7 Hard Thoughts on the Russian Invasion of Ukraine:
Warning: some of these thoughts are dark and possibly hurtful to those who loved ones may be in danger. Those I hear from in the region report being safe, so far, but the stories from the citizens, colleagues, and the corp are harrowing: people hunkered down, hiding, sleeping in clothes ready to move positions in the middle of the night, families stranded in villages without grocery story supply chains or ATMs. If this, scaled into the larger context, sounds hurtful to you personally, please do not read on.
-1. These thoughts, as ever in times of war and remove, are ever preliminary. I may think very differently about some of the details and takes in a decade, a year, even a few headlines.
0. Ukraine matters. Ukraine is bigger than you think, literally. Were Ukraine superimposed onto a map of the US from east to west, it would stretch from New York to (do you have your guess in mind?) Chicago. NYC to Chicago. A bit less than 800 miles.
1. Help: If you can help, help: donate funds to legitimate charities in Ukraine. If you teach, teach to the issue. Give lectures if you are in a position to do so. If you can help, help Ukrainians emigrate. If you don’t know what to do, besides donating, consider learning Ukrainian on DuoLingo. Read some of the poetry of Taras Shevchenko or Lesia Ukrainka, profound writers, poets, and activists more than a century ago. Watch the movie Everything is Illuminated. Pay a bit more at the pump ungrudgingly: the sanctions are a small price to pay compared to that of global war. Also, recognize that you are currently operating in at least partly militarized media environment. Where we get our information really matters right now: those I trust and repeat are largely not getting their media from social media threads (which may be the cutting-edge zero draft of history but also likely to be more wrong and seeded with triggering disinformation), not getting their media from television news (which is largely full of hot talking heads, including myself, long on bumperstickers, and short on substance); instead read, don’t watch, your news by listening into, say, https://interfax.com.ua/ (with Google translate on in Ukrainian) or (noting imperial bias) BBC Ukrainian: https://www.bbc.com/ukrainian. These sources have the advantage of being at least eye-witnessed checked and a bit slower and thus more likely to get it right. We must all stop doing one thing: stop watching Tucker Carlson and his ilk. The man’s defense of Putin (as a way to criticize, what else, Biden) is so on point that he is now being replayed verbatim on RT, Russian state news. Hint: if your will to criticize the center is right of Putin right now, check yourself. Consider that, in the very moment where most of my Washington contacts are telling me that they have rarely witnessed a temporary unity and a lull in internal infighting among Republicans and Democrats, almost all of whom uniformly condemn Putin’s actions, a whole wing of American media is currently advocating a narrative so toxic and so divisive to the country we love, that Putin’s media is replaying our media on repeat. #BoycottTucker and his ilk. Ignore the wild voices in the wilderness who profit politically at home by supporting a war criminal abroad. (Now, Biden absolutely needs checks, but those checks are not anti-American Russian talking points: they are the War Powers Resolution and a mandatory draft that would make all Americans bear the burden of war, and thus halt our own war machine.) Most of the people in the modern industrialized world will likely, at some point in this horrific experience, identify with the current-day Ukrainians. So should it be. Flags, blue and yellow, must and should spread like wildfire. Everyone should have on the lips and memory the title of the Ukrainian national anthem, said in English, “shay ni vmer-la Oo-kra-ini,” which means “Ukraine has not yet died.” Today we must all be Ukrainian. Today we all must endure.
2. The Russian war, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is horrific already — calculated for winter-time starvation — but it may grow far worse (or, God willing, less worse). The first wave of the Russian invasion appears not to have gone as well as its leaders may have hoped — thanks overwhelmingly to the valiant defense of Ukrainians of their own country. The Russians lost to the Finns in winter war, but often, history suggests, do better than most expect in winter. Do not hope yet. Apparently, at least a simple majority of the Russian forces appear to still be in reserve, even behind the border, which means that the current Russian military strategy is likely to try to decapitate without destroying Kyiv, issue a warning of strikes, and then withdraw — with or without leaving an occupying force in the capital. What the Russian forces are not yet doing is something it is known for doing and almost surely could do: level cities and leave scorched earth. There is a perverse possibility that, even if the valiant and morally justified Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invaders succeeds in all-out repelling the current forces, the Russian army and air strikes may still redouble its devastating powers against Kyiv and other major cities in a devastating all-out second wave. Russia state must be convinced now not to escalate its bewildering attack against what scholars name the very “mother of all Russian cities” and its country. The Russian state must be convinced that the first wave, even if failed in the eyes of the world, has destabilized Ukraine enough.
3. Ukraine: I cannot begin to give description to what is happening in Ukraine now. Read the news and weep with me. Ukraine is where I go in the former Soviet empire for brilliant people with a rich culture full of sunshine in the summertime, delicious food, public displays of affection, and happy smiles. It is a culture bounding in bright colors, happy, youthful people, a literature a couple of hundred years old and a history several hundred years more. Newborns have been born to pregnant mothers in metro stations buried deep under their home. Science, technology, and much else has emerged from Ukraine. Check your phone: WhatsApp, Snapchat, PayPal, CleanMyMac, Readdle, SparkMail, Grammarly, People.ai, Crypto, etc., etc. All of these tech apps owe their origins or development in same way to people currently in or emigrated from Ukraine. (Am I thinking critically about the fact these people fit the troubled industrialized West mold of white male entrepreneur, you better believe it.)
