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Political Apathy, The Real Weapon In Vladimir Putin’s “Surprise” Invasion Of Ukraine

Volodymyr Zelensky’s recent revelation that he knew about the likelihood of a Russian invasion has sparked major debate in Ukraine. But what it truly reveals about the source of war can also help ensure victory for Putin and other autocrats.

Ukrainian voting booth

A woman gets out of the polling booth during Ukraine's local elections of 2020.

Anna Akage

There has been both outrage and headscratching among Ukrainians since Volodymyr Zelensky’s Aug. 16 interview with The Washington Post, in which he admitted knowing a Russian invasion was likely, but chose to not warn the public to avoid causing panic.

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Yet despite all the noise that followed the statements, the Ukrainian president revealed nothing we did not know before. Perhaps it was the bluntness with which he recounted the reality that took people by surprise. So U.S. intelligence warned him in private of the imminence of war? Wait a minute: The media was flooded with articles about this for months before it started.

So if everyone knew about the likelihood of war — Zelensky included — but it still could still not be prevented, we must ask ourselves, Why?

This is the real question that Americans, Ukrainians, and Russians should ask themselves upon reading Zelensky’s revelations. Anyone interested in geopolitics knew long before February 24 that Vladimir Putin was amassing troops in the region, taking full advantage of occupied territory in Crimea and eastern Ukraine as a launching pad. We knew that U.S. intelligence was watching everything closely, that classified information was being leaked to the media extensively and methodically, that for eight years Russia was occupying lands in the heart of Europe all the while consumed by political intrigue and corruption back in Moscow, with a military that was far weaker than its reputation.

The open secret of the possibility of war

We have written before about the fact that Putin has been repeatedly calling to bring Ukraine back into the Russian fold. And not once since the annexation of Crimea has he refuted the rumors of war: All denials have come from non-decision makers in Russia's autocratic system.

And in spite of the whole world being aware, and Putin never masking his intentions, this terrible war could not be prevented. Many believe it was America's fault, for not providing enough weapons to Ukraine before the war to deter Putin. Yet political scientist Andrey Piontkovsky argues that America did not give up on Ukraine, but instead was preparing it for guerrilla war — just as it would have prepared the resistance in Afghanistan. There were no preconditions to rely on the Ukrainian army. Nor was there any reason to doubt the Russian.

Apoliticism at the root of evil

The grim irony of the situation was that the secret information about the Russian army that American intelligence had received was originally intended for Putin. The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation had been stealing money for years, lying to the president’s face about how great and invincible the world’s “second army” was, while in reality all that was left were Soviet tanks and expired canned meat.

Just a few decades of political gutlessness can nurture politicians like Putin.

So the answer to the difficult question to why there is a war in Ukraine is not a question of political information but of political apathy, or outright apoliticism.

This is also the reason why Zelensky began to demand collective responsibility for Russians and called on European countries to put an end to tourist visas (in the Baltic states, such a suggestion was instantly welcomed because it is there, in Estonia for example, that many Russian and pro-Russian media and civil organizations have set up shop).

Apoliticism is a luxury we cannot afford in a world of mass weapons and non-state terrorist actors, but also of increasingly ambitious old-school autocrats. A populace disconnected from politics makes it possible to rig elections, kill journalists, imprison oppositionists, and eventually kill tens, hundreds of thousands of people. In all impunity. Political apathy of the masses gives a few the right to threaten the entire world with nuclear war, famine, and poverty.

Just a few decades of political gutlessness can nurture politicians like Putin. And unfortunately, when such a politician enters in full force, the masses can no longer stop him. In this sense, of course, the visa ban on Russians is as effective as aspirin at stage 4 cancer. Russians can no longer stop their president: He is too detached from their opinions, too indifferent to their lives.

The cost of political stalemate

Violence, as shown in the Saturday murder of Darya Dugina, the daughter of a close Putin ally, is already boomeranging from the Ukrainian front into Russia. Even political analysts loyal to Putin are already predicting the disintegration of the Federation. Evgeny Satanovsky, the most prominent of pro-Putin political analysts, writes about what is likely to happen to Russia in the future: "Some regions fall away, not necessarily normalizing the divorce, some hold on, clinging to subsidies from the center (while they still exist), while others nestle into other centers, like Turkey or China, remaining part of the single system."

The political apathy has largely been replaced by an existential battle.

Russia, Turkey, China, and India: The wars sleeping in these countries already have files about them in both the Oval Office and the Washington Post editorial board. What is not in these top secret documents is the number of human casualties, the number of Buchas, Mariupols, and Khersons.

We’ve seen over the past six months (and longer) that the political apathy that had plagued modern Ukraine — brought on by corruption and economic hardship — has largely been replaced by an existential battle that has cemented the very idea of the nation as a body politic. Ukraine’s struggle has also sparked political involvement in other nations, as ordinary people urge their elected representatives to support Kyiv’s war effort.

But as the shock of the Feb. 24 invasion dims in our memory, and a costly stalemate takes root, Putin’s most powerful potential ally is in neither Belarus nor Beijing — it’s in the quiet apoliticism that lurks inside each of us.

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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