only in the sense of an anachronism. This metaphor also illustrates the attitude of empires to the political environment: reptiles have no friends and they consider all moving objects to be potential food. Similarly, an empire considers its surrounding territories and their populations solely as a resource for expansion.

The Soviet empire greatly contributed to the victory over Nazism. It was therefore allowed to preserve its imperial character and avoid decolonisation. Unlike those of Nazism, the crimes of communism have never been condemned. The unlearned lessons of the Second World War then returned with great evil.

In 1991 the democratic world hardly accepted the first stage of the collapse of the empire and essentially stopped itself from thinking about the final collapse. Meanwhile, the empire did not fall apart completely and is experiencing phantom pains of revenge and resentment. The Russian empire of today was allowed to have its own “zones of influence” and oppress its own peoples. More than 22 per cent of Russia’s population are national minorities according to official figures. Despite this, the real figures are much higher because national minorities often identify themselves as Russians in order to overcome informal restrictions on their rights. The democratic world turned a blind eye to both the oppression and “russification” of the colonised minorities within the empire and attempts to return the nations liberated from the empire to its sphere of influence. This created a feeling of impunity in Moscow.

Hitler’s expansionist policy could not have been successful without Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. Russian crimes in Eastern Europe in 1945, 1956 and 1968 were not condemned in a similar manner to Moscow’s crimes in the 21st century.

Conclusion: the world must become uncompromising in its opposition to the oppression of nations, as well as the interference of former empires in the affairs of their former colonies.

  1. Authoritarianism

The democratic world’s tolerance shown towards authoritarianism makes war possible. Anything is possible when a country has no free elections, no independent media, no civic organisations and no freedom of speech and assembly. In Russia, people are going to jail just for using the word “war” or spreading any information about the Russian army. Even a picket with a blank sheet of paper or a single comment on social media can now land someone in jail.

The authoritarian regime is based on mass propaganda. George Orwell wrote about a dystopia. However, even he could not imagine that his writing would be used as a manual, as a guide for action. British journalist Peter Pomerantsev discusses this system in his book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible.

The Russian Orthodox Church, which legitimises, blesses and sanctifies violence, plays a particularly important role in the country’s propaganda system.

Authoritarianism poisons its citizens with massive militaristic propaganda, which creates a foundation for future wars.

Conclusion: the world must become uncompromising with regards to authoritarian regimes, as they only encourage war.

  1. Systemic archaisation

Imperial resentment and revanchism are embodied not only in foreign policy. Russia is installing more and more archaic political, economic, religious and cultural systems, so it is not surprising that its human capital is degrading. In the economy, Putin has made the transition from the oligarchic model of the 1990s, which resembled feudalism, to the very archaic model of a single tyrant who assigns certain people to temporarily manage certain assets. This system ultimately resembles that under Ivan the Terrible. In the political sphere, Putin went further than restoring the Stalinist system of a “party-state” dominated by the balance of the Communist Party and KGB. Instead, he has installed a system of domination based on pure state “legalism” that resembles the Horde or ancient Chinese autocracies. By the way, Stalin is today one of the most popular historical figures in Russia in spite of his terror inflicted on the country. The reason for this is clear: the true hero in the archaic worldview should demonstrate unlimited use of force.

As a result, the cults of power and violence in Russia have become a state ideology. Children are brought up in the cultural codes of war. Educating and upbringing in an atmosphere dominated by the cult of violence, as well as the degradation of the social system, inevitably leads to savagery. Such savages are subsequently capable of committing any crime, viewing western tolerance as weakness. But the democratic world perceived this savagery and barbarism as a mere cultural feature. The postmodern rejection of the traditional hierarchy of values and the readiness to accept everyone as they are has also played a role here.

At the individual level, the world has long recognised the modern values ​​of human rights. However, it still allows the archaic values ​​of the rule of force to prevail in international politics.

Conclusion: the world must learn to distinguish between cultural features and the archaic cults of violence and the rule of force, which must be declared unacceptable.

