Hstory broke in a sprint. Changes that were thought to be the work of generations, even centuries, happened in a matter of days. The geopolitical changes whose impact will last for decades happened in a matter of hours. All wars are accelerators, but Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is reshaping the world before our eyes.
Start with national identity. How nations see themselves, and are perceived by others, is meant to be the stuff of evolution: slow and gradual, layers added in increments. And yet, Russia’s brutal attempt to gobble up its neighbor has changed something profound in just over a week.
When Putin made his case for war, he relied on the assertion that Ukraine had no tradition of a “real state”. It was rude, but it betrayed a prejudice that Putin had not invented. Long before today’s Russian ethno-nationalism, Ukraine was treated as something less than a nation. In the 20and century, it was caught between the totalitarianisms of the time, squeezed and bloodied by both Nazism and Bolshevism. Even in good Western company, the idea that it was just another region persisted: it persisted, unconsciously perhaps, among those who called it “Ukraine”.
It ended a week ago. Ukrainians have acquired a new place in the global imagination, as the embodiment of the spirit of national independence. Already their collective defiance and bravery in the face of a terrifying threat is the stuff of myth – ballet dancers catching guns, data scientists digging trenches – which will be woven into a national story that Ukrainians will tell each other for centuries. Even when, for the rest of the world, this fades into history, one fact will remain: the unshakeable belief that Ukraine is a nation, a fully “authentic” nation. Consider this the first of many ways Putin’s mission has already come undone.
Some of the others are quite unexpected. A fortnight ago, chastised by its past, Germany’s fixed position was that it would play no role in a war in Europe. Now, hailing a “turning point in the history of our continent”, the German Chancellor is sending missiles and anti-tank weapons to help Ukraine, and massively increasing Berlin’s defense spending. There was a time when the prospect of a rearmed Germany would have sent tremors across Europe and beyond. But this week, best-selling Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari called German leadership in the ongoing fight against Russian aggression the “best atonement” for Nazi crimes. Now was not the time to be neutral or sidelined, Harari said: “What we need from Germany is to stand up and lead.”
Berlin’s break with nearly eight decades of post-war restraint is perhaps the most concrete example of a phenomenon visible throughout Europe and across the Atlantic. After many years of contemplating its own decline and decadence, the West has rediscovered something like pride and purpose. For all its many flaws and well-documented failures, it has been reminded that its brand of freedom and democracy is preferable to the alternative: the tyranny and oppression exercised by Putin, whether in the form of bombs raining down on Ukrainian civilians or mouth gags and blindfolds of Russian citizens. Over the past 10 days, those who thought NATO was an anachronism of the Cold War have had a refresher course on why it was invented and why it was needed: to protect free nations from a powerful aggressor.
The same goes for the European Union. The British, in particular, have come to associate the EU with trade at best, and petty bureaucracy at worst. When the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, many scratched their heads in misunderstanding. Well, there’s no excuse for perplexity now. Putin reminded us that the EU was founded on the belief that the only future for a continent that has been at the center of two world wars in 30 years was to come together: to share sovereignty rather than kill for it. The sight of a khaki-clad Volodymyr Zelenskiy signing Ukraine’s application for EU membership, even as Russian forces approached, demonstrated once again that for Europeans the EU has always been synonymous with security and peace. What a shame to think of the Eurosceptics who claimed that the EU was some kind of foreign occupier, calling it the “USSR”. What a shame to think that the British contribution to this lofty post-war ideal was to abandon it.
Even our way of thinking about history has changed in recent days. Long disdained was any analysis that placed too much weight on the role of individuals: instead of the “great man theory” of history, scholars were expected to focus on the deeper impersonal forces, the tectonic shifts that made the actions of this or that human being of secondary importance. And yet, most now agree that “Russia” has no desire to take over Ukraine; few ordinary Russians are eager to bring hell and heartache to their next-door neighbors. This war is rather the whim of a man, perhaps mad. For all the hours spent and the ink spilled analyzing the geopolitics of Russia and its region, it comes down to Putin’s aspiration for power and a place in history, which will be remembered alongside Peter the Big. Because of one individual and his strange psychological need, a million people are already refugees and entire cities are smoldering ruins.
Facing him stands a man who inspired his nation and won the admiration of the world. Perhaps Ukraine would have resisted, no matter who its president was. Perhaps the world’s sympathies would have been aroused even without a master communicator in Kyiv, who in a series of short and clear speeches articulated a fundamental principle: that all nations have the right to define who they are. and determine their own destiny.
May be. But Zelenskiy’s presence, his refusal to save his own skin or put himself forward – “I need ammunition, not a trick” – has not only galvanized his people. It gave moral clarity at that moment. In a non-heroic era, he became a global hero and, with Putin seemingly eager to play his role as the cartoonish evil villain, it gave this conflict a simplicity that will easily be dismissed as simplistic, but still has great power.
None of this is comfort to basement families, to fatherless children. It doesn’t help them if history has picked up its pace. Like all victims of war, they want nothing more than history to leave them alone – and let them live.