Southern novelist William Faulkner’s famous line saying “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” is usually interpreted as a reflection on how the evils of our history continue to shape the present. But Faulkner also argued, equally accurately, that the past is “not even past” because what happens in the present changes the way we remember the past.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the defiant and heroic response of the people of Ukraine to that new invasion are changing the way we remember the past.
Less than a week ago, Russian president Vladimir Putin launched an assault on Ukraine, and with his large military force, rebuilt after the military’s poor showing in its 2008 invasion of Georgia, it seemed to most observers that such an attack would be quick and deadly. He seemed unstoppable. For all that his position at home has been weakening for a while now as a slow economy and the political opposition of people like Alexei Navalny have turned people against him, his global influence seemed to be growing. That he believed an attack on Ukraine would be quick and successful was clear when a number of Russian state media outlets published an essay, obviously written before the invasion, announcing Russia’s victory in Ukraine, saying ominously that “Putin solved the Ukrainian question forever…. Ukraine has returned to Russia.”
But Ukrainians changed the story line. While the war is still underway and deadly, and while Russia continues to escalate its attacks, no matter what happens the world will never go back to where it was a week ago. Suddenly, autocracy, rather than democracy, appears to be on the ropes.
In that new story, countries are organizing against Putin’s aggression and the authoritarianism behind it. Leaders of the world’s major economies, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Singapore, though not China, are working together to deny Putin’s access to the world’s financial markets.
As countries work together, international sanctions appear to be having an effect: a Russian bank this morning offered to exchange rubles for dollars at a rate of 171:1. Before the announcement that Europe and the U.S. would target Russia’s central bank, the rate was 83:1. On February 28, Monday morning Moscow time, the ruble plunged 30%. As Russia’s economy descends into chaos, investors are jumping out: BP, Russia’s largest foreign investor, announced it is abandoning its investment in the Russian oil company Rosneft and pulling out of the country, at a loss of what is estimated to be about $25 billion.
The European Union has suddenly taken on a large military role in the world, announcing it would supply fighter jets to Ukraine. Sweden, which is a member of the E.U., will also send military aid to Ukraine. And German chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that Germany, which has tended to underfund its military, would commit 100 billion euros, which is about $112.7 billion, to support its armed forces. The E.U. has also prohibited all Russian planes from its airspace, including Russian-chartered private jets.
Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, tweeted: “Russian elites fear Putin. But they no longer respect him. He has ruined their lives — damaged their fortunes, damaged the future of their kids, and may now have turned society away from them. They were living just fine until a week ago. Now, their lives will never be the same.”
Global power is different this week than last. Anti-authoritarian nations are pushing back on Russia and the techniques Putin has used to gain outsized influence. The E.U. banned media outlets operated by the Russian state. The White House and our allies also announced a new “transatlantic task force that will identify and freeze the assets of sanctioned individuals and companies — Russian officials and elites close to the Russian government, as well as their families, and their enablers.”
That word “enablers” seems an important one, for since 2016 there have been plenty of apologists for Putin here in the U.S. And yet now, with the weight of popular opinion shifting toward a defense of democracy, Republicans who previously cozied up to Putin are suddenly stating their support for Ukraine and trying to suggest that Putin has gotten out of line only because he sees Biden as weak. Under Trump, they say, Putin never would have invaded Ukraine, and they are praising Trump for providing aid to Ukraine in 2019.
They are hoping that their present support for Ukraine and democracy makes us forget their past support for Putin, even as former president Trump continues to call him “smart.” And yet, Republicans changed their party’s 2016 platform to favor Russia over Ukraine; accepted Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria in October 2019, giving Russia a strategic foothold in the Middle East; and looked the other way when Trump withheld $391 million to help Ukraine resist Russian invasion until newly elected Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky agreed to help rig the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
Trump did release the money after the story of the “perfect phone call” came out, but the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which investigated the withholding of funds, concluded that holding back the money at all was illegal.
But rather than making us forget Republicans’ enabling of Putin’s expansion, the new story in which democracy has the upper hand might have the opposite effect. Now that people can clearly see exactly the man Republicans have supported, they will want to know why our leaders, who have taken an oath to our democratic Constitution, were willing to throw in their lot with a foreign autocrat. The answer to that question might well force us to rethink a lot of what we thought we knew about the last several years.
In today’s America, the past certainly is not past.