  1. Oil

Oil production and the associated processing technology require a huge concentration of capital. You simply cannot establish a tiny oil company. Where there are no economic freedoms and no capital markets, only the state can invest. This only increases the role of the state and strengthens authoritarianism. As a result, “the oil curse” is twofold. It is not only a curse of resources (the availability of a large resource makes modernisation unnecessary) but also a curse of authoritarianism.

The world of oil not only risks encouraging a global environmental crisis and climate change but also supports authoritarianism and wars. Would the Russo-Ukrainian War be possible if the amount of oil in the world’s energy balance dropped significantly? Compare any graph of oil prices with the list of Soviet/Russian aggressions and the answer is clear. A surplus of oil money only pushes the empire to expand.

At the same time, renewable energy meets the need for sustainable development and helps avoid climate change. This new technological package is decentralised and inherently opposes the concentration of power and waging of wars. It makes sense to fight for oil but it makes no sense to fight for the sun and wind.

Conclusion: the world must move towards reducing the share of fossil fuels in the energy balance, thus reducing the influence of oil autocracies in international affairs.

  1. The failure of Russian intellectuals

After the fall of communism, Russian intellectuals failed to offer another vision of the future for the Russian people. The reason for this is that Russian intellectuals always consider their country as a separate civilization, which has its own way (“The Second Way”) not comparable with that in the West. Pre-communist, communist, anti-communist and post-communist Russian thinkers all unite around this idea of the Second Way. Whether it is the early communist dream about a more just society or the late communist dream about space travel, this idea of the Second Way depicts Russia as a civilization of big dreams for a better future (by the way, big dreams first require a big state to collect resources for such dreams). When it became clear that the democratic world had implemented a more just society, a competitive space programme and a consumer paradise, Russian thinkers found that they were unable to propose any distinct ideas about the future.

That is why all ideas in Russian discourse focus on the restoration of the past, a “Golden Age” of imperial greatness and the unlimited use of force. A great amount of modern Russian literature, even science fiction, focuses on the past and not the future.

Most of today’s Russian intellectuals and artists have also turned out to be imperialists and chauvinists, as did many of those in the past. Alexander Pushkin and Joseph Brodsky are perhaps the most famous examples for their categorical rejection of Polish and Ukrainian independence respectively. There is a saying that Russian liberalism ends where Ukraine begins, as far as even the most liberal political figures cannot accept Ukraine’s independence.

Faced with authoritarian oppression, Russian intellectuals either joined the regime or chose the strategy of “waiting out the evil”. Only a few have chosen to voice their opposition to the regime.

Conclusion: the world should support Russian intellectuals and artists fighting authoritarianism and not confuse active fighters against the regime with its passive victims, much less passive observers.

  1. Global spread of imperial influence

Russian media and oil-bought politicians, journalists and intellectuals have effectively disarmed the world when it comes to Russia. In a way, we can talk about the global corruption of elites by Russia. At the same time, populist politicians supported by Russian money have promoted Russian narratives primarily to build their own popularity against the traditional establishment.

It turns out that the idea that “Culture and sports are outside of politics” is simply wrong. The authoritarian regime uses these as opportunities to promote itself and its interests, to create an attractive image of “authoritarianism with a human face”.

However, Russian interference in world politics is not limited to propaganda and intelligence operations. A huge army of hackers and information influence agents (“bot farms”) interfere in critical information systems, manipulate the mass consciousness and inflame conflicts around the world. They have even tried to influence elections and referendums. The intelligence services of democratic countries have noted dozens of cases of active Russian intervention, from Hungary to the United States, from Great Britain to Spain.

Conclusion: the world needs to cut these channels of global information influence and be tougher on attempts to interfere in elections and the operation of information systems.

  1. Interests prevailing over values

When interests prevail over values, moral guidelines are lost. However, interests are always based on values. So, if values ​​are viewed as inferior to interests, then, in fact, other values serve ultimately as the real basis for actions on the global stage.

