Putin believes he can control the narrative of the Ukraine assault and cast its participants in any role he sees fit, but colonialism has become much harder in a world where its victims can broadcast their oppression.
A demon buried for decades underneath the rubble of Eastern European history has awoken. For now, it is gnawing on Ukraine and Russia. There’s no way to know whether it will consume the entire world. The chances of that are low, but not zero.
Russian President Vladimir Putin lied to his citizens and the rest of the world about his intention to attack Ukraine. In the end, he claimed he had no choice. That’s also a lie. A better excuse is Putin’s own self-destructive paranoia, combined with a disregard for human life he has demonstrated in Syria.
Woven within a 7,000-word essay Putin published last summer, asserting Ukrainians and Russians are a single, unified people, is the mentality of a movie director. Putin sees the populations of Ukraine and Russia not as 180 million individuals, but rather as extras and bit players in a grand film production over which he must have complete control.
But unlike a movie, all of this is very real. Nuclear weapons of both Russia and the NATO are very real, as Putin himself demonstrated with personally directed nuclear drills just days before the Ukraine attack. He has said several times that foreign interference in Russia’s “military operation” would be a justification for a murder-suicide, destroying both Russia and the rest of the world.
What should be scary is that Putin’s victory is not guaranteed, or at least, victory to his satisfaction. He has no exit strategy because this is a war that will end in occupation. Russia denies that, but the last month has shown what value Kremlin denials have.
“Putin has taken a big risk with this operation. Basically, its outcome will be all the things Putin doesn't want - a unified NATO and beyond, Russia as a pariah state and sanctions. Sweden and Finland attended Thursday’s NATO meeting,” Cheryl Rofler, a nuclear policy analyst and former nuclear scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratories in the US.
“In some ways, this is worse than most Cold War situations,” she added. “I would put it somewhere between the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the Cuban Missile Crisis in severity. How to stay calm? Get the best information you can. Don't doomscroll, and take it one day at a time.”
“Doomscrolling,” or the compulsive consumption of grim digital information during a crisis, is exactly what Putin thinks will demoralise or confuse Russia's enemies. It has worked before.
He believes he can control the narrative of the war because he can cast its participants in any role he sees fit. Ukrainians cannot be Ukrainians as they want to be, they can be Ukrainians as Putin tells them to be. Everyone but him is replaceable in the project.
He has decided to send Russian soldiers to their deaths, but reward them with roles as martyrs for the Motherland. He has decided to force Ukrainian civilians into Kiev’s metros, but cast them as people who will welcome those who terrorise them as their liberators. His last production was in Syria, in collaboration with Bashar al Assad, where he was able to cast terrified civilians as terrorists in need of destruction. Ukraine is his next project.
The United Forces of the West
Just like in Syria, Putin’s multibillion-dollar snuff film is stitched together from millions of video clips, in the form of smartphone recordings of his army’s assaults. They show helicopters flying low to the ground, screaming cruise missiles shattering airports, mothers and their children crying and running for shelter from fighter jets strafing homes, families crying over their dead relatives; a broken, bleeding corpse of a bicyclist, half-covered in a sheet just metres away from a crater. Ukrainians and Russians, living or dead, are all part of Putin’s production, whether they want to be or not.
The Russian attack on Ukraine will be the most broadcast and recorded event in human history, until the next one. Throughout history, every war has left a longer and wider trail of information about itself. We only have fragmentary pieces of evidence about history’s first battles after the emergence of writing. Today, we can watch it all happen in real-time.
“They said that televising the Vietnam War brought the conflict into living rooms; from Syria to Gaza to Kiev, now war has been brought into our phones, tablets, and laptops. It is so very saddening and frightening,” Paul Musgrave, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, wrote on Twitter.
During Russia’s exercises and their attack of Ukraine, the presence of civilians with smartphones was key to the intimidation campaign that preceded the assault. Armies today must move through a sea of silicon eyeballs when traversing populated areas. That policy continues as Russian soldiers push farther into Ukrainian territory. Psychological operations in the past used to be cumbersome affairs. Today, civilians do it for free, as a nearly automatic wrist reflex.
But does Putin have as much control over his cast as he wants the world to think? No director ever really does. And with a cast of nearly 200 million people, the chances of significant numbers of either side defying Putin’s script gets higher and higher. Ukrainians have not welcomed Russia as liberators, as UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia claimed in the first hours of the war. Russians opposed to the war have not remained passive, risking arrest and immiseration by the state for opposing the conflict against a brotherly nation.
Even the Russian military is not convinced of their motivation in Putin’s screenplay. In the weeks before the war, Russia’s officer corps telegraphed their opposition to the campaign with a post written by retired General-Colonel Leonid Ivashov, the chairman of the All-Russian Officers’ Assembly.
“We, Russia’s officers, demand that the President of the Russian Federation reject the criminal policy of provoking a war in which Russia would be alone against the united forces of the West… and retire,” Ivashov wrote earlier this month.
The 78-year-old has criticised Putin before over his refusal to provide military burials to Wagner Group military contractors, who have been crucial to realising Russia’s foreign policy goals in Syria, Libya, Ukraine and elsewhere. Putin prefers to deny them the credit and keep them as an unaccountable shadow army.
