I’ve been brewing some observations about the situation in Ukraine, and I wanted to share them. I’ll be blunt: I sometimes feel that comments like these are nothing more than opportunistic faff, riding the wave of a news cycle that everyone is watching. Hence, I’ve waited a few extra days to write this because I’d like to keep that from being the case. I hope the reflections that follow are sufficiently substantive to merit reading.
First, I think it’s worth saying outright that the situation in Ukraine has been nothing short of astonishing—whether the astonishment that Russia would actually invade, or the astonishing response of near global censure and support for the Ukrainian plight. What’s behind Russia’s motives, and what’s behind the largely unified Western response?
In response to the first question, I can only offer a vast and brief oversimplification, and this by means of an insight from Mark Galeotti’s, “A Short History of Russia.” Galeotti asserts that Russia’s primary identity crisis stems from its vast geography—namely, whether it is a European or an Asiatic nation. This insight has come back to me in the recent weeks because Ukraine, in the Western part of the former Soviet Union, has made overtures to join the European Union. This would resolve, for its part, the age-old identity crisis of the Slavic mindset. The Russian Federation has objected, militaristically.
If this assessment is correct, then it makes some sense of the trenchant response that Russia has offered to the declarations of Western help to Ukraine. For Putin (at least), and certainly for some Russians, what is at stake is something more like the soul of Russia as an entity independent of both Europe and Asia.
That’s a very short reflection on the “why” of Russian motives, which are doubtless more complex. Where I am prepared to reflect more, however, is on the strength of the Western response. What’s motivating such a powerful, unified set of actions? I’ve got six thoughts on this.
1. It is simply astonishing to witness war in Europe. It’s certainly unfair to Yemen, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan that we regard war as a normalized aspect of life in these regions, but it is nevertheless true that to witness war in Europe is a thing few expected to see again. Europe is close to home. Europe is supposed to be safe. The last time we saw tanks rolling across Europe like this there were Nazis operating them. This influences a global response both on account of the simple shock of the thing, and also on the basis of the memory of the Second World War. We’re invested because it’s close to home.
2. It is heartwarming to witness the unity of Slavic Europe in defense of Ukraine. Ukrainian suffering is one thing to see, but it is another thing to watch Poland, The Czech Republic, Moldova, Slovakia, Romania, and Hungary (among other nations), marshal their resources and open their arms wide to fleeing refugees. In its own way, it is such a startling contrast to the (perhaps anticipated) balkanized habits of these nation-states. Instead, a sense of Slavic unity in the face of Russian aggression has motivated a deep compassion, and their regional sense of unity is deeply heartwarming to the world. To put this in other words, their sense of trans-national compassion is infectious. We want to be part of it.
3. There is a refreshing clarity about the situation. When we read stories about other conflicts—civil wars, freedom fighters, insurrections in other nations—the battle lines are often woefully murky. It is not clear who is good and who is bad. But in this story, there is a stark clarity. Russia has invaded, Ukraine has been invaded. Russia claims to be fighting Nazis, Ukraine has a Jewish president (!). And this subtext of Nazism hovers quite strongly in the memory of Eastern Europe, so that comparisons between the Russian invasion of Ukraine to the Nazi invasion of Poland don’t seem that far off. There is about this a whiff of the clarity that marked the Second World War, and I believe that Western support is responding to this clarity.
4. Ukraine has better PR than Russia. Ukraine’s president, Zelenskyy, was previously a comedian and actor who had played a president on Ukrainian television. He was so well liked that the Ukrainian people elected him. Qualifications aside (and I believe we can all agree that he has shown himself quite competent in the past weeks), his sense of media-savvy is also quite developed. Putin’s Russia is operating a PR campaign that reads as absurdity to Western ears and eyes, but it is working with many people in Russia. Zelenskyy’s campaign is fundamentally more Western, and therefore better adapted for a sense of Western alignment with the Ukrainian cause. We are in support of Ukraine because Zelenskyy better speaks our (media) language.
5. Defense of Ukraine taps into our frustrations about misinformation. For the past decade or so, there has been a rapidly deteriorating relationship of trust between news consumers and news producers. What was previously a matter of simple bias (e.g., 20 years ago, when CNN leans left, while FOX voices the right), has become a state of active misinformation. Today, news sources actively curate their production to maximize the outrage of their constituents, and even resist reporting that might alienate their fanbases. Why is this important? Because Putin’s Russia is engaged in a campaign of misinformation, while Zelenskyy’s Ukraine appears to be involved in simple reporting. I suspect that one of the reasons we feel drawn to the fight for Ukraine is simply because in it we see a cypher for our own frustrations with deceptive media. We’re mad at Putin because we’re mad at our own systems of misinformation. Ukraine’s fight feels like a fight for the truth itself.
6. Good Nationalism. I’ve saved the most difficult observation for last. Several years ago I was at a conference where I heard eminent theologian Jürgen Moltmann condemn nationalism as perhaps the greatest danger to the world today. Certainly there are many people today who would agree with him—that Nationalism is a categorical evil. And yet his statement still gave me pause. Is there nothing good in a sense of national pride and identity? That may be too loaded a question for this short reflection, but however it gets answered, there is on display in Ukraine—and from its supporters the world over—a deep and resonant sense of Nationalism. Ukrainians declare their pride to be Ukrainian, are willing to die to defend their homeland, are trading all their wealth and stability to fight against Russia. There is immense pride in flying a Ukrainian flag. And with them, Poles, Slovaks, Czechs, Hungarians, Finns, and many other Eastern Europeans are voicing their nationalistic support for Ukrainian sovereignty. I suspect that the West is responding to the Ukrainian situation in the way it does because something in the narrative of Ukrainian nationalism resonates with us. We also are willing to defend our homes and heritage from invaders. But sitting behind this there is a remaining point of criticism, because we cannot be both proud of Ukrainian nationalism and condemn all nationalism at the same time.
Thanks for reading. Is there anything that you would add to my list? If so, tell me what it is, and don’t forget to give your reasoning in the comment.