Odessa in 1996: a place of jovialty and leisure, a city during peacetime, resplendent in the freedoms that are now being devastated by Putin’s invasion. When the US-American photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia visited the Ukraine’s third-largest city, it had not yet shed its Soviet identity. He was shown around by an ex-soldier with whom he became friendly, not knowing what to expect. Looking back, he said: “I didn’t think of Odessa as Ukraine, I just thought of it as Odessa.
Jonathan White on the European Project
For many in Europe and beyond, Ukraine has become a crucible for an ideological clash of wider significance. Call it liberalism vs fascism, or democracy vs authoritarianism – people argue over the labels because each is too simple, but all of them conjure a larger context. Few see this war as just one country against another. Likewise the notion that it is just one madman against all the rest has largely been abandoned. Instead, this conflict is seen as a conflict of worldviews.
This means those far from the front line may feel implicated in the outcome – the conflict is one they can more easily relate to than others. As in previous eras with the proxy wars of the Cold War, the Spanish Civil War, or all the way back to the French Revolution, outsiders find political and moral significance in this conflict, whether accurately or not. Even those reluctant to identify with one side can take their bearings and set their priorities. This notion of an ideological confrontation is quite different from how Europeans have tended to see the conflicts around them in recent decades. Whether in the Middle East, Africa or the Balkans, most conflicts have been treated more prosaically – as one group of people against another, engaged in an enmity that is either senseless or parochial.
In many ways, the desire to see what is happening in Ukraine as a clash of worldviews is not helpful. To do so filters out many of the motivations at play and threatens a wider escalation. Conflicts of ideology are notoriously hard to resolve: it is easier to compromise, and expect compromise from others, when there is nothing lofty at stake. Any peace can look unjust when it means ceding some principled ground, and it can be tempting to interfere in any conflict when it seems to stand for something larger. After all, international realists tend to downplay the role of ideas in politics for a reason, namely because ideas are always hard to contain.