10 Action Points on Russia-Ukraine

What can we, as citizens of the world, do to avoid the worst consequences of the war in Ukraine and to make “the best” out of a grim situation?

This is the second of two 10-pointers on the invasion of Ukraine. The first one sets the stage in terms of understanding the situation. This one goes on to consider what can and should be done by the West and the international community.

After these two 10-pointers, I am sharing a more in-depth analysis of the situation.

To the left, Paddington the Bear, voiced in Ukrainian by Volodymyr Zelenskyy before he became president of Ukraine. To the right, another kind of bear.

1. Russia must be beaten back — so crowdsource support for Ukraine without compromise!

Although balanced views of the situation are crucial, and frenzied tunnel-visioned warmongering against Russia may be lethal for all of us, there is very little reason to not take a strong stand for Ukraine in this conflict.

The Ukrainian President Zelenskyy asks of the peoples of Europe (and elsewhere) to push our governments in the direction of military, logistical, economic, and humanitarian support, while encouraging more direct citizen action as well. In some strategic countries, like Sweden and Finland, pushing for swift NATO membership may be in order. Pushing for powerful sanctions is crucial — and Switzerland’s support here may be especially important due to its central role in the global financial system. Of course, and unfortunately, European countries need to increase their defense budgets.

For companies, civil society organizations, and sports and culture, penalizing Russia — even if it might hurt some innocent people — can be crucial. The Russian government should not be able to spread the narrative that the war serves Russia’s economic interests or its prestige and honor on the world stage. This ranges from ice hockey, to figure skating, to soccer, to the Eurovision Song Contest, to film festivals, to World Taekwondo stripping Putin of his black belt in Judo. Last I heard, the cat breeders’ association joined the fray: Russian cats are being sanctioned! If we disregard for a moment that cat breeding is an unethical and exploitative endeavor, we can hear the meows for peace all the way from frosty Moscow.

If the Russian population feels that the war is disgracing their country and harming the economy, they are less likely to side with their government and begin to look for other positive national identities that can still honor their past, culture, and traditions. And there’s no lack of material to build on — Russia is one of the culturally most impressive societies on Earth! The motherland of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, and so on, Russia is home to some of the best classical musicians on Earth; Russian ballet is world-famous, Russia is the world’s leading chess nation and it is one of the most victorious Olympic nations in the world. Russians have a strong presence in the natural sciences and have a long and proud tradition of space exploration. In short, there’s a lot to pick from; a lot of alternatives to military conquest and dreams of imperial expansion.

All of us foreigners can do something. From building domestic opinion in Ukraine’s favor to honoring and encouraging our suffering and frightened Ukrainian brothers and sisters, to helping and receiving refugees, to hacking Russian systems, to sharing useful information and perspectives in the information war, to challenging misinformation and showing little tolerance against the expression of apologist narratives (“but Ukraine has a Nazi problem!” and so on), to financially supporting Ukrainian war efforts, to creative little hacks that further pressure Russia (like uploading pictures of the war in Google maps in Russia, sending anti-war messages through Tinder with a VPN set in Russia, and so on), there is something for many more of us to do than we might think.

The aim remains to beat Russia back. The losses of a prolonged and lost war are immense (as discussed in the following points). The gains of a quicker and victorious defense of Ukraine are potentially enormous. So support the Ukrainian war effort and undermine the attacker on all fronts!

2. China is on the fence — so act now!

Given that China is biding its time and watching how events unfold, an immediate and firm response to the Ukraine situation is vital. It will decide how China acts in the near future, and thus possibly how the direction of the world system at large develops. From a Western perspective, the Russian situation is the pebble that can tip the world system in two very different directions.

Not only would a failure to defend Ukraine lead to Russia becoming a desirable and viable ally with whom an anti-Western and authoritarian alternative future can be built — but it would also embolden aggression against Taiwan and stoke Chinese unwillingness to compromise with democratic countries. It would, moreover, make it less appealing to its population to support a democratic route of the country’s development.

Even other powers, notably India, seem to be balancing between taking a stand and relativizing the war of aggression, which only adds to the same argument. Given that India is likely to become one of the superpowers of the 21st century, having it siding with the West could be decisive for the fate of our century.

Stalling or weak responses can and will be damned by history. As Lessig (as in Lawrence Lessig, a legal scholar whose work I truly respect) writes on the matter in a Medium post titled Crowdsourced War, if the sanctions are not sufficiently potent, the risk of spiraling into war with Russia actually increases, as “wannabe Churchills” will be able to argue for direct military interventions. Better to be tough and clear now, so that we don’t need to be shirky and hysterical in even more dramatic responses later on.

