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Is this World War Three?

Vladimir Putin, the man trained to oppose the West, has resurrected it and brought it back to a bygone era

Nazi soldiers in a burning Russian village on the outskirts of Leningrad, 1941. Photo: Bettmann

Think about that entity that most people reading this will have grown up in, but grew at the very least sceptical of – some of us questioning, many despising: the West.

For my ancestors, the West meant colonisers, enslavers. For others, it was the sine qua non. The epitome of all that we call civilisation.

Those of us who came of age during the student protests of the 1960s saw the West as a kind of evil force. Although most of us were being educated in it.

The idea of the West as an arbiter of civilisation began to die the death it deserved in that context, yet it has never really gone away. You could say it set in the West of our imagination and needs until summoned again to define us. Maybe to clarify us.

The West has been resurrected by a man trained to be opposed to it: Vladimir Putin. Putin was born in what was called Leningrad, eight years after the most brutal siege in recorded human history took place.

The Wehrmacht took to heart Hitler’s words that there was no need for such a large city.

For almost 900 days, they reduced the population, in some instances, to cannibalism. This was the great St Petersburg, renamed for the man who, on his way back to Russia with the help of the Germans in the waning months of the first world war, warned those against him that he would “shuffle your cards”.

He prevailed.

The siege of Leningrad began before America entered what we now know as the second world war. Few called it by that name until Time magazine and other what we would now call “influencers” said so.

There are historians who believe that the second world war began in 1931 with the Japanese invasion of what was then called Manchuria. Or 1935 with the Italian invasion of what was then called Abyssinia. Or 1937 during the Spanish civil war, when the Soviet Union came in on the side of the Spanish Republic and Nazi Germany entered as the ally of Franco.

We generally accept now that the second world war began on September 1 1939 with Hitler’s invasion of Poland. For the same reason that Putin is using, among others, for invading Ukraine: to protect the language. For Hitler, of course, it was German. For Putin it is Russian and the peoples who speak it.

So there is a memory – and this is a largely western memory – of the map of Europe being torn apart by a strong man with a mystical idea.

And we, who oppose one, have one, too.

African, Palestinian, Latin and South American friends ask why Ukraine is such a cri de coeur when Aleppo, for example, was not.

Because Aleppo, actually the Russian army blueprint for what it is doing to Ukrainian cities, is not the West. It was not Kyiv on the brink of what President Zelensky warns is the third world war. Even Joe Biden whispered into a mic when asked why he did not answer the desperate plea to close the skies over Ukraine: “Because it would be World War III.” Maybe we are in it now and have been for some time.

Maybe we have not been able to see this because we are westerners and only what affects us is accepted and understood.

It was impossible for many to accept that Operation Barbarossa, the name of the campaign against the Soviet Union, was one of annihilation. That the goal of Hitler was to raze Leningrad to the ground and salt it so that nothing and no one could ever live there again, that ancient Roman dream for the fate of their mortal enemy, Carthage.

On some level, we are left with the inexplicable and indescribable, largely driven by a man with a long memory.

Putin’s brother died in the Siege of Leningrad from diphtheria, a disease made worse by starvation. As a KGB operative in the old East Germany, a partition that spat in the face of the West, he studied the West. While he was accumulating data, he learned about what the West was and is and wants to be. He knows this better than us. And he knows that a new world war, one started on the idea of The End of the West, is something that we will not see coming.

It’s interesting to hear commentators lament the absence of Russian public opinion; or rave about “what the Russian people will do when they find out what’s going on in Ukraine”. These sentiments are largely from the US and reflect how Americans think the world really works deep down inside: the ideal of the western model.

Hitler, head of one of the most civilised nations in the West, understood that it could not accept that he would actually do what he said he would do. Because the very idea was anti-western.

And we risk now fashioning a western narrative on Putin and his vision of Ukraine.

Putin, the ex-KGB operative that he was and is, knows this. Noam Chomsky says the time we live in now is the most dangerous in history.

In addition to our inability, maybe unwillingness, to confront climate change, we also have nuclear weapons.

The Atomic Age began with the destruction of Nagasaki. One of the creators of Big Boy, the name of one of the bombs, the physicist Robert Oppenheimer, took afterwards to reciting from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”

And he implied that because we have these weapons; this arsenal, we have been in the third world war since the end of the second world war. Since August 1945.

But because we were all born into it, the fact that it is so much a part of us – is us – means we cannot see it. Putin does. And he sees the West, too.

He sees that through his actions, he has brought it back. To us.

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