Italian high-school students, when they study the making of the Italian State as a unified entity, read in books that Camillo Benso Count of Cavour, prime minister of the Kingdom of Sardinia (and Piedmont), secretly met in July 1858 the French emperor Napoleon III in the town of Plombières, to discuss Piedmont’s new military structure aimed at unifying the Peninsula and at driving the Austrians out of the Peninsula. During the meeting, the two men convened that – in case of an Austrian attack against Piedmont, France would intervene militarily in support of the Italians, in exchange of the territories of Nice and the Savoy. In the following months, the Kingdom of Sardinia provoked an Austrian aggression: it dislocated its troops along the borders with the Lombardy-Venetia (occupied by the Austrian empire) and a general call-up brought volunteers from all Italy ready to fight against the Austrians. After unsuccessful diplomatic missions, in April 1859 the Austrians launched an ultimatum of disarmament, which was rejected by the monarch of the Kingdom of Sardinia, Vittorio Emanuele II. Austria declared war to them, and the French entered the conflict on the side of the Italians.

I do not know whom Putin secretly talked to when he decided to deploy massive troops and carry out continuous military drills along the Ukrainian borders, but what he is doing looks like a perfectly planned storm. The difference is that Cavour wanted to create a non-occupied and free state entity for the Italians in the Peninsula, while Putin wants to occupy a country which moved toward independence and democracy after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Even though the warnings of an imminent war become louder while no real de-escalation has taken place yet, in the last days, some Italian newspapers were mocking the warnings of a planned invasion by Russia, Americans were reported as “obsessed by the idea of war”, NATO was represented as a weak and unreliable coalition of capitalist states, and the Ukrainian State described as a corrupted engine leaving their citizens in indigence. There might be some truth in it[1], but the level of disinformation and partial reporting is flourishing as never before, even within Western Europe, and that deflects public attention from what is happening on the ground now.

In my view, what is happening now has also been made possible because we let Russia annihilate the Syrian aspirations for freedom and democracy and reinstall al-Assad’s regime, after Damascus had transformed a nonviolent popular protest into a civil war. Russia tested its abilities to overturn democratic aspirations in the immediate neighbourhood of Europe, and it assessed how much the democratic camp would have abdicated its responsibilities to defend the democratic cause. It was a win-win investment for Russia. My Syrian friends at that time, around six years ago, were right when they were saying to me: “Your countries believe that democracy is for them, not for us, and they’ve let us die under the bombs of dictators”. He added then: “Sooner or later, that will backfire against the world”. Here we are.

The mechanism is well worked. Let me remind you the following. On March 14, 2016, after an intense six-month long air raid campaign carried out in the Syrian rebel areas “to target terrorists”, Putin declared that the Russian army would withdraw from Syria. The announcement was made public, and images of fighter planes heading back home were circulated. Then, the opposite happened: Russia intensified its military intervention, which later culminated with the Aleppo siege, bombing and reconquest, and ended with the definitive deployment of substantial Russian troops on the ground, who are still there as of today, after having put the whole of the country to fire and sword, in the name of re-establishing the legitimacy of the criminal despot of Damascus.

In Ukraine, we see similar games, based on systematic fabrication of facts, distortion of reality, and imposition of imperial views onto the minds of Russian citizens and fellows worldwide.

Those who underestimate the gravity of the momentum, or who play down the threat of a Russian invasion, may not fully realise what is at stake. It is about defending the principle of choosing democracy, and the right to self-determination of nations. It is not about controlling the territories of Ukraine, or not only; it is rather about disrupting the force of attraction that democracy holds for all the nations under the rule of dictators and authoritarians. It is probably also not about feeling safe from the military threat posed by the West, or not only[2]; it is rather about preventing Ukraine to possibly join the European Union’s family, and generally the community of European democratic states.

