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Ukraine’s Challenge to Each of Us

Putin attacks democracy on many fronts that already touch us. To win, we must reject ‘the politics of inevitability.’

Andrew Nikiforuk 9 May

Tyee contributing editor Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist whose books and articles focus on epidemics, the energy industry, nature and more.

"The greater the state, the more wrong and cruel its patriotism, and the greater is the sum of suffering upon which its power is founded." — Leo Tolstoy

In 1904, Stefan Nykiforuk, my great-grandfather, fled an imperial project called the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After completing three years of forced service in the cavalry, Stefan decided that he no longer wanted to be an instrument of an empire.

So he and his wife, Maria, a herbalist and midwife, packed up six of their eight children and left their ancestral lands in western Ukraine near the town of Horodenka.

For the trek to Canada my ancestors anxiously boarded a train (they had never travelled on such an industrial thing) and rode it to Kraków, the Polish capital at the time, then took a faster one to Hamburg, Germany.

There the SS Barcelona received 757 mostly Ukrainian peasants. The crew fed them herring dispatched from tubs as they sailed 13 days across the Atlantic. The ship disgorged Stefan and Maria in Halifax where they boarded another train to central Saskatchewan. They got off at Rosthern. One of Maria’s relatives greeted them.

In this strange new world, the immigrants bought land (a quarter section for $10), built sod huts and became part of Canada’s colonial project to industrialize the great prairie with King Wheat.

I do not know what my great-grandparents would have thought about the colonization of Treaty 8 lands. I only know that they fed half-starved Cree travellers with baked bread from a clay oven.

In any case the Nykiforuks’ descendants evolved from “garlic eaters” and “Bohunks” into a large Canadian clan of wheat farmers, dentists, teachers, academics, stock brokers, artists, business owners, politicians and journalists.

I share this history as a tree exposes its roots to explain my trepidation as I read daily war dispatches from Ukraine. But my disquiet is not just the product of being an aging reporter or a Canadian with eastern European ancestry. Certainly every Pole, Estonian or Lithuanian now sits on the edge of a knife the same way Latin Americans once feared the news of another American military intervention. But Putin’s war has deeply unsettled the entire world.

For Ukraine sits once again at the confluence of forces that will determine our collective futures.

The war has not only disrupted trade but exploded political alliances, upended financial markets, and changed the critical flow of energy resources around the world. At the same time, TikTok has given us a front-row seat to the evolution of modern warfare. The Spanish Civil War did the same in 1936 by offering a preview of the Second World War.

Unlike most people, who don’t understand Russia imperialism let alone the history of Ukraine, eastern Europeans know more is at stake than meets the eye or fills the ear. Previous aggressions haunt our blood and bones, even as Putin’s take the form of nuclear war blackmail that threatens all.

Some history, then, is in order. The lands now called Poland, Belarus, the Baltic states and Ukraine have served as a grotesque political stage for unspeakable horrors in the name of imperial projects. That’s why historians call them the Bloodlands. The massacres at Bucha and seven other cities, where Putin’s soldiers murdered military-aged men and raped women is not some modern anomaly but a continuation of the past. It is a revival of previous colonial projects.

The Bloodlands are well named. Over the course of 12 years two different regimes murdered 14 million there as matter of national policy. Between 1933 and 1945, the Soviets and then the Nazis turned this hinterland into a mass graveyard.

Stalin started the killing. To end resistance to his collectivization policies he gave orders to starve four million Ukrainian kulaks. The Soviets referred to emaciated women and children as “Ukrainian destabilizers.” Stalin even blamed them for the famine.

When Germans invaded the Bloodlands in 1941 with the goal of creating an Aryan agricultural frontier, they killed another 3.5 million people in fields and pits with murder squads. The war itself dispatched another three million Ukrainians. (Because my great-grandparents had left Horodenka, they were not on hand when, during the Second World War, the Nazis exterminated nearly half of the population because they were Jewish.)