So, although the response to Russian aggression can and should be “crowdsourced” so that we cannot as easily be targeted by retaliatory measures and thus avoid escalation, that takes nothing away from the importance of acting immediately. That really goes for all of us.

3. Avoid a split into a new Cold War — by winning the war and causing regime change in Russia!

It is highly unlikely that the Russian regime will survive in its current form if it loses the war.

Think about the consequences if Russia would successfully capture and control Ukraine, and from there on secure its geopolitical and economic goals. When would the West be able to lift its sanctions? Not for ages. The world would effectively be split into two Cold War spheres of influence, where Russia and China would approach one another, which would further isolate them from the West and prop up their respective autocratic regimes. We would have a new Cold War, one that would in all likelihood last for decades.

In terms of climate change and other transnational “wicked issues” that require deepened planetary solidarity and mutual trust between cultures and countries, this would be nothing short of catastrophic. Tensions, militarism, fears, and short-sighted survivalist values around the world would be stoked for decades on end, and cosmopolitanism and cooperation would suffer. This would further inflame wicked issues that lie at the foundations of our global civilization and thus eventually increase the risk of rising conflict (a new World War, or just a hundred cruel proxy wars in Africa and elsewhere). Eventually, the risk of a collapse of the world system would increase from “significant” to “overwhelming”.

Here I am, just writing a Medium article about it, and it all somehow feels awfully petty in regard to the stakes at hand. But I really wish to stress this: the price of a new Cold War at this point in history is one that we simply cannot afford to pay. It must be avoided.

So “we” (feel free to exclude yourself from my use of “we” if you disagree with me) have to win the war — and fast. If we do, Russia will likely experience a regime change within some years (don’t forget that Russia is to hold a presidential election in 2024, or at least pretend to), and that could open the entire spectrum of possibilities to co-construct a more equitable, ecological, and effectively governed world order. A Moscow we could talk to, trust, and mutually demilitarize the world with — what a dream!

As Russia and international security expert Keir Giles argued in The Guardian already on February the 25th, Russia may now finally be in a position similar to Western empires (France, Britain) when they lost their status as colonial overlords — fairly late in the 20th century. They didn’t go down without a fight. It took harsh and humiliating defeats at the hands of colonial rebels reasserting their autonomy and dignity. But eventually, they (more or less) accepted their roles as “just another country” with no special right to dictate the fates of other nations. That needs to happen for Russia as well.

Another historical parallel: When did the two Russian Revolutions occur? In 1917 — at the hour of World War I, when the war had lost popular support and the economy was faltering. The German emperor sent Vladimir Lenin and stuffed his pockets full of money to go back home and revolt. The whole operation was a bit more successful than the German Emperor had anticipated (and his own government was toppled shortly after, in the German Revolution).

Now, this time, unfortunately, the Germans sent back the contemporary “Lenin” (opposition leader Alexei Navalny) a little too early, and he’s already in a Russian prison. Still, though, we may be seeing new turns of events here. Watch this development closely!

4. Avoid escalation into World War III — by supporting as discretely as possible!

To complicate things, direct military involvement in Ukraine by NATO and others to shorten the war might instead trigger a spiral of escalation, very possibly triggering a chain reaction that could only be described as World War III — expanding the war zone and prolonging and deepening the military conflict.

In a sense, given that the struggle playing out in Ukraine is already likely to affect the entire world, World War III could be thought of as already having begun. If the conflict escalates further, people will likely view the invasion of Ukraine as the beginning date of World War III. But there’s a great difference between a potential and theoretical world war with stakes as large or possibly greater than the two former ones (due to climate change and existential threats), and an actual, global, military conflict between the world powers. Many more countries would be invaded. The consequences would be devastating beyond comprehension.

I must admit that my initial impulse over the first few days of the invasion was to argue for NATO and allies to at least try to secure a “no-fly zone” in Ukraine’s skies, or to otherwise match Russian forces with an international peacekeeper presence. This was also what Keir Giles argued in his opinion piece: We have a duty to act, even militarily!

But I changed my mind, partly because it turns out that Russia is relying more on ground artillery than on bomber aircraft, partly because the escalation would arguably be much more dramatic if troops or aircraft were to enter Ukraine. Besides, the military support by means of lending aircraft and handing out weapons to the Ukrainians has thus far been effective (at least as things appear in Western media). This sanctions-based approach also seems to be the position of Barack Obama, with whom I now find myself agreeing.

