In the Ukraine crisis, we’re now at that stage where newspapers begin to print small, generic diagrams of weapons with numbers next to them: a thousand tanks, a hundred fighter jets, 55 long-range missile launchers.
The same tendency to abstraction haunts the language of the politicians: Joe Biden speculates about a “minor incursion”; the UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace speaks of “short-range, and clearly defensive weapons”. TV security experts throw terms such as “battalion”, “brigade” and “strike” into the mix, against slick, animated motion graphics.
Even the left remains addicted to abstractions. This week, at an online anti-war rally with Russian and Ukrainian human rights campaigners, I watched the chat column fill with demands that the victims of Vladimir Putin speak up in defence of Putin – alongside accusations about “imperialist encirclement” and the “military industrial complex”.
But war is never abstract. For its victims, it is always concrete. At the rally, Oleksandra Matviychuk, a human rights lawyer at Kyiv’s Centre for Civil Liberties spelled out the bitter experience of working with the victims – on both sides – of Russia’s eight-year occupation of Crimea and the Donbas region:
“I’ve spoken with hundreds of women and men, mostly civilians, who were raped, who were beaten, whose fingers were cut, whose eyes were pulled out with spoons, who were smashed into wooden boxes, who were tortured by electricity. So war has a very concrete course… and I know for sure that this practice, if a new Russian invasion happens, will spread to new regions of Ukraine.”
I count myself lucky to have experienced war – albeit with the protection of a kevlar jacket and the aura of untouchability that surrounds news crews in a place such as Gaza.
It taught me that war, primarily, is about inflicting fear and paralysis – not just on soldiers but on civilians. It is about reducing grown men, with the jewellery and muscles of local heroes, to psychological wrecks pleading for escape. It is about reducing entire societies to the status of helpless victims, creating a rules-free environment for evil people and their desires.
That may not be how war is designed, or intended, but it is what it does. You cannot capture this in the studio graphics. Nor can you capture the smells – of fear, blood, rotting bodies, the impromptu toilets and rubbish dumps that a column of refugees creates. Or the despair of medics as they treat a never-ending line of civilian casualties.
Does that make you want to “Stop the War”? All of this is coming to Ukraine unless we stop the war Vladimir Putin is preparing to unleash.
I understand Putin’s problem. He has constructed a mental reality in which Ukrainians and Belarusians are part of a great, paternal Russian family centred on Moscow; in which the existence of multi-party democracy and the rule of law among such peoples is an affront to the existence of the lawless dictatorship he runs.
That’s why he needs to force Ukraine into a position of compliance and “soft federation”. He needs a government in Kyiv that will recognise the annexation of Crimea and cede the breakaway “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Lugansk permanently to Russian control – thus delegitimising existing sanctions.
If we want to “Stop the War”, we have to stop this war – the one Putin is planning. And for all the talk about a post-Clausewitzian world, all we really have is the trinity of tools the old Prussian general enumerated: states, armies and civil societies.
In the short time available, we need to use these tools to defuse, deter and dissuade. Nato, rightly, has made clear it will not fight to defend Ukraine. In the democracies that might actually fight – realistically, the US, Poland, the UK, France and possibly Greece – there is no consent for military intervention to defend Ukraine. Therefore – for the foreseeable future – there is no possibility that Ukraine will be allowed to join Nato.
Stating this formally and clearly – both to Moscow and Kyiv – would go a long way to defusing the crisis. You cannot keep an “open door” to fragile democracies engaged in border wars if the door admits them to a certain and permanent nuclear defensive alliance.
As for deterrence, the primary means will have to be economic. No amount of arms delivered in the short term – whether it be anti-tank missiles sent by Britain, or the howitzers that Germany has vetoed Estonia from supplying – will deter Putin from attacking.
But economic sanctions can be powerful if – and here’s the tragedy – they threaten to disrupt the lives of ordinary Russians, whose TV screens are currently swamped with lies and disinformation. The clearer the West can be that it will shut down rouble convertibility, Russia’s finance system and inter-bank transactions, the more likely we are to deter Putin.
As for dissuasion, here’s where civil society comes in. What Putin fears most is the spread of “colour revolutions” to the Russian heartland.
The way to dissuade Putin is to convince him of two certainties: that an invasion force will meet popular resistance on a scale that makes the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests look mild; and that a Russian revolution would follow. Every democratic and progressive party in the West should begin actively supporting the democratic Russian opposition – on its own terms, and under its own priorities, with the aim that a sovereign Russia finally takes its place in the world as a proud democracy.
At the moment, that’s the one thing no Western government wants to talk about. They will speculate about collapsing the Russian banking system but never utter a word about the logical outcome of such an event – a popular uprising that ends the rule of Putin’s criminal-security elite.
As for that section of the Anglo-American left that has become a fan club for Putin, all we can do is help them move from their current world of abstraction to the world of concrete reality – where socialism and anti-imperialism are about defending the victims of oligarchic states, not apologising for their aggression.