Although Russia’s internet censors could try to wipe the call for Putin to resign, it remains online. Unlike average Russian citizens, Russia’s military elite have the leverage over Putin to issue a protest to his aggressive plot.
“Ivashov’s main criticism is focused on the threat to Ukraine. He argues that the attempts to force people to 'love' Russia and its leaders through ultimatums and threats are senseless and very dangerous,” Anders Åslund writes.
“To use military force against Ukraine puts the very existence of Russia as a state in question. It will make Russians and Ukrainians mortal enemies forever. It will cost both sides tens of thousands of deaths," he argues.
"NATO members might be forced to declare war on Russia after they have suffered various losses."
“External threats exist, but they are not crucial or directly threatening the Russian state,” Aslund added. “On the contrary, strategic stability persists; nuclear arms are under reliable control; NATO forces are not growing and do not pursue any threatening activity, goes the argument in Ivashov’s statement.”
Ivashov has credentials in going up against NATO that Putin doesn’t bring. The general stared down NATO forces in Kosovo in 1999, an episode that Putin sees as evidence of the alliance’s intention to contain and humiliate Russia by inventing fictitious countries inside its sphere of influence, a divide and conquer tactic that is part of the West’s overall strategy of colonising Russia entirely.
Half a million serfs
A sovereign and independent Ukraine is part of that treacherous plot, a descendant of Hitler’s push to the east repelled by the heroic Soviet Army. That the United States assisted the Soviet Union at the time is dismissed by Putinist propagandists as only a manifestation of decadent Western greed. Even in the history of World War II, Putin sees no evidence of genuine cooperation between the US and the Soviet Union.
Ivashov’s advice to Putin, which Putin did not follow, is common sense. Indeed, the self-destructiveness of Putin’s plan was part of the reason so many self-described anti-imperialists discounted the possibility of it happening. Now that it has, such observers have backpedalled. They now agree with Putin that in the face of a phantom NATO threat he had no other choice.
That analysis will not offer much comfort to the civilians sleeping in Kiev’s metro system, hiding from Russian air attacks. But those who offer that kind of analysis are not interested in what happens to Ukrainians anyway. Nor do they understand the kind of grim fate Putin has planned for the country.
Let’s assume Putin gets what he appears to want: the destruction and replacement of the Ukrainian government. Ukraine will become a Russian province, where Russian soldiers are permanently stationed. Anyone opposed to Moscow will have fled or been otherwise neutralised, either by imprisonment or death. But territory the international community sees as taken by force, in violation of international law, will not be able to undergo the kind of renaissance Putin imagines.
The Ukrainian economy will be permanently welded to the Russian one, just like its political leaders will be people the Kremlin can pick and choose with ease. Ukraine’s mineral and gas resources will head eastward to Russia. The Ukrainians who survive the onslaught we see today will not be able to participate in Europe’s enormous economy as they would have been doing as citizens of a sovereign state.
Rather, the surplus value of their labour will flow directly to Russian oligarchs, reducing Ukrainians to the role of serfs. Perhaps he knows exactly what he is doing, however, given his fixation on the reign of Russian Empress Catherine the Great. She brought Ukrainian territory under Moscow’s control and personally owned half a million serfs. Perhaps once again reducing Ukrainians to that state of servitude is what Putin considers a renaissance.
For the remainder of his time in power, Putin will never accept blame for their fate. As he has for nearly every other subject related to the poverty Russians endure, he will blame Western hostility for Ukraine’s economic isolation under occupation. Russia’s puppet regime in Kiev will brutally punish anyone who challenges the re-establishment of a 21st-century system of serfdom in Ukraine, just as Putin’s regime jails or kills opposition figures and critical journalists.
However, Putin is wrong if he thinks that achieving this atavistic vision will be easy or even durable. The ruthless program of repression that will be necessary will come under constant challenge by universal values of fairness guaranteed by rights and the rule of law. These values are incompatible with serfdom. Catherine the Great herself oversaw a ruthless crackdown against serfs revolting against their rulers, revolts which culminated in the 20th Century as in the bloody annihilation of the Russian monarchy and establishment of the Soviet Union, which introduced new, allegedly scientific justifications for subjugation to Ukraine.
In the 21st Century, it will not take 100 years for serfdom to crack apart. Putin can look at Iraq for evidence of how much harder colonialism is in a world where its victims can broadcast their oppression around the world. It becomes even harder when the colonised and the colonisers speak the same language. A viral video of a Ukrainian woman confronting a Russian soldier provides a window into Ukraine’s future.
“You’re an occupant, you’re fascists!” the unarmed woman tells the Russian soldier, his assault rifle in hand. “What the f—k are you doing on our land with all these guns? Put sunflower seeds in your pockets, so that when you lie down and die they will grow here.”
The soldier responds: “Right now, our discussion will lead nowhere. Let’s not escalate the situation. Please.”
Undeterred, she repeats her recommendation on the sunflower seeds before adding:
“You came to my land. You are occupiers. You are enemies… From this moment, you are cursed.’’