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25 September 2023

The postmodern theatre of the Ukrainian counter-offensive

This was never a serious strategy for restoring Ukrainian sovereignty.

By Philip Cunliffe

As Kyiv’s counter-offensive grinds to a bloody halt against Russian defensive lines in Ukraine, observers and strategists are taking stock, evaluating what went right, what went wrong, and what comes next. Did the Ukrainians have the right kind of firepower, deployed in the right way? Did they apply the right doctrine? Did Nato planners misdirect the Ukrainians’ efforts?

In truth, such questions are beside the point. The hard but irrefutable conclusion is that while many Ukrainians have died, the counter-offensive did not take place. Parsing a staged media spectacle as if it was a meaningful military operation not only further confounds the truth but makes all the bloodshed even less meaningful than it already was.

Ukraine has become an intellectual battlefield as much as anything else. It’s a theatre in which that branch of political science known as realism has sought to defend its credibility against the liberals and neoconservatives who portray the battle in Ukraine as a battle for freedom and civilisation against tyranny and barbarism. As the name suggests, realists purposefully set themselves against such conceits. They rest their credibility on their effort to strip away the obfuscation and self-deceptions of political idealism, to get to the brute facts of any geopolitical clash. For instance, the University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer has consistently drawn attention to inconvenient facts such as Russia’s industrial capacity to wage war and its strength in artillery, in pointed contrast to those who imagine that the Ukrainians, having justice and a few Wunderwaffen (drones and Leopard tanks) on their side, will sweep to victory.

For all its strengths, the limit of the realist approach to the Ukraine war is that it misses how far the war is now driven by precisely those elements that realism abhors. Namely: conceit and self-deception. To imagine that there is a deeper reality to the Ukraine war that can be analysed purely in terms of underlying industrial strength and manpower reserves would be to misconceive what is now driving this war, which has very little to do even with defending the territorial integrity of Ukraine or recovering its sovereignty.

What are we to make of a war which Ukraine is fighting to defend its sovereignty while also fighting to join the European Union – an organisation based on superseding national sovereignty – and in which Western defence ministries issue regular bulletins on the course of the war, despite the fact that Western states are not at war with Russia? If we are to be realistic, we may as well go further and also be hyper-realists, drawing on the frameworks of the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard.

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[See also: The last days of Pax Americana]

When Baudrillard came up with the notion of hyper-realism, he wanted to draw attention to a media-saturated society in which symbols lost their mooring in any underlying reality, and instead became self-referential. He applied this model to the US campaign against Iraq in the Gulf War of 1990-91 to argue that “the Gulf War did not take place”. In so doing he drew attention to a conflict that had become defined by the infamous images of laser-guided bombs going down bunker vents, to stress how the entirety of the war was theatrically managed, precisely because its outcome was never in doubt. No serious analyst could ever imagine that Iraq would have won a conventional war against the US and its Nato allies. Rather the Gulf War was a stage-managed media spectacle – hence it did not take place.

The same is true of the Ukrainian counter-offensive. Its outcome was never in doubt, as the Ukrainians were never going to roll up the Russian defences without numerical superiority or close air support. As the under-manned Ukrainian advance inevitably wore down, Western media outlets have run the gamut of commentary from shrill enthusiasm to brave boosterism to glum resignation – all made easier by the fact that it is, of course, Ukrainians rather than Westerners that are doing the dying. President Volodymyr Zelensky himself gave the game away when he told a conference in Kyiv that “this is not like a feature movie, in which everything happens in an hour and half”. All of which raises the question: for whose benefit was a counter-offensive that had no chance of success actually staged?

The counter-offensive was not a military operation but a simulation, played out with soldiers’ actual lives and staged for everyone’s benefit – everyone’s except that of ordinary Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. The Ukrainian government has put on a bloody show to justify the billions of dollars it has received from Western treasuries. The failure of the counter-offensive also gives Zelensky’s government an alibi for future stasis. Western arms companies have benefited from guaranteed sales, higher share prices and gritty new advertising straight from the front lines in Donetsk. Western governments can cite the strength of Russian defences both to justify the enormous sums they have pumped into Ukraine, while also being able to point to the threat from the east when they need to prop up sagging poll numbers at home. These were the real ends of the counter-offensive; not Melitopol or Crimea or anywhere else in occupied Ukraine. Even Vladimir Putin is complicit in this sad and gory spectacle, as he can point to the counter-offensive to maintain war fever at home in Russia, confident that it will not affect the Russian occupation.

A military strategy that was serious about restoring Ukrainian sovereignty would not have wasted so much Ukrainian manpower on pointless assaults. The terrible truth of the Ukraine war is that it is precisely its simulated character, its hyper-reality, that makes it so bloody.

Our collective hyper-reality may yet get more intense. The BBC documentary maker Adam Curtis noted in HyperNormalisation that Hollywood had fantasised of US landmarks in New York and Washington being destroyed many times over and many years before the terrorist attacks of September 2001. Jihadi terrorists emerged to play out what was already a well-established Western fantasy, with all the unsurprising plot twists of the most banal and unimaginative thriller in which a rogue CIA agent, Osama bin Laden, takes revenge on his former paymaster.

Today, in a world which is mesmerised by apocalypticism and the prospect of human extinction, the banal televisual trope of the end of the world might yet emerge from our screens in the form of a thermonuclear exchange coming from a war fought over the Ukrainian rust-belt.

[See also: The end of the pariah state]

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