Sleepwalking Into History
We've reached the point in the Ukraine Crisis where attention is shifting, a false, comforting narrative is settling in, and the danger is growing by the hour
Three weeks ago, I voiced a concern that the crisis in Ukraine might reach a point at which the established powers would more or less declare victory as the television cameras switched off. What informed that fear was the fickle nature of our culture and the profit motives that drive our narratives. Now, three days after one celebrity slapped another celebrity during a live award show broadcast, and after three days of the scandal gobbling up every free second of airtime, I’m feeling sick in my gut.
The narrative is already shifting into place. Following President Joe Biden’s trip to Europe to meet with NATO allies, during which militarization was prioritized for future defense and altercations, now social media feeds and cable news programs are touting a Russian “retreat” as supposed peace talks are starting to take place. Coverage has shifted into a congratulatory mode when there’s coverage at all. The sanctions have worked, after all. Vladimir Putin miscalculated and obviously he will learn from this, if he’s able to keep power at all. The order held and will continue to hold into perpetuity.
Meanwhile, in reality, Russian attacks have continued in areas where they promised to ease their offensive. Propaganda trafficking conspiracy theories about bioweapons labs and human trafficking have found purchase among the paranoid Right. The initial push of troops into Ukraine might not have accomplished its mission so far, but the “retreat” is looking more and more like a regrouping or, possibly, a moment before less conventional methods, including chemical weapons and other horrific assaults, might commence. As for the peace talks, multiple participants, including Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, reported being poisoned in the last round, to the point where the skin was peeling off their faces.
Hardly the stuff of a conflict winding to a close.
There are plenty of worst-case scenarios in play. The possibility that Putin might commit even more war crimes, destroy the lives of more Ukrainians, and get away with it all, is still on the table. But unfortunately so is the possibility that all of this could very well escalate in ways that our leaders, our media, and our political class seem oblivious to. We might very well look back on this colossal tragedy in Ukraine and see it as the calm before the storm.
Dispatches From A Collapsing State is an independent media venture and the exclusive home of Jared Yates Sexton’s political, historical, and cultural writings. It depends on your support. Subscribe now to support Jared and access additional content, including regular podcasts, articles, and Q&A’s.
It’s understandable. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting horror is a lot to take. We have been fed one mythological fantasy after another that these things simply could not happen. The American Story, after all, is that the United States heroically defeated Nazism and Fascism before dispatching the Soviet Union and ushering in a new era of peace, liberty, and stability. Unfortunately, that story is little more than propaganda and hides disturbing and indisputable truths about human nature and politics and power.
Having gone through with the invasion, those clinging to that story desperately sought explanations. He had lost his mind. He was obviously dying of a terminal illness. He had been led astray. Any number of theories emerged that diverted attention from the possibility that the mythology and the order it protected had begun to falter or, honestly, was never real to begin with. The sanctions were held up as cure-alls and proof that things really did work. The uniting of nations against the aggression refreshed hope in these people, leading to them believing that the neoliberal world order was not only secure but would experience a resurgence once the invasion was defeated and order restored.
The slight deviation of attention, coupled with the story that Russia is retreating or that peace talks will bring the brutality to an end, signals something other than the easy cessation of this terrible event. This is not an aberration. This is not an isolated incident. It is part of a larger societal crisis and merely a chapter in an ongoing struggle between progress and authoritarianism. Putin has made his choice. His war is indicative of a larger push by him and his like minded associates to seed corruption within the capitalist system, mobilize Right Wing and conservative movements around the world, and prepare populations for authoritarian takeovers.
Even if the war in Ukraine were to come to a triumphant close tomorrow, and it won’t, the truth wouldn’t budge. Any number of sanctions and treaties and any amount of saber-rattling cannot stop what is coming. There is no escaping the crashing of this moment and the prevalent ideologies. In fact, the means by which the powerful are attempting to sidestep this problem altogether will only exacerbate the tragedy and possibly lessen our chances of escaping a cataclysm on a level never before seen.
Prior to some of the largest wars in the history of humanity, there were battles that previewed the destruction to come. In these instances, new weaponry and technology was rolled out that made warfare bloodier and crueler. These were glimpses of something to come that would ravage scores of people sent into battle on behalf of nation states and the wealthy.
Already in Ukraine we’ve seen full-scale war involving drones, cyber-battles, and thermobaric bombs so powerful they literally evaporate the lungs of their victims. Russia’s struggles to win this war in a quick and decisive fashion may help some sleep better at night, but these struggles are far from the last word in what is developing. And, the slog of this quagmire is only ensuring that more and more deadly and terrible weapons will rear their ugly heads.
Many have gotten caught up in the easy narrative. The antagonist in Putin and the protagonist in Volodymyr Zelensky. The hollow gestures of Ukrainian flags and hashtags that pair easily with media coverage that feasted on the spectacle of war. But so far this has yet to be treated as what it is: an epochal moment and a warning.
Based on Russia’s aggression, NATO countries, including the United States and Germany, are flooding their defense budgets with cash in order to arm themselves against possible future incursions. The reaction to Putin’s gambit has been to prepare for future wars in a way that brings to mind the stockpiling of weaponry that led us into the previous world wars and the numerous wars that preceded them. The clash in ideologies, which extends from Russia all around the world, and the worsening crises that threaten democracy and human freedom, will not just be fought at the ballot box but, more than likely, on battlefields that might populate any given inch of the Earth.
The solution is straightforward. To escape this barbarism and the threat that festers and grows with every day, we must address rampant corruption, inequality, and reconsider what government can do, who it should serve, and whether the sum of life is consumerism or if there is something larger, realer, and more profound that calls us to unite and improve. Hiding behind missiles and tanks will only make the problem worse. What fascists want, what authoritarians require, is violence and a struggle over might. What defeats them, what truly vanquishes them in a way that transcends movies or fairy-tales, is the rejection of the rot that makes them possible in the first place.