Some events seem to suck up the world’s supply of compassion – leaving many feeling suddenly abandoned. Russia has fought dirty wars and the west has launched failed interventions that for a moment in the consciousness of the world seemed to be defining moments but then that consciousness moved on to the next news cycle. This will happen in Ukraine too.
Afghanistan, so recently the poster child of global attention is now a fourth or fifth level story in western media. Kashmir could spark a regional war at any time but is hardly ever mentioned. Georgia has been invaded twice by Putin and one third of the country remains occupied. Iraq faces the latest in a long line of political crises that have characterized politics there since Saddam was removed and it could now descend into Shia vs Shia civil war. Yemen remains the worst and most enduring humanitarian disaster in the world. The Lebanese economy and society continues to free fall to chaos. Palestine remains occupied by Israel. But there is only one story in the west: Ukraine
There are vast bodies of literature in many disciplines that explore this shifting consciousness. Media studies will offer theories of hypodermics of stories into the blood stream of public opinion, and issue salience and the more prosaic but real need for a new story. That has particular irony in Ukraine because this is not of course a new story. The war on Ukraine has been going on for as long as Putin has been in power and the actual beginning of the invasion and occupation of Ukraine began in February 2014 after years of hybrid warfare. But the thrust of the argument holds. Psychology offers explanations of compassion fatigue about the way old stories need new narratives to generate a response. And the response to this new nationwide invasion has been immense.
The magnitude of this response has led to many colleagues I work with in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and who work on Afghanistan or with refugees from Syria to ask why all the attention to this story. Why the unprecedented international sanctions on Russia? What about all the other wars and failing states?
There are very good questions, and we should be clear that all these conflicts deserve 100% of the world’s attention, all of the time. The realist will say that this is impossible, and it is. But we need to face a deeper reality, more important even than the finite resources that realists tell us exist for strategic interventions or indeed, emotional responses. That is the proximity of our own European history. There have been many instances in which fear of attack has been stoked by western governments and western military elites to justify assaults on civil liberties or increases in military expenditure. Academic studies have created a complex discourse around fear as a driver of public policy to build support for the war on terror. But this is not one of those events.
In Europe and the US, public fear has led public policy since 24th February. There are three proximate historical memories that resonant with the deeper layers of European memory in the historical geography of this war. World War Two, the Holocaust and the Cold War. Afghanistan, Kashmir, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, even Palestine, have complex historical relationships with the European imagination and historical memory – relationships of Empire, conquest, mandates and interventions, but these relationships are not proximate. Ukraine is profoundly closer to home and to historical memories in virtually every European state. If this were not enough this crisis is underpinned by double layers of nuclear fear and double layers of chemical fear. Fear of the use of tactical nuclear weapons not in the far off subcontinent but in the middle of Europe, and fear of a meltdown at Chernobyl. Fear of the use of Russian chemical weapons as in Syria and fear of poisoning as with the owner of Chelsea football club Abramovich and the victims murdered by Putin in the UK town of Salisbury.
All these facets of the crisis are interconnected and cohere to force this war into the forefront of western consciousness. Taken together this proximity of history has propelled the war on Ukraine to the very top of the western agenda but where my Arab and Pakistani friends have it slightly wrong is that this flooding of our collective consciousness and our need for action has not actually resulted in any change of policy. The European collective security architecture has been reset and is being rethought but it has not been altered in the substance that existed before the crisis. The isolationism that allowed the cut and run from Kabul has produced the situation we have now in Ukraine. There are heated debates in the intelligence community on how to fight a new cold war but not on what would need to be done militarily to prevent it coming. Because our perception of what military intervention would mean is defined by the historical imagination that understands the very worst is actually possible in the context of this time and in these places. Not because they are a far away land of which we know nothing but because they are front and center of the national stories of most western powers.
The central fixed idea is that to prevent World War Three we must ensure the balance of power is held to. That means that we must, and we will, intervene enough to ensure that Ukraine is not defeated and completely occupied by Russian but not enough to tip the balance in their favour to drive Russia out. This is appeasement born of isolationism. It is a louder, more bellicose isolationism than we have seen before, the exact opposite of the NATO expansion Putin pretends to fear. It is like the old joke about the difference between a US cop and a British cop. The US cop has a gun so if a thief is running away and ignores the cop when he says stop, the cop can shoot at him. The UK cop has a truncheon. If a thief runs away the policeman says “Stop, or I will say Stop again.” We are again telling Putin to Stop, we are telling much more loudly than we have ever told him before, but our historical memory and imagination is stopping us, rightly or wrongly I do not honestly know, from shooting him.
Saying Stop will result in Ukraine being forced to accept a compromise peace that will stop the killing and move the story down the running order. It will also end Ukrainian statehood as those within Ukraine who will reject peace will rebel. The massive influx of arms and the creation of the Territorial Defense Units, reminiscent of the popular mobilization units in Iraq, not to mention the large number of armed foreign fighters, have created the basis for a failed state in which militias will challenge state forces. Russia will sow division.
The only variable that has upset the calculations of the West and may change this outcome is the Ukrainian army and the Ukrainian people. At the time of writing, they are holding Russia. The Russians have paused, they are resupplying and also rethinking but they will attack again and on multiple fronts that is if we do not betray Ukraine first and force them to accept partition. My feeling is that this is exactly what the west will do next. That is the price of historical proximity.