Journalism has been called “the first draft of history”. As the emerging story of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unfolds, I’ve been thinking of this page of the “first draft”.
The 2008 financial crash began with problems in the sub-prime mortgage market in the US. One reading of this is that 9/11 shook the US to the core. Had it been in a stronger place, it might have been possible to seek a peaceful solution — borrowing language from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa to ask about grievances in the Middle East against the US. IF that had been possible, it might also have unlocked the possibility of an enduring peace in Israel / Palestine.
Instead, it found in the US, a global superpower struggling to accept its decline, that needed a show of power in the “war on terror”. An assumption that the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan would happily accept US-style democracy lead to an underestimating of the cost of this military intervention.
For such a big misunderstanding to happen points to the US being unable to let itself see what was going on under its nose –- which points to unconscious content. Many in the US recognised that gerrymandering, the distorting effects of the electoral college and the outcome of the 2001 US Presidential election having been effectively decided by the US Supreme Court were signs of a deeply dysfunctional democracy, yet there seem to have been few qualms about bringing that understanding of democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan, and seem a genuine surprise when neither this nor “regime change” were received with the anticipated easy and joy. It’s almost inevitable that such a gap between conscious and unconscious process would land most heavily on the a segment of American society that is highly marginalised — in this case those at the bottom of the economic pile, with sub-prime mortgages. But, although marginalised, those people are still part of the collective process — and their suffering was enough to damage an economic system that wasn’t as robust as it might have been.
That’s a very quick summary, but suggests that US hubris-driven over-reach in the Middle East lay behind the 2008 economic crash. Once begun, global interconnectedness meant that the echoes would go in all directions.
There is a parallel with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
It’s been widely reported that, having grown up in the USSR and begin his career as an officer in the KGB, Putin experienced the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the end of the USSR as a moment of national shame. Countries from the former Warsaw Pact joining, or seeking to join, the EU and NATO added to the sense of the diminishment of Russia. But time has passed. Russia is now more economically stable than in the aftermath of the USSR. There are many suggestions that it has been accreting influence by “soft” means — influencing politics in general, and elections (and the Brexit referendum) in particular, through social media — with widespread stories about donations to extreme right-wing groups across Europe and stories of Russian influence on Trump and the his election. On that trajectory, invading Ukraine is a credible next step, now a larger military adventure seems affordable. It’s put Putin on the map as a figure of power, and demonstrated Russian military might.
Where the parallel with the US in Iraq and Afghanistan starts to shout is that Ukraine hasn’t keeled over and welcomed the Russians. Despite Putin’s claim to be “de-nazifing” the country, early evidence is that Ukrainians are not seeing their government as “Nazi” and the Russians as “liberators”.
Writing this a few days after the invasion began, how it will work out is far from clear. But there are two very big questions. One is what resources Russia will have to put in to taking over Ukraine and controlling Ukraine. At what point does a country of 145 million people discover it can’t subdue a neighbouring country of 44 million? The other is how much the Russian people will accept. Putin may well be able to stir up patriotic pride, but does that speak to Russians with painful memories of financial hardship after the fall of the USSR, for whom things are still fragile? Will this eventually force him from power, or cause him to hang with with greater repression? (bearing in mind that keeping a population under control is expensive).
Russia probably has a narrow window in which to re-assert its power. As China and India take up their places as the world’s most powerful nations as well as their most populous, Russia faces being overshadowed by its Southern neighbour. It can grab for influence now, while there is still influence to grab and while the US is becoming more engaged with China, but needs to do that soon, before it becomes the “lightly-populated nation north of China”.
2008 showed how quickly an American financial problem could became global. It’s not yet clear where the fault lines will go if Russia discovers that it too is over-reaching. My guess is that we will see economic hardship in Europe if Russia uses its leverage over gas supply and increased attempts to influence politics in Europe and North America — undermining Western society by undermining our politics — which in turn undermines the economy by creating conditions bad for business and for social cohesion.
Meanwhile, speaking at the UN Security Council, just before the actual invasion Kenyan U.N. Ambassador Martin Kimani said:
This situation echoes our history. Kenya and almost every African country was birthed by the ending of empire. Our borders were not of our own drawing. They were drawn in the distant colonial metropoles of London, Paris and Lisbon, with no regard for the ancient nations that they cleaved apart.
Today, across the border of every single African country, live our countrymen with whom we share deep historical, cultural and linguistic bonds.
At independence, had we chosen to pursue states on the basis of ethnic, racial or religious homogeneity, we would still be waging bloody wars these many decades later.
Instead, we agreed that we would settle for the borders that we inherited, but we would still pursue continental political, economic and legal integration. Rather than form nations that looked ever backward into history with a dangerous nostalgia, we chose to look forward to a greatness none of our many nations and peoples had ever known.
We chose to follow the rules of the Organisation of African Unity and the United Nations charter, not because our borders satisfied us, but because we wanted something greater, forged in peace.
That echoes the wisdom that lay behind the foundation of the EU, and shows a mature way of nation states operating in a globalised world where sovereignty is pooled because we are all interconnected. The choice will be to live with that (as Kimani suggests in Africa and is modelled in the EU), or to wreak havoc by swimming against the tide (as Russia is trying to do).
My guess is that, in the long run, 2008 will be seen as the moment when the economic balance of power tipped from the US to China, and 2022 will be seen as a Western, nationalistic way of operating takes another step backwards as energy passes to that wiser African model. The European question is whether we can get in touch with our way to collaborate and compromise. From a British perspective, the sad footnote to that is how we choose between the wisdom of the EU model (which points to rejoining) and the dysfunction of following Putin’s nationalistic lead.