The democratic world has turned a blind eye to Russia’s invasion of Georgia, crimes in the Middle East, annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donbas. After all, western business needs to make money in the big Russian market and politicians need to ensure low prices in the bills paid by European voters. Impunity for past crimes breeds permissiveness and new, more horrific crimes. Moreover, after 2014, European countries, in violation of the embargo, continued to sell Russia the latest weapons, greatly increasing its military capabilities.

Not only governments but also corporations like to make money by working with authoritarian regimes. Large international corporations boast extensive codes of corporate social responsibility but gladly pay invoices for war, oppression and violence.

The presence of such opaque enclaves in the global financial system provides the basis for the economic success of authoritarian and dictatorial regimes. These enclaves also provide such governments with the ability to launder and save money, which then pays for war and the spread of their covert influence around the world.

Conclusion: the world needs to strengthen corporate and government social responsibility with regards to cooperating with authoritarian regimes and take additional measures against money laundering.

  1. International organisations

The whole international system has failed because no one in any international organisation knows how to act when faced with a full-scale conflict instead of a local one. For example, how should the UN Security Council act when the aggressor is its permanent member? The challenges to peace are growing and the institutions cannot meet them largely because they were created for a different level of challenges.

As a result, international organisations demonstrate behaviour that is perceived by victims of aggression as hypocrisy. It is noteworthy that only half of the UN’s member states voted for the exclusion of Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, and this was after the release of information about horrific war crimes. In the case of Belarus, the world still gives this state the opportunity to continue voting in international organisations despite international recognition of the illegal seize of power.

A particularly severe form of paralysis appears to occur in international politics following even minor discussion about the use of nuclear weapons. Ironically, every time this happens we move one step closer to a nuclear war.

Conclusion: it is necessary to “reboot” international organisations so they can deal with the new challenges of our century.

  1. Post-truth

Postmodern tolerance for the expression of all opinions and the inability to defend the truth leads to the devaluation of science and the intellectual achievements of humankind. This allows various strange beliefs and conspiracy theories to increasingly gain influence. The result is a loss of critical thinking and any moral compass. It is impossible to overcome evil if it is not clear what evil is, if “good” and “evil” are just words used to describe two equal points of view.

In addition, modern mass media simplifies the picture of the world for the mass consumer, fuels anti-intellectualism and gives citizens the impression of complete understanding and self-awareness. This disarms them against propaganda, “alternative truth” and fake news. This process is used by authoritarian regimes, which pay for not only the global spread of their own worldview and version of history but also informational hegemony. After all, a country that is constantly present in the news seems more important and understandable than one that is not in the news. As a result, ordinary citizens and even professionals who work with information are misled and miss important facts about news stories.

Conclusion: the world needs new standards of media and education to prevent intellectual degradation.

  1. The failure of the world’s intellectuals

A significant proportion of the world’s intellectual leaders have lost their moral compass, demanding that Ukraine surrender and that their own governments refuse to help. They have also often called for dialogue and forgiveness instead of protection for Ukraine from Russian violence. This group offers a simplified worldview in which weapons automatically mean aggression, so Ukraine should not subsequently be provided with military equipment.

For some intellectuals, ideology has replaced analysis of reality. It ultimately seems that the professors in charge of university courses on critical thinking often think in patterns themselves. Whilst some simply lack the courage to call a spade a spade, others have got lost in theory and/or efforts to rationalise evil. Some also serve big money, justifying their cooperation with evil.

Few people show the courage to admit their lack of competence in Eastern European affairs. As a result, we hear statements about events in Ukraine from people who can hardly find it on the map or have never visited the country. At the same time, a certain arrogance prevents intellectual leaders from even attempting to hear the voice of Ukraine (as well as Russian minorities), a voice from outside their own experience. Western intellectuals have somehow combined the postmodern acceptance of savagery as a cultural feature with a modern version of intellectual and even moral colonial superiority similar to “the white man’s burden”. Numerous examples deserve separate research beyond the scope of this article. This all reminds me of Martin Luther King’s phrase: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Conclusion: the world needs new intellectual “optics” to understand events beyond everyday experience, as well as a strong moral compass that will not lead to wandering in postmodern relativism.

Valerii Pekar is a co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, an adjunct professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and a former member of the National Reform Council.

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