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Ukraine: no such thing as an ending

March 4, 2022

The other night my wife and I went to a one-off screening of The Godfather at our local cinema. Nothing to do with Vladimir Putin, even though the bookshops, both charity and commercial, are full of every book they can exhume about Russia and Ukraine (I bought a couple).

I mention The Godfather because Putin is frequently accused of running a mafia state. I suppose there are similarities in his modus operandi to that of the Corleone family and their rivals. No horse’s heads in the bed, but plenty of unpunished hits using attention-seeking methods that inspire fear, as in polonium and novichok.

But in one striking way, the Putin show diverges from that of the warm but deadly Corleones. Don Vito wouldn’t be seen sitting at a massive table miles away from his underlings. He would be surrounded by his sons, his consigliere and his faithful lieutenants. He would never allow his rivals to see him as an isolated, paranoid leader.

Just an example of how so much that we perceive and experience right now seems to relate back to what’s happening in Ukraine. Like so many people, I imagine, I feel saturated with the hourly stream of news and opinion. I yearn for some sort of ending. An end of the suffering. An end of Putin. And an end of the freshly unsheathed sword of Damocles – the mushroom cloud hanging over us.

Yet there won’t be an end. Just as The Godfather spawned a whole genre of mafia dramas, so this war will have its sequels. If Ukraine somehow emerges intact, what will happen to the thousands of AK-47s handed out to its brave defenders? Will they migrate to organised crime, or to political factions, as happened after the dismemberment of Yugoslavia and the Libyan civil war?

And if Putin is brought down by those who brought him to power, or through a popular uprising, will the leadership that replaces him be even more malign? This is the “be careful what you wish for” argument that has held Putin’s regime, for all its nastiness, as preferable to some ultra-nationalist fanatics who might seize power. The counter-argument is that he has turned into the fanatic, and an unstable one at that. So would his demise usher in an even worse regime, trading on the resentment caused not by the frustration of Russia’s imperial ambitions but by millions of ordinary lives ruined by economic collapse?

What will we celebrate when this conflict is “over”? A newly-energised military alliance united against a common enemy? Germany re-arming? China exploiting the chaos? A world-wide recession caused by disruption of the global trading system? Resurgent gangs and militias rushing into power vacuums? The low hum of cybercrime and information wars turning into deafening white noise? Not to mention the mushroom clouds. As if we don’t have enough to contend with already.

Most likely the worst won’t happen and we’ll muddle through. We’ll adapt, reconfigure and get used to a new normal. Those of us who manage to keep our heads above water, that is. And those who don’t will be remembered in seventy years’ time as victims of human folly, or heroes who fell so that the rest of us might prosper. Our descendants will remember the dupes, the evil people and the fatal decisions that led us down the current path. And they will remember the oft-repeated vow: never again.

Perhaps they’ll be wise enough to realise that never again is an unachievable ambition, because each new generation has a fresh opportunity to make mistakes, which they will surely make. The challenges will be different and the lessons learned from the past will only be of limited use.

That’s us humans, I’m afraid. Capable of miracles, yet equally capable of ruining what we create.

From → Film, Politics, UK

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