24 March 2022

The fog of war

Julia, 16, from Dnipro, who is traveling alone, holds her pet rabbit Baby after arriving to the Lviv main station, western Ukraine, Thursday, March 24, 2022. She was on her way to join her mother and then go on to Poland or Germany. AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty. Source.

I'm reasonably sure that the photo above, evocative as it is, represents reality. There is a quantifiable aspect of that reality: we can count the numbers of refugees that have crossed borders from Ukraine into neighboring countries: over 3.6 million to date. It's also reasonable to suppose that most of those refugees feared for their lives.

What else do we know with reasonable certainty about the war in Ukraine?

It is a war. The Oxford English Dictionary defines war as 

Hostile contention by means of armed forces, carried on between nations, states, or rulers, or between parties in the same nation or state; the employment of armed forces against a foreign power, or against an opposing party in the state.

(The Russian word for war is not defined significantly differently; here it is in Ozhegov's widely-used dictionary; and here in the Russian Wiktionary.)

The Russian government prohibits its citizens from using the term "war" for the special military operation it began a month ago, but the plain word admits no ambiguity in this case. Since February 24, the armed forces of the Russian Federation have been using their weapons against Ukrainian targets on Ukrainian territory.

To date this war has caused numerous deaths and enormous destruction. We do not need to know who is guilty of each case of death, injury, and destruction of property to agree. Many people are dead and injured, and their homes damaged or destroyed, who were alive and whole on February 23.

Regardless of questions of "who pulled the trigger?", all of this death and destruction has taken place on Ukrainian territory. There is no significant evidence that Ukrainian forces have attacked Russian people or objects on the Russian side of the Russian/Ukrainian border.

Russian President Vladimir Putin initiated this current war. It's true that hostilities between Ukraine on one side, and the armed forces associated with the regions known to Ukrainians as "temporarily occupied territories" in Donetsk and Luhansk on the other, have been going on for eight years. In addition, eight years ago Russian forces seized the Crimea, conducting a referendum under its sole supervision, and annexed this previously Ukrainian territory. 

The Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics declared their independence eight years ago, in April 2014, but no other country recognized their independence until the Russian government did so on February 22, 2022, just two days before the war began. In those eight years, low-grade hostilities (Ukraine vs the separatists) apparently continued in both directions, but at no time was this territory outside the boundaries of Ukraine in any sense that the international community was bound to acknowledge. President Putin clearly and publicly led the process to recognize those republics' independence and subsequently to order the war two days later.

Except in the case of an actual war of defense in response to attack, there is no basis in international law for a country to wage war on another by force to disarm it or to change its politics. President Putin announced two goals for this war: to demilitarize and to denazify Ukraine.  If there is no obvious and immediate danger to the complaining country, totally aside from questions of the validity of Putin's political charges against Ukraine, the war is illegal and its initiation is a crime. All sovereign nations, in the ancient, lamentable, ungodly customs of human behavior, are entitled to maintain the armies they desire -- including Ukraine -- and to allow whatever spectrum of political belief they deem acceptable. Putin may believe what he wants about Russia, Ukraine, and the "Russian World," but is not entitled to cause a war over it.

Concerning charges of "war crimes," such as American politicians have made: It's certainly true that this charge has a technical dimension, which requires specific determinations of facts; and it is also a rhetorical charge. Since the USA has refused to ratify the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, whose mission includes determining war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity, the USA's rhetorical use of the charge sounds hypocritical, even if it turns out to be accurate.

What are we less certain about?

The term "fog of war" usually refers to operational uncertainties among those actually participating in war -- uncertainties about the disposition of one's own and opponents' forces and resources, opponents' plans and intentions, unclear and confused commands, interpretation of the floods of data on what's happening on the field, or conversely, getting cut off from that data. More generally, when the fog of war descends, all of us must be modest and careful about how to interpret photographs and videos (no matter how dramatic), commentaries from so-called experts, statistics, and -- most of all -- the motives of those supplying all this information.

For example: the Ukrainian government and pro-Ukrainian sources have provided numerous photos and videos of Russian hardware being destroyed. They provide dramatic evidence of the scale of resistance offered by defenders of their country, and seem to point to Russian forces as less formidable than many of us had assumed. What we know far less about are the losses and mistakes on the Ukrainian side. We hear about Russians surrendering to Ukrainian forces, and far less about surrenders in the other direction. We know very little about pro-Russian people in Ukraine, except that pro-Russian political parties in Ukraine have been banned.

