Russia’s war is existential for Ukraine and echoes World War I, with trenches and endless casualties. And with lessons of the past unheeded. But what comes after war?
By Vasyl Cherepanyn, Head of the Visual Culture Research Center based in Kyiv and organizer of the Kyiv Biennial.
Thinking of what comes after Russia’s war against Ukraine and how to achieve a lasting post-war peace order amidst an atrocious war on the European continent, unprecedented over the last eighty years, is itself a privileged possibility uniquely granted by the Ukrainian lives that are holding the frontline and thus containing the warfare within the country’s borders. Any political fantasy about “post-war” is psychologically very seductive as it allows to omit the harsh realities of the war itself, exactly because these realities are unbearably harsh and concentrate instead on what comes afterwards while the war still rages on without any end in sight. But what actually comes after the war depends foremost on how we address the war and what we think is to be done while it’s ongoing, without wasting precious time that we simply borrow from the future as an unthinkable price is being paid for it every day.
Existential conflict: The outdated nature of Russia’s war against Ukraine
The very first thing to understand about this war, in order to be able to tackle it, is that it’s an existential conflict, a war of extermination, in which the Russian state, with the support and direct involvement of its population, deprives the Ukrainian people of the very right to exist. And the Western countries en masse allowed this war to happen and agreed beforehand that an independent European country today could be occupied militarily and wiped from the political map as a sovereign state. If there is any lesson from World War II, infamously dubbed as the “never again” slogan, it is never do exactly that – because if one does, this triggers a catastrophic domino effect as it’s obviously much easier to prevent a war than to end it.
A striking feature of the Russian-Ukrainian war is how unexpectedly outdated this war appears to be – despite as well as due to the presence of modern military technologies. On the side of the Russian aggressor, in a practical sense this war resembles not so much World War II (contrary to the Kremlin’s ideological claims) but rather World War I – constant stalemates on the frontline, thousand-miles-long trenches and fortifications, fields of corpses literally piled up in layers – a landscape reminiscent of Erich Maria Remarque’s depictions of the war realities of more than a hundred years ago.
And as during World War I, the involvement and use of the new types of armament made human bodies pretty obsolete on the battlefield as they were simply incompatible with the capabilities of the weaponry, most of the casualties come from non-direct combat.
Russia’s forever war
From the Ukrainian perspective, whatever advanced and smart tactics the country’s military has been using, it is also an old-fashioned war. For Ukraine, it’s about de-occupation, which practically means people for land: Ukrainians have to pay with their lives for liberating their territories and restoring the state borders. It’s a very pre-technological military setting compared with the war conflicts with Western involvement of the recent decades like in Iraq, Afghanistan or Kosovo, however, very much mirroring and caused by Russia’s type of war of annihilation like in Syria and the two Chechen wars, the latter of which elevated Vladimir Putin to the presidency.
The answer to what comes after this war is pretty clear at the moment – it’s war. The idea currently dominating the West in supporting Ukraine to fight off the Russian invaders and to strengthen it until the moment of negotiations comes misses the point – such a moment will simply never come. For Russia, it’s a forever war – a new existential norm and an infinite process of sustaining the present regime. Since the war is essentially aimed at disrupting the Western political and institutional order and causing NATO and the EU to crack, it’s even difficult to identify any specific goals that Russia might pursue in order to end the war. As disruption has no limit, rather it is an endless process that can either be stopped or spread further, the Russian state has realigned itself towards not even attempting to win but just continuing to conduct the war on a permanent basis for the foreseeable future.
Securing a lasting peace order
As Immanuel Kant argued in his peace program, if a peace treaty tacitly reserves matter for a future war, it shall not be held valid, so any prospects of Europe’s new peace order after the war against Ukraine depend foremost on whether and how Russia’s war logic is disrupted through international efforts and stopped while the battlefield is still on Ukrainian territory. If it goes on without interference, the present generation will live with and in war for the rest of their lives with a constant threat of its broadening and a continuous disorder on the continent. War always presupposes more wars, and politically speaking, it’s a fertile ground not just for right-wing populists of all sorts, but for a stiffening of the present and a rise of new authoritarian governments as an ideological mainstream as well as an emergence of outright fascist regimes shamelessly ruling in the current Kremlin manner.
Nuclear threat: The need for a proactive approach
Russia’s war has also proven that nuclear blackmail unfortunately does work as a means of deterrence and openly went nuclear from the very beginning – first with the seizure of the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, then with the ongoing occupation and mining of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and with blowing up the Kakhovka dam.
The current political approach of the West of non-escalation and not provoking Russia is counterproductive as it lacks the understanding of the Kremlin’s nuclear logic and in fact works in its favor. The longer this war lasts, and the international community is getting more and more used to mass atrocities unthinkable before, the likelier the nuclear option becomes – we are just not there yet. The use of nuclear as a weapon in any form is actually less probable when it’s prevented by force and becomes more possible if one doesn’t intervene in the developments on the ground that will eventually lead to this option.
If the West wants to win this war together with Ukraine, it should abandon its reactive modus operandi, give up its retreat and act in a forward mode – otherwise it will soon face not just another Zeitenwende, but a Zeitenbruch.
About Vasyl Cherepanyn
Vasyl Cherepanyn (Ukraine) is Head of the Visual Culture Research Center (VCRC), an institution he co-founded in Kyiv in 2008 as a platform for collaboration among academic, artistic, and activist communities. VCRC is the organizer of the Kyiv Biennial and a founding member of the East Europe Biennial Alliance. Cherepanyn holds a PhD in philosophy and has lectured at several universities, both in Kyiv and other cities in Europe, and is a curator, writer and editor.