Ben Peters: Ukrainian Reflections from Tulsa, Oklahoma

I have not been directly affected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, although I am in touch with dozens of my colleagues, friends, and contacts in the region, where I have lived for about three years and have studied for about twenty. As such, my comments here will bear far less of the immediate unbearable horror, trauma, and disgust that comes with this unprovoked and murderous war timed in the dark of winter to exacerbate suffering, as it will on my own rolling reflection on what, if anything, the removed observer can do or even think in the face of such evil. Since I write from Tulsa, Oklahoma (USA), most of my reflections are geared toward fellow Americans.

Four things to bear in mind:

1. Ukraine is Ukraine, a sovereign country. My family visited Ukraine in 2004, 2007, 2015, and most recently 2019. We remember it for the sunshine in the summer, the breadbasket plains, the bright-colored wardrobe, the delicious cuisine, and its rich and complex history. If its eastern border were superimposed on New York City, its western border would stretch to Chicago. Ukraine boasts top-shelf literature including the poetry of Shevchenko, Ukrainka, and the pen of Mykola Hohol (often known to English speakers as Nikolai Gogol); its contributions to world history are many: Anna, daughter of Yaroslav the Wise, became Queen of France; Lord Byron immortalized its Cossack rulers; the Soviet Union was led by two general secretaries who called Ukraine their home; much of the wheat on our plates and many of the apps on our phones were developed by Ukrainians.

No ethnic purity, Ukraine—like Belgium, Canada, Finland, Brazil, Indonesia, India, South Africa, the US, and so many others—is a beautiful historical conglomerate: the resulting multi-ethnic people have both survived and been formed into modern-day Ukraine in the wake of the Norse, the Holy Roman empire, the Mongol empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian empire, the Soviets (where millions of Ukrainians died in the forced famine of the Holodomor), the Nazis (where Ukraine, once home to millions of Jews, became the killing fields of the Holocaust), the Soviets again (Chernobyl 1986/2022 deserves its own comment), and now the Russian federation. No doubt my memory fails me on this extraordinary crossroads of Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. For the last thirty years, the Ukrainian people have had their own sovereign state. Now they are suffering terribly due to unprovoked Russian military aggression.

2. All claims that nationality is based on blood, soil, and religion are dangerous, for they leave room for no one else. Ukraine, a diverse and independent people, has the right to its own sovereignty, territory, and state–full stop. Now if we are going to consider the long history of the eastern Slavs, please note that Putin’s historical pretext for this war is not only wrong. It is tragically backward. Putin claimed in his now-infamous July 2021 speech that, effectively, Ukraine is a subset of great Russia. Isolated by the pandemic and having jailed his closest competitor, he has now invaded Ukraine in order not (as he claims) to defend Russians but to subordinate Ukraine to his vision of the Russian empire. His history of empire needs to control Ukraine to make Russia great again. But make no mistake: Kyiv, not Moscow, is the oldest of all eastern Slavic cities. Kyiv came centuries before Moscow. Ukraine is not the little sibling to big brother Russia. Rather Ukraine is the cradle of all eastern Slavic culture. This means that it is not Ukrainian national identity that is weak, but Putin’s vision of greater Russia. Putin needs Ukraine; Ukraine needs independence. It is not, as Putin believes, that all Ukrainians are a subset of greater Russia; rather Russians were, if anything, first Ukrainians. If we follow this dangerous reading, Russia is committing matricide as much as it is committing fratricide.

3. The whole world must stand with Ukraine today. Ukraine, situated between Central Europe, Russia, and the Middle East, is a pivot point for all Eurasia and a measure of the balance of world powers. Ukrainian people are dying now defending not only Ukraine from Putin; they too are arguably defending Europe and Central Asia from an imperial Russia. China watches with interest too: if Russia seizes Ukraine, what will keep China from further troubling Tibet, seizing Taiwan, or controlling the South Pacific Sea? Who will not stand with the Ukrainians, for they are fighting for a world where authoritarian power cannot just take whatever it wants?

