03 February 2022

Regarding Russians, Ukrainians, and zombies


The eyes of the world continue to be on Ukraine and its relationship with Russia.

Russia's government says that there are no plans to invade Ukraine, that the concentration of forces near Ukraine are not a threat, and that those who speak of Russia's threats are alarmists with an aggressive agenda.

If there is indeed an alarm, Russia's government arguably provoked it by urgently demanding satisfactory guarantees from NATO and the USA, limiting and rolling back NATO's presence in former Warsaw Pact countries. This demand for written guarantees came at the same time that major movements of soldiers, supplies, and weapons were being moved into place. Were we really supposed to think this was a coincidence? Were we to ignore Vladimir Putin's comment to Russia's diplomats that this period of heightened tensions should be prolonged?

Ukraine's representatives, including its president, are not happy with all these alarms, including the streams of forecasts from Washington, DC, about the possibility of Russian attack. On the other hand, Ukrainians would prefer that the West impose sanctions on Russia now, rather than waiting for an attack. Imposing them after an attack would simply be too late, they say.

Almost all the public voices in the current crisis speak according to the logic of power politics, and they are all (Russian, Ukrainian, NATO) correct to one degree or another according to that logic

  • With imperial logic, Russia declares that Ukraine does not have the same rights as other independent nations (for example, Russia), and that the decisions Ukraine makes to secure its own sovereignty could endanger Russia. The fact that Russia has been the actual source of danger, sponsoring and equipping the Donbass separatists and seizing Crimea, at the cost of thousands of dead and displaced Ukrainians, does not factor in official Russian reasoning.
  • The USA has its own imperialist mentality. We assume that the Western hemisphere is Monroe-doctrine territory, off limits to Old-World powers, but we have the right to station forces on military bases in over 80 countries. Russia, in contrast, has bases in ten countries, only two of which are not in Russia’s own neighborhood. The USA rightly supports lofty ideals of human rights and civil society, except where to do so would be awkward for our own authoritarian allies.

In both Russia and the USA, domestic politics are involved in this confrontation:

During 22 years of Vladimir Putin's leadership, the space in Russia for effective public opposition to the government has practically vanished. In more recent years, persistent corruption and the deteriorating economic situation have reduced Putin's popularity, but not his impunity. Corruption is also a huge problem in Ukraine, but the public space for protest and reform there is vastly larger. It would not be a happy contrast for Putin and Russia's elites to have a democratic, Western-oriented Ukraine just over the border.

Meanwhile, the USA's leadership has a very unappetizing menu of options, as does NATO. Neither the USA nor NATO members have any obligation to defend Ukraine by force, and the NATO countries are not in unity over the alternative options for supporting Ukraine. Part of NATO is nervous about the diplomatic and economic repercussions of a catastrophic confrontation with Russia, and part of NATO is looking to see whether the organization is still a credible force for deterrence.

The situation is just as complex in the USA: Biden is criticized for belligerent talk, on the one hand, and for his weak and symbolic actions on the other hand. Much of that criticism comes from the Republican party, whose operatives seem to pursue two strangely clashing lines: urging far-reaching sanctions against Russia, and praising authoritarian leaders in the mold of Putin.

Today, the U.S. government charged that Russian operatives are preparing to stage a fake Ukrainian attack as a pretext for intervention. It is impossible to verify this charge -- is this alarmism, part of a bluster campaign to cover a lack of actual options, or is it based on any sort of evidence? -- but incendiary propaganda is a well-honed weapon for Russia, reaching a peak in 2014 and 2015 in the case of Ukraine, but continuing to the present.

To sum up: almost all the public voices in the current crisis speak according to the logic of power politics, and they are all (Russian, Ukrainian, NATO) correct to one degree or another according to that logic. The leaders involved -- Biden, Putin, Zelenskyy, Stoltenberg -- all seemed to be trapped in that logic; they rarely if ever speak out on behalf of a vision of the future that goes beyond it. They seem limited to the familiar rhetoric of grievances and threats and ancient glory. Putin, interestingly enough, once held up a vaguely attractive vision of a multipolar world to replace American hegemony, but now it takes the shape of spheres of influence rather than a world community of mutual care and shared prosperity. 

(Presumably, in their sliced-up world of the future, Russian elites could still park their assets in the rotting West's banks and real estate, even as they continued to impose a stylized patriotism on the people at home whose substance they'd continue harvesting. And a significant part of the USA seems more and more committed to our own compulsory patriotism, scoured of any hint of racial honesty and made more repugnant by the odor of perverted Christianity.)

Ironically, both Putin and Biden claim to be Christian. I wonder what they'd think if significant numbers of us in the body of Christ rose up and rejected the logic of power politics in favor of the power of love. Not just the abstract power of the idea of love, but a love that mobilizes us to stake our tents on both sides of the Ukrainian-Russian border. How can we mobilize and amplify our testimony of peace so that, at the very least, it challenges the grip of power politics on the world's imagination, and also ministers to those who are now trapped in it?

Back in 2014, during the days following Viktor Yanukovych's departure from Kyiv to asylum in Russia, I happened to stay in Moscow overnight. That evening, I had tea in the kitchen of the workers' hostel where I was staying. A Muslim man from Dagestan joined me at the kitchen table. We began talking about events in Ukraine, where his grandmother lived. She had told him about the chaos she herself was witnessing there.

"In any revolution, people lose their human face," he said. "It's always this way. The cycle repeats itself. The rich people know which way to twist to gain from the new situation, and the poor people can only depend on themselves."

He paused for a moment, and then asked me: "Do you have any sort of faith inside your soul? If God isn't there, something else will fill that space. Just look at what's happening in Ukraine; the zombies are coming out."

I'm not saying that our political leaders are zombies! But if all we hear is rhetorical games, red lines and "signals" and one-upmanship, it may seem that there is no place for faith that is full of power and blessing, without a trace of triumphalism. People of faith, let's take up more space.

(Previously: An artificial crisis, 20 January.)

An overview of leftists in support of Ukraine (from the same author, Simon Pirani, as the earlier Putin's little helpers).

Russia's Novaya gazeta and other media are ordered not to publish Navalny's organization's exposes.

Some bright spots in the stream of sad reporting on the repression of Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses: The Russian Supreme Court recently ruled that simply gathering for worship, without actions that can be identified as extremist, does not constitute a crime, even though the denomination has been ruled extremist and liquidated. Consequently, convictions were reversed or rejected in Kamchatka and the Komi republic.

In an example of (among other things) incredibly unfortunate timing, from my viewpoint, Christian Peacemaker Teams just changed its name to Community Peacemaker Teams. Here's their reasoning. What do you think?

Amnesty International analyzes Israel's treatment of Palestinians, controversially labeling it apartheid (which objectively it is, whatever the supposed justifications). Mondoweiss looks at the reactions in Washington, DC, and among a range of Israel-oriented influencers.

The Newberg, Oregon, school board -- a micro-sample of a country splitting apart. (My summary, not the author's.)

Bob Henry urges Friends to develop a more deliberate approach to pastoral transitions.

The James Webb Space Telescope is not the only new observatory in the heavens: IXPE begins science operations.

King Solomon Hicks and Samantha Fish at the Lorain Palace in Ohio, USA.

1 comment:

Shari said...

So thoughtful and powerful - as always. I love the vision of staking our tents on both sides of the border to be a testimony of peace. Like so many I am very anxious about the increasing tension - I hope you will continue to share your insights about the situation.