Now that Putin has once again begun to bleed this same geography by levelling cities and murdering Ukrainians in the name of another fascist project (Russia can only become great again if Ukraine does not exist), the world cannot turn away. It cannot grow weak or pretend, like Britain’s failed Hitler appeaser Neville Chamberlain, that raw fascism can be accommodated or that the relentlessly deployed Big Lie can be accommodated.

In this regard Ukraine has not only become a frontline for democratic values but a bulwark against Putin’s brand of fascism. It has also become a rebuttal to what Yale historian Timothy Snyder calls “the politics of inevitability,” by which he means “a sense that the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done.”

The politics of inevitability is a modern disease undermining aging democratic states struggling with inequality and political corruption. It presumes that, regardless of the evidence, some grand invisible hand will deliver us to a better future while we merrily stream movies.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, wooden-headed academics such as Francis Fukuyama argued that history was over and that market capitalism would lead the world to ever greater progress. Liberal nations broadening wealth and happiness would be the norm.

But history did not end. In fact, its wild currents continue to embolden autocrats, gangsters, cartels and oligarchs.

In many ways the politics of inevitability has served as the essential propaganda for progress in our technological world. Its rhetoric reassured us that rational and scientific elites had triumphed. We need not fear political violence or ecological ruin. We need not worry about irrational discourse spreading like brush fires. We need not concern ourselves with the corrosive influence of inequality. Despite its obvious addictive and anxiety-provoking properties, social media will happily connect us. Endless growth will provide us with the technologies to thwart climate change, conquer space and pursue immortality. Citizens need not concern themselves with silly notions like justice, equality and truth — to spout off about such things is to be earnestly politically correct and no one wants to be that. These are the precepts of the politics of inevitability.

Banished, even, was the need to be able to imagine paths of doom, noted the German philosopher Hans Magnus Enzensberger: “Today everything will go on, a little worse maybe than last week, but not noticeably different.”

These delusions have numbed and atrophied thinking throughout the West. Practitioners of the politics of inevitability, including Barack Obama, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau, all thought a bright future was a given. They could not apply the cautionary principle to the potential of a pandemic any more than they could contend with populist contempt for democratic institutions. They could not fathom the cultish devotion fostered by a Donald Trump. They could not imagine that trade with oligarchs would forever corrupt the trader. They dared not cross the new social platform robber barons, because digitally mining behaviour and engineering attitudes makes money. They had zero impetus to plan for a wind-down of fossil fuels because they believed more growth would inevitably solve the ravages of climate change.

And so they could not imagine a Ukrainian president with a 25 per cent popularity rating rejecting the inevitable by choosing to remain in Kyiv and saying no to Russian aggression and asking for more ammunition.

Nor could they imagine an entire people including judges, wrestlers and musicians saying it was wrong to assume that Russian’s military was invincible and that all resistance was futile.

And so the Ukrainian people have given us a great gift at appalling cost. They have reminded us that might does not make right and that the ends do not justify the means. Humanity matters more than economy. In the starkest terms the Ukrainians have reminded the West that citizens can choose to be the subjects of history rather than its colonial objects. They have proved that history, with its cycles of tragedy and joy, dark and light, has not ended. And that it is not inevitable.

A small, lone figure of woman in a black sweatshirt and jeans walks through the shattered wood and bricks rubble of what used to be a house.
Anna Shevchenko rescues some of her belongings from her home in Irpin, near Kyiv, last week. The house, built by her grandparents, was nearly completely destroyed by bombing in late March during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In her flowerbed, some roses, lilies, peonies and daffodils survived. ‘It is new life. So I tried to save my flowers,’ she said. Photo by Emilio Morenatti, the Associated Press.