4. Like the Ukrainian people, it is too early to hope but act we must. The resilience and triumphs of the Ukrainian people are already historic and ever heartening; the Zelensky government will likely be cheered for generations. Yet do not celebrate for the man steering the Russian army has no map. As Putin experiences shame at his army’s failures, as this war criminal realizes he has sped his own worst nightmares—a mobilized Ukraine and a militarized Europe—we must ask, will his resolve weaken or will his reaction drive a potentially appallingly far worse second wave? No one knows, but the war crimes being committed against Ukrainian people today could grow far worse at his command. (And even if the Ukrainians somehow won every battle against overwhelming odds, Ukraine will still lose a war ravaging their homes.) I pray that the morale of the Russian soldier fails before an irrational Putin commits national fratricide. It is unlikely that the Russian army can occupy Ukraine as a whole, but that does not mean it cannot carry out devastating costs across the land while creating and controlling vulnerabilities. I fear this war, already eight years in the Donbass, may still be in its early days. Do not hope but do take action.

Four things the average reader can do to help:

1. Perhaps we must do everything short of going to war in Ukraine and short of hating the Russian people. Intensify sanctions, boycott Russian institutions, strengthen cyber defenses across the country, do all that we must but NATO must not put books on the ground in Ukraine: the costs of global nuclear war would be beyond incalculable. Even as we must boycott Russian institutions, we too must not hate Russian people. Oppose institutions, not people. The babushka that sells piroshki at your corner store did not invade Ukraine; neither did your colleague trying to publish their way out of their current institution. The barrage of Hollywood movies with Russians as the evergreen enemy should make the whole world cringe, even as the whole world should also mobilize to grind the Russian war machine to a halt. We can do all this without fanning or inflaming the West’s seventy plus years of anti-Russianism.

2. Help Ukraine now. Now on the nineteenth day of the invasion, the humanitarian and emigration crisis in Ukraine are mounting. The shock is waning and the slow grind of supply chains, grocery stories, ATMs, electric grids is waxing. More than double the émigrés have passed from Ukraine in the last two weeks than in any month of the Syrian crisis. If you can afford it, sponsor a family in need of emigration: many local emigration lawyers appear willing to do the paperwork pro bono. If you can, drive emigres to safer lands from the border. For the rest of us, donate regularly; yesterday we could have even sent money to a legitimate charity; but the electric grid in Ukraine, tied to Russia’s as it is, may be unreliable tomorrow. Donate today.

3. Check our own media use. Media may be the sixth front of war. Turn off the TV—both Fox News as well as CNN; read, don’t watch, the news. Reading puts you in charge of your attention. Trust the AP and Reuters; trust but verify the BBC and NPR. If you are not paying for your news with subscription or taxes, you are the product. Shame and boycott any public figure whose willingness to criticize the American center makes them repeat or, in Tucker Carlson’s case, draft Russian state media talking points. The way forward through this thick fog of war is to gather information carefully, discount unverified claims, check our own biases, support sources that check their facts, and stand gracefully in uncertainty.
Even six years ago many Americans would have struggled to understand why most Russians believe toweringly horrific state-sponsored falsehoods.

After a series of election disinformation and pandemic misinformation crises, that unfortunate reality should no longer seem so strange. The most virulent disinformation is what the public wants to be true, and the videos and photos of Russian soldiers shelling the citizens of their brother country is just too horrific for most Russians to admit they can believe: it is easier to believe the state-sponsored lie that the West is propping up Nazis in Kyiv than that their soldiers in uniform are, without provocation, murdering their second cousins in Ukraine. Sometimes it is easier to imagine a grand conspiracy at work behind the fence to your neighbor’s backyard than it is to call back your own assault dog. Not all Russians of course. Generations of educated Russians have also perfected a literary culture of reading between and beyond the headlines; they know and feel the unbearable burden of their country’s impact in the world. For media readers in the former West, the complacent Russian majority sounds a dire, familiar warning and the self-checking Russian reader offers a sterling model.

A few probably obvious pro tips on media literacy in the fog of war: news media are the sixth front of modern warfare (after land, air, sea, space, and cyber). Train yourself to be, as it were, situationally aware and to not react rashly. Not all sources are created equal. Reality is under no obligation to be symmetrical and both-sideism can be as dangerous to a population as a pandemic. The thing to believe is not what most suits your or my personal convenience; the thing to believe is the perspective that checks our own biases against verified facts; when in doubt, trust legitimate news institutions with a long record of checking facts and issuing corrections.

