Russia's invasion of Ukraine turns ever more dire and atrocious by the day.
Besieged cities, ten million refugees and a perpetual arms race have shattered the illusion of Europe as a civilized bastion in which war would never return. The longer the Russian assault continues, the more ruthless is its brutality, both in Ukrainian cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv as well as in the suppression of dissent at home.
This war, like any war, is nothing but hell on Earth—and there's no end yet in sight. While there must be no justification or reward for this reckless act of aggression, the West's uncompromising approach of punishment, armament and moral superiority is hypocritical and not conducive to ending the war.
As both Russia and the West continue to pour fuel into the fire, devastating Ukraine, an international peace movement is needed to compel governments to de-escalate as soon as possible. At the same time, the new geopolitical scenario of competing empires with growing militarization and accelerating economic breakdown will compel those of us working for a world beyond capitalism, patriarchy, and nation-states to resist false polarization and relativism, and to propose an alternative vision for a world beyond any imperialism and war.
Transcend False Binaries
Russia's assault on Ukraine marks a geopolitical, economic, and ideological watershed moment for our world. In a period of American weakness, Putin cunningly used his chance to come on the offense, position Russia with his own agenda of regional imperialism and thereby openly challenge Washington's global hegemonic claim.
It's well-known that most wars begin with a lie. That's why propaganda is an integral part of every imperialist regime. Wherever war is waged, it is preceded by an information war on people's hearts and minds. As Russia and the US—and their respective media operations—are running narrative campaigns over whose imperialism is of lesser evil, rejecting this false polarization—and without succumbing to indiscriminate relativism—is a rare position and radical need.
It's both possible and important to call out atrocities and injustice of any one without justifying or hiding the atrocities and injustices of another. Acknowledging that Putin waged an aggression against another sovereign nation, that he's committing war crimes and massively violates human rights by suppressing his people's free expression and assembly, doesn't mean the West isn't using Ukraine as a pawn for its own agenda. It also doesn't mean that any of Russia's security concerns are invalid. On the other hand, pointing out the complicity of US imperialism in creating the conditions that led to this war doesn't necessitate turning a blind eye to violent autocrats just because they're opposed to the West.
The compulsion of a binary thinking that needs to see one side as guilty and justifies the actions of the other is deeply ingrained, as the patriarchal worldview tends to frame conflict as a choice of "either/or" and a matter of "right and wrong." It isn't hard to convince people of such narratives on the political scales, because this is the default programming that runs so many of the daily interpersonal relations. On this level of thinking there is no way out of perpetual war, because it frames the conversation within the logic of nation-states that are based on war. Every border in this world has been drawn by blood.
Since our political systems operate within and as servants to a corporate-centered economic system that requires exponential growth, colonizing smaller nations and defeating enemies is an indispensable imperative for maintaining or raising empires, especially at a time of scarce resources, ecological crisis and social disintegration. From a purely rational, systemic point of view, the actions of both Russia and the West make total sense. That they're inhumane isn't so much about the particularities of their governments and their culture than about the systemic logic within which they operate. The demand for ever more economic growth has made the recurring cycle of bombing, destroying and rebuilding countries a lucrative business model and ultimately, provokes global war. When the only trajectory is producing, consuming, colonizing ever more, then world war is inevitable.
The current assault on Ukraine is part of a historical pattern of Russian imperialist oppression. Think, for example, of Stalin's famine campaign in the 1930s that killed millions of Ukrainians to break their resistance against central Soviet rule. Many generations of Russian and Soviet leaders could never accept the Ukrainians desire for independence and considered it either a formal part of Russia or closely aligned. Given the long tradition of imperial violence by its giant neighbor, the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians have no interest in Putin's ambitions or Russian hegemony generally, and are determined to defend their country to the very end. We must stand unequivocally with the Ukrainian people against this hostile imposition.
At the same time, Ukraine isn't simply a homogenous monolith. Since the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, a Russian-speaking minority has seen itself increasingly disenfranchised by Kyiv's Western orientation and sought to make themselves more autonomous. While many of those actors may be Moscow's proxies, I'm concerned that an uninformed "solidarity with Ukraine" can ignore the legitimate concerns of people in the Donbas. The situation is nuanced and I don't pretend to know it all. I believe it's important to listen to the voices and concerns of people on the ground rather than just the pundits who are placing simplified labels on complex situations.
