Should Wars Always Take Us by Surprise?

As Albert Camus aptly observes in the novel The Plague, “There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet, always wars and plagues take people equally by surprise.” On February 24, 2022, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine came unexpectedly for most. We had known about Putin’s brutal war in Chechnya, his invasion of Georgia, his bombings of Syrian infrastructure, and of his long hybrid war in Ukraine. Why weren’t we paying attention?

In fact, information about Putin’s imperial ambitions and wars of conquest has been around for two decades. Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent investigative journalist who reported extensively on the war in Chechnya, warned us of Putin’s dream to restore the Soviet empire and of Russia’s relapse into authoritarianism. In her book Putin’s Russia, published in London in 2004, she wrote that Putin’s regime dismisses the value of human life: “In Russia holding on to power is more important than saving soldiers’ lives…” She also reported on brutality and incompetence in the Russian army “where beating the hell out of someone is the basic method of training.” Putin’s war in Ukraine is a mirror image of his war in Chechnya, and Politkovskaya’s writings shed light on the many developments that surprise us today. Thus, two decades ago, Russia’s brainwashed majority did not condemn the war Chechnya, which Putin presented as a war on terrorism; society went along with state propaganda and felt no need to protest. Politkovskaya writes, “Our society ignored what was really going on in Chechnya, the fact that the bombing was not of terrorist camps but of cities and villages, and that hundreds of innocent people were being killed.” Putin’s propagandists peddle “a completely fake reality,” she explained. For the same reason, most Russians today do not denounce the war in Ukraine.

Politkovskaya was assassinated in Moscow on October 7, 2006; her murder, timed to coincide with Putin’s 54th birthday, sent a message to all journalists that honest reporting would not be tolerated. In her book A Russian Diary, released posthumously in 2007, Politkovskaya chronicled the country’s transformation into a lawless state run by the Kremlin mafia. Introducing this book, journalist Jon Snow asked rhetorically, “How did it happen that our leaders so steadfastly ignored what they knew Putin was up to? Was it the hunger for gas?” In fact, Western politicians turned a blind eye to the war in Chechnya, which helped Putin consolidate personal power.

The current war in Ukraine was both preventable and predicted: the conflict at the heart of Europe was slowly burning for eight years. Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and hybrid war in Ukraine’s east came as a direct response to the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity. In February 2014 Ukrainians overthrew the Kremlin’s puppet government, choosing a path towards democracy and the union with Western European nations.

Putin’s nemesis, the liberal politician Boris Nemtsov who had denounced Russia’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine, was assassinated on February 27, 2015. Russia’s former first deputy prime minister, Nemtsov was an outspoken critic of Putin’s regime and was preparing a report on the hybrid war in Ukraine, which he called a crime with no statute of limitations. In one of his interviews he accused Putin of waging this war with a single goal “to maintain power at any cost.” Hours after Nemtsov’s final interview to Echo Moscow radio station, in which he demanded “an immediate end to the war with Ukraine” he was shot dead near the Kremlin walls. In this last interview he described Putin’s war policy as “insane, aggressive, and deadly” for Russia and Ukraine alike.

Politkovskaya’s and Nemtsov’s grasp of political reality took years to fully appreciate. Both were marginalized during their lives, but left influential legacies. As Philip Short writes in his recent biography Putin, “Nemtsov acquired a symbolic importance after his death which was disproportionate to his role before he died.” Having mentioned this biography, I should also say that Short absolves Putin of any involvement in Nemtsov’s murder: “Putin had no conceivable reason for wanting Nemtsov killed.” This mammoth 1,082-page biography gives Putin undeserved credit, portraying him, at the start, as a liberal-minded politician, even “a Westernizer.” Putin’s transformation into a hardliner is said to have been conditioned by the strongmen from the KGB, military, and enforcement agencies (whom Putin himself brought to power), as well as America’s foreign policy and NATO’s enlargement. I believe Putin would not disagree with this account.

I found Garry Kasparov’s 2015 book Winter Is Coming (the title echoes Politkovskaya’s words about Russia’s “political winter”) more thought-provoking than Short’s biography. A former World Chess Champion and political activist, Kasparov perceives “two stories behind the current crisis. The first is how Russia moved so quickly from celebrating the end of Communism to electing a KGB officer and then to invading its neighbors. The second is how the free world helped this to happen, through a combination of apathy, ignorance, and misplaced goodwill.” Kasparov had accurately predicted that Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his war in Eastern Ukraine “will only stoke his appetite for more conquests.” Like Politkovskaya before him, he had identified Putin’s “dangerous turn to ethnically based imperialism.” Years before Putin’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Kasparov alerted us to the threat: “Those who say the Ukraine conflict is far away and unlikely to lead to global instability miss the clear warning Putin has given us.” Western politicians took too long to read Putin’s character and intentions. Europe’s dependency on Russian oil and gas may explain their continual appeasement and overlooking of Putin’s corruption and brutal wars.

So, should wars always take us by surprise or can we learn to read early signs? We live in a nuclear age and the outcome of the war in Ukraine concerns all of us. The damage from actions of a single dictator, like Putin, can be far greater than climate change.