Trying to make sense of the narratives of war

The narrative of the newest war in Europe seems to be clear: it is good against bad; democracy versus dictatorship; an underdog in battle with a tyrant. A European nation is under an existential attack. 

On one side is Vladimir Putin, at the end of a very long table, an autocrat who has been described as ‘deranged’, ‘a monster’, ‘the ultimate evil’. He expounds an ideology in justification for the invasion of Ukraine that many find ludicrous, but his conviction of ‘the historic unity of Russians and Ukrainians’ is proving to be dangerous.

On the other side is Volodymyr Zelensky, dressed in military fatigues as he films his appearances on his phone. As a former comedian and actor his best known role was, of course, as President of Ukraine. Now he is a (real) Presidential hero and admired war leader who is commanding and inspiring the Ukrainian resistance. Yesterday, Zelensky spoke to the European Union and said that he was not reading from a script: “because the phase of scripts for Ukraine has ended.”

The West stands behind Zelensky and Ukraine while Russia becomes a pariah state, and Putin is accused of committing war crimes.

How did we get here? There are timelines (short and long), explanations and analysis, which all point to a more complicated picture. And in-depth news of the conflict is everywhere. Myriad lenses focus on stories on all fronts:

This is only Day 7. (Or almost Year 8 – it is arguably a new and huge acceleration of the same war that has been waged since 2014, which we didn’t pay so much attention to). The narratives of this war will deepen and evolve; more heroes and villains will emerge; it will become messier. 

We notice this war in Europe because it is close. We notice Ukraine, we’ve learned the name of its second largest city, and we watch the news of its suffering. We wait for what is heading for Kyiv

In this era of misinformation and disinformation we are advised to be careful with what we digest (we are told that this is a particular challenge in Russia, and helps to explain the fear Russians live under). But dispassionate objectivity can be hard when caught in rolling ‘LIVE’ headlines and the vortex of Twitter. What is true, what is nuanced, what is false?  

That is, if dispassionate objectivity is something to aspire to. Because at the heart of this war are people. Individuals and families are suffering – their lives are being turned upside down: Russians and Ukrainians and members of all nations. Ukranians who can escape are doing so – and finding a safe haven wherever they can (to be met by a “border of policies” in places). Russians who live outside their country are scared for the safety of their loved ones at home: “Just by writing this, I am probably committing treason; typing this out makes me worry about the ones I love in Moscow.” writes an anonymous journalist. 

Ukrainian writers are seeking the right words to articulate what is happening: “How can one speak about, write about, war?” Ilya Kaminsky’s words are noteworthy, not least because they were written before this new war:

And when they bombed other people’s houses, we

but not enough, we opposed them but not


(From ‘We Lived Happily During the War’)

A line that resonates, particularly given recent comments about those ‘other people’, and the fact that reports from the Belarus-Polish border – where other refugees from other nations are engaged in their own struggles – have gone quiet.

As Mark Twain may or may not have said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”