Waiting (What Silence is Made of)

It’s nighttime and outside it’s complete silence. No people, no cars, no ambulances honking. It’s not a quietude of expectation, not a feeling of ominous foreboding. But people turned inward, to wait and see what the next day will bring, and then the day after.

Germany just threw nearly 80 years of restraint in delivering weapons to conflict zones out of the window, accepted to take part in the SWIFT-decoupling of some major Russian banks including its central bank. (Although the banks by which Germany pays for its fossil fuel imports from are not touched in order to keep the supplies coming.)

Putin put his «deterrent forces» on high alert today, which includes nuclear capabilities (though only tactical missiles, I presume, not ICBMs capable of reaching the U.S.). Media outlets analyse the events to death.

I still cannot shake the feeling that this plan has been twenty years in the making: that Putin organised money, troops, fallback plans, sequences of steps of destabilization for many years. And I cannot shake the feeling that his latest announcement of high alert, the closed ranks of E.U. states and members of NATO, the SWIFT decoupling, etc., have already been anticipated and planned for in advance – in fact, that Putin may even welcome the reinvigorating of NATO’s resolve, to tell his citizens: «See, the enemy is back, and he’s stronger than ever. I told you so.» Lambasting the events he himself pushed into existence, presenting himself as remedy to a crisis he himself created, in defense of a Mother Russia he helped weaken.

The world feels it’s dealing with a madman. I’m not sure. I think he broadly knows what he’s doing. He may have expected his troops to overrun Ukraine quicker. Perhaps that was the reason why no proper supplies, no fuel for the tanks, no rations for the soldiers had been provided. Many of the captured Russian soldiers are said to be of young age, not knowing where they are, what they are doing, how to fight, whom and why. Even when factoring in the weakened state of the Russian army (compared to its former Soviet prowess) the question arises: When this Ukraine attack has been put in motion using mostly badly trained and inexperienced fighters, where are the trained and experienced ones?

It’s quiet outside. No fear, no sadness, no anticipation. 160,000 Ukrainians fled their country and turned up in Poland. The hope is that it not gets worse, that Putin still knows when to stop the escalation. I don’t know. To me it feels like he is about to go even further, much further. And there is no way to escape the trap.

What is interesting is how the events are perceived differently in Europe and in the U.S. Over in the U.S., their government, the institutions, think tanks, news media, they are pondering the events, gauging ways forward, talking about a crisis and its ramification as somehow, strangely, utterly present. In Europe, or at least in Germany, it seems different: Everything is loaded with the history of the 20th century. We don’t see the conflict as a conflict that just appeared and hopefully will dissipate quickly. Here we see the parallels to 1938 (Munich Agreement), we see WWII and WWI, we see the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, archduke of Austria-Este, in Sarajevo of 1914. In horror we see how the continent exploded. And not as faraway admonition, but as part, as aspect, of this current crisis that only is a white crest on the tides and strong ocean waves.

We cannot help to see in horror the return of two world wars, of genocides, of mass starvations, of deaths, and destruction. And it is astounding how even in generations who had nothing to do with these ancient pasts the memory snaps back immediately, and all of a sudden, as we feel being back in the trenches of Verdun, in the encirclement battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, and Berlin, we feel the end of an era, the end of the longest lasting period of peace Europe has seen in nearly 1,000 years. The graves open up again and the memories arise like lilac scent in a summer’s garden. How I envy those in the U.S. with their lack of remembrance – or at least this kind of remembrance, for they have other memories, similar dark and brutal. Europe turns again, and returns to its sad mood, its melancholic character, its hope, and also its expectation of slaughter and pain. A coming through slaughter it will be, one day, although in a quite different manner than the one Ondaatje spoke of.

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