It would seem that autocrats are all the same. Just like Trump, Vladimir Putin the barbarian autocrat of Moscow, telegraphs his moves as if they were obviously okay, although he incorporates all sorts of deception trying to justify his aggression. At the same time, the solidarity of the Ukrainians in the face of overwhelming military might is a lesson with other important implications.
Oddly Archaic Wars of Conquest
One of the things I hear often in reaction to Putin’s cruel war against a people with whom Russians have many strong family and economic relations, goes something like, “This is 2022! I thought we were past these old brutal acts of war.” Europeans and Americans have grown complacent in assuming that the status quo could hold forever. After all, Russia increasingly integrated itself with the western nations economically during Putin’s reign. Its sales of oil and gas to the West brought prosperity to Moscow, and capitalists believe that economics drives everything. It does not work that way for Vladimir the Terrible!
Even a ‘normal’ leader of Russia would feel threatened, since NATO reniged on its promise to not expand in exchange for denuclearizing Ukraine when the Soviet Union collapsed. The US led forces of the West have surrounded Russia by expanding NATO from 19 to 29 nations, adding countries ever closer to Russia. NATO became more aggressive in Libya, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, although it claimed to be solely “defensive.” As someone put it, the US and its allies started another cold war and left Ukraine to fight it, then expressed ‘solidarity’ with the victims. Nevertheless, we are dealing with a megalomaniacal autocrat obsessed with re-creating an imagined Russian Empire, who might have taken the same path in any case.
In denial of their own aggressiveness, European and US officials mentally resisted the intelligence assessments Biden blatantly disclosed to undercut Putin’s attempts to construct false-flag excuses to attack Ukraine. Biden definitely blew Putin’s cover. But tyrants do not pay much attention to public opinion, except to manipulate it. Many Europeans could not believe that the old KGB operator would disrupt the beneficial economic ties with the European Union over an old satellite of the Soviet Union. But they did not consider the obsession with empire that drives Vladimir the Terrible.
Delusions of Indifference
The elites of most industrial consumer nations, along with their laboring consumers, remain complacent in the face of multiple converging crises as we approach the end of the industrial era. Much of the public and the media complacently accept as real “greenwashing,” the foux climate action exercised by global corporations to dodge their responsibility for global warming. The tyranny of the global corporate economy of growth continues to drive us all toward climate/ecological and finally societal collapse, aided by the autocratic attempts to destroy democracy by more than one narcissistic sociopath.
Yet, as actual conditions of life in the suburbs and small towns as well as urban neighborhoods deteriorates with the concentration of wealth and income among the few and the loss of economic security for the many, increasing anger turns to the lies and demagoguery of autocratic sociopaths and their cowardly minions in Congress. Americans, and all the people of the world, suffer from the tyranny of the global corporate economy of endless growth and its theft of the Earth System itself.
The seditious insurrection of January 6, 2021, for all its horror, reflected a distinctly juvenile parading of military symbolism in a false expression of “patriotism” enabled by the autocratic attempt. Their pandering to an authoritarian, who had said, “I’ll be with you” at the Capital, was lost to the cowardly bully who sat in the Whitehouse watching with glee their murderous violence on TV.
Lessons in Bravery, Reality, and Hope
Enter the real deal. I have a renewed respect for comedians. Volodymyr Zelensky is the inadvertent president of Ukraine, a nation that has struggled to retain its democratic political system since the fall of the Soviet Union. It did so for most of that time, having overthrown a Moscow-sponsored dictator as late as 2014. Zelensky, having played an accidental president on a popular TV show became a real one. He responded to the Russian threat in the tradition of the Orange Revolution of November 2004 to January 2005. He stood up to Trump’s illegal withholding of aid as Vladimir the Terrible escalated his threats to Ukraine. Then he stood fast against the actual invasion by a confused Russian army unprepared by their authoritarian ruler.
Now, faced with the tyranny the Russian autocrat’s barbaric invasion, Zelensky’s response to an American offer of safe passage out of the country has gone viral: “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition.” He stayed in Kyiv and rallied his people to defend their homeland, despite the fact that Putin had dispatched trained assassins to hunt him down and kill him.
The lesson of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the true patriotism of the Ukrainian people is clear. Its power is evidenced in the nearly unanimous response of nations across the planet. Almost all have joined in to impose sanctions on Vladimir the Terrible, his central bank, his crony oligarchs and the Russian economy. This will hurt the Russian people economically. But they immediately began protesting in the streets despite Putin’s threat to arrest and imprison them. He has already arrested thousands, yet they continue to protest his war crimes against their neighbors.
Simply put, the most important lesson that President Zelensky and his people have given the rest of us is this. Human solidarity against an existential threat can do wonders. If the people of the industrial consumer nations, for example, were to recognize fully the dangers of climate collapse for the entire human population, then we could organize real global climate action to stave off extreme weather events, widespread crop failures, mass starvation, violent conflict and death, and the global chaos of societal collapse. Realize this: the Ukrainian people, amid all the chaos and violence, are more effectively organized than ever. It reminds us of how Americans mobilized almost instantly in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor when the US entered World War II. We can do it again, if we learn the lessons given us by the Ukrainian people and shed the illusions that keep us from recognizing harsh realities.