So, yes, support vigorously. But do so as discreetly as possible, in a truly crowdsourced manner, to avoid escalation.

5. Avoid a nuclear war — by helping Russia to save face!

In the end, it is true that:

  • Russia has a ten times stronger military than Ukraine (at least on paper).
  • The Russian government (and the apparatus it relies upon and shares interests with) will be very desperate to not back down.
  • Other countries are unlikely to directly intervene.
  • Putin is threatening us with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

Thus, a complete military victory by Ukraine is, after all, unlikely. Even with crowdsourced support around the world, even with a morale boost of the Ukrainians unparalleled in contemporary history (they know the whole world is watching them, and that they’re rocking our socks off; can you think of a better genesis of national cohesion and patriotic identity?), even with Russian logistical fiascos, even with collapsing public support for the government in Russia, it is a David’s fight against Goliath. In fairy tales, David always wins. In reality, this is less often the case.

It is probably true, as Yuval Noah Harari argues (also in The Guardian) that Putin has already lost the war in the larger scheme of things — politically speaking. But there is little comfort in that realization alone. It still means military defeat for Ukraine, a prolonged conflict, possibly bloody guerilla warfare, and an increasingly desperate Russian government — increasingly likely to “lose it” and start a nuclear war. When a house of cards collapses, when lies are exposed, when the posers accidentally reveal their underlying fear and weakness, it’s just never a pretty sight.

Where does this leave us? Well, we might, again, learn from history. When the Soviet Union attacked Finland in 1939–40, in the so-called Winter War, the USSR suffered massive and humiliating losses because of the sheer logistical catastrophe of the operation. Finnish soldiers, camouflaged, shot the Russians as they tumbled slowly through the thick snow in the dense Finnish forests. In my family, we remember Eifel, a Finnish neighbor in the 1980s who fought in that war. More than four decades later, he literally cried at the thought of how many men he had mowed down. David versus Goliath was not pretty, even when David won.

What happened with the Winter War then? In fact, the Russians signed a peace treaty and were handed some new territories. On paper, in theory, in their own narrative, “they had won”. They had conquered new territory.

It’s the basic thing that sociologists of everyday interaction teach us: We all need to save face. My take on this is, thus, to try to help Putin and his administration save face by conceding some territories to Russia. It’s not like Donetsk and Luhansk or Crimea will be nice places for Russians and Ukrainians to live together after all of this is over either way. So, make a compromise: Hand Crimea and perhaps Donbas (Donetsk, Luhansk) to Russia. And open the canal down to Crimea, so that Russia can keep Crimea under tolerable circumstances, rather than having a perpetually drought-stricken peninsula on their hands.

Even with such concessions, the Russian government will still have lost so much in power and position that their days will likely be numbered. We just have to prevent the “wounded beast” from lashing out — nuclearly or otherwise.

Ending the war as soon as possible with a compromise that could give Putin a chance to save face and proclaim at least a superficial victory would not only lead away from the prospect of nuclear war. It would also shorten the conflict itself, which reduces the risk of further fires in the nuclear power facilities of the war zone (as was reported a few days ago in Europe’s largest facility).

I know compromise is hard. And not necessarily just. But, in the long run, the free world will win this either way. What needs to be prevented is for the tragic-comical implosion of the Russian Imperium to cause a corresponding nuclear explosion that consumes all the rest of us.

Patience and pragmatism will lead to the victory of justice.

6. There is no alternative to speaking to Putin!

In the light of what I have discussed in former points, it should be apparent that there really is no alternative to speaking to Putin (even if you cannot trust what he says).

Yes, by all means, the goal can and should be to remove his corrupt and criminal regime from the helm of Russia. And yes, Putin himself has pretty much served that up for us. And yes, speaking to Putin really is akin to bargaining with terrorists.

But there is no other way. The “World War III” scenario would perhaps end only when “Allied” tanks roll into Moscow and Putin is arrested. And, true, NATO and allies would win in the end. But that’s a terrible and terrifying scenario that involves unfathomable suffering and possibly a nuclear holocaust.

In the real reality that we are in, Putin is the guy to talk to. But the more we beat him back in Ukraine, the better “face-saving compromise” he is offered, and the quicker the war is brought to an end — the better the terms of that talk can be.

7. Mobilize the many small creeks!

A CNN poll shows that 87% of US citizens support sanctions, and 79% follow the conflict closely. Do that many Americans even know where Ukraine is on the map? A level of transnational engagement that is unprecedented in its strength shows that “the agency of millions” can make life very difficult for Russia and ultimately for its regime.