Turn off the TV: the best talking heads are often worse than even mediocre written analyses. In the thick fog of war, be wary of social media too: follow and trust established verified experts, and be aware that the most recent shocking thread is at best the zero draft of history and our reaction instincts to share also speeds the spread of the seeds of disinformation. Slow down: check your sources. Put your attention in charge by reading–not watching, not scrolling through–the news and especially eye-witness-based, fact-checked independent journalism. Follow international stories across a balance of news sources: the Associated Press and Reuters, NPR and the BBC, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and the Economist, Al Jazeera and the Kyiv Independent, and especially two or three sources in foreign languages (I often try to read an event across at least two Indo-European languages and one non-Indo European language); the resulting worldview will not cancel out biases to nothing; instead we will begin to see news events emerge in three-dimensional parallax. If you are not paying for your news, you are likely the product. All news begins local (even news about the cosmos starts on a starless night on an observatory hilltop) and stories in war often risk journalists’ lives too. The first ten dollars in your monthly media budget should go to your local newspaper.

4. Call your local and national representatives to increase the pressure against the Russian state. Tell them, you know a network of voters happy to pay much more at the pump if it means slowing mounting humanitarian, emigration, and international crises with potentially global consequences. Then, of course, is the most obvious bit of self-checking: what does it tell us today that, besides the reactionary Hitler analogies, perhaps the most popular analogy for explaining the invasion to an average American today comes from TV (via social media): namely, that Putin is Kanye West (unstable and megalomaniac), Ukraine is Kim Kardashian (beautiful and autonomous), and the EU is Pete Davidson (I gather, awkward and pasty?)… and that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a story of an unhinged him trying to get her back from another him. Set aside the ridiculous analogy here to consider why a reality TV analogy so resonates with Americans.

Many live in more reality TV than reality. Note that most Russian people in Russia are not for or against their invasion of Ukraine because most do not even know or believe their country is invading Ukraine; the Russian state and its media have banned calling the invasion a war, most social media platforms are shuttered, and so most Russian people in Russia, like most Americans glued to their TVs, reference more reality TV than reality. They exist in an environment where every claim has a counterclaim, and fact cannot easily be sorted from fiction. Now, can we Americans not see ourselves here too? Will we too not mobilize the vote to ensure that our country does not elect another President that knows more about reality TV than governance? Will we not pause to reflect on why the stream of videos of blonde, blue-eyed young mothers and children fleeing across European borders tugs at our hearts and purse strings even while, like the average Russian blind to Ukraine, we remain callous and clueless to the brown-skinned mothers and children huddled in camps not 12 hours from where I write on the Texas-Mexico border? (Four US administrations—my adult life—have failed to bring about humane immigration reform. Do Americans not demand it?) Can the average American quickly, collectively mobilize against Putin while also, like the average Russian blind to Ukraine, does not know the names or bear the costs of the US in Nicaragua, Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Congo, Yemen, Libya, Syria, and many others—military actions our Congress too refuses to call “war” and that our media too refuse to cover as “war,” even though by every human definition it is?

Can we not see our selective empathy and solidarity with white Europeans as a consequence of our nation’s historical and current structural racism, our collective blindness and oppression of a hierarchy of race? We must do all this, for what else is real patriotism but to know and reconcile with the reality of one’s own country, knowing both its virtues and vices, bearing and lifting its burdens and blessings at home and abroad? One thing we can all do, in solidarity with Ukrainians, is to get real and bear more boldly the hard histories of our own lands. I hope that bearing the truth will humble all of us, opening our minds, hearts, purses, and hands to the suffering near and far.

What to make of the cyber attacks in the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

What is more bone chilling to the average hawk in the West than a merger of cold war and cyber elusive enemies, the Russian and the hacker? At the very moment of Russia’s unprovoked and murderous invasion of Ukraine when one might expect the worst fears about Russian state cyber actors to be realized, the evidence for a menacing Russian state cyber forces are surprisingly muted. The case for surprise is far longer-term: even a simple Google Ngram for the phrase “Russian hacker” suggests that the phrase has been continuously skyrocketing in English-language printed material from nothing in 1982 to 2019 except for a curious dip between 1998 and 2006 (which we theorize as the moment when English-language opponent discourse largely pivots to the Middle East).

Not only has the popular discourse but the predictive analysis of cyber experts appears to have considerably overestimated the influence or capacities of Russian state cyber actors in the current moment. The most well-known narratives of Russian state-based cyber influence–namely, the GRU’s Internet Research Agency’s hacking into the DNC, the successful phishing into John Podesta’s emails (thanks to a mistake on part of one of his staff), and disinformation campaigns on social media during the 2016 US Presidential election–appear in retrospect overblown and under-influential: without the help of Assange’s WikiLeaks republication of the GRU’s files, it is highly unlikely that the Russian state narratives of intervention into the 2016 US Presidential election would have entered the collective memory today.

