Art by Alena Grom
In any conversation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, geopolitical analyses and debates are the first thing that comes up. Commentators focus on the decisive geopolitical importance of Ukraine for Russia, or on NATO’s provocation of Putin by seeking further expansion to the east after the membership of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1999, which is seen as besieging Russia and threatening “Russian national security.” There is also talk of the United States’ geopolitical interest in implicating Russia in the Ukrainian quagmire in order to weaken it in the service of achieving the greater goal of tightening the northern arc of a siege on China. Soon after, these geopolitical analyses are accompanied by economic analyses—as oil, gas, wheat, and arms companies take their place in the equation—all the way to conspiracy theories that knit all those notions together in diabolical strategies drawn up in closed rooms that are usually American.
At first glance, these analyses seem rational and correct, and it is difficult to reject or deny them outright, but the major problem with this type of analysis is what it obscures while claiming to discover new axioms. This type of geopolitical analysis attempts to strip politics from a very political issue and to strip vestiges of human will or choice from the main parties that chose war, and from those on whom the war falls. Rather, it is a process of dehumanizing political action as a human act that can be measured and judged, and the dehumanizing of an act that is entirely political. Worse, it is a process of disclaiming responsibility from political actors and decision-makers.
The main parties to the conflict in the Ukrainian case are, on the one hand, Putin and his regime, and on the other, the Ukrainian people and its president. First, we find that Putin has an effective political will and that he knew exactly what he was doing when he made the decision to wage war. This war is in line with Putin’s external “victories” in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, and Syria—and more recently, Kazakhstan—places where he crushed regimes, changed them, or maintained those in power by military force. It is also in line with his internal “victories” of crushing the opposition and of poisoning or imprisoning its most important symbols. Moreover, he has succeeded in retaining power for twenty-two years, and ensured his position until 2036 by amending the constitution.
After all these external and internal “victories,” it is logical for him to think of proceeding with regime change in Ukraine—even if he has to occupy the entire country or burn its land, as he is trying to do right now. Therefore, he is fully responsible politically, ethically, and in international law for this war, and for the price paid by the Russian and Ukrainian people together, albeit in different ways. Nothing can help us more to understand what Putin was thinking when he declared war than to remember what his political look-alike and best pal Donald Trump said at the beginning of the war when he declared, “Putin is a genius, he is taking over a very large country in exchange for two dollars in sanctions.” What unites Putin and Trump is their paranoid conviction of the impotence of the Europeans and Biden, as well as the sexual overtones on which the patriarchy of the two men is based within the traditional patriarchal imagination.
The other political actor in this equation is the Ukrainian people and their president. The Ukrainian people had chosen a democratic system through their revolution in 2014, and it is very clear that they do not want to remain under the wing of the Russian Federation or any dictatorial form of government. Today, they demonstrate a sincere and ongoing resistance to the Russian occupation.
“The people themselves have become completely invisible in the equations of power struggle, civil war, and the war against terrorism.”
As for the president, his courageous decision to resist and remain in the capital, Kyiv, runs counter to both the West’s and Putin’s calculations. This position implicated the West in unprecedented hostilities against Russia, not the other way around. If Zelensky had listened to the Americans and left or surrendered at the outset of the invasion, it is possible that things would have gone as Trump expected, or as Putin himself did when he declared the war. Over the past two decades, the West proved during Putin’s interventions how easy it is to coexist with puppet regimes directed by him. Putin is also accustomed to soft Western reactions to his actions; these reactions impose formal economic sanctions on Russia that do not actually affect the interests of the Western or Russian governments, and do not make any difference to the interests of the oligarchy.
What geopolitical analysts do not understand is that the geopolitical dimensions are the result—not a premise—of action. This distinction turns the equation upside down. We learned of those terrible consequences during the early years of the Syrian revolution, when the effectiveness of the Syrian people, their revolution, and their will to change were initially denied in favor of geopolitical interests and obscured as just another Western plot.
The people themselves have become completely invisible in the equations of power struggle, civil war, and the war against terrorism. Most importantly, after the regime declared open war against the Syrian people, and after the international community’s lack of any serious reaction against the massacres it committed, all those geopolitical analyses and conspiracy theories turned out to be true. The Orientalist visions that saw people in Syria as nothing but puppets and pawns of major international powers, making us unqualified to understand our own case, began to sound true and believable. The regime’s narrative about the war on terror, and the international powers’ narrative about the civil war, have come to appear as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Bashar al-Assad, a steadfast Putin ally, began using aircraft, missiles, and barrel bombs against Syrian civilians in the summer of 2012, transforming peaceful demonstrations into armed resistance and armed resistance into civil war. Towards summer’s end of that year, on August 20, Obama told reporters the following: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” This was widely and reasonably taken to mean that if Assad used chemical weapons, the U.S. would intervene. That impression was reinforced by subsequent statements from American officials.
Almost precisely one year later, on August 21, Assad approved the use of sarin in surface-to-surface rockets against Syrian civilians in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. 1,461 people, including 571 children, were killed. Obama’s “calculus” may have changed, but the Assad regime suffered no substantive negative consequences, and Assad understood that he was being given a free hand to kill off as much of the population as he wished. Significantly, this made Assad a factor in the ongoing U.S.-Russian negotiations, coordinated by the Israelis, to remove chemical weapons. The Syrian people fell outside the political equation.
In fact, the geopolitical analysis has become the prevailing, and perhaps only, relevant analysis. Listen to the world’s pundits and you will hear endless talk about the interests of Russia, Israel, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or America in Syria, but no mention of the Syrian people and their wishes and rights unless it is as a matter of charity: in the past decade, more than half of all Syrians—ten million people—have been forced to leave their homes, as refugees abroad or the internally displaced.
