So apparently there is really a war now between Ukraine and Russia. But when has this war actually started? For me and many people I am talking to this is a question difficult to answer. Its progression has been gradual as in most conflicts. Is there ever a real starting point? In addition, every action, especially on the Russian side, has been blurred by lies and ridiculous excuses – as for instance Russian soldiers accidentally crossing the Ukrainian border and getting lost.
Throughout the whole year 2014, we have been accompanied by reports on the situation in Ukraine but also by events reminding us about the outbreak of the first World War 100 years ago. Exactly one century later – and a second even more deathly world war, the vastest genocide in human history, Shoah, regional wars, but also a long period of peace in central and western Europe – it seems we have arrived at a historically decisive moment again. If not always, especially now we are at the edge of another world war. It’s Europe’s war in Ukraine, as the German newspaper Zeit titles. How can we understand this statement? On the one hand, the headline wants to say that the war between Russia and Ukraine concerns all Europeans. On the other hand, it can also be interpreted as a warning for other global players to not interfere and make the conflict escalate even more, which might eventually lead to a third world war.
At the same time, propaganda and subjective narratives – probably on both sides – have made it a great challenge to get a clear picture of the conflict through the media.
“I have never felt as helpless and victimised by propaganda, as after reading the news those days”, a statement I often heard from friends and family members in Germany since the events in Ukraine have started. And this in a country, where the media landscape is extremely diverse and freedom of press is a highly protected value. “Usually, I would read a number of papers with different political views on the same topic and afterwards feel like I understand the controversy but in the past months, it has seemed impossible”, the same people say.
It is also difficult to judge whether the tales and explanations surrounding the conflict in Ukraine are taking over the heads and restrict the eyesight of German (and European) journalists, or if they are co-created and instrumentalised by them with a certain intention. Personally, I more believe in the first option. We are all telling and re-telling stories. It is already hard to speak the ‘’truth’’ when you are actually in the place where things are happening but certainly impossible when you are hundreds or thousands of kilometres away. Even Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, sometimes seems to be too remote from the Donbas region for people to be able to understand the reality there. In the end everybody has to decide and pick one of the many stories offered by various sources, and also believe in it if one wants to retell it to friends or the media audience.
My colleagues in the eastbook.eu editorial office in Warsaw have been using the word “war” to describe the events taking place in Ukraine since the annexation of Crimea in March this year.
Others seem to still deny that the armies of two different countries are fighting and killing each other and civilians – who were not able to flee their homes for some reason – in Donbas, in East Ukraine.
In spring this year, the atmosphere in Poland was more tensed than what I experience right now. Poland’s newspapers and politicians were outraged by Russia’s military actions and Putin’s conduct. The fear of another Russian invasion into the country’s former sphere of influence went so far that the NATO was asked for military support in the form of moving troops to the Eastern borders of Poland and the Baltic states. Moreover, even Finland was publicly warned of the threat from the East. What has happened to the Polish society? Are people paralysed or have they overcome the shock and returned to daily life?
It seems that right now, when things are finally and clearly named as what they really are, the reaction of the Polish civil society is missing.
I am asking myself what is the right thing to do in a historical sense. Are we meant to act or is the secret recipe for peace actually hidden in the strength to not react on provocation and stay calm and patient instead. If we look back in time and assess the roles and behaviour of different countries before the outbreak of the first and second world war, both options can possibly lead to a big catastrophe. One cause, among many, of the first world war was the complicated system of military alliance between European states that dragged them into war one after another. In the 1930s, on the other hand the US and the British government underestimated the danger of the German expansionist power politics for too long.
Friday morning, 29 August, I was reading in the news that US President Barack Obama, on behalf of his government, excludes the option of a military intervention in the Donbas region. I received the news with a feeling of relief: no third world war today. Maybe some more phone calls between Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Vladimir Putin instead. How much longer will the current situation last? We are still comfortable in Central Europe – up till now even most people in Kyiv live a normal life, in which the war seems far away. In contrast to 1914, the crowds on the streets in Europe are not excited about the perspective of war. No blood thirst and over-heated nationalism around me but maybe also not much interest at all. The question remains: What is our role and duty – the role of everybody in Europe who wants to continue live in a peaceful environment – in this historical moment?
Alisa Fluhrer, EVS volunteer at Common Europe Foundation in Warsaw, Poland