Over the weekend, a 40-mile-long military convoy began advancing on Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, as part of a long-threatened invasion by Russia. Ukrainian diplomats and President Volodymyr Zelensky made impassioned pleas for help to the United Nations and the European Parliament, while refugees streamed over the border to neighboring Poland. Meanwhile, spectators online wondered who would play Zelensky in a Hollywood biopic.
The unseemly takes multiplied as the invasion continued. “Putin is Emperor Palpatine,” a self-described “thought-leader” mused on Twitter; Ukraine and its American supporters are “the Rebel alliance.” On Instagram, there were memes of former president Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin kissing. The observation “BREAKING: every woman in your life now has at least a small crush on Volodymyr Zelenskyy and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it” garnered more than 20,000 retweets.
Apparently, people find it impossible to take things seriously even when the times demand it.
The offenders aren’t just clout-grasping influencers and social media obsessives. Public officials have rashly entered the chat: Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) wants Russians kicked off the International Space Station. A former JAG and two-time Democratic congressional candidate advocates dropping bombs on Putin in a preemptive strike. Armchair warriors in the media have joined the fray, hypothesizing no-fly zones and weaponry outfits as if the Russian invasion of Ukraine were a live-streamed game of Risk.
Meanwhile, the majority of Ukrainians I know are busy trying to organize money and aid, and mourning a loss of life, family and homeland that is already occurring and certain to get worse.
There is a growing tendency to view international conflicts either purely in terms of realpolitik — strategies and interests, bloodless and devoid of moral valence — or as an extension of fandom. While the former stance is more often adopted by the foreign policy establishment, the latter has become the public’s standard. Who has the sexier leader, the better public image? Which side signals clearer alignment with one’s favorite political cause? Which team resembles us the most?
With Ukraine, this tendency is perhaps understandable, if not admirable. In an increasingly complex world, the clarity of “good guy vs. bad” might make faraway events easier to digest. Rooting for the scrappy underdog has undeniable psychological appeal in a conflict that is wrenching to behold and seemingly out of our control.
And there is much to admire in the Ukrainian resistance: The determination of the country’s citizens has inspired and heartened the world, especially after a dark and confusing few years. Zelensky has displayed the virtue of courage in its truest sense — well-considered bravery and perseverance despite fear. It’s an example more people in politics ought to follow.
Yet we should also remember that world affairs don’t unfold for our personal edification; their importance is not correlated with how well they accord with our psychological needs. The crisis in Ukraine is not a spontaneous event or a weekend influencer pop-up — it’s the result of decades’ worth of geopolitical strife. And in this conflict, contrary to our comfortingly predetermined story lines, there is no playbook showing that the underdogs will win.
It’s easy enough to “pick a side” — and to some extent, this can be useful in rallying necessary support. But war isn’t a lighthearted kickball match. Treating it as such eventually dehumanizes the very people we are trying to help. Ukraine’s leaders, soldiers and civilians aren’t video game characters or actors from our favorite Marvel films; they’re real people, in a struggle that has and will continue to have human consequences and cost, long after our overheated attention has faded.
So what to do when cheering from the sidelines isn’t useful? Donate to crisis funds. Reach out to lawmakers to increase protections for refugees — all of them, not only those from Ukraine. (The Syrian refugee crisis, too, has roots in Russian aggression; and let’s not forget Afghanistan.) Pray, if that appeals.
Our habits of attention have been curdling for years. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter have “incentivized” content creation and “monetized” celebrity, and the wider you can broadcast your presence (the relevance of one’s contributions being secondary), the greater your success. Cable news and other media organizations share blame in the problem: Over the past several decades, they have profited on the back of horse-race politics, covering winners and losers as though outcomes — which change real lives — are a betting sport.
This week, as Russian attacks intensify across Ukraine — as the refugee crisis becomes starkly visible and the violence more brutal — it’s time to wake up to reality.
War is not a game.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.
Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.