And here is the hopeful side of this: We can actually make a difference. Because every bit counts. Every little action — even going online and criticizing the war in 5-star reviews of Russian elite restaurants — matters. Make it entirely clear to Russia’s 144 million people that the rest of the world is finding this war unacceptable and disgraceful, and that their everyday lives will be made more complicated for as long as the war persists.

Individually, each Russian bears quite little responsibility for what their government does in their name. Collectively, however, the Russian people arguably do bear a great responsibility for accepting and condoning a crooked government. It is not wrong to make that responsibility felt, all the while assuring Russians that there can and will be a brighter future for them if they get rid of their government.

It is also important to make as many Russians as possible understand how profoundly their own country will be harmed if Putin’s war continues. The consequences for ordinary Russians are likely to become extremely severe if the war goes on for long. In a co-dependent world economy, you just can’t live as an economic, informational, and cultural pariah while keeping a large, costly war going. It’s one thing to have the living standard of an already impoverished peasant population decrease over time, but it’s a whole other matter when a comfortable modern lifestyle is taken away from people overnight. It’s going to be a tragic shitshow for millions of people.

Now, the key for all of us is to mobilize the small creeks of resistance and solidarity until there can be no misunderstanding: a bet on Putin’s war is not worth it. The longer you persist in the war, the greater the costs.

This coordination of the swarm, the many small creeks of a transnational public and civil society, could possibly spur the creation of a more self-conscious planetary “public consciousness” — and conscience — mediated through information technology. As many have noted, we didn’t react correspondingly to the horrors of the “more remote” and less black-and-white war in Yemen. Imagine if we would have. Imagine if the planetary public becomes skilled at mobilizing support and resistance to war, oppression, and suffering everywhere. The value of such a planetary civil society would be immeasurable— even in the face of issues like climate change. Mary Kaldor, the eminent peace worker and political scientist, wrote on the eve of the war (the 22nd of February) that a human rights perspective should be applied to the situation. I would respond that, for that to be a realistic prospect, the planetary public must first be successfully mobilized. And that’s where you, the reader, make all the difference.

If you are a Russian citizen somehow reading this despite all the information blockages set up by the government (as Putin’s sworn intellectual nemesis, Masha Gessen, describes in The New Yorker) please know that you are not alone. Millions stand with you. And remember these words from the Koran:

A man asked the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, “What is the highest form of jihad?” The Prophet said:

“A word of truth in the face of an unjust ruler.”

8. Counteract the global reactionary movement!

The Russian government has long been fanning the flames of European and other nationalist and reactionary movements and parties. As a response to the alienation felt towards social, cultural, and economic transformations, such worldviews have grown roots deep within the populations of most liberal democracies.

This has led to a number of undesirable dynamics in many democracies over the last decade: from culture wars and riots, to the loss of momentum for transformational solutions to climate change, to the loss of the public’s ability to organize around class interests, to grid-locked parliamentary situations, to Donald Trump’s train of maddening adventures in public life, to the rise of Nazi and violent insurgency groups (yes, also in Ukraine, but no, that’s not an excuse to invade the country), to harassment of public figures, to the cultivation of online conspiracy theories, to certain governments curtailing civic rights, to increased xenophobia…

These currents of European and American sentiment are, unsurprisingly enough, generally positive towards Russia’s government — and many reactionaries even view Russia as a beacon of traditionalism and decency. The “decadent liberal West” is an old trope, common pretty much to all autocracies (in the Stasi museum in Berlin, for instance, you can see DDR propaganda showing the ghastly Iron Maiden posters that Western kids worshipped in the 1980s). But the assertiveness of such autocracies on the international scene certainly encourages the growing nationalist movements within liberal democracies, while tilting developing countries in authoritarian directions. As is often noted, the “freedom in the world” index has now been in decline for 15 consecutive years.

Now is our chance to turn this trend. If Russia is defeated in Ukraine and the whole “Russia-is-so-realistic-and-rational-Real-politically-cool-and-it-stands-up-for-masculinity-and-truly-feminine-women” is curtailed and exposed for the incoherent bullshit it, in all honesty, is (with some partial truths, sure, but still, it’s bullshit) — then the lure and legitimacy of neo-reactionary movements around the world will take a serious blow. They’ll lose their shine. And the hearts of young men (and old, embittered ones) can slowly begin to take up more worthwhile causes. Maybe even Poland and Hungary would notice that alignment with democratic values isn’t such a bad thing. Turkey — who knows?

