The war of art

Enough time doom-scrolling social media, and you might think human endeavour amounts to little more than killing time between wars. Because really, what do the memes, music, artwork, tweets – what does any of it matter in the face of the conflict currently engulfing Ukraine?

The Putin regime is clearly the aggressor here, both in its war crimes of targeting civilians and its attempt to write Ukrainian national identity out of history. Time to dust off the old analysis of imperialism. Gil Scott-Heron put it succinctly:

The Military and the Monetary
Get together whenever they think its necessary

I don’t claim expertise on Russian political economy. But neither do I think Putin is crazy. Domestic elites from all sides have to protect and expand their interests. Putin blamed Lenin for giving away Ukraine, and rightly so: Bolshevism has nothing to do with Putin’s kleptocracy. What’s at stake is his nostalgia for tsarism, certainly, but also Russia’s ability to export gas, NATO’s eastward expansion, and possibly some proof-of-function for Russia’s military export industry.

Ukraine has the right to defend itself, as do all sovereign states resisting aggression. Let’s also not suddenly abandon all critical faculties: the west’s record of defending democracy through military intervention is spotty at best. UK and Canadian weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, for its brutal ongoing intervention in Yemen, and western support for the anti-Taliban government in Afghanistan, whose documented crimes include rape, torture and murder, are just two recent examples that suggest that the long-constructed project of global policing is a brutal one. The City of London has been happily laundering money for the very oligarchs the west claims to oppose. What some have called the weapondollar-petrodollar coalition acts to maintain profits, and states’ rulers act at the behest of their own coalitions of elite interests. I have no doubt Putin and his circle will profit immensely from this invasion. As do western industrialists: already, Germany has committed to 100 billion euros of new military spending. If only the climate crisis could have money thrown at it so readily. In protecting his gas reserves, Putin is forestalling the low-carbon transition. The victims of both war and climate change are us.

For those of us who want an end to the conflict, our energies are better spent avoiding the technical and moral morass of military intervention, and focusing on calling for peace. At great personal risk, Russians are on the streets demanding an end to the war. So, here are my demands:

  • Russian withdrawal from Ukraine and a cessation to hostilities
  • release of jailed anti-war protesters
  • material support to refugees and the internally displaced. Maybe a word for the Syrian refugees too, whose hardships have fallen on deaf ears
  • immediate end to fossil fuel subsidies, and a scaling up of climate change mitigation and adaptation

The war will end when Putin feels weakened, and supporting the genuine democratic grievance of his citizens – and those he invades – is the best way to accomplish that. You might rightly wonder what good it does to make demands at all. In the Venn diagram between armchair solipsism and despair, there’s a tiny sliver I’m choosing to name hope. That’s all.

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