As it happens, the narrative of the menacing Russian hacker that corrupted the mechanisms of US democracy in 2016 serves as a more convincing, enduring, and seemingly more credible grounded fictional scapegoat for those in US centrist-liberal politics to explain to themselves the election of Donald Trump than the most recent conspiratory fictionalizing about US election tampering and election fraud that the US Trumpists use to explain Biden’s election in 2020–when, by all appearances, the amount of blame for recent US politics that can be hung on the neck of the Russian state-based hacker is almost as vanishingly small as that of Hugo Chavez, deceased since 2013, can explain 2020.

The more staid–if not necessarily less-threat-reactive–minds of cyber security analysts too appear to have considerably overestimated the threats of Russian state-based cyber forces in the build up to the current Russian invasion of Ukraine. William Courtney and Peter A. Wilson from RAND (a spinoff of the US Air Force at the end of World War II) warned of the “massive employment” of cyber attacks to create “shock and awe causing Ukraine’s defenses or will to fight to collapse.” Jason Healey predicted a month ago that if Russia invades, “the opening salvo is likely to be with offensive cyber capabilities.” The specter of a new “cyber Pearl Harbor,” and particularly of the hacking of the electrical grid, at the hands of Russian state-based cyber forces has become increasingly hard to exorcize from the haunted nightmares (or anxiety-driven capital campaigns) among cyber organizations. Setting aside that more-is-more counter-hypothesis that is precisely such overheated threats that have, in fact, inspired predictive successful countermeasures, the current relative absence of Russian state-based cyber measures on US, NATO, or other major power soils is far more easily explained by the more complicated reality of Russian-based cyber forces: namely, Russian does have significant cyber forces, but most of them appear to be non-state actors unwilling to sacrifice their profit motive to a deeply unpopular war.

Condi, the Russian-speaking business network declared itself pro-Putin two weeks ago and, a day later, its Ukrainian members published all of the group’s internal threads. Without the alignment of a significantly better and better organized industry of multinational cyber non-state actors, the Russian state cyber forces appear to have been overestimated. As recent research suggests, the battle for the autonomous regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine since 2014 mark both the first time that cyber attacks have been extensively used by both sides in modern warfare as well as, more telling, the first demonstration that “cyber attacks are not (yet) effective as tools of coercion in war,” or that cyber war may stand brightly in the minds and hearts of the strategists of war as the shiniest capital-intensive growth fronts of modern warfare, but it is, at least in the current war in Ukraine, not a particularly effective complement to force.

This is not to say that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has not brought about significant harm: cyber forces have knocked out Ukrainian banks, turned off ATMs, and shuttered supply chains. All of which is meant to increase the pressure on the Ukrainian population, similar to but without the lies of media discourse and without the violence of airstrikes (imagine, for a moment, being a young family, recently relocated from a major city to a village, now with a spouse just conscripted into the army, no grocery store, and no ATM: how long will you or I actively resist passing Russian troops?). It is curious that Anonymous, the distributed hacking collective which has been fairly quiet in recent years, among other hacking groups and homegrown cyber security talents in Ukraine and the surrounding countries, are now mobilizing against the Russia state. In an unconfirmed report, there is at least one database taken from the Russian Defense Ministry now available on the dark web. This parallels significant advances the Belarus Cyber Partisans have made in exploiting vulnerabilities in the cyber defenses of the Lukashenko regime in Belarus.

Noting my barge-sized reservations about the extralegal extension of war into independently organized cyber warfare, let’s press this point: I desperately want the Russian war machine to be pulled apart from the inside out right now and stopped in its tracks through all non-violent cyber means possible. Yet at the same time that I openly celebrate what Gabriella Coleman calls the public interest hack (or hacks made in the service of the public interest), I also have rising concerns that the Russian invasion of Ukraine normalizes the scaling up of uneven relations between state and non-state cyber actors in the others’ affairs. (The US has the Stuxnet hack of the NSA against Iran to point to as the first state-based cyber attacks against another state.) If I had to guess, in the next decade, both non-state and state cyber forces will grow and their interests will interpolate one another, much as corporations and states have long supported and profited from the multinational military arms industry; if the militarization of cyberspace continues, even the quick end of this war could help usher in a war machine as wide as our digital horizon.

Ben Peters is a Tusla/Oklahoma-based media theorist, expert on Russian hackers and author of Soviet Internet, Digital Keywords and Your Computer is on Fire. More on him here: