A Real War
How the Ukrainian War is Being Proxied
“The fact is, people have lost all remembrance of a real war. The Crimean, the Italian, and the Austro-Prussian war were all of them mere conventional wars — wars of Governments which made peace as soon as their military machinery had broken down or become worn out. A real war, one in which the nation itself participates, we have not seen in the heart of Europe for a couple of generations. We have seen it in the Caucasus, in Algeria, where fighting lasted more than twenty years with scarcely any interruption; we should have seen it in Turkey if the Turks had been allowed, by their allies, to defend themselves in their own home — spun way. But the fact is, our conventionalities allow to barbarians only the right of actual self-defence; we expect that civilized States will fight according to etiquette, and that the real nation will not be guilty of such rudeness as to go on fighting after the official nation has had to give in.” — from Frederick Engels, “Notes on the War,” Pall Mall Gazette, 1870
At the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the wave of justified public outrage in Europe and the United States, the chorus of critics of Western support for Zelensky’s government had one constant refrain: there was a total, oppressive hawkish consensus about the war, skeptical voices were being silenced, and once again, we were being ushered by war mongers in the media towards a disastrous conflict, only scrappy dissidents could speak the truth, and they were being pushed out of public debate.
It would be difficult for them to keep up that song, now: after the initial wave of enthusiasm, the establishment in the West seem to be cooling on the war. The New York Times editorial board urges a negotiated settlement; Henry Kissinger speaks of territorial concessions to Russia as a precondition for peace, essentially occupying the same ground as Noam Chomsky, his old (in all senses of the word) foe; Ross Douthat, the Times’s ruminative conservative, now writes, “We Can’t Be Ukraine Hawks Forever” and a U.S. Senator tweets it out; in Europe, where sentiment was even more hawkish than in the U.S., misgivings are beginning to appear withinin the E.U. leadership, with Macron and Scholz’s telephone diplomacy and talk of not “humiliating” Putin; Draghi’s call for a ceasefire, and Orbán’s intransigence on the most onerous sanctions. In the world of the intelligentsia, only reflexive Russia hawks, those resolute middle brows at middle-brow publications, but no public intellectual of stature still demands a decisive Russian defeat. Meanwhile, Putin has apparently given up on all pretense of a security logic for his actions and now openly drapes himself in imperial robes, comparing himself and his actions to Peter the Great.
Ukrainian flags are still hanging in windows, but something appears to be changing in the West. Part of it may, in fact, be cooler heads prevailing: Russia remains a nuclear power and Putin has not hesitated to remind the world of this. And it is true that eventually diplomatic negotiation must be the outcome of the war. But partly it is the movement of the war into its new phase, which is that of war of position rather than that of a war of maneuver. Militarily and politically, this is a change of strategy that benefits Russia. At first, Russia attempted to act like a Western military state: moving rapidly, attempting bold encirclements, with concomitant political coups de main. But its military and political apparatus was totally unprepared for this kind of warfare: an unmobilized Russian public was at first shocked and frightened after years of stability, while the democracies, which thrive on waves of public enthusiasm, were newly aroused. The civil society of Ukraine became a military society. Western publics hung on daily stories of grand heroic stands, daring counter-attacks, massive recapturing of ground. The malaise of post-history seemed to be lifted, Western intellectuals spoke of patriotism, purpose, ideology, and meaning again.
But when the war shifted to the East, and to the slow grinding advance and the siege warfare that the Russian military has employed elsewhere, with its use of massive, indiscriminate, demoralizing artillery fire, the “spirit” of the war changed as well. The public lost interest in the fight. The news went from victories to tragedies, like the crushing siege at Mariupol or the strange and disturbing reports of Russian deportations into the interior. Like the Syrians before them, Ukrainians are now being turned into objects of humanitarian pity, rather than the subjects of a heroic war of self-defense. This is the secret logic of atrocity in war: it makes the world more, not less likely, to turn away, as it finds the scenes either unbearable or unbelievable.
Politically, now Putin is in the role he likes to play: the instransigent, standing for a stability, permanence, a fait accompli. And he gets to deploy his most potent weapon, which has propped up his regime much more than patriotic mobilization ever has: cynicism. Since it’s colorless (but not odorless), it takes a moment to when it’s happened, but the poison gas of cynicism has once again settled over the world. The Ukrainian defender and his Western supporter are now the object of derision: silly little people who ought to understand how the world really works and take what’s coming to them. Once again, we are talking about grand, abstract terms like power, —it’s all about “power,” “geopolitics,” “proxy wars,” “national interest,” “realism.” It’s “realism,” that nice word for cynicism, that’s taken hold again of the serious people in the West.
The great irony is how often “realism” ends up being attack on actual reality: in place of the concrete, historical reality, it tells us there are permanent, abstract forces at play: all states are always at all times seeking “power” or some such constant. The existence of these constants, the inevitability of power-seeking, war, self-interest, makes what is actually happening before our eyes into something else: we are not seeing a sovereign nation invaded, its cities destroyed, we are not seeing children being burned, instead we are seeing a “proxy war” or “a great power struggle.” To focus on what we are actually seeing makes us dangerous sentimentalists, but to see the great forces behind all of it, that makes us good, hard-headed “realists.” In its capacity to transform reality, cynicism is apparently much more potent ideological agent in our era than fanatical belief in great causes. The reign of cynicism also marks a return of sorts, to a pre-revolutionary age, when politics was just a game of monarchs whose rule the public had to passively accept as the way of the world. But cynicism is also democratic in its way: it makes everyone who can adopt a cynical attitude, which costs nothing at all, feel like they are devilishly clever, too, sharing the same state secrets as the high ministers: “it’s really all about X.”
But the war has a concrete reality and it’s made up of bombs, shells, tanks, and bullets. The physical reality of the war is this: the farther, in terms of ground, the Russian forces advance the more they more they will shell, the more they will burn, the more they will massacre, and the more they will rape. The more Ukrainian territory they occupy, the more opportunity for atrocity. Even if the Russian army did not have the particularly terrible discipline and brutal tactics that it does have, this is the nature of war and soldiers. Ukrainians are fighting to keep this reality away from their literal homes; to repel an invader. We are accustomed to everything being rhetoric and metaphor in the West, but this is not a metaphor. In all this, let’s not permit cynicism to blind us to the fact that the Ukrainian people are above all exercising the most basic principle of political and human life: the right of self-defense.