Those who have followed the course of the wars that have been fought in Syria in the last ten years, along the blood-red trend line that has gone from the militarization of the political clash all the way to the Caliphate, the Russian intervention and the Turkish invasions, won’t be surprised to see Putin in Ukraine going far beyond what a strict rational calculation of costs and benefits might suggest.
The Russian leader has been building up to this moment for a long time, at least since the day when he became Prime Minister after obscure developments and, as his first move, raised the pay of Russian soldiers deployed abroad, so that they wouldn’t need to envy their Western comrades. Putin has always acted according to principles of restoration of the political order, seeing himself reflected, in an increasingly unscrupulous way, in the Russian imperial glory. Today, his armored vehicles are running roughshod over the old territories of Greater Russia, pursuing the aspiration to return to the status of a Great Power, one which the Tsarist empire attained with its control of the Black Sea coasts.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the invasion of the sister nation was launched the next day after the day that celebrates the workers of the state security agencies. A holiday that clearly has very little that is Soviet about it. The appeal of Ukrainian President Zelenski to European citizens “with war experience,” and his order to defend the homeland by fighting house by house, tell us how far we are – contrary to what we might perhaps have expected from a cohesive and self-confident people – from making a virtue of necessity through the practice of a non-violent liberation struggle that would appeal to international solidarity.
This is an idea that also came up in Ukraine at the time of the so-called colored revolutions. At that time, the goal was the peaceful overthrow of power through the mobilization of a broad base that would prove capable of contagion across borders: a revolt that would ignite, by its own example, the spark in the other sister countries.
Certainly, if we look at today’s Russia, it is not easy to manifest dissent: those who display the Ukrainian flag at universities are taken away by the police. Nor is it easy to take to the streets, after the special forces last year wiped out the entire protest movement linked to the opposition leader Navalny.
Those who are protesting are mostly the intelligentsia, a few prominent figures from the world of culture and the arts. Yet, with the exception of Kadirov’s Chechnya — which bragged about its ten thousand “volunteers” for Putin’s special operations — the absence of manifestations of nationalist fervor in the country is also significant.
The fact that we are faced with a crime — the military invasion decided by Putin — does not reset the political situation. Acknowledging the existence of an aggression does not exhaust the possible ways of reading reality, if one rejects the flattening idea that international politics is reducible to “geopolitics,” and comes down to nothing more than the ability to “sell the threat” or “sell the victim” to public opinion.
From this point of view, recent history is anything but free of serious mistakes. We remember, at the beginning of the Yugoslav wars, our radical-democratic voices who were proudly displaying the Croatian uniform, defending the so-called freedom fighters, those champions of human rights that a few years later would be on trial for war crimes before the Hague Court.
No one can say if we are at the beginning of a new cycle of war. We certainly know — and the long years of war in Syria have reminded us — that protracted armed conflict tends to involve an entire region, starting with the neighbors.
There are the masses of refugees, the “strengthening of the defense flanks,” there is the economic impact, there is a shift in tones and representations in public debate. The fact that Poland, a member state of the Atlantic Alliance on a par with Italy, has renounced its hesitations and showcased its own convoy of artillery ammunition crossing the Ukrainian border signals a form of interference that will bring out hostility from Moscow, which in all likelihood will be committed to stopping it in any and every way possible. In a protracted war waged by paramilitary militias, it is not unrealistic to think that those with an interest in horizontal escalation will do anything to create incidents and instigate points of no return, both domestically and internationally.
On this side of the new Iron Curtain, how long will the current political taking of sides last? Today, it seems to show differences being drastically blurred which until recently had led the leaders of our national right wings to compete for who would take the most advantage of the sovereignist winds, deploying the readymade ideology coming from the East, coined by Putin’s puppeteers.
And how long will the Eastern European leaders who are champions of anti-liberalism and anti-Europeanism remain aligned with the pro-European leaders? Nationalists, as we know, get along well with each other, until they start to wage war on each other, fighting on the backs of the people.
The idea of a liberal peace, a special kind of peace between democracies, retains part of its ideological appeal, as a bulwark against autocrats and authoritarian arbitrariness. However, everyone can see that democracy on a global scale is going through a period of difficulty, with significant points of retreat in different places.
What is left of liberal thought on war as we enter a phase that in many ways, both economically and politically, shows the characteristics of a post-liberal era? Perhaps in today’s circumstances it’s worth recovering a guiding thread of reflection on the relationship between war and social change.
The war in Ukraine may offer an opportunity to question the meaning and possibility of internationalism today, if not to rethink Zimmerwald’s theses. In its simplicity, the discourse condemning all imperial nostalgia delivered by Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations a few days ago can provide a starting point far removed from our obsessions with geopolitics and national identity.