Ukraine: complexity and war. Is it still possible to think?

By Boaventura de Sousa Santos*

War in Ukraine: the world has just drifted into a new and serious phase that could lead to an even greater crisis

As if the global crisis generated by the pandemic were not enough, the world has just drifted into a new and serious warlike phase that could still lead to an even greater crisis. The proximate cause of this deterioration is Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, but to be blamed is also the US’s notorious dismissal, for the past three decades, of Russia’s concerns about its own security. We are living in an extraordinarily stressful moment, the repercussions of which are being made plain by the intense media focus on the Ukraine crisis, notably along the North-Atlantic axis, including Australia, Japan and Brazil.

In other parts of the world, the Ukraine crisis tends to be placed in context, either because it involves the kind of armed aggression (invasions, bombings, the death of innocent civilians) of which those regions have long been the victims, or because the regions in question are currently being faced with problems that they consider to be more serious or, at least, more urgent (e.g. hunger, lack of water and vaccines, jihadist violence). If the people in these regions see the Ukraine crisis as taking on dramatic relevance at all, it is because of issues that are invisible or devoid of meaning when seen from the point of view of public opinion in the North-Atlantic axis. Thus, for example, the African Union has just issued a strong statement against the “shockingly racist” behavior of the authorities on the Ukrainian-Polish border. They accuse them of discriminating against African citizens living in Ukraine who have been subjected to unequal treatment on account of their color as they tried to flee the war. On 2nd March 2022, members of the African bloc accounted for 17 – i.e., one third of the African countries – of the 35 countries that abstained from voting on the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia for the invasion of Ukraine.

In turn, the polarization of opinions in the North-Atlantic axis is such that it is no longer possible to bring complexity into the debate. What we have instead is a knee-jerk response that is very similar to the situation in which we found ourselves in the period immediately following 9/11. Any position that seeks to contextualize or problematize is automatically viewed as treasonous. Putin has his own followers, of course. Some sectors of the left (in Brazil and Portugal, for instance) have refused to condemn the invasion of Ukraine. Could this be because they see Putin as the Soviet Union’s legitimate heir? Are they not aware that Putin is a conservative leader whose positions are similar to those of the European far right (except the Ukrainian one), a critic of Lenin who is on the best of terms with Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump? In fact, the Russian Communist Party has given Putin only moderate support, and some of its leaders have shown no hesitation in distancing themselves from him.

In an interview given to the BBC on 28th February, Mikhail Matveev, a Communist Party State Duma lawmaker, said the following: “I think we’ve missed the opportunity to recognize the [Donetsk and Luhansk] republics and provide them with a new, safer status, as has been the case with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The war party seems to have decided that building a new type of relationship between the Ukrainian leadership and those republics on a new basis was something not even worth trying, and that the fact that the Russian army has been deployed to serve as a shield will ensure that the Donbas cities are not attacked. They [i.e., Putin’s government] did not even try. It is my opinion that this aggressive logic can only lead to further aggravation. The more casualties there are on both sides, the more difficult it will become to stop the conflict… The possibilities for a peaceful solution to the problem have not been exhausted, and that is an egregious mistake on the part of the Russian leadership.”1

Is it possible to think in such circumstances? Is it possible to look at this crisis as the now of a long history that should cover both its proximate and root causes and expand the number and identity of both the victims and the aggressors? Is this a useful exercise when innocent people are dying? Why not act instead of thinking? Why not channel the energies of outrage into massive demonstrations against the criminal invasion of Ukraine all around the world? How different is this from 2003, when 15 million citizens around the world took to the streets to demonstrate against the criminal invasion of Iraq, which was to result in more than one million deaths? If those demonstrations had no palpable impact back then, why would it be any different now? Shall we give up fighting against war, period, or are there just and unjust wars? And, in the latter case, what are the criteria and who is to set them? One thing is for sure, one illegal invasion does not justify another.

The multiple illegal invasions and bombings carried out by the US almost from the moment of its inception cannot be used to justify the invasion and the bombings now being carried out in Ukraine. We cannot forget the horror of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki when the war had already been won, with the sole purpose of punishing the already defeated adversary and asserting global power at the cost of so much innocent blood.

To rethink the past in a moment of crisis is to envisage how the present can be anticipated. Could this crisis have been avoided? Had the US been truly committed to saving the world for democracy, would it have intervened in the 2014 Maidan coup against Viktor Yanukovych, the democratically elected president who came under attack following his refusal to move closer to the European Union and end the country’s preferential relationship with Russia? Why have well-known neo-Nazi groups like the Azov Battalion been integrated into the Ukrainian National Guard and turned into nationalist heroes by the Western media? Why, having admitted in 2018 that Ukraine had a far-right problem, did the Atlantic Council – NATO’s unofficial think tank – publish an article on 24th February 2020 entitled Why Azov should not be designated a foreign terrorist organization? After NATO’s interventions in Serbia (1999), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2004) and Libya (2011), can it still be considered a defensive organization? If, in the wake of the Second World War, international security was considered indivisible, why have the US refused to acknowledge and discuss Russia’s concerns for the last thirty years? If a war has been raging in the Donbas region since 2015, resulting in somewhere between 10,000 and 14,000 deaths, where was the UN to bring hostilities to a halt? Why hasn’t the UN played a more active role in enforcing the Minsk Accords?

