For Vladimir Putin, the news from Ukraine is not good. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not going particularly well, by many Western and Ukrainian accounts.
As the masters of the dark arts of disinformation and the use of technological platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the Russians are nowhere near defeated – but the sustained mobilisation and emotional engagement of Western audiences with the people and government of Ukraine is a Kremlin nightmare wrapped in Yankee bubble wrap.
Russian staying power in a prolonged conflict in Ukraine may be longer than what many Western antagonists claim, but it is not infinite. The tactical and operational limits of the Russian invasion are only one small part of the transformational changes that it has exposed.
Germany has already demonstrated more belligerence and assertiveness in terms of national security in the past five days than it had perhaps in the last five decades. Shredding the certification for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and inserting a cool new 100 billion euro fund into German defence spending representing the start of a wholly new German engagement with the world, and with the mirror – and unlike what many Generation X and Millennials around the world have come to expect from Germany, it isn’t clear that these changes have been thought through the way our imaginations associate post Berlin Wall German culture – precision, perfection, and preparedness. What implications will a more certain, less self-conscious, and more robust German national security posture look and sound like?
The worry of course is that it will sound like many European and North American analysts already sound like – on Sky News, a reporter, in teary eyed, voice-breaking manner says, “now the unthinkable has happened… and this is not a developing nation, this is Europe!” An Al Jazeera news anchor, paid with Arab shekels, but carrying the deep intergenerational scars of Lawrence of Arabia, during a live interview, describing the scenes of Ukrainians fleeing their country, said, “what’s compelling… looking at them, these are prosperous middle class people, these are not, obviously, refugees, looking to try to get away from areas of the Middle East that are still in a big state of war... they look like any European family that you could live next door to.”
On CBS News, Charlie D'Agata, a [respected] correspondent said, as he described the Ukrainian refugee crisis, “but this isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iran and Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades, you know, this is a relatively civilized, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully too – city, where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen”. Where you wouldn’t HOPE that it’s going to happen. Good Lord, Charlie.
What I hope is not going to happen is that these tell-tale slips of the lip are ignored by Western institutions. Millions of non-Westerners, from places that Charlie D’Agata would deem uncivilised, are morally, materially and ideologically committed to the very same Western liberal ideals that people like D’Agata uphold – and few, if any, enjoy the Putin-esque dictatorships and despotic regimes that are birthed and sustained a Western liberal order that lacks self-consciousness.
The Global South, and in particular the Muslim world, feels like they have seen the Ukraine movie before. When American intelligence officials were carefully and deliberately releasing intel assessments about Russia’s intentions over the last several weeks, a lot of Muslims were seeing those assessments and thinking of yellow cake in Niger, Blackwater in Fallujah, decisive battles for Marjah, and the catastrophic exit from Kabul. Muslims should be held to account for a failure to properly tackle extremism, sure – but they should be forgiven for scepticism of the intelligence of a system that has failed them repeatedly. This is important, if the West really wants to beat Russia at the global influence and superpower game.
Why is the integrity and fidelity of Western liberal values under discussion here at all? Especially when the aggression and violence we have seen this past week has been directed at an aspirant for that order (Zelensky’s Ukraine) by a would-be destroyer of that order (Putin’s Russia). In short: why should the West be answering any hard questions at a time when it is Russia’s antagonism for the West that Washington DC, Nato Headquarters and numerous Old Europe capitals want questioned?
The answer is simple: the West has a genuinely universal set of products under the canopy of the Western liberal order, but outside Europe, these products seem to be available only for window shopping. For Africa, much of Asia, and even parts of South America, when it goes shopping, it's only Chinese credit cards that help build the infrastructure that North America and Europe already have.
To boot, since September 2001, the Western world’s engagement with the Muslim world has validated not only the Crusades of woe-begone illiberal Westerners like the good hard working people that watch Fox News and listen to Alex Jones, or whatever smelly cheese version of that garbage sells in France for Marine Le Pen fans, it has also validated excesses against Muslims in places like Xinjiang, in Syria and across the wider Middle East, Afghanistan, and even here at home in Pakistan. War via drones, via Daesh, via anti-Daesh lashkars, via Abu Ghraib, via Bagram, via Guantanamo, and via the umpteenth de-radicalisation camp – here, there, Amm al Dunya, and every-else-where.
Two decades is a long time to learn how to talk about Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria and Yemen. And yet, as they report the news from Ukraine, it is like we never existed at all. Like these wars never happened. Like lessons were never learnt. Like Baathist institutions didn’t crumble under the weight of the rubble of the freedom America brought to Basra and Mosul. Like clear-hold-and-build actually built something that didn’t fold like an IHOP pancake the moment Ashraf Ghani took the money and ran. Like mothers of children dying in airstrikes, drone strikes, missile strikes, and workers’ strikes never cried, never mourned. Like Dari, Arabic, Pashto, and Urdu have no sounds that convey agony, or pain, or suffering. Like the brunettes and the olive-skinned never ran, never hid, never cowered, never died.
This lament isn’t an emotional one. CBS News, Sky News and the BBC have been doing this so long, someone like me (born and bred in the glorious West – an abiding privilege that I wish every brown boy and girl could have) is more amused than feeling abused. (Sidenote: I do wonder what they’re smoking out there at Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha).
The lament is no lament at all. If the West wants to know what happens next, it should pay attention to two things, already happening, that represent a kind of ideological and information pincer movement.
The first is President Vladimir Putin’s sustained engagement with the same Muslim world that has not and will never forget Afghanistan or Iraq. In Syria, in Turkey, and in Pakistan – in different ways, and through diverse means, he has built Russian capital. In Russia itself, he has cultivated Chechen support. He has a brand in the Muslim world that he will deploy to extremely potent effect – by juxtaposing his fight against Ukraine as an example of a leader that is not Al Qaeda, not the Taliban, and not Daesh, but that stands up to compromised Western liberal ideas. To boot, he even speaks out against blasphemy!
The second is the inherent racism that shapes the fundamentals of so many Nato member and partner states: the scenes at border crossings of the blonde and the blue-eyed, welcomed, where weeks ago, the olive-skinned and brunette were spurned. Scenes of silly, idiot reporters, accidentally reporting the truth about themselves. Scenes of the limits of ideals and the constraints of what is real.
Together, it is a dangerous and potent combination.
Putin is no friend to Muslims, or to the Global South. But the Western liberal order that he is competing with may still come in second in a popularity contest against him. That may be a cue to unleash an anti-Putin tirade, and maybe that plays well in Brussels – but it has no audience in Bihar, or Bahawalpur, or Burma.
The adults in that Oval room need to reflect on how this plays out and where it leads. The better team needs to play better, or you may just be full of hot air. Like that yellow cake. And Putin’s gonna eat it. And you. And maybe us too.
The writer is an analyst and commentator.
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