The University published a formal statement on the Russian invasion of Ukraine last Thursday. Like other universities, we expressed our horror at the invasion and the suffering it is causing, our support for the Ukrainian people and our apprehension about what might happen next.
This feels simultaneously like a very old and very new war. The Yale historian, Timothy Snyder’s book, Bloodlands traces the bloody mid twentieth century experiences of a vast swathe of Europe – Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Belarus and Ukraine – caught between Hitler and Stalin. He closes the introduction to the book, which is important reading, with a striking and terrifying conclusion “During the years that both Stalin and Hitler were in power, more people were killed in Ukraine than anywhere else… in the world.” It’s an appalling historical experience, and now the lines of tanks, the military supply vehicles, the flood of refugees across eastern Europe in this third decade of the twenty-first century calls to mind the experiences of the fourth and fifth decades of the twentieth. This is a European experience we thought had been left behind – even if it has been a global experience all too familiar. It is a conflict about land and domination, about identity and resistance.
Yet at the same time this is a contemporary experience. It’s a conflict filmed on smartphones and the internet, with instant social media comment, filmed and posted on TikTok. It’s an experience unfolding in a modern European country with a twenty-first century infrastructure. It’s a war being fought in cyber-space, in the financial markets and tax havens of the world as well as the streets and plains of Ukraine. It’s a small point but one bathetic comment on the early Russian assault on Kyiv wrote of the tanks “moving down the by-pass”: for me at least that was a comment which reminded me of the modernity of the conflict and how the invasion seemed to be the intrusion of a past into the present.
We are all of us rightly concerned about the impact of all this on people, on Ukrainian civilians. As I write this, already more than a million Ukrainians have left their homes and sought refuge in Poland, Moldova, Slovakia. That’s a million of a population of some forty million – it is a huge transhumance in its own right. We’ve all seen devastating assaults on cities, reducing busy city centres and railway stations to rubble, shutting down power supplies. War destroys. War reshapes. War always has both immediate and longer-term impacts. War always wrecks homes and families. When wars end there is no simple return – what was has been destroyed. There is a moral obligation on us all to extend help and support, but – and this is one of the saddest of lessons of the later twentieth century – the need for support persists long after the cameras and the political attention have moved away. In that sense, wars do not ‘end’ – they persist. And the victims of war are everywhere: in a globalised world the ties of family and friendship don’t know the boundaries of borders. I know from the exchanges I had with our Ukrainian students last week how worried and frightened they are. And I know from my exchanges with our Russian students – and with my friends and academic collaborators in Russia – how appalled they are about the actions of their President.
All this tells me some painful things about the invasion and its aftermath. It tells me that whatever happens the impacts of the 2022 Ukrainian war are going to be felt for decades to come. That is so painfully true for the Ukrainians – those living, studying and working abroad, those who have taken to the roads, those who have stayed to resist so inspiringly – but it is true for so many others too. The academic and media commentary I’ve read is quite clear: this invasion, so redolent of a twentieth century obsession with land and domination, will have sharp twenty-first century impacts economically, environmentally, diplomatically, geo-politically. Some of those will be felt immediately around the world – a world dependent on Russian oil and gas and Ukrainian sunflower oil and wheat. Some will be less obvious as power relationships shift and tensions mount in the months and years ahead. Some will take a long while to work themselves out. A few weeks ago, at home we watched the (excellent) Netflix adaptation of Robert Harris’s novel Munich, which weaves a thriller story around the 1938 negotiations between Chamberlain and Hitler over the Sudetenland. The film, of course, quotes Chamberlain’s line to the British public about Czechoslovakia being a “faraway country of which we know nothing”. The invasion of Ukraine in 2022 is a reminder that there are, really, no faraway countries.