NATO is not really the issue here, and never has been. Ukraine was never a member of this bungling organization, and there was little chance for membership, if ever, for decades. What motivates Putin’s war is not NATO but the existence of an independent and democratic Ukraine on Russia’s borders. An autocrat cannot abide a people who freely choose a messy democratic future as opposed to a tyrant’s obsession with a manufactured past. Spurned by Ukraine, Putin now believes he must destroy it.

In the hands of any centralized state colonialization marshals an opera of cruelty and barbarism. Putin proposes not only to erase the Ukrainian language but the Ukrainian people. He doesn’t talk about “deNATO-ization” but “denazification.” He debases Ukrainians by calling them Nazis, bandits, drug addicts, summoners of black magic — whatever dehumanizing label might stick. His army has destroyed many of their cities and loots and steals with abandon. His government has already begun to censor Russia’s school textbooks to erase all mention of Ukraine.

An op-ed for a state news agency makes very plain the totality of Putin’s designs: "The name Ukraine can seemingly not be retained as the title of any fully denazified state formation on the territory liberated from the Nazi regime." To date, his army claims to have deported nearly a million Ukrainian women and children to remote parts of Russia to erase their shared identity. In occupied cities, the ruble has been introduced as the only currency.

Like many Russian elites, Putin has long argued that Russia and Ukraine are one. If he truly believes this imperial logic then he must accept that by destroying Ukraine he must also destroy Russia, too. The mothers of thousands of dead conscripts all coming from the poorest regions of Russia’s multiethic federation already know this unspoken truth.

So, we are watching the Russians do to Ukraine what the Dutch did in Indonesia; what the British did to Kenya; what the French did in Algeria; what the Americans did to Vietnam and what the Germans did to Namibia. Dreams of empire like Putin’s, and like the one my great, great-grandfather fled 118 years ago, are realized through brutal acts of colonization.

A crowd of people on a sunny day, most wearing anti-virus masks, some holding a sign with a caricature of Putin, others with a sign saying ‘What I stand for, what I stand on’ with a green peace sign.
Members of a March 25 protest in Berlin hoist a sign saying in German: ‘Global Climate Strike, Stop Putin, Stop Oil and Gas Immediately.' Russia’s largest customers for energy, Germany, Italy, China, the Netherlands, Turkey, France, Belgium and Spain, received nearly 20 per cent less oil in the past two months, but strong fuel prices driven by the war made up the revenue loss. Photo by Michael Sohn, the Associated Press.

Putin’s aggression has been painted as a character flaw magnified by political isolation, Russia’s autocratic traditions and even madness. Some Russians call him “a Frankenstein’s monster of NATO’s creation.” Others see him as just another St. Petersburg gangster. All plausible, but no one should underestimate the role of oil.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union (and a decline in oil prices played a very significant role in that humiliating collapse) Putin focused his attentions on rebuilding the nation’s oil industry for a good reason.

Oil revenue now funds his police state and army. It greases his state propaganda machine at home and abroad. It lubricates his oligarchs. It buys the allegiance of his economic technocrats and digital professionals. For a while it provided some economic stability for Russians until the 2014 oil price collapse. Oil’s dominance has hollowed out Russia’s economy (the GDP of Belgium), leaving little innovative or high-tech manufacturing at all. This explains why Russia has so many banks to launder its petro dollars. Europe sells Russia manufactured goods while Russia in exchange sells its oil and gas.

Years ago the U.S. political scientist Terry Lynn Karl investigated the impact of oil on countries as diverse as Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Norway. She found that oil reduced economic diversity, fostered inequality and sponsored long-lived autocratic governments or political parties. Oil has given Putin the capacity to endure 20 years. And perhaps many more.

Oil money, like cocaine dollars, concentrates power, buys loyalty and marginalizes dissidents. Petro leaders like Putin believe that oil wealth can paper over any folly and camouflage systemic corruption. The odds of finding an honestly run petro are about the same as locating a polar bear in Saudi Arabia. “Countries that depend solely on oil for their livelihood eventually become among the most economically troubled, the most authoritarian and the most conflict ridden in the world,” warned Karl. The politics of inevitability have long ignored the pathology of petro states.