Many countries have, individually and jointly, imposed economic sanctions and embargoes on the Russian Federation. So far we know little about how those actions have impacted the war, and how their effects have been distributed among the Russian people -- for example, between those waging and funding the war, on one side, and the ordinary Russian family, on the other. Today I heard that a hundred thousand workers in the IT sphere are leaving Russia because of this war. How trustworthy is this estimate?

What nobody seems to know.

How long will this war last? Who will pay the price for the costs of this aggression? Will Ukraine regain its lost territories and populations? Will Putin survive internal challenges in view of the massive costs in lives and national wealth directly linked to his decision? How will collective security be redefined for Russia's neighboring countries and the larger world? How will the world now respond to other old and new wars, including civil wars, especially those outside Europe and those involving non-European aggressors or victims? For example, the next time the "grass is mowed" in Gaza City, will we look at things a bit differently?

The fog of war, part two: face to face with the curse.

Ronia, the Robber's Daughter; source: MyM.

For weeks now, in this blog, I've been writing about Ukraine vs Russia from a place of raw emotion, sympathy, and outrage. The paragraphs above are my attempt to describe the situation more objectively, if that were possible. But the emotions are still there, of course, despite all my attempts to identify who is trying to motivate, and in what direction, in the information wars we're all subjected to.

A couple of triggers I've experienced today:

Judy with MyM's Artyom Korovin, playing Skalle Per.
Among the wonderful memories of our years in Elektrostal, for some reason one special memory hit me today: the amateur theater "MyM" in nearby Noginsk. The first play we saw there was Ronia, the Robber's Daughter, based on the novel by Astrid Lindgren and adapted by Viktoria Gyl'. In this play, two young people cross enemy lines to become friends with each other, resulting in reconciliation between their previously warring bands of robbers.

The thing is, reconciliation among enemies, or former enemies, is a constant and beloved trope in Russian culture. In the context of the Cold War, we saw the emotional power of this theme in the enthusiastic reception of pianist Van Cliburn in the USSR. The Soyuz-Apollo flight in 1975 resulted in a Russian pop tune and a brand of cigarettes. There is no more heartfelt friendship in Russia than that between former enemies. I'm holding on to this theme in praying for Ukraine's future ... and Russia's. 

In Lindgren's story, Ronia's clan and their enemies lived in opposite sides of the same castle, just as Russia and Ukraine emerged from the same "baptismal font," the Dnieper River.

The second instance: Today, thanks to a Twitter post by Boris Fedyukin, I've just watched an interview with the long-time executive secretary of the Council of Committees of Soldiers' Mothers in Russia, Valentina Melnikova. She explains how her organization is working for the exchanges of prisoners and dead soldiers' bodies between Russia and Ukraine. She says that, as it turns out, the Soldiers' Mothers had been prophetic in pointing out the implications of the massing of Russian soldiers on Ukraine's borders. "We weren't Cassandras." She speaks very directly: there are those in the FSB (successor to KGB) and those among the military prosecutors, with whom she has a normal and productive relationship and isn't afraid to call and speak her piece. At the same time, she believes the Russian representatives in negotiations with Ukraine have little knowledge of human rights, the rules of war, or empathy. For the achievement of peace, she and her colleagues are hoping for the influence of the world community.

I watched her speak with clarity and compassion and humor, and once more I remembered Lilianna Lungina, the translator of Astrid Lindgren's books. As Boris said, to see people like this who contain inner resources of wisdom and the desire to act is always inspiring. I agree. With such women and men, there must be hope for Russia.

Ukraine: religion in plain sight? "When gods and kings are too closely aligned, religion becomes an engine of discord and war."

Why Russians support the war: Robert Coalson/RFERL and Sean Illing/Vox.

Friends World Committee's online meetings for worship with a concern for Ukraine, with links to other opportunities.

What's good for the goose department: Should Bibles be banned? (Thanks to Aaron Fowler for the link.)

Quaker meetings for business as spiritual rehearsal. (And Russian translation of the article.) (And a classic article on Friends business by Eden Grace.)

Kim Wilson's invitation: "Take a little walk with me" (Jimmy Rogers).

1 comment:

Phil McLain said...

Helpful perspective - thanks!