Answer: terror. On February 24th, without even a declaration of war (and no case for it), Russia invaded its small neighbor, Ukraine with an army of 190 000 state sanctified vandals, many of whom in peacetime would be facing long sentences for the crimes they are committing. Rumbling into Ukraine with weapons of mass destruction, the justification given to its population at home was ‘de-nazify the country’ which for many Russians is an emotionally charged but flimsy pretext glued together by unambiguous state propaganda.
So assured were Putin’s enablers of a swift victory, reports had already been prepared of the country’s ‘liberation’. But just as Mike Tyson once said, himself no stranger to naked aggression, ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth’. This is not to say that with their characteristic brutality, they do not wear the poor Ukrainians down through attrition by targeting the civilian population and laying waste to their cities. Indeed, Ukraine is no stranger to brutality inflicted by its larger neighbor.
Everyone should know by now of the Holocaust but not so many know of the Holodomor, a genocide in 1932 to 1933 in which as many as 4 to 7 million ethnic Ukrainians died of an enforced peacetime starvation program by the Soviets — an unfortunate statistic buried in Soviet annals until the late 1980s.
The world we live in has been shaped by cataclysmic and abysmal wars. We are in many senses still living those wars, whether through unresolved regional conflicts, or the stoking of old grievances that lead to oppression, both covert and overt. I would wager there is not one person alive today who does not carry the ancestral, epigenetic trace of war encoded in their spine. The Ukrainians are literally fighting for their existence knowing full well the consequences of yielding.
The terror that war induces is hard wired in our collective consciousness as a species and continues to inform the flights of millions of refugees from conflict zone to safe haven. It can set whole nations on the move. War also induces a collective psychosis and plants the seeds of hatred for generations against the oppressor. Despite the narrative plied by Russia that NATO threatened its borders by accepting Poland, the Baltic States and other former countries under its yoke, the truth is closer to them rejecting the levels of fear and suffering they had endured under Soviet rule in the last century.
The ethnobotanist and natural philosopher Terrence McKenna described war as a crisis of consciousness and conditioning, and a deadly addiction to violence. The only antidote, he reminds us, is to rid ourselves of 10 000 years of bad behavior and go cold turkey. But he also reminds us that there is no cosmic rehab clinic we can go to as a species either.
If you look at the geopolitics of the 21st century, broadly speaking at least you can see a separation of powers between the Liberal order defined in the Enlightenment and the totalitarian mentality fashioned in the twelfth and thirteenth century by the Mongol hordes. The geopolitics of this world would have been far different if the Khan empire had continued their advance beyond the walls of Vienna.
Nevertheless, their centuries-long trail of destruction, conquest and perpetual war did much to fashion the nihilistic world view of present nation states like Russia and China in this century. The West is viewed by these nations as decadent and declining while the concept of rule by perpetual strong men is anathema to the goals of the liberal West. History has shown that the Stalin model perpetuates war and oppression, and this specter of this totalitarian threat has very quickly galvanized a sleep walking west into responding.
Just two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the writer and Soviet dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (incidentally the son of a Russian father and Ukrainian mother) implored the West not to “lose sight of its own values, its historically unique stability of civic life under the rule of law — a hard-won stability which grants independence and space to every private citizen.” It is also important to note, however, that like Putin, whom he met on numerous occasions, Solzhenitsyn believed in Pan Slavism — the unification of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine and was fiercely opposed to the latter’s independence.
Ukraine has become a desperate hinge point in history between liberty under the rule of law and autocracy and terror. Judging by the response from the free world, it is a war that cannot be allowed to stand, and the humanitarian response from common people everywhere to Ukrainians alone shows that the aggressors are on the wrong side of history.
Nothing is, however, for certain and it will require a powerful infusion of creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking on behalf of the West to avoid a future worst case scenario.
The crisis is in many ways a consequence of the shift in resources away from oil towards data. This is a fossil fuel war and this being so, it is unwinnable by Putin since the world must inevitably shift away from the finite resource which funds his war and his kleptocracy. If there is any upside to this war, on the basis that it can be de-escalated, is that it prompts through great pain, the necessary shift away from our oil dependency and the possibility perhaps to start tackling the very real threat posed by climate change.
The bigger question remains, however, can humans ever overcome the instinct to war? The last thirty years of détente in the west showed promising indicators that we were on a demilitarizing path but Putin has revised the world order in one fell swoop. Military budgets in the West are rising quickly, and populations everywhere are beginning to acknowledge the maxim by the Roman military tactician, Vegetius that those who wish for peace, must prepare for war, (and importantly, without appeasement to dictators, for which the west has been all too guilty).
To understand ourselves and our instincts as part of nature, it’s easy enough to look to the ground beneath our feet at another species: ants. Like us they form super colonies, collaborate on massive scale, and are defined by complex symbiotic relationships. Out of one genus, they are subdivided into 16000 known species and account for 20% of the biomass of the earth. They are also a species that regularly wages war, on each other and other species. These wars can be subdivided into smaller skirmishes right up to full scale battles for supremacy between super colonies.
Of the 16000 species, something like 200 can be truly defined as war-like in structure and operation — the army ants don’t form permanent nests but nomadically shift about their territory consuming both vertebrates and invertebrates in their path. Waging war is their means to survive, and they have done so successfully for millions of years and will most likely continue to do so long after humans have gone extinct.
Of the super colony-forming ants, the Argentinian ants are perhaps closest to humans in their ability to colonise and dominate other species, through collaboration and sheer force of numbers. Its individuals are insignificant in both size and fierceness when compared to their war-like cousins but this single species has come to be present on six continents and many oceanic islands displacing all other ant species in a perpetual war of resources.
Its ace in the hole is the fact that it lacks intraspecific aggression meaning that separate nests will not attack each other leading to the creation of greater and greater sized colonies across the earth — just like humans, it’s a numbers game.
All wars are ultimately fought for resources. Clearly enough, humans are incredibly more complex than ants but we share the same needs on the physical plane of existence, to live, consume and reproduce and to secure the means to do so.
Insects, however, do not do politics, have no stories or myths to rouse them and for all their brutal conquests, still live within the boundaries that nature has set. We do not and for this reason alone, wars will continue to define us as a species. It isn’t enough that we fight for resources. Humans also weave in ideologies, religion, and hatred into the mix as well as unrestricted violence and cruelty like the one waged by Russia on its small neighbor Ukraine. This makes war seemingly inevitable. The only future where hot war is conceivably kept at bay for longer is another cold war between the East and the West. Our ability to waive intraspecific aggression in that instance is not as assured as the Argentinian ant, however.
After three weeks of insanity meted out upon the people of Ukraine, there is a brief sense that Russia has overplayed its hand since it lacks the resources to prosecute this war to the swift conclusion it anticipated. Without an off ramp, the suffering will simply multiply for that country, for ordinary Russians who want no part in this war, and everyone on the planet now reminded of the ultimate unwinnable war that threatens if tensions escalate.
There can be no justification for this war except the personal ambitions of a single dictator. There can be no justification for the senseless suffering he has wrought upon a nation of people who historically and culturally share so much with his own. When I think of the beauty, fragility, and humanity of all who have lost their lives to war — their homes, livelihoods, their families and the simple belief that they could live in peace, I am appalled.
War achieves nothing but terror and suffering. Russians have a saying that ‘Hope dies last’. It is my hope that we can still resuscitate that one key resource that unites us all as a single species on this planet.