some semi-related thoughts on Ukraine

First off, this is just fucking nuts. I think we can all agree on that. I mean Russia (and when I say ‘Russia’ I mean that motherfucker Vlad Putin) is conducting what is essentially a war of conquest–the type of war that pretty much disappeared by the beginning of the 20th century. Russia is basically saying “Ukraine has shit we want, they’re not going to give it to us, so we’re going to take it.” It’s a large scale gangster war.

Nations (and gangsters and racist police officers) could get by with that shit back in the day before ubiquitous online real-time videography. Not anymore. Now there’s always somebody with a camera and an internet connection to record and distribute the violence. And not just the violence, but the ugly result of the violence. And not just the violence and the ugly result, but also the failures–those times when the violence rebounds against the violent.

A dead Russian soldier smells as bad as a dead Ukrainian civilian

Ukrainians are using tech to undermine Russia’s superiority of numbers. They’re using Google Maps traffic reports to identify streets where Russian military convoys are disrupting traffic–and a convoy that’s moving slowly is a target. Ordinary people are using cell phones to send and receive military intelligence in real time, to coordinate not just attack plans but also places for non-combatants to shelter. They’re using social media to support and encourage each other, to gain international support, and to undermine the morale of Russian troops and the Russian population.

They’re making videos of ordinary Ukrainians confronting and threatening Russian troops. The woman who offered Russians sunflower seeds to carry in their pockets so flowers will grow from their dead bodies. The guy who said they’d play football with the heads of Russian soldiers. They’re making videos of Russian troops surrendering, of Russians being ambushed and killed–videos of dead Russians. It’s brutal and ugly, to be sure. But Russian soldiers will see it on social media. The parents of Russian soldiers will see it back home. They’ll see the bodies of their sons, mangled and burnt. And some of those parents will take to the streets to protest the war. Anything that discourages the aggressor is probably worth it.

Another weird and awful benefit of modern tech. All those combat video games have taught young Ukrainian how to fight an urban war. They know how to create and use choke points, they know the benefits of sniping (an ounce of sniper is worth a pound of suppressing fire), they know the difference between cover and concealment and how to use them, they know not to stay in one place, they know the vulnerable points of tanks and armored vehicles. They’ve used those skills in games, and while there’s a massive difference between knowing stuff in a game and implementing it in real life, the knowledge is there and it’s useful. It’s horrible that young Ukrainians need that knowledge, but it’s good that they have it. This is an urban war in which Playstation and Xbox have been training tools.

Nobody really wins when civilians have to take up arms

The thing is, in video games death is just a delay. In video games, you’ve always got a fair chance of winning. Russian troops may not be very well trained, they may be poorly equipped, they may have serious logistical issues regarding supplies (like food, fuel, ammunition), they may have morale issues, they may not be a very effective fighting force, but there’s a lot of them. Numbers matter. And no matter how dedicated and clever and determined the people of Ukraine are, the odds are against them.

There’s a great deal of bold talk about how Putin has already lost–and there’s a lot of truth there. Putin has fucked Russia’s economy for years, he’s fucked the reputation of Russia. But Russia still has the power to seize Ukraine. They have the power to install a puppet regime. What they don’t have is the power to peacefully occupy Ukraine. So yeah, in that sense, Putin and Russia have already lost. But that doesn’t mean Ukraine will win. Or even survive as anything other than an underground resistance movement.

I do think, though, that this could be one of those inflection points people keep talking about. I think this invasion could teach the democratic world that we can no longer sing the praises of democracy and claim to value human rights AND continue to conduct business as usual with dictators and tyrants. Tolerating authoritarian regimes because there’s something in it for us–that’s just encouraging those regimes to flourish. We can’t continue to treat economics and human rights as separate, unrelated issues.

Democracy may be an unwieldy and awkward and inefficient system of governance, but it’s infinitely preferable to an efficient dictatorship. The people of Ukraine understand that.

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