Shane Te Pou: Why the war in Ukraine matters to Kiwis

OPINION:

Whether fought by bow and arrow, in freezing muddy trenches, Southeast Asian jungles or from the air by drones or fighter jets, one constant weapon of war across history is propaganda.

In the lead up to conflict, warring parties must convince their own populations that the coming sacrifice is worth making, so they are told stories of heroic patriotism alongside horror stories about the enemy. As war rages, they fight over interpreting events on the ground, overstating victories and downplaying defeats. And after the war ends, the propaganda continues in the form of the stories we tell to justify the suffering, inspiring legends that become useful again when the next war comes along.

The conflict in Ukraine, now into its second week, is no exception – but events to date may have exposed the limits of propaganda, especially in the smartphone era.

Vladimir Putin’s reckless and destructive invasion of Ukraine is built on a mountain of lies. This was obvious during a rambling speech he made a week or so before the invasion, in which he claimed Ukraine is, and has always been, part of Mother Russia (it isn’t and hasn’t), invoking Peter the Great and Joseph Stalin as exemplars of the kind of Russian imperialism he is eager to reawaken. He went on to cast the current Ukrainian government as Nazis guilty of persecuting Russian speakers so as to justify Russia’s invasion as a peacekeeping mission to liberate Ukrainians and denazify its government.

Every part of that is rubbish, transparently so.

The bigger problem for Russia than Putin’s delusions is that their military strategy to date appears to be based on believing them to be true. The Kremlin expected Ukrainians to quickly capitulate and embrace a new Russia-friendly regime in Kyiv within 48 hours or so. They believed, as some Americans did about Iraq 15 years ago, they would be greeted as liberators. Instead, led by President Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian people have shown amazing courage and unity in the face of Russia’s aggression and, while many dark days remain ahead, they have, at the very least, demolished Putin’s mountain of lies.

Courage is contagious and the speed and severity of sanctions levelled against Russia exceeded anyone’s expectations even a week ago. Germany’s decision to reverse a long-standing prohibition against providing lethal weaponry, as well as to walk away from a critical oil and gas pipeline project, is amazing enough – but the decision by Switzerland to sanction Russia is the real showstopper. This is a country for which neutrality is perhaps its most defining feature, even to the extent of offering safe haven for Nazi gold.

Seventy-five years on from World War II, the Western alliance has seen better days – but there’s something about the terrifying audacity of Putin, and the moral clarity it brings, that has shocked it back into life.

It isn’t just governments, either. Oil giants BP and Shell, two of the largest foreign investors in Russia, have walked away. Apple and Google have withdrawn payment services, meaning, among other things, Moscow subway commuters are forced to stand in long queues – a daily reminder of their leadership’s folly.

Until last week, it felt like all the momentum in global politics was away from international cooperation and liberal democratic values and towards blood and soil nationalism and strongman regimes. The post World War II architecture looked dated and raised questions, especially among its adversaries, about how easily it might crumble under pressure. It is beyond a tragedy that the Ukrainian people are suffering today, but the unity and determination of Western powers and democracies everywhere to repel Putin and end that suffering is gratifying. With the emergence in recent times of autocrat-friendly populists like Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil and Orban in Hungary, I was by no means alone in wondering whether our side had any fight left in us at all. Turns out we do.

Ukraine is far away from Aotearoa but what is happening there matters to us and to the rest of the world. We have seen unparalleled peace since 1945. It might not feel like it, but war is getting less and less common, especially war between countries. After the horror of two world wars, where Kiwis, Māori and Pākehā, found themselves fighting in the mud in Belgium, the deserts in Africa or the hills in Italy, we were part of creating frameworks like the UN – designed, however imperfectly, to prevent imperialism and stop wars between major powers.

That’s why what is happening in Ukraine – an unjustified invasion by a dictator seeking to restore a long-lost empire – is so terrible.

We can’t do much this far away, but we are right to join other countries in imposing sanctions and offering humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

We have a stake in this fight because Russia’s actions threaten an entire international order, of which Aotearoa New Zealand is both a party and a beneficiary.

Slava Ukraini – Glory to Ukraine.

Shane Te Pou (Ngāi Tūhoe) is a company director at Mega Ltd, a commentator and blogger and a former Labour Party activist.

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