On being ... intertwined

By Ingrid Sapona

Like many, my thoughts are consumed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Initially I resisted writing about it for On being… because my aim for the column is to help readers think about how they behave or how they “are” in a particular circumstance. But, after speaking with friends, I realized others also are awash in thoughts, confusion, and fear about the situation. So, today I’m simply sharing some of my concerns and sadness. My hope is that doing so may help you sort through some of your feelings in the face of what looks like an existential threat unfolding in Europe. 

The pictures of families tearfully separating, as women and children flee their homes while husbands, brothers, and sons stay behind to defend their country seems unreal in the twenty-first century. I’ve found particularly heartbreaking interviews of Ukrainian mothers who have spoken about being scared, but who are holding it together in hopes their children don’t sense their fear. Sadly, such stoicism has been borne by mothers for hundreds of years and in hundreds of places even in my lifetime. 

The displacement of hundreds of thousands of people is tragic. At the same time, it’s heartening to hear that Poland and Hungary are welcoming fleeing Ukrainians. Given that these countries have historically not welcomed refugees, the fact that they are is a pleasant surprise. But at the same time, I can’t help think about the plight of all the other refugees in the world who are now yesterday’s story. Western aid money and humanitarian efforts will – and should – be directed at Ukrainians, but what of the poor Afghanis, or Syrians, or … fill in the name of any of the millions of displaced persons? They too still need – and deserve – our help and attention. 

I shudder at the thought of what might happen if Donald Trump returns to power. I know some people simply dismiss the possibility, but many people thought the same thing when Trump ran in 2016. And even if Trump is not re-elected, his fingerprints are already apparent in the unfolding tragedy. He unleashed the genie of hatred, lies, and crazy fabrications that has emboldened strongmen around the world. You need look no further than Putin’s recent crazy claims that the Ukrainian government is made of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.  

So many of those people who say they want to make America great again fail to realize that America’s strength came from its ability to work with, support, and inspire others. The current divisiveness of American politics may well prove to be the downfall of the U.S. and this crisis proves that Putin – and the rest of the world – have realized this. It should not be all on Biden to try to rebuild trust in the US – the American people have a crucial role. If they continue to support politicians who lie and foment distrust, tyranny will win out – and not just abroad. 

I lived in Amsterdam in 1986 when the reactor at Chernobyl melted down. The accident released a radioactive cloud that moved across Europe. Rain in the forecast meant there was a very real chance radioactive droplets would fall on Holland’s precious farmland. Cows, which are central to the Dutch dairy industry (think Edam, Gouda, Quark and other delicious things), had to be moved indoors. That incident helped me think more globally; it helped me realize how the lives and health of everyone in the world is intertwined. It’s easy to point to the catastrophic impact for those in the immediate vicinity of some attack or melt down – and to hope that the danger won’t spread – but it’s a mistake to not realize there will be wide-ranging consequences. In this vein, I imagine people in countries bordering Ukraine are worrying about whether Putin’s aggression will ultimately extend beyond Ukraine’s border. 

The impact this war will have on wheat supplies is also a very real concern, given that Ukraine and Russia account for 25% of the world supply of wheat. Rising prices and/or restrictions on exports of wheat will add to food insecurity for many across the world. One friend pointed out that South Africa gets 30% of its wheat from these countries. Indeed, there is concern that restrictions on the supply of wheat from Russia could also lead to increased social unrest far and wide.  

I’ve read a lot about the sanctions various countries have agreed to. Clearly the intent is to try to 1) economically isolate Russia, and 2) squeeze the lifestyles of Russian oligarchs in the hope that they’ll ultimately turn on Putin. It seems obvious that the impact of the sanctions will take a bit of time to work. But, if you listen to the press questioning Biden and other leaders, it seems people don’t get that. The way see it, sanctions aren’t like a bomb that causes damage instantly – they’re more like starving someone into submission. 

And clearly, putting effective sanctions in place isn’t easy; it requires buy-in from a wide circle of countries and industries. Early on there were reports that Italy was pushing to keep certain of its luxury goods (favourites of some oligarchs) off the list of sanctioned goods and Belgium wanted an exception for the diamond trade. Such claims have been refuted recently, but you can’t help wonder what politics is behind the fact that some Russian banks have not been removed from SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication).  

The other difficulty with sanctions is that they may have ripple effects that may be politically unpopular. I was frustrated that Biden had to warn Americans that the price at the pump may go up. Apparently, he felt he needed to brace Americans that prices of gas could go up by as much as 50¢ a gallon. Really? That seems like a small price to pay when you compare it to people risking their life to defend their country. 

There’s lots of talk by analysts about Putin wanting to create a new Russian empire and about what he wants his legacy to be.  There’s also been speculation about his psyche. (There’s a very interesting comment about his use of “grievance narratives in The Guardian, for example.) One explanation I heard this morning from some U.S. military analyst got me thinking. He said that Putin’s actions relate to the fact that he takes things personally. The interviewer didn’t buy that as an explanation, so she pushed him on it. The analyst simply added, “everyone takes things personally.” I don’t know how I feel about that as an explanation for Putin’s actions. But maybe the point is that we should all take Putin’s actions personally and we should figure out what our personal role might be in helping change the world.

© 2022 Ingrid Sapona


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