Last year, the Russian president wrote a pamphlet advocating that Russians and Ukrainians are one single nation[3], but Ukrainians are challenging this view qualifying it as an imperialistic statement. I invite readers to give a look at a contribution by Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze and Oleksandr Merezhko, respected political profiles of contemporary Ukraine, recently published in the German press[4]. Putin wrote in his pamphlet: “I am confident that a real sovereignty of Ukraine is only possible in partnership with Russia, because we are one single people”. The words of George Kennan, an American historian who served as a diplomat during the Cold War, are revealing of what that statement might mean: “The jealous and intolerant eye of the Kremlin can basically only distinguish between vassals and enemies, and if Russia’s neighbours do not want to be one, they must resign themselves to being the other”[5]. We are in fact witnessing a complete reversal of the “self-determination” principle, which denotes the legal right of people to decide their own destiny in the international order, and which is enshrined in several international treaties, including the 1945 United Nations Charter and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

When I was a student, I was fascinated by the books of Elias Canetti. 1960 he published Crowds and Power, after over thirty years of research. Canetti was absorbed into understanding the fascination that power exert on popular masses, how masses function, and the obsession of control power holders have. Canetti argues that the oldest and most important actions in human evolution are “grasping” and “incorporating”. Objects themselves originated as hand gestures. Words and objects were emanations and consequences of representing with the hands. “Grasping”, “dominating” are irresistible temptations for those who believe to interpret the will of masses. Canetti connects the notion of power not only to force, but also to survival: the ruler is the one who sees threats lurking behind every corner and maintains his position by any means, including force. His power strengthens as time goes on and he is able to keep control around himself. What if that image applies to someone like the president of a great country like Russia? Does it mean that he is unbeatable, or that one can see him as invested with some universal mission?

Looking at the recent Peking’s Olympic Games parade, it would look like so. The opening of the winter games was absolutely exciting, and it left anyone speechless for its magnitude and beauty. It was the celebration of Chinese puissance, certainly; however, it was more than that. It was the announcement of a new era staged by the East against the West, heralding the relentless progression of a new world order. Putin was “the” guest of honour, and behind him, a queue of small and middle-sized autocrats joined the event and paid respect to the Chinese leader. The alternative order staged on scene will survive to the collapse of democratic systems. It will be a world of stability and effectiveness, masculine values, salvific heroes, and zero freedom.  Where violence as a means for the sake of the mission is fully justified: in Syria, Hong-Kong, or Belarus, among the Uighurs or your own non-aligned nationals. Xi Jinping and Putin’s joint statement, issued at the Games opening, declares: “A nation can choose such forms and methods of implementing democracy that would best suit its particular state, based on its social and political system, its historical background, traditions and unique cultural characteristics. It is only up to the people of the country to decide whether their State is a democratic one”. And then: “[China and Russia] believe that the advocacy of democracy and human rights must not be used to put pressure on other countries. They oppose the abuse of democratic values and interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states under the pretext of protecting democracy and human rights, and any attempts to incite divisions and confrontation in the world”.

At the Olympic Games opening, besides the Russian president, you could notice the heads of State of around twenty countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE, Argentina, Ecuador, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and Serbia. Besides the fact that one might find bizarre that Gulf countries celebrate snow and ice sports, and besides that a bunch of country leaders travelled to Peking to negotiate loans and debts, I can’t help but notice that some of those leaders are great democrats, perfectly representing the new era to be coming.

Tunis, 19 February 2022.

Image: The Battle of Waterloo, by William Sadler.


[1] The German magazine Der Spiegel has very recently published a 1991 diplomatic document hinting at the promise of the West not to enlarge NATO beyond the Elba river. See here.

[2] If someone should be entitled to claim the right to feel safe from military threats, that would be Western Europe, not Russia. Russia has as much nuclear warheads as the whole world together: 6,255 out of 13,080 existing in the world (US has 5,550; France 290; the UK 225; China 350; data of January 2021).

[3] “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, published in the Kremlin’s website on July 12, 2021.

[4] “Ein Volk? (One nation?)” published in Die Zeit.

[5] Quote from the source above.

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