Searching the Crisis Background
The Black elephant of the Ukraine-Russia war has dashed onto the global stage producing terrible destruction, literally and figuratively. In contrast to the wars in Syria and Afghanistan of the past couple decades, this one has all the key ingredients to become an illustration of postnormal times phenomena. There is no need to argue that the “special military operation” (as Russia calls it) or just the “war” (as the rest of the world defines the irruption) bears deep marks of Complexity, Contradictions, and Chaos, or that these 3Cs are coming together, giving rise to a potential postnormal event. And the greater the influence of the 3Cs within an occurrence, the higher its uncertainty. Its current level is unprecedented, though this has not stopped futurists from building different scenarios and prognoses since the beginning of the invasion. Possible future variations grow like mushrooms after the rain, reflecting opinions of different politicians and experts. But by instead studying the nature of the phenomenon, with the help of the PNT theory, we may begin to understand what new patterns and structures might emerge from the complex, contradictory, and chaotic situation.
So, what are these components?
For many people, the Ukraine-Russia war (hereafter UKR-RUS war) appeared as a black swan, drawing from the PNT Menagerie, and caused a complete shock. Yet experts trace the signs of its preparation back to 2008 (that is why it appeared for them as a Black Elephant). A bundle of interrelated matters and interwoven issues determined the complex nature of the event. Let’s take a look at some of them.
1) NATO’s reckless expansion into former Soviet territories provoked Russia: We can go back in history as far as former US President George W. Bush's administration and consider it an initial step to the UKR-RUS war today. In April 2008, at the NATO Bucharest summit, Bush pushed the alliance to announce that Ukraine and Georgia would become members. Russian leaders' response was furious, characterizing that decision as an existential threat to Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin ‘flew into a rage’ and warned that ‘if Ukraine joins NATO, it will do so without Crimea and the eastern regions. It will simply fall apart.’
However, the collective West ignored Moscow's red line and continued pushing Ukraine closer to the EU and pro-American coalition. In 2014, when the Maidan brought down the pro-Russian regime of Viktor Yanukovich, Russia responded by taking Crimea from Ukraine and helping to fuel a civil war in the eastern region of Ukraine (Donbas) as a sort of punishment.
2) The “alien” nature of the Ukrainian state: it is hard to erase the post-Soviet reality from the minds and hearts of the so-called CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) countries’ population even after thirty years of their independence. That heritage is present primarily through the leadership of those states who trace their careers from the Soviet period and have a solid ideological background. Their governmental style follows the same “Soviet” command-and-control pattern with life-long presidents and a single ruling political party without any opposition. Therefore, they readily form alliances that resemble the “USSR unity” – take, for example, the Eurasian Customs Union or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). From time to time, some internal turmoil might result from “Big Brother” (Russia) showing too much zeal by dictating to others what to do, but, with time, the turmoil soon calms down.
Russian President Vladimir Putin taking social distancing serious in his government meetings (Reuters)
Ukraine was the first to break this vicious pattern. It brought forward absolutely new (and young) leadership, a new governmental approach, a new political orientation, and a new worldview. In April 2019, Vladimir Zelensky, a former popular actor-comedian, and producer, defeated the incumbent president Petro Poroshenko in a second-round presidential election (73% to 24%). Then in July 2019, his newly founded political party, Servant of the People, won parliamentary elections (60% of 424 seats). Throughout their time in power, Zelensky and his team showed a solid pledge for comprehensive reforms, including those in anti-corruption and justice sectors, industrial privatization, and security sector reforms. All was done without looking back for the “Moscow approval” but only minding the internal interests of the Ukrainians.
Another remarkable distinction of the new Ukrainian governance was an unprecedented level of social & mass media freedom. Even with the war beginning, the Internet, social networks, and all sorts of information channels have kept functioning and providing information internally and externally. In contrast, Russia cut FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram two weeks after the “special operation” began.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky breaking for a selife (BBC)
3) Waging war to revert attention from internal problems: According to some experts, in the present century, the Russian economy missed several unique opportunities for an economic and technological breakthrough and backtracked a hundred years in its political and economic structure. After the notorious "wild-wild capitalism” of the 1990s, the economic system has changed. Yet, democratic institutions and a competitive environment have failed to materialise. Instead, the country has experienced more centralization of power and property. While oil and gas prices were high, Russia managed to build up enough reserves that delayed an imminent economic collapse. According to the World Bank estimations, the Russian Federation’s growth potential has been quite low for several years. The banking sector is the weakest part of the economy. The federal budget income primarily consists of oil and gas revenues, receipts from VAT, personal income, and corporate income taxes. So, taxation and hydrocarbon prices are the critical factors for the Russian economy with very poor diversification and high inflation uncertainty.
