It is Ash Wednesday (as I write this), the beginning of Lent in some Christian calendars. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of our anticipation of Easter. It is also often commemorated as a day of confession.
What is happening in Ukraine? Is it a battle in the endless war of “good vs. evil”? Or is it a so-called amoral struggle for resources and ideology to be understood amidst historical context? Or is there something more universal playing itself out?
As I listen to American president Joe Biden’s “State of the Union” address, we need to understand some actions in the early days of this war as defined by the story of the conflict. In assurance to the American people, Biden outlined an economic and resource-driven agenda saying, “We’re going to be okay! We are going to be okay! When the history of this era is written, Putin’s war in Ukraine will have left Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger.” And he went on to say that this meant a ‘unity among nations in Europe, among the West’. I mentioned it in my last article, and I would like to spell it out here. Biden and NATO’s response will be to treat Russia as a pariah while Ukraine understands very well that Russia is an enemy. An enemy is clear, but a pariah is lowly regarded and thus, an outcast. Of course, Ukrainians understand Russia as an enemy; they are paying for it with their lives. Treating Russia as a pariah, while tactically measured and domestically supported by not only the United States but all NATO countries as well, will leave international measures hampered in the medium to long-term. More than that, it will not provide the Ukrainians with the help they need right now. The Ukrainians and Russians are at war, and the West is renegotiating a largely economic order. These are the two wars.
Russia as Pariah
More than what the leaders of NATO say, their actions demonstrate what they are doing with their so-called freedom. They are intentionally classifying and institutionalizing Russia as a pariah on the world stage. Firstly, Nord Stream 2 (the oil pipeline project sending Russia’s oil and natural gas to Germany) created economic cooperation between Russia and Germany that would be hard for Germany to break free from. But despite the potential benefits, the pipeline had faced opposition within the European Union and from the United States on the grounds that it would increase Europe’s energy dependence on Russia as well as denying transit fees to Ukraine, host to another Russian gas pipeline, and making it more vulnerable to a Russian invasion. In the first couple of days after the invasion, Germany shut it down. “This is a huge change for German foreign policy with massive implications for energy security and Berlin’s broader position towards Moscow. “It suggests that Germany is actually serious about imposing tough costs on Russia,” said Marcel Dirsus, a non-resident fellow at Kiel University’s Institute for Security Policy. Germany moved to acquire its energy resources differently, and in the process, allowed for NATO to increasingly cut off Russia from economic integration with the rest of the world. Biden supported this by announcing the availability of 30 billion barrels of strategic oil reserves to become available. This will cut off Russia from the profits of such a project, but more importantly, will limit their influence on the West. Russia is not treated as an enemy but as a pariah.
When I choose to buy Japanese cars, I am not treating North American cars as an enemy; I am simply treating them as a pariah. When I decide to give a favored child a greater share of the inheritance, I am not treating the other as an enemy, but instead as a pariah.
Secondly, the West has cut off Russia from the international banking system; they have removed Russia’s access to SWIFT (THE banking code for international monetary transactions). However, this isn’t to be only understood as fighting the same war by other means. Biden, in declaring that they would go after “ill-gotten assets” by Russian oligarchs, has declared Russia to be criminal. And anyone who knows the status of a criminal knows that the criminal is not so much an enemy, but as a pariah.
While this may have long-term consequences, it will do little in the immediate to mid-term in stopping the fighting in Ukraine. As we know, Russia is a major energy supplier for both China and India and a military hardware provider for much of the Middle East. Such sanctions will not hamper Russia’s ability to fight for months or even years to come.
Thirdly, and most revealing, Biden did not commit to establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, neither in whole nor in part; in effect, he would not help on the front lines. Tactically, enforcing such a zone would land NATO into an inevitable direct battle with Russia, and is thus not desirable for any NATO country. However, a no-fly zone is exactly what the Ukrainian people will need to resist the Russian invasion. If the Ukrainians do not get protection in that way, their fierce ground forces will put up a valiant fight, but will eventually lose. Without air defense, the Ukrainians will lose, and this is before the long-term is achieved. And thus, NATO’s strategy will, in the end, hurt the Ukrainians. Their country and infrastructure will be destroyed before the long term has been able to exert any practical influence.
Russia as Enemy
Ukrainians very well understand Russia is their enemy. More aptly, they understand that the oligarchic and authoritarian grasping for influence (economic and political) on the violent threat is an enemy. They have been fighting this civil war directly in the East of Ukraine since 2014. 14,000 Ukrainians had already died in that conflict before the invasion. This Russian agenda is indeed an enemy. While the Ukrainians know this in their bodies, we Westerners know this as well. Oligarchic and authoritarian coercion, whether economic or military, is a threat to our freedom and independence. We should name this as the true enemy. The violence of cluster ammunitions, the nuclear threat, and hundreds of thousands of troops and their tanks that are killing Ukrainians, ripping their families apart, and forcing millions into exile is the outpoured expression of this enemy.
This violence and war are tragic and need to be opposed by peace. Yet violence, as Hannah Arendt has so forcibly argued, is an instrument of strength (not power). The attacks on Ukrainians are the instrumental establishment of the strength of the Russians, namely the individual strength of the authoritarian ruler or oligarchic rulers. But the key understanding of violence in regards to this situation is its instrumental nature; it is a tool for getting something. And in this case, the tool is being used on persons who ought not to be used as such.
Unfortunately, but quite obviously, Putin and Russia are not alone in being under the influence of these forces, and the instrumentalization of entities that ought not to be instrumentalized. Westerners know the oligarchic forces all-too-well. They have contributed to so many of the social problems we experience these days. The waning authority of democratic institutions in controlling oligarchic economic instruments that instrumentalize those who fall under their jurisdiction has burst out in cultural, financial, civil, and social revolt.
A More Dangerous Enemy and a Call to Peace
The West, by playing the pariah card on Russia, is an instrumentalizing economic force because of its own oligarchic influences. While Russia paints the picture of oligarchic strength with every act of violence, the West attempts to dominate via other means. What needs to be renounced is not Russia the enemy, but the use of oligarchic control to exert violence and force to bend to an authoritarian rule. What needs to be confessed is the will to dominate”.
Arendt argued that “… perhaps the most formidable form of such domination [is]: bureaucracy or the rule of an intricate system in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few or the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called rule by Nobody.” Arendt, On Violence, p.38)
The call to peace is that on this advent of 2022, we need to confess our worldwide sin of the will to dominate and that when it is time to build peace, we will really need to listen to each other. Why? Because we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.