4. Russia: Now, let’s briefly note the beyond-tragic effects on the Russian people who oppose this invasion. Protests in Moscow are muted due to a 15-day prison sentence, but it is clear that a strong plurality of Russians in Russia oppose the invasion. The Russian people, see point three, must also recognize that they are also first Ukrainians (this is, in fact, the more literal read of the mythical history that Putin concocts). The suffering and tragedy of unwilling Russians in this invasion is also an easily ignored part of its tragedy: the Russian state and the army bear 100% of the responsibility for their war crimes: rumors (probably untrue) hold that the Russian army is carrying incinerators so as not to leave behind its own dead; mothers and fathers are being stripped of their young adult children into the draft, disappearing overnight, traces vanishing forever into the maw of imperial war. Some Russian soldiers are surely there because they choose to be, and so bear that burden of doing evil knowingly. Yet, the more pernicious evil — the evil that splits us each in half or in part — is the evil of those who do it unwillingly. Most of the middle class Russian families have already paid (bribed) their ways out of having their sons serve; that means that those Russians dying in Ukraine today are probably a mix of the poor, the ethnically disadvantaged, the struggling, and the militarized ideologues. (Can we not feel the sting of the composition of our own armed forces, those least likely or able to publicly bear the costs of the war they carry out?) Several video interactions I’ve seen, including this one where a Ukrainian grandmother asks a Russian soldier to put her sunflower seeds into his pocket so that the flowers may bloom where his body lies, suggest that many Russian soldiers know they are in the wrong. “You are occupiers,” she points out. “Yes,” he admits before abusively asking *her* not to escalate the situation further. May this horrific situation — the already collapsed morality of offensive war — lead to the swift collapse of the morale of the Russian troops.
5. Putin: Putin, while never anyone’s favorite autocrat and generally a dull, compromised authoritarian, has ruined overnight his legacy on the global stage, except among emergent and aspiring autocrats eager to learn from his example. Long a murderer and a private plunderer (arguably without precedent in recent history) of his people’s extraordinary wealth, he could have, before this week, at least claimed a net positive reputation internally among his own people for, after the last thirty years of rule with inflated but still a plurality of public support, having provided stability in a politically unstable country, for having lifted the net economic conditions of the poor and middle class from the economic Wild West that was the 1990s in Russia, and for having reduced alcoholism and extended the life expectancy of the average Russian man. Now, as of this last week, make no mistake, the overarching shadow over his legacy is cast in stone: Putin must be remembered in history as a war criminal, an unprovoked invader, and the man responsible for military murder. Now if this stinging accusation resonates, pause to consider America’s own role in wars past, in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in hot spots across the Cold War: none of these are equivalent, but Americans, if we are to see ourselves as we are and move toward a better future together, must realize that our own history of military intervention abroad must confront the dark shadows, both at home and abroad. Perhaps the young power movers around Putin can pressure him, if not the aging oligarchs. Surely we can do the same at home.
6. Environment: To counterfactually enter a world not adjacent to our own, imagine for a moment if our world economy were zero-carbon already. Were that the case, Russia would have diminishing little ability to exert economic pressure — especially on Europe. (The US gets little of its oil from Russia.) We have had two generations of warnings. Can we not hear now the need to not depend on petrostates? Perversely, one immediate option now might be to play the market against itself and flood the economy with oil reserves, driving down the cost of Russian oil globally, forcing not only the Ruble but its natural resource prices down too. Still this kind of short-term tactic is the result, and not the solution, to a politically and environmentally heating century, an age of anger and the carbon liberation front.
7. Cyber: This Russian invasion of Ukraine may mark the new fold in global cyber warfare. The Russian state, together with its unsanctioned cyber talents on the ground, have knocked out Ukrainian banks, turned off ATMs, and shuttered supply chains. All of which is meant to increase the pressure on the Ukrainian population, similar to but without the lies of media discourse and without the violence of airstrikes (imagine, for a moment, being a young family, recently relocated from a major city to a village, now with a spouse just conscripted into the army, no grocery store, and no ATM: how long will you or I resist passing Russian troops?). The cyber heat is picking up elsewhere, for good and ill: Anonymous, the distributed hacking collective which has been fairly quiet in recent years, among other hacking groups and homegrown cyber security talents in Ukraine and the surrounding countries, are now mobilizing against the Russia state. In an unconfirmed report, there is at least one database taken from the Russian Defense Ministry now available on the dark web. This parallels significant advances the Belarus Cyber Partisans have made in exploiting vulnerabilities in the cyber defenses of the Lukashenko regime in Belarus. Noting my barge-sized reservations about the extralegal extension of war into independently organized cyber warfare, let’s press this point: I desperately want the Russian war machine to be pulled apart from the inside out right now and stopped in its tracks through all non-violent cyber means possible. Yet at the same time that I openly celebrate and defend what Gabriella Coleman calls the public interest hack (or hacks made in the service of the public interest), I also have rising concerns that we are witnessing a hybrid cyber economy in Eastern Europe mobilized into not just profit-extraction but not state-motivated political and military action. Legislation will not be enough: it may be the case that, in 10 years, cyberwar forces will operate largely extralegal, extra-territorial, and largely resembling a multinational industry of divergent, infighting state proxy forces. (We have the Stuxnet hack of the US state against Iran to thank for starting the state seizure of cyber attacks abroad.) If that is the face of warfare going forward, even the best short-term victories over the Russian state may prove harbingers of something much complicated and worse on the horizon.
This is a hard situation. I chew my lip. I pray for Ukraine. I scribble out my thoughts. Improve them: no doubt there are harder, better thoughts. Donate what you can to and follow legitimate sources. Boycott Tucker and his ilk. Do not hope yet, but do act and pray for peace.
Ще не вмерла України!