It is not surprising that the most important pioneers of geopolitical analysis refused to explicitly condemn the Assad regime. Rather, an anti-imperialist leftist like the late Robert Fisk worked as a war correspondent embedded with government forces during and after the Daraya massacre (up to five hundred people dead) in 2012, while a diplomat and writer like Nikolaos van Dam, at one point the Dutch Ambassador to Iraq, demonstrated sympathy for the Syrian regime’s war against its people while condemning the Western diplomacy that “implicated” the Syrians in a civil war. And there were others. Today, it is also unsurprising to see that colleagues of those figures hesitate to blame Putin directly for his war, as much as they blame NATO for provoking Putin. These enablers do not want to recognize the Ukrainian people, their resistance, and their courage. They see Ukrainians as mere victims of a Western or American conspiracy that uses them in their war against Putin: pawns and puppets without a political will or effective political influence.
What unites the visions that put geopolitical analysis first is that they are, in general, tired ways of thinking from imperial times that Putin and leaders like him want desperately to resurrect. This observation may elucidate the behavior of Putin, Assad, or any dictator for that matter, but it does not apply to democracies in the same way. The enormous popularity that Barack Obama still retains today came as a result of his compliance with the desires of the Western public for stability, “peace,” and a general hostility to wars and foreign interference. The new generation in the West is drowning in the emotions of postcolonial guilt.
Yet the Ukrainian president would not have resisted with such strength and confidence had his decision not been in harmony with the will of the majority of his people who elected him democratically. In comparison, it is hard to imagine that Putin takes his citizen’s wishes into account if even his closest associates do not dare speak up in front of him. As has often been observed, he is the modern incarnation of a Russian tsar, embodying the interests of the “Russian nation,” and the people who actually embody this nation have no place when it comes to deciding their affairs, because their affairs are the property of the nation that he alone represents. It is the same with Assad, who began by describing the demonstrators against him as “germs” and then expressed his satisfaction at the displacement of millions from their country because this would make society more “homogeneous.” In fact, both these dictators obscure their desire for a permanent monopoly of power behind their talk about the nation, the homeland, the greatness, and history.
The geopolitical way of thinking measures all countries and regimes with the same standard and in the same lazy way. It is present when the topic of “Russian national security” comes up: an uninformed listener might conclude Russia is another name for the Soviet Union! But for all their many faults, the Soviets built their union on a revolution and a global project promising justice and equality. Regardless of agreement or disagreement with that project and its subjective and objective failure, it was a parallel project to the liberal democratic Western project at the time, a project that inspired millions of people around the world, even within the West itself. Eminent liberal advocates of freedom such as Jean-Paul Sartre justified Stalin’s arrest and murder of millions in the Gulag in the name of the Communist revolution promising justice and equality. Here it is worth asking: what can Putin offer as a project to the world, or to the Russian people, but the dictatorial mafia model of ruling, of protecting dictatorships wherever they are found? Perhaps it would be more correct to say that there is nothing more dangerous to Russian national security than Putin himself, and this is also true as a danger for the world as a whole.
Churchill’s familiar saying that “democracy is the worst system except for all others” is still valid today, and the liberal democratic project is still the only project that can be reformed from within without having to kill the president or kill millions to keep him in power. The West’s silence about the wreckage of Syria led to the encouragement of Putin’s arrogance and the populist-right around the world. It shifted that war, the same war, from the peripheries to the center, into the depths of the Western lands through Ukraine. Now we may have an opportunity for Western peoples and their bureaucracies to reconsider the foundations of the democratic system that settled on rules that define the borders of the democratic struggle and the borders of the liberal West. These rules have been built on the delusion that democracy can live without claws. They have been built on thinking that dates back to the days of the Cold War, that it is a viable option for Western governments to invest in the dictatorships of the Global South, or to pretend that the problems of non-Western peoples with their authoritarian regimes are sufficiently distant to pose no threat, even though these problems instigate a cascade of disasters that inevitably undermine the West’s comfortable “gated community.” This review may be important to get rid of the effects of classic liberal thought, revived by Barack Obama: intentionally or not, under the goal of ending the American role as the world’s policeman, Obama himself shifted to playing the role of “Mother Teresa” of the West.
At the height of World War II, the philosopher Karl Popper put forth a striking idea in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper wrote that “we do not have to search for a policy that makes people happier, but to make them suffer less.” Suffering is a matter that can always be observed, and this is what we can see in Ukraine with the naked eye, as we have witnessed and are still witnessing it in Syria or elsewhere. Happiness, on the other hand, is merely the transcendent and salvific promise of dictatorial regimes—regimes that bring suffering to their peoples and others in the name of this very promise.
Maher Massoud holds a Masters in Western Philosophy from Damascus University. Until 2017, he was a professor at the French Institute of the Near East (IFPO) in Beirut. In 2016 he won the EU’s Samir Kassir Award for Freedom of the Press and in 2017 the Hussein al-Aoudat Prize for Arab Press. He is a guest researcher at the Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, where he works on “Tyranny and Sectarianism in Syria.”
Alena Grom was born in Donetsk, Ukraine. In 2014, she was forced to leave her hometown due to military events in the Donbass. With the full-scale invasion by Russia, in February 2022 Alena became a refugee for the second time, leaving her home in the city of Bucha where she had lived for five years. Alena works at the intersection of social reporting and conceptual photography, has exhibited her work internationally, and won numerous competitions. Her mission is to document the lives of those living in a military zone, to inform the world about the complexities of their lives, the tragedy of war, and ultimately, their faith in life.