This isn’t just a brutal attack on Ukraine. It’s a proxy war among big powers

But enough about me, let’s talk about you, what do you think of me? said the ego-drenched voice of an imperial power, it doesn’t really matter which. .

 

In this case, New York Times pundit David Brooks, recently grateful to the people of Ukraine because “They’ve reminded us how much the events of the past few years” — Trump, Black Lives Matter, etc. — “have conspired to weaken our faith in ourselves” and “caused us to doubt and be passive about the gospel of democracy.” There’s no level of suffering on the part of others that can’t be brought down to its usefulness for America’s self-absorbed elites.

Why must Ukrainians be paragons of moral virtue so Brooks can feel good about himself again? Isn’t it enough that they’re suffering and dying bravely and probably unnecessarily, as in most wars? Ukraine is a complex society with an active inheritance of neo-fascism and racism it has to deal with, along with the invasion and its atrocities. (Al-Jazeera, for instance, reported that Ukrainian soldiers pulled Arab students on their way to Poland off a bus and said, “There’s Poland. Now walk,” then filled the bus with Ukrainian refugees.) Brooks should leave them to work it out, unburdened by his own needs.

But in fact, along with being a gruesome conflict between two neighbouring states, this is also a proxy war between great powers — as Vietnam and Syria were. You can spot this underlying clash whenever the danger of direct conflict between those powers arises. Suddenly their tone becomes muted and sober, as happened when Ukraine demanded the U.S. impose a no-fly zone. Oh we’d never, said the U.S. elites in unison, even the hawkiest among them. Russia cooed back in similar tones. Then they returned to extravagant charges and threats. They don’t mind losing some ordinary soldiers abroad, but they keep it bottled there.

You can also see this split-level reality play out in negotiations. The local stuff, like brief ceasefires and evacuation routes, get discussed on the Belarus border among lower-level functionaries. This week for the first time, thankfully, came talks in a truly neutral setting, Turkey, with higher figures.

You can also see this split-level reality play out in negotiations. The local stuff, like brief ceasefires and evacuation routes, get discussed on the Belarus border among lower-level functionaries. This week for the first time, thankfully, came talks in a truly neutral setting, Turkey, with higher figures.

The headline read, “Talks fail to yield progress.” Of course they did. Nothing got decided because all the weighty issues must go back to Moscow or Washington first — but those talks will continue, and one can hope that something’s afoot. Ukraine’s president’s office astoundingly announced that they were “ready to discuss … what Ukraine’s possible neutral status might look like.” Earlier, in France’s “readout” of a recent call between presidents Macron and Putin, the Russian said his main goal was “the demilitarization and neutral status of Ukraine.

WTF? Then why is this war still on — isn’t it chiefly about Ukraine joining NATO? Yet both parties seem ready for neutral, Finland status. The territorial issues in the Donbas could surely be settled through some hard haggling.

Is there stuff going on we don’t have a clue about? You bet, as always.

Propaganda: rebirth of a genre. Propaganda is of course what the other side does. It works best when propagandists on either side don’t even realize they’re doing it too. There’s a delightful example in a Canadian Press story on a Canadian officer who’s been in Latvia working with the “NATO Strategy Communication Centre for Excellence.” Uh-huh. He studies ways to counter Russia’s “informational warfare,” and he’s noticed they’re “rewriting history.”

My favourite propagandist in this war is retired U.S. admiral John Kirby, a perfectly Gilbert and Sullivan character who looks like he’s never set foot on a ship. He went to sea briefly, but since then it’s been all PR. After retiring, like many former (heh heh) military, he did “analysis” on CNN. Now he’s back briefing officially, though reporters call him John, not Admiral. Stick close to your mic and never go to sea, and you all may be rulers of your land’s nay-vee.


 

First published in the Toronto Star

RICK SALUTIN
is a Canadian novelist, playwright, journalist, and critic and has been writing for more than forty years. Until October 1, 2010, he wrote a regular column in The Globe and Mail; on February 11, 2011, he began a weekly column in the Toronto Star. He currently teaches a half course on Canadian media and culture in University College (CDN221) at the University of Toronto. He is a contributing editor of This Magazine. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and got his Master of Arts degree in religion at Columbia University. He also studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was once a trade union organizer in Toronto and participated in the Artistic Woodwork strike.[