Europe can no longer do that. Data from the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air shows that Russia exported 63 billion euros worth of oil and gas in the last two months. Europe paid 44 billion euros for 71 per cent of these exports. The largest shipments of gas and oil went to Germany, Italy, China, the Netherlands, Turkey, France, Belgium and Spain. Although oil deliveries have declined by nearly 20 per cent, strong fuel prices driven by the war continue to offset any marginal declines in volume. In fact, Russia will rake in 180 billion euros this year. Europe is funding the war.

Germany, the prime consumer of Russian fuels, faces a moral quandary. Its famous industries depend on methane consumption that is now funding another genocide in the Bloodlands.

Germany, of course, slowly has made promises about energy reduction and substitutions, but it hasn’t even dropped the speed limit on its autobahn. Some of Germany’s elites seem to have forgotten the Holocaust. During the Second World War, Hitler’s Reichskommissariat in Ukraine ordered women, five at a time, to undress and recite, “Because I am a Jew, I have no right to live.” As they knelt naked over pits dug by their dead husbands outside of Kyiv at Babi Yar, the SS shot them in the back of the head. One young woman wrote on the walls of a synagogue before her execution what every Ukrainian now feels: “I want to live and they won’t allow it.”

The dithering and timidity of Germany’s political class can be explained by its complicity. Seventeen days after Gerhard Schroder left his job as chancellor of Germany in 2005 he got a call from Putin. Ever since then Schroder has earned nearly US$1 million a year serving on the boards of Russian energy companies such as Rosneft and pimping for Russia’s Nord Stream methane pipelines which promised “secure energy for Europe.”

In a stunning interview with the New York Times, Schroder drank copious amounts of wine and offered no apologies. Germany’s elites all thought energy trade with Russia would tame its imperial ambitions. “They all went along with it for the last 30 years,” Schroder said. “But suddenly everyone knows better.”

Schroder keeps good company. The former French prime minister Francois Fillon joined the board of Russian state oil company Zarubezhneft. The former chancellor of Austria Wolfgang Schüssel joined Russia’s Lukoil. In fact the list of political opportunists is long and unnerving and the fact that some are resigning now from their cushy arrangements does not absolve them of their complicity in Putin’s drive to destabilize democracies.

A middle-aged woman stares at a body in an open casket, which is next to three other closed caskets. Around her are people in dark uniforms.
Valya Naumenko identifies the body of her husband Pavlo Ivanyuk, killed by the Russian Army, during an exhumation of four civilians killed and buried in a mass grave in Mykulychi, Ukraine on April 17. ‘Putin’s war in Ukraine is a reckoning for all who profess to value freedom and democracy — not just those living along the distant edges of Europe but here in Canada.’ Photo by Emilio Morenatti, the Associated Press.

Putin’s war on the West is multifaceted and operates on several fronts from energy to one of the largest migrations of refugees in human history. The physical destruction of cities and infrastructure in the Ukraine remains the most obvious front. Thanks to the sacrifice of Ukrainians and the agility of their military, Putin’s despotic military machine is not exactly winning, but nor is it losing. We can expect a long and bloody summer, and another assault on the capital. Putin is escalating.

Meanwhile Putin’s uprooting of millions of Ukrainians serves his aims well in Europe and beyond. The experience of Syria proved that it doesn’t take too many refugees to overwhelm political ecosystems which in turn creates a surge in nationalist and extremist politics. Hungary proves the point.

Next comes Putin’s disinformation campaigns. Since 2014 they have played a critical role in weakening democracies in Europe and the United States by appealing to both the extreme right and the extreme left. The Trump revolution is a testament to the success of Putin’s meddling. The fact that the most popular cable news show in the United States is headed by Tucker Carlson, an overt Kremlin supporter, speaks to the danger at hand. The more Fox showcases Carlson, so does Russia’s state-sanctioned TV.

