War exposess realities; not all of them, but war is actions over words. Soft words can’t hide a fist. A person talking about peace has no credibility when they’re shooting at the same time. It took me a while to realize that was why I am drawn to military news and history; actions do speak louder than words. This war in Ukraine has demonstrated that, but it has also demonstrated the power of words that are followed by non-physical action. I think we’re seeing a new awareness of the realities of power, and I suspect that will extend beyond Ukraine’s borders and beyond the battlegrounds.
Karate has taught me much. While many are distracted by the aggression, I also saw the reality of traditional karate that was taught as defense, not offense. 1) Most fights don’t have to be fought. 2) Anyone who starts a fight must first expose a vulnerability, and must at least temporarily lose their balance.
The Ukrainians seem to understand that. Block and counter. Defend against the assault, then take advantage of that moment of vulnerability and a loss of balance.
Just like this war, this set of thoughts is in progress, not resolved.
The Ukrainians are impressing people with their ability to respond. They didn’t try to match power with power. I am sure they would’ve liked to keep the Russians out, but once the Russian tanks were in, the Ukrainians had success because they used weapons that fought weapons. They used missiles that cost tens of thousands to beat tanks that cost millions. Their army may be one-tenth the size, but they were also spending far less and risking far fewer of their soldiers. They are being hurt, but the Russian attacks are providing opportunities for the Russians to be hurt worse.
Stay with me and I’ll get past the armament stuff, but I want to emphasize what is happening in the drone world, too.
Russia has a bigger, badder air force. But, again, the Ukrainians are doing much with much cheaper drones. If Russia loses a fighter, they’ve lost millions of dollars and a skilled pilot. If Ukraine loses a drone, they’ve lost far less. And the drones have been successful because the Russian motorized forces must expose themselves even just to maneuver to attack.
Alone, however, drones and missiles are probably not enough.
There’s a power shift in progress. It looks like someone has finally understood how to properly apply sanctions. They’re going after the oligarchs. The oligarchs don’t command the military. They don’t run the government. They operate for their mutual, and sometimes conflicting, self-interests. They prop up their privileges, and prop up the government because it enables their privileges. While the sanctions may look mis-directed, it is possible that they can undermine the attacks because the sanctions undermine their privileges. For a good description of how autocrats must rely on oligarchs I recommend watching CGP Grey’s video “The Rules for Rulers“; which makes the case that even autocrats can’t rule without some support.
This is also why I am watching the seizure of luxuries like yachts because they are removing tangible privileges.
See, I told you I’d get past the armaments.
And then there’s social media; the power of words, even if they are just memes or tweets.
Prior to the invasion Putin was seen as powerful. Zelensky was known, but not as well. After the invasion Putin was exposed as out-of-touch, possibly delusional, and untrustworthy. Rather than meet Putin on Putin’s grounds, Zelensky operated on social media. Short, terse, pointed posts and tweets and videos helped rally support that was more than Shares and Likes. Ukraine found itself with volunteers from every aspect of the conflict – except those aspects that were too close to World War III. I appreciate that restraint.
The tanks, the air force, the sanctions, and the Ukrainians knew, or learned very quickly, that trying to match the Russians directly was a way to lose. They may not win, but they knew to fight this year’s battle with this year’s weapons and attitudes. They aren’t fighting a Cold War that got hot. They aren’t trapped by anachronisms and archaic thinking.
Just like in karate, that first punch might get through or be at least somewhat blocked, but the response is what matters. Use your opponent’s energy against them, and they can defeat themself.
That’s Ukraine. I believe it has revealed something more global.
We now know that a big army does not equate to victory. Smaller can win, or at least stop the fight.
Oligarchs don’t have many fans. When their power structure is threatened, there are millions of allies cheering on the assault. Swap the word oligarch with its Russian connotations for mega-rich and its Western equivalents. Will there be similar support in enough countries when their privileges are assaulted? The Panama Papers already documented a significant level of tax havens, concealed ownerships, and money flows that operate in a different realm outside government control and taxation. Does Bezos think nothing of the comments about his celebration of flying to space? I’m glad we have billionaires funding space travel, commercialization, and colonization; but that feeling doesn’t extend to them flaunting it. Will the exposure of Russian oligarchs create a trend to upsetting other oligarchs? Corporate monopolies?
It is easy to make fun of social media, just a few words, maybe a photo or a video, nothing much. But. “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride,” That is more memorable than the speeches from the world leaders maneuvering their way around this war. Zelensky is living and acting in the modern world. How many institutions are going to be upset as others learn the power of communicating that way? I struggle with it even as I am aware of writing hundreds of words that some poet could condense into 17 syllables, a tweet, a TikTok expressionistic dance.
The war has highlighted decades-old rhetoric that wasn’t backed up with actions, and which words spoken in new ways can create an alliance around the world. War, climate change, economics, social justice may all find themselves using this conflict as a model for change. This may not be the new normal, but we may be witnessing the old normal passing.
So, I’ll keep watching new ideas rather than old ones. Many somethings or someones that are considered to be too-big-to-fail might prove readily capable of reaching too far, and exposing privileged positions to have less of a foundation that they claimed.
Interesting times. Thoughtful times. New times.
(For more of my experience in Ukraine read, Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine, circa 1997.)