Learning a Lesson

5 January 2022, 09:56 AM

History is repeating itself: Ukraine and the world are facing the same threats as in 1914.

This article was originally published in a special issue of NV magazine World Ahead 2022, under an exclusive license from The Economist. Re-publication is strictly prohibited. 

It has recently become easier to ponder Ukraine's future. We just need to look back to forecasts from previous years, with some minor changes. There are three major subjects, or rather, threats: a war with Russia, the COVID-19 pandemic, and an inept political elite.

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Let me briefly cover all three. First and foremost, there is the threat of a Russian invasion. It is not going away, but rather, becoming more imminent. In 2021, the Kremlin's troops came closer to the Ukrainian border on two occasions. We have yet to find out what will come of the second buildup in the first quarter of 2022. Many experts believe a large-scale Russian invasion is likely to happen around this time.

Apart from military aggression, there were two remarkable verbal attacks from Russia.  The first one was the memorable, yet completely idiotic and boring from a historian's point of view, given the sources used – Russian President Vladimir Putin's article about Russians and Ukrainians being the same nation. The second one was a blatantly offensive opus by Putin's predecessor Dmitry Medvedev, stating that any negotiations with Kyiv were pointless. The two types of aggression overlap and only intensify the existing threat to Ukraine. 2013 and 2014 have taught us that Russian verbal aggression is invariably followed by military activity. First come their words, and then their deeds.

COVID-19 is another major threat. In my forecast for 2021, I expressed the hope that it would have been over by last autumn. I have to admit I was quite naive. My second point seems more reasonable: although this pandemic may come to an end, the threat of a new pandemic will still be hanging over us. The virus will be mutating so fast that existing science and technology will not be able to catch up with it.

2021 added another factor to the COVID-19 threat. As one of the greats once said, collective darkness is most visible against the light carried by science. I am talking about anti-vaxxers here. I am upset and ashamed that Ukraine has taken the lead in this movement, with one of the lowest vaccination uptake levels in Europe.

I am afraid I cannot add anything new to the topic of inept politicians. In 2021, there has been a trend to becoming more closed. We've seen examples of selective justice, limited access to the president granted by the Head of the Presidential Office, and an attempt to take over the media.

I fear Ukraine may not recover from a third attempt to usurp power.

I do not mind authoritarian leadership per se, if only it is aimed at radical reform or strengthening the nation's defenses. Here, unfortunately, the motivation is entirely different. It is all about hoarding power to stay in power. We still remember what happened in Ukraine in 2004 and 2014 after similar things were attempted by previous regimes.

To sum up all the threats, we inevitably come to the same conclusion as in the previous years. Ukraine and the whole world may see history repeating itself just like in 1914. Hardly anyone saw a worldwide catastrophe coming and most people dismissed warnings of an impending war as scaremongering. However, disaster did strike in the end.

A full set of threats

Just like all the other countries, we are facing a full set of global threats: Russia, COVID-19, and populism. However, Ukraine does not have the same level of capabilities to combat these threats as our neighboring states, it's one of the weakest links in today's geopolitics. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  In 1914, Ukraine was one of the reasons for the war to break out, and the world's fate was at the mercy of the things happening in and around Ukraine, with all the devastating consequences that this entailed. This context makes the comparison to 1914 even more valid.

A friend of mine, who is a poet, put this opinion into very simple words. The summer of 2021 could have been the last peaceful summer. My friend is a person of extraordinary sensitivity, both as a poet and as a survivor of a serious illness, so she sees certain things more profoundly and clearly.

Having said all that, I do not say for certain the worst case scenario will happen. Moreover, I would be delighted to be wrong. I will be overjoyed if a year from now you will all be making of fun of me and saying my theories were way off the mark.

Unfortunately, a wish itself is hardly enough. Opportunities can be born out of crises both for Ukraine and the world. If we embrace them, we can motivate ourselves to awaken from slumber and stop expecting things to sort themselves out.

That’s why, this year and every year, we’ll be talking about the threat of 1914 - to ensure it doesn't happen again, until the threat is gone for good.

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