Totalitarians recognize that propaganda, the noxious political plastic of the technological world, has reached new possibilities in the digital era. The radio made it possible for Hitler to engineer the emotions of the German masses. Now algorithms and social media make it possible for a Russian computer nerd to reach into a North American household during a pandemic and help turn that person into a hostile freedom chanting zombie.

Indeed, the kind of propaganda that helped fuel Canada’s trucker convoy — which Russian disinformation campaigns strongly shaped — creates a citizen suited to a totalitarian society. These engineered minds demand clear certainties and are no longer comfortable debating critical judgements and choices.

Putin understands that propagandists must make a “science” of mendacity, an expertise that Russian administrators have honed over centuries (see sidebar). Mendacity produces two kinds of pupils: the totally passive or the totally committed. Neither pupil respects the principles of democracy.

While Putin advances his disinformation to sow discord in nations he deems rivals, he seeks the same aim by flexing his energy muscles. His strategy starts with the fact that Russia controls a tenth of the world’s fossil fuels. As Putin calculated, the war predictably raised global prices for oil and gas because finding a replacement for Russia’s energy means we either use less or pay more with infrastructure not built.

Putin is banking that Europe’s elites, fearing a citizens’ backlash to that energy crunch, will prioritize those concerns over the dead in Ukraine, and move slowly. Higher prices not only help Putin fund his military and disinformation campaigns but enrich his allies in OPEC. These fellow autocrats no longer return calls from their protector, the U.S. government. Division further sowed.

To Putin’s benefit, volatile oil prices are now driving inflationary spirals affecting the lives of ordinary people in nations that might come to the aid of Ukraine and draw lines against Russian expansion. Energy prices control food prices which, in turn, can ratchet up social unrest. Since the war, global food prices have risen 34 per cent, in good part due to escalating energy costs. Every time the price of methane goes up, so, too, do fertilizer costs. Disruptions in grain production in the Bloodlands will invariably create a political crisis in Africa and the Middle East.

This ripple effect means that even if Putin’s military machine flounders in Ukraine, the mayhem unleashed by Russia’s invasion could still unravel democracies with the five horsemen of surging migration, rising fascism, inflation, famine and energy shortages.

Why would Putin want to cause such global misery? Russia’s leader, who paints himself and his nation as eternal victims, is only interested in payback for the humiliation of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Resentment is a poison. The Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes once astutely noted that yesterday’s victims have a way of becoming tomorrow’s executioners.

A cluster of men and women surround a truck to unload blue and pallets of cartons of white eggs with a blue and grey sky overhead.
Chicken eggs donated by a poultry farm in Vasylkiv, Ukraine, are unloaded for distribution to victims of Putin’s war. ‘Ukrainians prize bottom-up culture, decentralized decision-making and a certain amount of anarchy that puts people and communities first.’ Photo By Vasyatka, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Many in the West have repeatedly expressed surprise at the strength of the Ukrainian resistance. In such utterances I hear moral doubt about their own capacities. In fact, Ukraine’s spirited and innovative defense of its homeland should surprise no one.

The 40 million Ukrainians who comprise the largest nation in Europe are not a rich people. But they have been fighting czars, commissars and Nazis for hundreds of years. Ukrainians prize bottom-up culture, decentralized decision-making and a certain amount of anarchy that puts people and communities first. (The old joke: If you put two eastern Europeans in a room, they will create three political parties.)

And yet, in its opposition to autocracy, Ukraine forges cohesion. What Ukraine’s resistance represents is what the philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko calls a “spirit of decisiveness” against tyranny. Just about every Ukrainian, rich or poor, urban or rural, religious or atheist, gay or straight have come together to defend their home.

Ukrainian resistance is not just about preserving Ukrainian life or the promise of its democracy. It is about rescuing human dignity from the politics of inevitability.

