There are instructive, and dismally repetitive, precedents for the war in Ukraine in the histories of imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, but also U.S. aggression from Vietnam to Iraq.
In 1935, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger predicted that time would be reduced to speed, immediacy and simultaneity — and that time as history would gradually disappear from the life of nations.
But, as often happens at the outbreak of a war, we urgently look to the past for answers. We need an explanation today, not for the nuclear threat per se but to clarify why nuclear arsenals have increased to suicidal proportions across the past 77 years.
The great ill of our time is not in tensions between Catholic and Orthodox districts in Ukraine, or in regional rivalries between the friends of the West and of Russia or in the fall of one of the superpowers of our time.
History and hypocrisy
It is not even about Vladimir Putin's psychology: why or how an abandoned child became a solitary teenager, then a "faceless" official of the Soviet secret service, before becoming supreme ruler of Russia.
We would rather know why an apparently local conflict is also a projection of enormous planetary tensions: the nuclear threat, immense criminal interests, the presence of sinister oligarchies and feuds between declining and ascending powers.
On the battlefields of giants.
The United States has rightly denounced a great power for crushing a weak neighbor, though it is inevitably forced to speak over the noise around its own military forays into Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. Europe, meanwhile, is also right to condemn the outrageous bombings, but it is equally eager to not draw attention to its own interventions in the Middle East and Libya.
Has anyone explained why, when the Warsaw Pact collapsed, NATO persisted in its hostility?
U.S. troops arrive in northern Iraq during a sandstorm in March 2003
Battlefields of giants
The backyards of small nations are now the battlefield of giants. Russia has shown its monstrous fangs in Ukraine, as the United States did in Vietnam and Iraq. And behind them is China. It is the only state with the power to arbitrate as it did years back: It told two powers threatening each other that if the United States attacked North Korea, it would defend it, but if the North Koreans launched an attack, they would be on their own.
That concluded the matter. China is now letting Russia do the dirty work as it gazes at Taiwan, which sooner or later will become its own target.
Like nesting dolls, Mother Russia contains many Russias. It is a nation of multiple nations that joined and left it through ages and wars. Putin warned NATO not to approach Russia's borders, then annexed Crimea, before recognizing Ukraine's separatist regions, and finally marching into the heart of the country.
For the past two months, we have seen a sickening spectacle of brutality and intimidation against an outsized opponent. Not for the first time, it is a war of little wars, a regional war that reflects global tensions, and the fruit of past humiliations and stubborn repetitions.
In history, Ukraine was the ancestral Russia — and Kyiv, its first capital, while Russian expansionism began long before Putin, under Peter I and Catherine II, (both dubbed "the Great") and continued under the Soviets.
Understanding Ukraine's past and present
The divisions in Ukraine, the country's clashing yearnings for East and West or for Roman or Orthodox Christianity, also go back a long way. Only history can help us understand the web of causes and shine a light on Putin as heir to Russia's imperial and communist rulers.
Ukraine is both Russia, being the homeland of Gogol, Trotsky and Babel, but also the West, as the cradle of Joseph Conrad.
Its historical background includes cossack hordes, the armies of Napoleon and Hitler riding to and fro, Tolstoy sending war chronicles from the trenches in Sebastopol, the cruelty of the Soviets toward millions of Ukrainian peasants and 20 million youngsters facing the bullets of the advancing Nazis.
Nothing, today, can be fully understood without a thought for the multinational composition of the Soviet Union, the suffering of World War II and Soviet resentments in its aftermath, and the Cold War order and hostile peace that followed the immense casualties from the war against Hitler.
It hurts to see humanity cowering in fear of the nuclear blackmail.
It is particularly upsetting to see how people and youth worldwide remain docile instruments of merciless rulers and their hate and arrogance. It hurts to see humanity cowering in fear of the nuclear blackmail of a powerful minority, and our inability to be rid of this infernal logic.
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