The war in Ukraine calls for a re-examination of attitudes and assumptions about the modern world. Over the past six weeks, a radical realignment of the geopolitical situation has occurred; the players and factors driving contemporary geopolitics have shifted. And the world is finally recognizing the true Russia.
For decades, the world had averted its gaze from unpleasant truths about Russia. Poland and the Poles, who have suffered tragedy after tragedy at Russia’s hands—the partitions, enslavement, Siberian exile, the Katyn Massacre, gulags, and life under communism—were dismissed as Russophobes. But the things we have been warning the world about for years are now coming to light in the form of mass graves and brutally murdered civilians across Ukraine.
The world today can see what Russia and the Russians are capable of. I explicitly refer to the Russians here, because the conflict in Ukraine is not simply Putin’s war. Its implications extend far beyond a single individual, just as in the second World War Hitler was not the only man standing behind the horrors. No individual acts as a sole perpetrator of such events. The political system that functions in Russia is equally insane. As such it is unpredictable and poses an enormous and deadly threat to humanity.
The world has just glimpsed this naked brutality. Yet it still does not quite comprehend the ramifications of this truth. While it has become clear that something terrible is happening and that the source of the menace is Russia, the world is still rather reluctant to accept the aftermath of Russian aggression, seeming to think that things will somehow work out on their own, preferably at little cost (meaning, in reality, at the expense of the Ukrainians, possibly of the Poles, and of the Baltic states).
But this approach will simply not work! Evil cannot be avoided if we do not act—this is the first new factor we must accept in regard to the war in Ukraine. Russia will not stop until we stop it. Russia will not rest on any laurels it wins either in Ukraine or in Poland. Instead, it will set its sights on Munich, Berlin, and Lisbon unless we stand firmly against it. I recall how Angela Merkel would argue that it was important to engage with Russia in dialogue. Talk is of course important, but communicating through strength and action is just as vital—the only thing this regime understands is the argument of force. And all of us today, in Europe and the world as a whole, have a responsibility to formulate and express such force in material form.
The second valuable truth exposed by this war, and which I dare say changes not only the existing balance of power but perhaps the entire paradigm upon which our Western civilization is founded, is that the very existence of nations depends on the patriotism of their citizens. Patriotism fuels a community’s readiness to defend itself. However, I do not know whether today every European community, every society, or every state is prepared to defend the integrity of its community at the cost of its citizens’ lives. Outside of Ukraine, such patriotism is something entirely out of fashion nowadays.
The Ukrainians have shown that in order to preserve their society they have to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice—that of their life for their homeland. They have shown that it is mainly thanks to this faith that—thus far—they have managed to defeat Putin. Their shared cultural identity and cultural background are what enable them to make such a sacrifice. They share the awareness that defending one’s homeland means defending one’s own interests, one’s own family, one’s own children, and the things that one holds most dear.
While some try to label our Polish or Ukrainian patriotism as a brand of nationalism, or even chauvinism, it is nothing more than a love of homeland. Just like the Ukrainians, we Poles know that this attitude is vital to the future of our society. It can be clearly seen that the people of Ukraine find in patriotism the strength they need to change the rules of the geopolitical game.
There is simply no denying it—the whole world had expected that within three days of their unprovoked invasion the Russians would capture Kyiv, install a puppet government, and the war would be over. If this scenario had played out in real life, if evil had been allowed to triumph in three days, Putin would have been standing victoriously at the gates of Europe, ready to impose ruthless terms of surrender. The Germans (at least those with the money to do so) would probably have emigrated to the Caribbean by now rather than face the prospect of Russian troops on their doorstep. But they didn’t emigrate! They didn’t have to flee: Someone else has rewritten the script.
The Ukrainians were able to overcome the danger of such fatalism through their wonderful dedication to the nation of their birth. Hope can be brought to the world through patriotism (not nationalism! not chauvinism!). It is their willingness to shed their blood for their nation has become the real game changer in the contemporary world.
A third new factor that has emerged in the current conflict is that this powerful wave of Ukrainian patriotism is devoid of any traces of nationalism or Banderism. Although we Poles have viewed this trend as refreshing, it has been a painful blow to the Russians, who have wanted to paint Ukrainian patriotism in the colors of Nazism, nationalism, and the brutal Banderist movement of the Second World War. Instead, the Ukrainians’ faith in their country is civic and pro-European in character.