The resistance of everyday Ukrainians reminds the world’s struggling democracies that they must defend their principles and practice their virtues. It has invited citizens everywhere to engage in a long-needed democratic renewal without which we will not survive the coming storms.

A man in a black t-shirt wearing a ball cap, sunglasses and tattoo on his right bicep and an earring in his right ear holds a tawny, long-haired cat. Behind him is a burnt-out high rise and the front end of a fire truck.
‘Ukrainian resistance invited democratic renewal everywhere.’ In Borodianka, a city an hour’s drive east of Kyiv that endured Russian shelling, a man rescues a cat from the seventh floor of a ruined house, discovered a month after the liberation of the city. Photo via State Emergency Service of Ukraine.

Do not mistake Putin for a lone, comic book-style super ruler. He relies on the support of oligarchs both abroad and at home. Thousands of professional elites in government, military and security apparatus have benefited from Putin’s kleptocracy over the last decade. Unlike the old oligarchs who left Russia nearly 20 years ago to invest their loot abroad, the new elite have largely kept their wealth at home due to sanctions since 2014. Their assets are largely protected.

This is why rejecting Putin’s assault on democracy and national sovereignty can only be achieved by undermining the political influence of Russia’s at-home oligarchs. And this can only be done by battering the Russian economy as whole. So now we are back to oil and gas. Because the only way to undermine a petro state is to stop buying its fossil fuels. Will Europe choose a recession or a genocide?

That decision is complicated by the complicity of European elites and the scale of the endeavour. Seizing the yachts, personal jets and soccer teams of Russian oligarchs living abroad signals great virtues. And everyone agrees that this misbegotten wealth should be given to Ukraine for its war effort and restoration.

But this half-hearted targeting of Putin’s oligarchs misses a much more troubling reality. Billionaires, symbols of rising inequality, have proliferated everywhere in global society and not just in Russia’s kleptocracy. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Bill Gates are all oligarchs. The world’s 3,000 billionaires now use their money to hold unprecedented political and economic influence. (Russian oligarchs, for example, have held the British legal system hostage for nearly a decade.)

Inequality kills democracies over time and so, in a sense, “our” oligarchs are in league with Putin’s. The wealth and power of billionaires, wherever they thrive, strengthen autocracies while undermining every democratic principle. Russia, China, Hong Kong and seven nations that call themselves democracies — the U.S., India, Germany, Brazil, Canada, the United Kingdom and Italy — all have an oligarch problem, as these 10 now support the highest number of billionaires.

A boom in billionaires invariably leads to politics that cements the power of the rich and disenfranchises ordinary people. The U.S. oligarch Charles Koch, for example, has used his oil money to destabilize politics in the United States. Not surprisingly Koch does not favour economic sanctions in Russia. Nor has he closed his operations there. Meanwhile he has encouraged the American government to give Putin a partial victory.

The more billionaires western politicians celebrate and toast, the more the West looks, operates and behaves like Russia. The boom in billionaire wealth reflects the workings of profoundly rigged economic system where the winners take all. When democracies refuse to tax the rich, the rich will drain democracies of their lifeblood and invite the march of strongmen promising greatness.

We have arrived, then, at why Putin’s war in Ukraine is a reckoning for all who profess to value freedom and democracy — not just those living along the distant edges of Europe but here on this continent and within the borders of Canada. Putin has reminded us that colonialism is not dead, that fascism can take many guises, that absolute power corrupts absolutely and that oligarchs are symptoms of collapsing civilizations. He has furthered his imperial resentments by wielding disinformation, criminalizing dissent and exploiting the world’s addiction to fossil fuels. He has accelerated strife within already weak democracies while actively disempowering his own citizens. And he has ordered murderous conquests justified by the dehumanization of others.

This is why we must believe that our future is not inevitable. This is why the fight for Ukraine is for our own destiny.  [Tyee]

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