In the last decade, the Russian authorities have exercised indirect control over the hydrocarbon industry, the banking business, and through them, lorded over the country's entire economic and political life. This situation has left a negative impact on the development of any non-oil businesses. The authorities’ desire to control financial flows has grown annually and led to the deliberate deterioration of the country’s investment climate, denying protection for the rights of investors and entrepreneurs and even discriminating against them (the Yukos Oil and Mikhail Khodorkovsky case is one of the most spectacular examples of that). As a result, investment dropped, the cost of money increased, and entrepreneurial activity took a nosedive. Financial and human capital also experienced dramatic losses. Official figures include over $1.7-2 trillion of the total outflow of capital from Russia over the short history of its modern existence. According to a recent study, up to 5 million citizens left Russia between 2000 and 2021. Since 2012, the pace of emigration has accelerated. In these circumstances, the foreign policy factors, such as international sanctions, do not play a critical role but are used by Moscow as an excuse for internal failures. Manufacturing the image of an “external enemy” – who is guilty of all imaginable sins – serves as a traditional solution in such situations.
Contradictions accompany complex issues and structures, bringing even more shadows and depth to the system.
The opposite tendencies reveal themselves in processes that, on the surface, look homogeneous. However, a closer look helps to surface a varying spectrum of contradictions.
Though “Westernization” and “Americanization” in Ukraine have taken a swift pace, the country's membership in NATO looked very appealing to foreign policymakers, many in the US itself warned against such actions since the late 1990s. For example, Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defense from 2006 until 2011, recognized that any attempt to bring Ukraine into NATO ‘was truly overreaching’. The other members of the alliance sensed a threat. At the Bucharest summit in 2008, both the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, built opposition to moving forward Ukraine’s NATO membership because they feared it would infuriate Russia.
The internal political situation in Ukraine is quite contradictory, too. Its territorial integrity is questioned because of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, the very bone of contention. For eight years, they have been the battleground between Ukrainian and pro-Russian military and political forces. Several rounds of three-sided negotiations in Minsk (Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)) helped to stop military operations and initiate a prisoner exchange process, but, in the end, did not settle the issue of the "special status" for the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR). Ukraine demanded restoration and control over its eastern borders, while Russia opposed that impulse, siding with DPR and LPR. An attempt that Vladimir Zelensky and Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, took in 2019 to resolve the situation through the so-called “Steinmeier formula” that could grant autonomy to Ukraine’s rebel-held east failed. For Donbas, Zelensky stood out for his care being, first and foremost, for the people. He attempted to stop a five-year confrontation that could potentially cost thousands of lives. But for the nationalists, it was a capitulation to Moscow, betrayal of national interests and the Constitution. That’s why thousands of people gathered in Kyiv's central square, Maidan, on 6 October to protest the agreement.
In Russia itself, the situation brought different groups and interests into conflict. The official propaganda followed the guideline that Vladimir Putin declared in his official address on 24 February 2022, calling the actions of Russian military forces a “special military operation” or “liberation operation” of Russian people in Donbas from ‘Nazis, drug addicts, and the Banderites that ceased power in Kyiv’. However, the independent mess media such as highly popular Novaya Gazeta, Ekho Moskvy, Dozhd’, and Mediazona refused to follow this rhetoric calling the war a war. In response, the Roskomnadzor issued official notifications demanding that these (and other) media outlets should remove any materials that refer to what was happening in Ukraine as ‘a war’. As a result, some newspapers and radio stations simply stop working or were blocked (twenty-six in total), others, like Novaya Gazeta, invented new ways of covering the events that remained honest while abiding by the prohibition. The correspondents and authors put in brackets the phrase ‘(what is called a special military operation)’ instead of using the word ‘war’.
While the war has worked as a catalyst for uniting European countries and the US, the opposite movement is getting stronger among their Eurasian counterparts. So, the current situation may boost reemerging of the EU but ruin Eurasian international organizations. For example, out of five members of the Eurasian Economic Union, three took an anti-Ukrainian position (there are Russia, Belarus, and Kyrgyzstan). At the same time, Kazakhstan and Armenia preferred staying away from participation in the military operation and openly condemned both sides. These countries are also participants of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Deep cracks could form in this structure should Russia insist on the members' participation in the war. Therefore, sooner or later (apparently, quite soon), the countries' leadership must decide what to do with these organizations.
Even mass media contributed to the contradictions. While all official news channels broadcast patriotic reports and accusations against the Ukrainian forces, alleging the murder of civilians, Marina Ovsyannikova, an editor of Russia’s pro-government Channel One, blew up the Internet with what was immediately coined the “five seconds of truth.” On 14 March, Mariya entered the live studio of the leading news program “Vremya” with a poster that said, ‘NO WAR. Stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda. They lie to you here. Russians are against war.’ The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation immediately began to check Marina’s actions under Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation “for the public dissemination of deliberately false information about the use of the Russian Armed Forces.” Yet, her act sounded in unison with the petition that more than a million prominent Russian scientists, actors and actresses, artists, and other intelligentsia representatives signed earlier against the invasion.