As things stand today, Russia props up corrupt governments in Africa: guns for mining rights and resources, the Wagner Group mercenaries doing the dirty work, no questions asked. If Russia’s current government loses its grip, we can turn the long tide of authoritarian development across the world, including inside the bastions of liberal democracy.

For the future of a non-authoritarian, post-Putin Russia, there can be few things as valuable as an independent Ukraine — a kind of cultural hybrid “West Russia”. A Russian bear, perhaps, but more Paddington-like (as I alluded to in the image above). It would serve as a bridge and melting-pot for the Russian-Orthodox and Western civilizations, while allowing the flexibility of multiple positive Russian identities. What the metamodern sociologist Brent Cooper discusses as “metanoia” (or “in-betweenness”) is increased in such liminal spaces, places “between worlds” — charged with greater emergent potentials. This is what network science calls the power of bridging nodes. This could be the future of Ukraine, spurring on a fascinating new role for Russia herself.

9. Use the momentum for deep energy transformation!

Just like the swift response to the covid pandemic, the Ukraine war shows that we can basically change the world overnight. This shouldn’t be forgotten in relation to climate change and energy transition to sustainable and renewable solutions.

Now that core world economies like Germany (and the EU at large) are prodded to start taking dramatic steps to sever at least some of their fossil dependencies, there is significant momentum to be used — and coordinated with the green strategies linked to covid stimulus packages.

This momentum becomes larger still if you consider that 1) countries and populations are now entering into “wartime economies” where the state plays a strong and active role as investor and leader of structural transformations, that 2) populations at large are mobilized and become prepared to make sacrifices for the common good, and that 3) a flood of transnational unity and sense of coherence has emerged in response to the war.

As argued in my last article, remember that this is also a war of survival of the Russian petrostate military-industrial complex — and that its decline would herald a strong advancement of the positions of the renewable energy economy and decentralized structures.

Russia, through its historical development, has veered strongly in the direction of centralized power (just look at the map of cities and roads centered like a spider web around Moscow!). The country has a strong state, a strong church, and strong families, but comparatively little in the way of “civil society” as it is understood in the social sciences. Hence, the road to a more democratic and decentralized Russia may be a longer and more painful one than for other countries. But the widespread resistance to the war within Russia itself, and the growth of political opposition and free press offer some seeds for a livelier Russian civil society upon which democratic institutions can be cultivated.

In a sense, the world would do Russia a favor by helping it decouple from its path dependency on the one-trick-pony fossil economy and the petrostate’s tendency to play geopolitical games (as, after all, oil and gas are geographical phenomena, more so than renewables).

10. Use the opportunity to establish transnational governance!

Ultimately, the world will continue to suffer from confusion and mayhem until a more coherent and solitary order of transnational governance is achieved. This is a topic I have researched and theorized over some years but I cannot give the topic justice here. Suffice to say that the post-WW2 institutions of the UN are increasingly dated and that the current forms of transnational coordination are insufficient.

If the larger community of nations manages to take a joint and coordinated stand against this war and defend democratic sovereignty, while spreading better governance and freedom to Russia, this could indeed serve as the seed for a new, multi-polar world order and thus for a deepening and redefinition of how societies around the world cooperate.

Part of this argument flows from a crass change in the balance of power: if authoritarianism loses its bastion on the northern hemisphere and one of its greatest worldwide agents, the world will likely become a more democratic and cooperative place. Maybe this time, the West would be wiser than to step on Russian pride and economy (which is what occurred after the Cold War), and truly include Russia and all of Eastern Europe as equals and friends. Western cultural arrogance has cost us dearly and I can only hope we’ve learned a lesson.

But another part of the argument, I believe, flows from a deeper and more universal place. Institutions change on rare occasions when momentous movements occur; movements that stir the souls of millions of people at the same time. If so many of us around the world feel that we took a stand against war, and felt empowered to act against it, and felt solidarity with new people that we hardly considered before, that may be such a rare moment — comparable to the days after the Second World War, when today’s world order was forged.

My hope is, ultimately, that we can avoid the Third World War, but still reap the benefits of moral growth that come from having dodged it together — while having stood up to tyranny.

And then, hopefully, we can begin to apply that new-won public conscience to the forgotten corners of the world where injustice and suffering have been allowed and disregarded for far too long. Ukraine is crying. But so is Yemen and many other places just as real and relevant.

Then again, I’m the hopeful sort. I believe that a sincerely-ironic geopolitics is both possible and necessary.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.