The clarity of war

by Chris Chatteris SJ


The ‘fog of war’ is the cliché denoting the deliberate disinformation created in a war and the terrifying confusion of the battlefield. However, there is also a perverse clarity in war. The cost in blood and tears of this clarification is never worth it, but the brute fact is that war often answers questions that would remain unanswered without it and answers them with great clarity.


For example, it is now terrifyingly clear that Vladimir Putin is willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian lives to achieve his geopolitical ends. Of course, many East Europeans did not need the images of Russian armoured columns rolling across the Ukrainian border to convince them. Still, for many West Europeans, it came with the force of the proverbial blinding revelation.


The war has also clarified the question of whether Ukraine would resist or not. Zelensky’s crisp phrase, ‘I need ammunition, not a ride,’ settled that one. Putin’s sycophantic spooks had persuaded him that most Ukrainians would welcome his troops with flowers. Not so.


Another assumption of Putin’s was that the decadent West would do nothing. He now knows better. Now he desperately hopes to dig in and hold off the Ukrainian counteroffensive long enough for the West to falter. Again, the war’s course will clarify this question of Western resolve. And, of course, the most terrifying clarification will be whether the Putin regime or a more hard-line successor to it will use nuclear weapons in the face of defeat.


An absolutely fundamental clarification of Putin’s ‘special military operation’ was whether Ukraine existed at all. For him, Ukrainians were Russians who were confused about their identity. Nothing that a bit of brute force would not put right. By their determined resistance, the Ukrainians made it clear to Russia, themselves and the broader world that they were not just an errant Russian province or a useful military buffer zone between East and West but a sovereign state determined to protect the independence it achieved in 1991. The clarity about Ukrainian nationhood is arguably the most spectacular revelation of the invasion.


Speaking of empires, the most critical question this war will answer is whether Russia will follow the other post-imperial countries in Europe and accept that European imperialism is over. Will a humiliated, Putin-less Russia finally understand that being the biggest country in the world does not give you an inherent right to take over and Russify your neighbours? In the aftermath of this war, this too will be made clear.


A related geopolitical clarification will be whether there will be a new Iron Curtain in Europe and where it will lie. The ominous signs are that such a structure is already coming into being along the Finnish-Russian border. No doubt we will be able to see this new Iron Curtain plainly from space, and it may serve as a vivid reminder of continuing ideological fault lines in humanity and how they can still lead to major, catastrophic wars.


Here in the ‘global south’, we hope we will not be too affected by these tragic events in a frigid and faraway region. So far, our hopes have not been borne out by events. Food prices have spiked in developing countries because of the war, and here in South Africa, the conflict has put us in a difficult geo-political dilemma, caught as we are between BRICS and the West. Will Putin attend the BRICS summit to be held here, and if he does, what kind of political and economic fallout will that entail for us? And finally, how will a post-war Ukraine, a powerful new EU member, view a South Africa that conducted military exercises with the aggressor country?


These issues will be clarified by the course of the war and its outcome.

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