I left Kyiv 36 hours before the missiles hit. Though everybody I met there was preparing for war, few could make themselves believe it was going to happen.
Even the people at the defence ministry, who briefed our delegation on the extreme readiness of the Russian army at their borders, were relaxed. “If he waits a few months and goes for full mobilisation, Putin can occupy Ukraine,” they told us, “but with the forces available, he can only force us to negotiate over territory.”
As it turned out, Russia has failed even to achieve that. The negotiations broke down once two things became clear: Ukraine had beaten Russia in the battles of Kyiv and Kharkiv; and that Russian troops were perpetrating systematic crimes against humanity.
Six months on, as Ukraine celebrates its Independence Day, for many non-Ukrainians the conflict remains a background buzz of horror. It erupts occasionally into their timelines in the form of spectacular pictures of explosions, testimonies of rape and torture, but has barely registered as the geopolitical earthquake it really is.
So what have we learned – about war, geopolitics, truth, democracy and the future of the West – during these six, surreal months?
First, that the nature of warfare is changing rapidly and unpredictably under the influence of two technologies: automation and the smartphone.
We knew, from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of 2020 between Azerbaijan and Armenia, that drones might have fundamentally tipped the balance against tanks in combat. The Ukraine conflict confirms that. Big war in the 21st century involves small, spaced-out forces calling in heavy and long-range artillery, using off-the-shelf drones and thermal imagers crowdsourced by their civilian friends.
As they learn the lessons of this conflict, all militaries are going to demand a different mix of people, machines and information. Russia is doing so in real time. The challenge for Western military thinkers and the defence firms they rely on is to do it better and faster.
Meanwhile, the smartphone has brought the reality of war unmediated into the lives of millions of people. I saw the first Telegram video of a Russian prisoner of war captured by the Ukrainian civilians he’d tried to bomb just three hours after the conflict started, and there’s been a tsunami of information since.
But we are no longer simply spectators. As Matthew Ford and Andrews Hoskins argue in their book Radical War, armed conflict is now “legitimised, planned, fought, experienced, remembered and forgotten in a continuous and connected way, through digitally saturated fields of perception”. The smartphone, not the rifle, they argue, has become the primary instrument of conflict, removing control of the narrative from states and corporations, and shaping the conflict itself.
[See also: What the murder of Darya Dugina means for Russia]
Second, the Ukraine war has changed geopolitics fundamentally. Twenty days before the invasion Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, met to declare an end to the “rules-based international order”. Henceforth, they said, there would be three modernities, three definitions of democracy and human rights.
Though the diplomats and politicians cling to the hope that the war in Ukraine is just a glitch, it means the “global order” has in fact broken down; that the UN system is probably doomed; that international relations are headed for a period of anarchy, in which the presumed rules of the global system no longer apply.
If you want to understand the worst-case scenario, as far as democracy, peace and human rights are concerned, it is not hard. Putin freezes the Ukraine conflict, stages a show trial of Ukrainian and foreign POWs in Mariupol, strangles the European economy with a gas embargo this winter and the next, and delivers the coup de grace to Nato by engineering the return of Donald Trump, or a Trump proxy, to the White House in 2024.
This is the world of possibility we now live in. If it comes into being, the climate transition is finished, as is the prospect of “strategic autonomy” for the European Union.
Thirdly, the Ukraine war has been accompanied by a coordinated global assault on truth by the entire panoply of state, private and civil society disinformation capabilities created in the digital era.
If you thought the QAnon and Pizzagate conspiracy theories were the worst things that could happen, think again. Even those of us who warned consistently about Putin and Xi’s capabilities for “hybrid warfare” have been shocked at the effectiveness of Russian disinformation.
If you examine the key events of the six-month war, from the Bucha massacre to the sinking of the Moskva warship, to the killing of the propagandist Darya Dugina near Moscow and the strike on Saky airbase in Crimea, every claim has its counter-claim. Putin and his allies in the West have created an entire industry of alternative facts, so that – as in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials – there is a complete alternative world out there, with its own fictional history, for those who want to believe in it.
Fourth, the future of the West as a political concept is in greater peril than at any time since the Second World War. I understand the cynicism about “Western values” when they’ve been used to justify the destruction of Iraq, the catastrophe of Afghanistan, numerous tawdry coups in Latin America and global wrongdoing by the CIA. Fine, let’s critique our governments against the values and the treaties they purport to uphold.
But let’s understand what the West’s adversaries want. Dugina’s father, Alexander Dugin, the Russian far-right “philosopher”, spelled it out: “to kill, kill and kill again” the Ukrainian civilians who stand in the way of a Russian-led “Eurasian Empire”. Dugin wants to end modernity, by which he does not mean LGBTQ rights and punk rock, or not exclusively, but the modernity ushered in by Bacon, Galileo and Descartes.
In the “traditional” society Dugin and his followers want, there will be no scientific method, no human rights, no democracy. And before you say, well, he’s just a bearded old crank: this is the man who taught the current Russian military elite their politics and has spent the past decade creating alliances with Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini and the Trump lieutenant Steve Bannon.
The enemies of democracy are thinking in terms of centuries and continents, while Western politicians pore over focus group results and worry about the fiscal credibility of minor giveaways.
In the face of this we need to rearm: militarily, diplomatically, morally and in the sphere of information.
Militarily we’re probably going to have to spend between 3 and 5 per cent of our GDP on the technologies, weapons and people needed to deter Putin from further aggression. Geopolitically the future belongs to alliances of like-minded countries, constructed without inflicting further damage to the rules-based system but in full recognition of its fragility.
In the information war we need to become proactive in defence of the concept of truth, verification, evidence and logic. We must be intolerant of those among us who play fast and loose with these principles: the grifters, left and right, making money from mobilising ignorance and prejudice.
As for democracy: use it or lose it. We are likely about to see the fall of Italian democracy into the camp of the “Putin understanders”. That’s nothing compared to the cold civil war the US Republican Party is preparing through its seizure of state electoral and legal systems. The democracies that survive will be those where new alliances of people who’ve disagreed with each other for decades can inspire new levels of commitment and belief in the rule of law, the universality of human rights and electoral probity.
The Ukraine war has changed everything: it has upped the stakes in every other conflict, social, ecological or economic. The route to an orderly world lies, unfortunately, through greater disorder than any of us in the developed world have experienced since 1945. If you meet a politician who understands this, congratulate them, because they are part of a small and precious group.
[See also: The war in Ukraine has reached a critical moment]