Nationalist warfare

Putin’s attitude is imperialist and his mindset paranoid

The Russian attack on Ukraine is unacceptable. Everything President Vladimir Putin has been saying in recent days shows that his mindset is narrowly nationalistic – and paranoid.
Mumbai, 24 February 2022: An Indian art teacher’s response to the Russian attack on Ukraine. picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS / Rajanish Kakade Mumbai, 24 February 2022: An Indian art teacher’s response to the Russian attack on Ukraine.

Putin’s basic claim is that Russia is entitled to a sphere of influence, the borders of which happen to coincide with the Tsarist empire of colonial times. He argues he must defend it with military force. His attack on a sovereign neighbour, however, is not defensive at all. It is pure aggression.

The idea that Ukraine’s government is only a puppet of an overbearing NATO is absurd. Hasn’t NATO made it abundantly clear that it will not wage war to protect Ukraine? Has it not consistently been denying Ukraine membership? There are no accession talks. NATO has merely insisted on Ukraine’s long-term right to decide what alliances it wants to join. Indeed, Ukraine’s interest in joining NATO was sparked by the Crimea/Donbass crisis eight years ago, when Putin’s government first violently intervened in Ukraine’s domestic affairs. The plain truth is that Moscow has been making NATO more attractive by restoring its raison d'être. 

Putin's true fear

All Putin apologists who have argued that Russia has reason to worry about imperialist NATO aspirations on its borders should finally wake up. NATO accepts nations’ right to self-determination. The Kremlin does not. The full truth, of course, is that Putin fears western soft power more than western hard power.

He does not want democracy to succeed anywhere where the Soviet Union and before it the Tsar held sway. After all, a flourishing Ukraine might give his people the idea that something better than kleptocratic and oligarchic governance is possible. His stance in domestic affairs is authoritarian, repressive and deceitful. Human rights are abused. Independent thinking is not only discouraged, but silenced. His regime does not want people to know the historic truth. It wants them to believe in nationalist propaganda (see Hans Dembowski on His secret services have launched murderous attacks even abroad.

Global dimensions

The Russian attack puts into question the multilateral order. While civil wars have devastated many countries in the past decades, wars between sovereign states have been rare. Unlike US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is neither the pretence of protecting some kind of global good nor any likelihood of the UN Security Council ever endorsing Russian action retroactively, as happened in the case of Kosovo, for example. What we are seeing is Moscow displaying the kind of imperialist nationalism that prevailed in Europe before World War II.

The bloodshed will most likely prove terrible. Violence is set to escalate. Things will surely get worse before they get better. In an important way, however, this war will be more devastating than wars were in previous centuries. We are living in the era of the climate crisis. The global community must get a grip on it, or environmental problems will spin out of control and, among other things, make violent conflict more likely.

No doubt, large-scale cross-border war will exacerbate climate problems. Military operations cause massive damage and consume a lot of energy. Fighting soldiers worry about other things than net-zero emissions.

Just as bad, the war distracts global attention from just how urgent it is to phase out fossil fuels. It is probably no coincidence, that Russia is a major exporter of those resources. Putin never showed any serious issue in climate matters and, in his paranoid mind, global efforts to mitigate the problem may actually look like they are part of a big anti-Russian conspiracy.

The science is clear, of course. The climate crisis is real, and  the time for getting a grip on it is running out.

Indispensable multilateralism  

Humankind needs global action to solve global problems. That makes nationalistic action in terms of “us versus them” particularly harmful.

When Martin Kimani, the Kenyan ambassador, addressed the UN Security Council on Monday 21 February, he pointed out that borders in Africa reflect colonial empires of the past, typically cutting across areas where specific communities live. The implication is that cross-border cooperation and regional integration are necessary. There is no other way to safeguard peace and other public goods. For good reason, Kimani appealed to all governments to defend multilateralism. Any other attitude is indeed fundamentally destructive. 

Hans Dembowski is the editor in chief of D+C/E+Z.

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