Until days before the invasion of Ukraine, few experts predicted that Russia would invade its neighbour. That's because the reasons behind the war are incomprehensible, according to author Yuval Noah Harari.
“Why didn’t anyone believe that Putin was going to invade Ukraine?”. This is the first question posed to the historian-star Yuval Noah Harari on Thursday 30 June.
“This [war] makes no sense and that's why it was difficult to envisage that Putin was going to invade Ukraine,” replied the historian during a conference entitled The war in Ukraine: return to the law of the jungle or new stage in the evolution of society? , moderated by Viatcheslav Pokotylo, professor at MIM-Kyiv, Ukraine’s top business school.
During the online conference, the author of Sapiens and Homo Deus stressed the importance of knowing the history of his country and how it affects current decisions and those that Ukraine may take in the future.
For him, in the 21st century, power can no longer be acquired by conquering neighbouring lands, contrary to what Russia is trying to do. According to Harari, real influence today is based on knowledge. What’s more, no one is threatening to invade Russia and that is why this conflict makes no economic or strategic sense.
Harari, who already took a stand against Russia in the early days of the war, explains that Putin is only motivated by his belief that Ukraine is not a real nation and that its people, in fact, want to join Russia.
“If you want to understand the motivation of people, you have to listen to them. Even if they sound irrational, you need to take it seriously. And apparently, Putin believes this fantasy that he built in his head,” says the writer. “It’s natural to find it difficult to believe in it, because it’s far from reality.”
Knowing the past
One also needs to know history to understand the present, according to Harari. He explains that Soviet Union propaganda often used slogans about the future belonging to socialism. When in the 1960s and 1970s, the regime realised it was staggering behind the west, official communication switched from the future to the Union’s greatest achievements – World War II.
“If you tell people for decades that the best time ever was when we fought against the Nazis, says Harari, eventually you say, ‘OK, let’s do it again!’. So, if you don’t understand where [Russia’s rhetoric] is coming from, you think they’re going mad.”
The author insists that no matter how painful, knowing your nation’s past is the best way to make informed decisions in the present – decisions that will influence the future of your country.
“We need to know the past, because it continues to control us in so many ways that we don’t even realise, says Harari. The main aim of history, is not to learn from the past or remember it, but it’s to be liberated from the past. And to be liberated it, you first need to understand it.”
According to him, Ukraine understood its past and realised it had a choice.
“Ukraine was for centuries under tsars and communists. But when the Soviet Union collapsed and the opportunity arose, they chose democracy, he says, and not just once, but again and again.”
A balancing act
The balance of democracy is a tricky one which requires moderation, says Harari. He gives the example of the extreme turmoil the west experienced in the 1960s and compares it to the Soviet Union, where everything was under control. However, twenty years on, the regime that collapsed is the USSR.
“The turmoil of democracy can be dangerous, but if it’s managed correctly, eventually it creates a more just society that becomes more fair and stronger,” says Harari. “In history, you have people trying to go to extremes and the solution is almost always in the middle way. We are now in another such cycle, and I hope that democracy can find the middle path.”
Today, he believes that states with little resources should join a group of countries to overcome the difficulties of the new world, such as reskilling in the face of automation. “For Ukraine, this group is obviously the European Union”, says Harari and adds, “I hope that it will be part of the EU, one way or another. It’s Ukraine’s best bet for the future.”