A snapshot of the broadcast of the Russian Channel One, 14 March 2022, On the poster, “Stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda. They lie to you here”
In contrast to Mariya Ovsyannikova’s brave step, the "Z" movement has developed, carrying that letter as a symbol of public support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin-funded state television network RT conducted a professional promotion announcement on its social media channels, stating it was selling Z merchandise to show support for Russian troops – only three days later after the invasion began! The authorities organized countless flash mobs across the country, encouraging young Russians to demonstrate their support for the “special military operation.” The Z letter has also appeared on large Soviet apartment blocks as well as street advertisement signs. So, Russian society has never been homogeneous about government actions. Now it experiences a deep crack, illustrating the contradictions that drive a situation towards PNT.
Various Z Scenes displaying the pro-Russia, pro-Putin symbol for “V” for “Victory” (clockwise) Russian military vehicle (The Quint); Muscovites adorned in the latest hot brand clothing (News.ru); Russian Gymnast Ivan Kuliak at Doha’s Apparatus World Cup (Screengrab/You Tube); Sick children posed to form the Z at Kazan hospice courtyard (Ex-press.By)
When complexity and contradictions meet, resulting chaos need never be too far away. And with the beginning of the war came the loud cry of chaos. Chaos overtook people's minds, economics, political systems, military forces, social actions, and many other spheres of life.
It is quite possible that when Vladimir Putin decided to cross borders of another sovereign country, which he had never considered as such, he misjudged Russia’s military capabilities and the effectiveness of the Ukrainian resistance. This “small” mistake triggered an avalanche of chaotic consequences:
1) The “special military operation” turned into a full-fledged war between the two brotherly nations;
2) Some parts of Ukraine – primarily those under the siege of Russian troops– came to the edge of a humanitarian catastrophe;
3) More than 3 million Ukrainians left their motherland trying to save their lives, and thus launched a new refugees crisis in Europe and other neighbouring countries, particularly in Poland, Hungary, Moldova, and Romania;
4) Russia has experienced a massive exodus in the same direction, including the so-called “near abroad.” For example, since the beginning of the invasion, around twenty-five thousand Russian refugees have arrived in Georgia – another country in which Russia waged hostilities against in recent history. A fear that the presence of these refugees could trigger another Russian invasion in the future plunges Georgian society into chaos. Kazakhstan shares the same feelings and ponders its possible (“Ukrainian”) fate, keeping in mind aggressive statements of Russian parliamentarians in recent years. So, it looks like Mr. Putin has also made his compatriots in the former sister republics feel unwelcome;
5) The market reaction to the invasion sent Russia and other countries into unprecedented economic chaos. On the international level, the experts compared the state of the economy to the Soviet Union’s in the 1970s, and ordinary people prefer paralleling it with the notorious situation of the 1990s. Ruble devaluation (by as low as 30%), currency deficit, and a rigid cash turnover control have become a reality within the first week of the military operation. People lined up in front of cash-machines to withdraw money, credit cards worked with interruptions, and exchange offices refused to sell dollars and euros;
6) The chaos in Russia spilled over to its Customs Union partners, particularly to its nearest neighbour, Kazakhstan. Tenge exchange rate to USD reached its historical maximum (552 KzT/1USD), triggered skyrocketing of food prices, birthing fear among ordinary people and policymakers about the future;
7) The global political community didn't know what to do and what reaction should be proper to this invasion. Though sanctions came up as a familiar tool, Western policymakers soon realized that Russia is not Iran and its economy has a historical precedent of existence behind an iron curtain for decades. Meanwhile, the EU and the US were depriving themselves of critical resources (oil, gas, and other metals); therefore, the commodity prices flew up, leaving the futures of this part of the world a resounding question mark.
However, 3Cs are not the only characteristics of a postnormal phenomenon. One can argue that contradictions, complexities, and chaos have always existed. What really sets them apart and calls out for a different, new type of reality is the changing nature of their change. For example, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has generated sudden shock waves across the globe. The war has provoked immediate and disruptive shifts on a massive scale, from geopolitics and cybersecurity to food supply chains, energy supply, and world trade. Moreover, it has disrupted both the lives of nations and single persons, thus marking its unique scope. The next step in our discussion of the UKR-RUS war nature is 4Ss – Speed, Scope, Scale, and Simultaneity – that define the dynamics leading to postnormal change.
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Yelena Muzykina is a Fellow with the Centre for Postnormal Policy & Futures Studies Residing in Almaty, Kazakhstan