Beyond the geopolitical, military and especially economic power struggle, this war also epitomizes an ideological competition for which worldview and value system is to dominate the world. Both Russia and the West claim supremacy for their version of civilization. Putin's project is not only anti-democratic, authoritarian, militaristic and shamelessly promotes fossil fuels, it's also profoundly ideological. A quasi-religious mission—in his own view—to overcome the decadence of Western liberalism and to raise Russia as the rightful, moral center of a larger order shaped by the values of right-wing Christianity.
For the United States, however, expanding their circle of influence and exporting liberal democracies and its values all over the world is regarded as so natural that it isn't even considered ideological.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a number of US administrations repeatedly assured Russia it would not expand NATO east of Germany; a promise which was broken multiple times. Many countries of the former Warsaw Pact joined NATO and oriented themselves westward. Finally, when Ukraine made moves to join NATO and the EU after the Maidan revolution, Russia became alarmed. Noam Chomsky commented, "The crisis has been brewing for 25 years as the U.S. contemptuously rejected Russian security concerns, in particular their clear red lines: Georgia and especially Ukraine. There is good reason to believe that this tragedy could have been avoided, until the last minute." If that were the case, why didn't Western governments do more to prevent the war, especially as they apparently had been aware of Russian plans for invasion?
In the first days of the invasion, it seemed like Putin would quickly overrun Kyiv and then call the shots in a global power map redrawn to his favor. Now, a month later, Putin finds himself increasingly trapped in a dead-end situation. On the other side, the war has been conducive to US foreign policy interests on several points:
- NATO's cohesion and power has been consolidated and reinforced;
- Western weapon producers celebrate new profits and stock market gains as countries raise their military budgets and deliver arms to Ukraine;
- Unprecedented economic sanctions against Russia strengthen the position of the U.S. economy and help the US dollar in its struggle to maintain its contested position as global lead currency;
- Europe has been subordinated politically and becomes more dependent economically to the US (e.g. after weaning off Russian gas, Europe will be powered by fracked gas from North America);
- The West can triumphantly reassert a moral high ground (never mind Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, much of Latin America, …).
There are little signs Western governments actually want peace in Ukraine. The West has pursued a path of sanctions and arms deliveries. Even Zelenskyy lamented that the US wasn't doing enough to try to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict. It remains questionable how successful Ukrainian-Russian ceasefire negotiations can actually be without active US engagement. As the independent journalist Glenn Greenwald warns in regards to American foreign policy, "We're about to sacrifice Ukraine on the altar of our geopolitical interests."
Reanimate the international peace movement
Despite all the calls for more war, immediate de-escalation can be the only interest of Ukrainians, Russians, Europeans, and all of humanity. A military "solution" to this war would only provoke more senseless suffering, serving nobody but the warmongers of the world. This conflict will end either through Ukrainian surrender, Russian defeat or a diplomatic solution. The first two can't be in the interest of the Ukrainian people. Even defeating Russia, if possible at all, would probably take a long war with a huge number of casualties and refugees, and devastate the country, similarly to what happened in Afghanistan or Syria. And though NATO has continually ruled out imposing a "no-fly zone" and news of the Ukraine war after a month starts to become normalized, a direct clash between the two nations that hold 90% of the world's nuclear weapons isn't off the table.
The vicious cycle of escalation must be broken to end this war and prevent further senseless bloodshed as soon as possible. But how is this even thinkable when the powers involved seem deadlocked and unwilling to move?
On the second day of the invasion, the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis laid out in a Democracy Now! interview what a peaceful settlement of the situation might look like, "The number one priority now is for a serious diplomatic initiative that sorts this mess out by giving Putin something that he can present the Russian people with as a victory... A declaration by NATO, by the United States, that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO, in exchange for troop withdrawal from the side of Vladimir Putin... I believe that that would be potentially the foundation for a peace deal that would be in the interest of humanity, not just of the Ukrainians. Both sides need to take a step back. Of course, the major step back must be Putin's."
But since both Russia and the US seem uninterested in peace, it will take a broad movement of people in the East and the West, standing together for immediate de-escalation to compel governments to pursue such a path. Polina Godz, who is from Kharkiv, writes in Jacobin, "There are no easy ways out of this crisis. Leaders across the capitalist world only know one response at moments like this: to escalate and flood war zones with weapons. They talk in geopolitical terms about 'imposing costs,' exposing the reality that they think only about advancing rival interests on the world stage... There isn't any hope—in Ukraine or elsewhere—for a world in which our only protection against one set of thugs is the war machine of another. Our only hope lies in a worldwide movement against militarism." If that succeeded, it could be the beginning of a larger movement against wars and all types of imperialism.
And those of us in Europe, let's call out our governments for having fallen into utter political irrelevance by indiscriminately peddling Washington's positions and encourage the EU to seek a demilitarized security arrangement for the continent that holds a balanced consideration for both American and Russian concerns. Let's continue to open our doors to those fleeing from Ukraine and at the same time uphold that offering asylum is a universal principle that applies to all refugees, not only when they're white and Christians.
Understand and abandon the logic of escalation
Many will argue that a peaceful settlement with Russia is merely a naive pipedream of idealistic pacifists. Putin, we're told, is a modern-day Hitler gone insane with whom you can't possibly make peace.
Let's assume that this narrative was actually true. His Chechnya war, which saw many atrocities and devastated the capital city of Grozny, as well as the assassinations of opposition figures and critical journalists certainly showed his readiness to exercise reckless brutality in pursuit of his agenda. I don't know if that equates him with Hitler, but it surely attests to sociopathy, a relatively empathy-free, cold-blooded hunger for power, using whatever means it takes to get to his goals. Yet it is also said that his worst nightmare is to be defeated, and that he would be ready to wreck much of the world to avert such a scenario. Now, his hope for quick victory in Ukraine turned out to be a miscalculation. He's facing a rebellion at home. Western sanctions are sending the Russian economy into freefall. How would he likely respond to Western military intervention? Or even when feeling he's slowly losing the war and runs out of options? If he wanted to destroy the world, he certainly would have the means to do so at his hands. In a spiral of escalating aggression, it's usually the most aggressive that will win.
The danger of our world isn't only that it's full of such unchecked aggression and evil; perhaps what's more dangerous is that it's full of ignorance about evil.
Many people are indulging in a collective frenzy of disaster porn—an almost lascivious fascination for catastrophe, obsessing with disaster and channeling their fearful and aggressive emotions against a shared enemy. An increasing part of humanity seems gripped by a type of nihilistic insanity, which functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy for its worst expectations. What I'm talking about mostly isn't intentional and goes way beyond particular groups or individuals. I see it in myself, for example, as the urge to place blame on others as a way to relieve myself of grief and overwhelming uncertainty.
I'm trying to suggest and make sense of a transpersonal psycho-spiritual force field—one that none of us is separate from and which conjures up a vicious cycle of growing division and dehumanization to the extent that we allow ourselves to be mindlessly sucked up by it. Unless recognized and abandoned, these thought forms threaten to pull us into ever greater peril. Resembling what some Native American peoples referred to as "Wetiko" or "Windigo" (which literally translates as "cannibalism"), this dynamic seems hell-bent at consuming life by dividing up communities in its insatiable hunger for destruction. It's the sickness of hungry ghosts. Wetiko is rooted in people's inability to access empathy in their hearts and to follow their genuine purpose. It makes us feel alone and lost in a seemingly meaningless world, marked by the fundamental split between self and other. And thus it entrances us in the delusion that evil is always outside ourselves, and to perpetuate it by fighting the other, not realizing how we thereby become an unwitting instrument of the suppressed subconscious "evil" aspects of ourselves. Carl Gustav Jung referred to this mechanism as "shadow-projection."
I'm not suggesting Putin (or you may replace his name by whoever you see as chief villain) isn't evil, I'm trying to shed light at the danger of reifying evil.
If we don't want evil to win, we need to untether ourselves from it and confront it without playing into it.
In a recent study of this phenomenon, Wetiko: Healing the Mind Virus That Plagues Our World, the author Paul Levy writes, "The idea of totally eradicating evil is one of the most dangerous and evil ideas imaginable. The belief that we can build a perfect, utopian world—if we can just destroy those evil people who block our noble efforts—is what animates the Hitlers of the world." Yet the Hitlers of the world couldn't pursue their agendas if these kinds of thoughts were not thoroughly ingrained and recreated in much of the global population. One of the fundamental beliefs of this entire patriarchal era is that war is inevitable because the only way of overcoming evil is to defeat and—if necessary—exterminate it. The deadly consequences of this belief become inevitable on the large political scales because they're so deeply and unquestioningly embedded on the small scales—within people's subconscious minds and our normalized everyday behaviors.
We can't overcome war only by demanding governments to change their course. We can't just blame it on them since none of us exist outside societies in which war is an inevitable outcome of the ways we live. In addition to demanding a break in the escalating war games from both the East and West, we need to understand and transform the energies that lead to war within our own lives, otherwise we run the risk of being subconsciously complicit in the psycho-spiritual vortexes that end up erupting in atrocities.
As the peace researcher and visionary Dieter Duhm writes, "The worldwide war is rooted in the deepest structures of our civilization and therefore cannot be overcome through appeals for peace, enlightenment and resistance. Global peace work needs a new global concept for a future without war."
If we don't want evil to win, we need to untether ourselves from it and confront it without playing into it. As Gandhi put it, our task is in raising a movement that will prevail by virtue of its "moral authority." Moral authority can't be proclaimed but only embodied. Then it will work by example, ultimately forcing the brutest force to kneel to its gentle power. The potential of nonviolence to prevail against empires, as Gandhi and other sacred activists demonstrated, lies in the integrity and coherence of the movement and its protagonists. In fact, empires know very well how to deal with armed opposition but they find it much harder to confront those who no longer play their game of fear, attack, and defense.
Create and defend autonomous zones
Although having different visions of society, both Western and Russian (or Russian/Chinese) imperialism are only variants of the same underlying (petro-)capitalist, patriarchal project.
Their increasing competition is just superficially about values and more essentially about which oligarchy can exploit the last remaining resources before this globalized civilization comes down crashing altogether. Whether it's Moscow, Beijing or Washington, any empire commits us to a suicidal trajectory of global war, ecological devastation and societal breakdown on the fastest possible way.
And it comes down to each one of us. At this stage, unless you're part of building a post-capitalist world, you're contributing to this planet-killing mechanism.
The war in Ukraine will further accelerate already existing trends of worldwide societal and ecological breakdown and put even more pressure on the most vulnerable. Examples of this include:
- The coming war on China: This conflict likely is but the precursor to a larger, even more dreadful clash between the U.S./NATO and China, which is brewing in the background. International isolation will probably make the Russian-Chinese alliance even closer.
- Food insecurity: Russia and Ukraine are among the world's largest wheat, corn and sunflower producers. Their war already disrupts food chains and drives up prices. David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP) at the United Nations, warns that "the bullets and bombs in Ukraine could take the global hunger crisis to levels beyond anything we've seen before."
- Energy crisis: Similarly, with the boycott of Russian fossil fuels, oil and gas prices are currently surging to all-time highs.
The corporate world is unlikely to let this crisis go to waste. To the contrary, this moment of uncertainty and stress provides a perfect context for introducing "solutions" from the tool box of an envisaged "Fourth Industrial Revolution," including "green growth," "smart agriculture" and the "Internet of Things" with trillion dollar investment opportunities.
However, "green growth" is but a smokescreen to continue business as usual. The planned massification of wind turbines, solar panels, and electric vehicles will inevitably necessitate unprecedented mining and "climate colonialism" in the global south and on Indigenous lands. Within a perpetual growth paradigm, we will wreck the Earth even if we reduce carbon emissions to net zero. The same goes for the "innovative" farming solutions to growing famine, which are prescribing ever more genetic engineering, chemical pollution, and dependence on corporate technology, all while eroding the natural foundations of sustainable agriculture (soil, water, biodiversity, community). And what is more, the current crisis will accelerate the inflation we're already seeing, making a rather comprehensive realignment of our financial systems probable in the not-so-far future, unlikely not to increase surveillance and control of populations worldwide.
People who understand the trajectory of where we're going know that there's no more future within the paradigm of nation-states, capitalism, and patriarchy. Communities and regions might thus decide to stop relying on them altogether and build autonomous zones to develop post-capitalist ways of living together. Experimenting with radical self-governance, regenerating ecosystems, increasing food, water and energy sovereignty, reviving communal culture, learning to mend trauma, exploring ways of knowing and being outside the tight margins of modernity might turn out not only fleeting emergency responses but meaningful orientations towards cultures worth living in. In fact, this is much more than a dream, as large-scale autonomy experiments as diverse as the Zapatistas in Mexico or Rojava in Syria are showing.
Instead of expecting relief from any government or nation-state, the hope for a future without war is principally found in freeing ourselves from dependence on them. We can't defeat the monsters of war but we can divest from and starve them of its oxygen by no longer obeying their rules, buying their products and paying them taxes. Although existing nation-states, companies, and empires will seek to eradicate zones of autonomy, if enough of them arise, they may be able to form a mycelial web to hollow this terminal system from the inside out and compost it into soil for something new.
Originally published in CommonDreams on March 27, 2022.