We hope that the new myth underpinning Ukrainian society, currently being remolded before our very eyes, will be rooted precisely in values that are modern, mature, democratic, civic, and European.
I believe that this is a trend we all should support. After all, contrary to the lies being promoted via Putin’s propaganda machine and Russia’s soft power exerted in the West, this philosophy also lies at the heart of Polish, republican patriotism.
A fourth aspect, and one which I believe is an important game-changer at the present moment, has been Ukraine’s access to an effective military defense based on new and modern means of warfare.
I should point out that the world of weapons technology has changed to such an extent that nowadays defense on the battlefield is becoming extremely effective. I have in mind electronic weaponry, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, as well as drones—which have changed the face of contemporary combat. Massed columns of iron and metal tanks and massed ranks of soldiers have turned out not to be as threatening as one might have thought in the face of modern defense systems and highly trained, morally and patriotically motivated small groups of mobile defenders. The traditional offensive tactics of conventional armies can now be countered with great efficiency. Technological change and training (we know that the Ukrainians have been drilled by experts from NATO states) have thus also been vital in changing the status quo of the contemporary world. Regardless of how this war unfolds, the Russian army has already been discredited and stripped of its aura of invincibility—itself a brand new variable in the geopolitical system.
Finally, we come to the last factor of extraordinary significance. Paradoxically, this is the negative impact of certain cultural changes in Western Europe and the world in general, which are often criticized from a conservative point of view. There was a dismantling of old axioms and hierarchies of values that first introduced the dogma of axiological relativism (liquid modernity) and then, in an attempt to escape complete nihilism and anomie, promoted the contemporary postmodern morality based mainly on empathy and the ethics of emotions.
This left-liberal quest for new axiological foundations has highlighted, for example, the concept of “tenderness,” to which Olga Tokarczuk dedicated her Nobel lecture. And yet, for two thousand years we have been already familiar with something more interesting and more profound than tenderness, notably, Christian love. But perhaps it is a good thing that the postmodern Left is now earnestly seeking some kind of permanent moral reference: Whether the empathy and the ethics of emotions represented by the liberal Left, or the sensitivity and love of one’s neighbor espoused by Christianity, both preclude in the contemporary world any acceptance of the events currently taking place in Ukraine.
It is impossible to remain indifferent to the horrific discoveries made in Bucha. And from here stems the hope that, worldwide, public opinion will in some paradoxical way unite in protest against the evil perpetrated by the Russian Federation and force governments to take real action. I therefore also hope that, by invoking basic human reactions to evil, both believers and non-believers will not only condemn what is happening in Ukraine, but will also seek a more general consensus regarding this new “Evil Empire.”
The world must take real and concrete steps, however tough, if it is to stand up to evil. If we fail to do so, then—beware Germans and Europeans—the consequences will catch up with us, even if we were to escape to the most remote corners of the globe. Consequently, we must act now. We must take advantage of the precious window of time afforded us by the Ukrainians through their heroism and bravery.
All five of these factors outlined above are having a largely positive impact in terms of bringing about changes in the way we view the modern world and contemporary international politics. The fact that all five have powerfully come to the fore during the present drama creates a unique opportunity for beneficial global sociopolitical change. It is upon their basis that we must confront Russian aggression and the brutal war in Ukraine. The same conclusion applies to all: the world, Europe, our politicians, and our individual communities. We should take a more determined stand in defense of Ukraine and the world against Russia. This involves engaging in even more explicit military action; pursuing all-embracing sanctions in the political, economic, athletic, and cultural spheres; as well as embracing new tools such as a peacekeeping mission and bolstering the effectiveness of international organizations.
Today, the Ukrainians are fighting for us. They are a new asset, a nation that is shifting the vectors of present-day politics and of the world. But it remains imperative that we adopt more daring approaches and strategies, because otherwise we will be unable to halt this evil. We face the danger of a domino effect, where evil engulfs us all if we do not stop it.
Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Gliński is the Minister of Culture and National Heritage and professor of sociology. From 2005 to 2011 he was president of the Polish Sociological Association.
This text is also being published in the Polish monthly Wszystko Co Najważniejsze as part of a project carried out with Poland’s central bank (Narodowy Bank Polski) and the Institute of National Remembrance.
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