'The Future is Dead': Putin Starts a Fraternal War With Ukraine
"For many years now we have met Germans who declare that they are ashamed of being Germans. I have often felt tempted to answer that I am ashamed of being human," wrote the German-Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt in 1945.
Her words came to mind as Russian leader Vladimir Putin launched a military assault on Ukraine this week, the first unprovoked attack on a sovereign nation in Europe since Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.
There is a temptation, understandable given the senselessness of this war of aggression, to blame Russians for this attack. However, it is a mistake to conflate the actions of an autocratic -- and increasingly isolated -- leader with the wishes of its people. The mood in Russia has changed since 2014, and the 2022 war in Ukraine is qualitatively different from the annexation of Crimea. In 2014, there were patriotic rallies in Russia, and some Russian friends on Facebook cheered it on and shared pictures of themselves vacationing there. On February 24, thousands of Russians protested the war, leading to over 1800 arrests, according to the website ovd.info. My News Feed has been squarely against the invasion. "How did we come to this," posted a Russian friend on Facebook this week, to be "ashamed in front of people from a country that was once your closest neighbor, from a country that we dearly love, in front of people, some of whom speak the same language [Russian], but now they consider us an enemy."
How did we come to this? Military experts were right that Putin's troop buildup was not a bluff, but a case of Chekov's gun -- the detail of the story that must come into play if it is introduced. Those who focus on politics (myself included) were wrong to believe that it was part of a negotiation. Putin rejected numerous appeals from leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Until this week, a military operation seemed more likely, but just confined to the breakaway regions in the east. Not so.
The events of this week have made just about anybody with a conscience ashamed of being human. On February 24, Putin gave a pre-dawn speech denouncing the United States as an "empire of lies." Within minutes, the Russian army began launching airstrikes across all of Ukraine; from Belarus, it rolled tanks towards Kyiv; and also attacked from the south and east. The goal appears to be to decapitate the democratically-elected government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (whom Putin has called a "gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis that has lodged itself in Kyiv and taken the entire Ukrainian people hostage"), to partition the country, and to install a puppet regime, like the Nazis did with France in 1940.
Since the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-14, there has been a deep and growing will among Ukrainians to resist Moscow, which will complicate the efforts of any puppet government. But Putin has a history of meeting any resistance with violent, overwhelming force. The Russian political opposition is now entirely jailed, exiled, or killed. Putin grew popular as prime minister to President Boris Yeltsin in late 1999 for putting down an uprising in Chechnya. He relentlessly bombed the restive province and installed a pro-Moscow strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov has stamped out dissent by torturing and killing his enemies, which to him also include LGBT Chechens. Ukraine is much bigger and more populous than Chechnya, but the playbook is there.
Although this war resembles the early days of World War II, it is hard to know how, exactly, it will end. It is difficult to count casualties in real time, but estimates number in the hundreds. U.S. intelligence has warned that they could approach 50,000 by the end of the conflict. Dmitry Muratov, 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner and editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which is one of the few Russian newspapers to actually report on the invasion of Ukraine, gave a grim assessment when asked what would come out of the conflict. He left an interviewer on TV Rain speechless after he said, "The future is dead, the future is broken."
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