Here we are again, facing Russia across the barricades. How did that happen? Only five minutes ago, the West was celebrating the collapse of Soviet communism: a historic victory which had been achieved without a shot being fired. Russia would now join the free world as a capitalist economy, with something like democratic institutions. The end of the Cold War could bring an end to the East-West stand-off, which had required that so much of America’s wealth and Europe’s political attention be spent on defence. With mutual cooperation over the anarchic (but small-scale) threat from Islamist terrorism – in which Russia had its own stake in Chechnya – surely a new era of cooperation, stability and mass prosperity might follow.
How grotesquely naïve does that seem now? The mistake, of course, was to think that the Cold War was about what it suited all the parties to present it as being: an ideological argument, a battle of ideas, a contest between philosophies of how men should live. As it turns out, it was actually about what unfashionable historians believed all wars were fought for: territory and power.
Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer, does not present his case for annexing Crimea and destabilising the government in Kiev as a crusade on behalf of the proletariat, or a struggle against the evil forces of international capital. There is no theory of the betterment of the human condition involved here, or any prescription for a superior form of society which would bring justice to the world. It is just a land grab justified on the basis of racial identity.
The US Secretary of State John Kerry has described this Russian aggression as a “19th-century war”, a throwback to undisguised imperialism. Maybe the conceit of our time was that the 20th century had got beyond this: that its disputes were based on profound and sincere disagreements about value systems.
But, in the end, the West won the Cold War not by trouncing the enemy in debate or subverting it by relentless infiltration, but by economic brute force. The US simply bankrupted the Soviet Union in a hugely expensive arms race. What are we to make of it when Putin and his reinvigorated internal propaganda machine announce their determination to restore Russia’s greatness, and openly regret the collapse of the Soviet empire?
This must be terribly confusing if you actually bought the ideological story – as so many western intellectuals (and useful idiots) did – that the motive for Soviet domination in Eastern Europe and its expansion in the developing world was to disseminate an idealistic opposing theory of society. Indeed this idea that global conflict was all about ideas and arguments was so rooted in our modern consciousness that it made the jihadist movement seem terrifyingly incomprehensible.
How do you argue with people who say, “We love death” when you are geared up for a debate about how to make life better? Now Mr Putin gives us no scope for illusions: the confrontation that dominated the second half of the last century was never about freeing the workers of the world from their chains, or the virtues of collectivism. It was about nationalist ambition, racial irredentism and lust for power.
If this is true, then all that effort and treasure that was devoted to “winning hearts and minds”, to subversion and counter-propaganda, was a waste of time and resources. Russia’s media is once again tightly controlled by the state and it is churning out relentless disinformation about the “victimisation” of ethnic Russians in Ukraine, and the conspiracy of the West to undermine the country’s rightful place in the world. Educated Russian émigré friends of ours in New York are alarmingly addicted to websites churning out this hysterical nonsense. Even more bizarrely, many of the same people who once defended the Soviet Union for ideological reasons seem prepared to stand up for Russia in its present incarnation, even though it offers no high-minded socialist rationalisation for its aggression.
Meanwhile, Putin plays his blinder. In Geneva, he won a diplomatic triumph by declaring that the Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine should abandon their illegal occupation of official buildings. This was cautiously announced by America and Europe as a “successful” step toward de-escalation of the crisis. In fact, it was a gambit that Putin could not lose.
If the separatists did not comply (as, indeed, they have not) then he could say, “You see, these people are not acting under my orders. I have no control over their actions. Therefore, there can be no justification for western sanctions against Russia.” If, on the other hand, they did follow his instructions, he could say, “You see, I am being helpful and conciliatory. Therefore, there can be no justification for further sanctions against Russia.” Heads, he wins…
There could be some plausible historical explanation for this continued Russian imperialist aggrandisement. The ignominious end of the Soviet era must have been peculiarly mortifying and unsatisfactory to Putin’s generation of apparatchiks. No dramatic shattering defeat, no glorious final battle: just an exhausted expiration in which the people walked out from under their oppressors with scarcely a backward glance.
Mercifully bloodless, maybe it left too much unresolved: too little truth and reconciliation (except perhaps in East Germany), and virtually no de-Sovietification to clear the record. Pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk have actually declared a “People’s Republic”, as if they had momentarily forgotten that the Soviet Union was finished.
But there is a more depressing thought. Maybe the impulse toward domination and conquest is simply too deeply embedded in the human character. It can be disguised briefly as ideological vision or religious purity but it may just be the antidote to primitive existential insecurity – the desire for tribal bonding which achieves its most efficient expression in fighting other tribes under some ostensibly rational pretext. That could be why secure, prosperous nations of free people are generally reluctant to go to war unless they are persuaded that those things – the security, prosperity and freedom – are actually at stake. And why precarious, declining economies with populations whose freedoms are unreliable (like Russia) are so dangerous.
On this reading, the most pernicious delusion is the assumption that the historical danger is over once and for all: the dream of “the war to end all wars”, “the peace dividend”, or “the end of history”. Perhaps this isn’t a game for idealists, with their endless talk of values and competing social solutions, at all. Maybe there is some inextinguishable primal impulse to batter the other lot senseless at regular intervals, and then retire exhausted until the next time when the battle can be resumed with a new set of excuses.
What else to read about Ukraine
Thank you for your interest in Ukraine and we hope that you will love this country even more when you will visit it.
There are many exhibition centres and art galleries in the Kyiv city for lovers of contemporary art and modern style.
They are almost always open for tourists with sophisticated taste and are ready to share the bright impressions.
In Kyiv you can spend time with your family with fun and pleasure: hiking to museums, amusement and attractions park; participation in family festivals and events.
Want to talk more about article “Ukraine crisis: New world order? It’s just like the old one”?
If you want to read more articles like this or you want to ask something else, please use our section for comments.
We are constantly trying to improve quality of information and will happy to hear your feedback as well. Thank you for visiting our website!