Rethinking the past is probably not that relevant at such a pressing moment as this. What we probably need to do is consider our future. A devastated Ukraine will bring about an unprecedented economic crisis in Europe. And what about Russia’s citizens? No doubt they are as much against the war as the citizens of other countries. A group of Russian scientists and science journalists have just issued a statement that is extremely critical of the invasion of Ukraine. At one point the statement reads: “There is no rational justification for this war. Obviously, Ukraine poses no threat to the security of Russia. The attempts to use the situation in Donbas as a pretext for launching a military operation are totally contrived. The war against Ukraine is unjust and frankly nonsense. (…) Ukraine has been and remains a country close to us. Many of us have relatives, friends, and colleagues living in Ukraine. Our fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers fought together against Nazism, and unleashing a war for the sake of the geopolitical ambitions of the leadership of the Russian Federation, driven by dubious historiosophical fantasies, is a cynical betrayal of their memory.”

It is almost cruel, at this point, to try to guess who will emerge as the victors from all of this. Some seem to be obvious. As was the case at the end of the Second World War, Europe’s economic crisis spells a boom for the US economy. There is no doubt that among those about to benefit the most is the military industry of various countries and especially that of the US, now that Putin’s tragic adventure has put a whole new field of intense militarization at its disposal. By the same token, the US neocons, who have been dominant in US foreign policy since 9/11, appear to be finally achieving a victory, after a long series of setbacks. Given the disproportionate strength he is up against, President Zelensky’s resistance stems perhaps from a patriotic impulse. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the neocons, together with Ukrainian neo-Nazis, who are advising him not to surrender, thereby bringing even greater suffering on the Ukrainian people. They know that time is against Russia and that this is the big chance to checkmate it.

As to the future, two points need to be made. The first concerns the consequences of Russia’s humiliation. The US did not feel that it was enough to put an end to the Soviet Union or watch Mikhail Gorbachev do the Pizza Hut ad on Russian television in 1998. Over the last three decades they have humiliated Russia. They have been doing this especially in more recent years, as China was emerging as the US’s major rival and it became clear that Russia would be China’s preferred ally. There is no question that the current crisis will not make China any stronger, because China’s first and foremost interest, as an empire on the rise, is the liberalization of trade. The Chinese are certainly familiar with Hugo Grotius’s Mare Liberum, first published in 1609. But humiliating Russia could have unpredictable consequences, especially for Europe. In 1919, Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles, which put an end to World War I.

The 35-year-old English economist, John Maynard Keynes, walked out of the peace conference in protest against the excessively punitive conditions imposed on Germany by the Allies. Keynes foresaw that the excessive reparations and other harsh conditions imposed on Germany would lead to its collapse, which in its turn would have grave economic and political consequences for Europe and the world, as discussed in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, published in 1919. His prophecy was fulfilled. Sadly, today’s world lacks a Keynes.

The second point that needs to be made has to do with world governance. After the Ukraine crisis, the world, torn between the US and China, will be more polarized than ever. The US will continue its historic decline and so become more aggressive in its efforts to secure zones of influence. It has just consummated the conquest of Europe, courtesy of president Putin. In the future, any region of the world that, for whatever reason, does not wish to fully align itself with one side will find it more difficult not to do so. The infamous interference that goes by the name of regime change and which until now has been an exclusive of the US has just been disastrously experimented with by Putin. For how much longer does China expect its proposals to be attractive enough to avoid having to resort to regime change? One of the reasons that led the US to cause the collapse of Yugoslavia was the fact that it represented, albeit tenuously, the continuation, in Europe, of the Non-Aligned Movement. Established in 1961 mostly by young countries (India, Indonesia, Egypt and Ghana) that had just emerged from European colonialism, the Non-Aligned Movement proposed to follow its own path of development, a middle course between Western capitalism and Soviet socialism. Over the coming decades, a movement imbued with the same spirit is going to affirm itself, only this time the course will be steered between the capitalism of multinationals and Chinese State capitalism.

In addition, we will witness the inevitable emergence of global political subjects that will serve as spokespersons for the interests of the civil societies and communities that tend to be forgotten, abandoned or misinformed by governments increasingly made hostage by global/imperial economic and financial interests. The United Nations is an organization of States, and Kofi Annan’s attempt to open it up to civil society failed. After the Iraq and the Ukraine crises, the UN will be even further discredited, and the discredit will be all the greater if it persists in being subservient to US geostrategic interests.

Seeing that we live in a permanent state of war, even though the ordinary people of the world (with the exception of those associated with the military industry or mercenary armies) wish to live in peace, isn’t it time we had an organized, global voice that can make itself heard?


*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Portuguese professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), distinguished legal scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, and global legal scholar at the University of Warwick. Co-founder and one of the main leaders of the World Social Forum. Article published by Wall Street International Magazine on 10 MARCH 2022  and provided to Other News by the author

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Understanding the War in Ukraine

The war between Russia and Ukraine began much before February 24, 2022—the date provided by the Ukrainian government, NATO and the United States for the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. According to Dmitry Kovalevich, a journalist and a member of a now-banned communist organization in Ukraine, the war actually started in the spring of 2014 and has never stopped since.