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Buddhistdoor View: Victory, Defeat, and Survival in a Complex World

Thomas Cole, Destruction (1836), depicting the sack of Rome. From

The Russo-Ukrainian War, which began when Russian president Vladimir Putin began a “special operations” campaign on 24 February 2022, is perhaps the most sophisticated, real-time example of information warfare in modern memory. Ukraine and Russia’s governments and citizens, as well as foreign players, have exploited the fog of war (the uncertainty in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations) to push a range of narratives supportive of either Ukraine or Russia.

The stakes of this information warfare were ratcheted up even higher over the drama surrounding the Wagner Group’s abortive push toward Moscow on 23 June. The Wagner Group is best characterized as a private paramilitary or mercenary army. Until its neutralization, it was one of the most powerful factions of the Russian military. It enforced Russia’s military interests around the globe but was simultaneously private and unaccountable to the Russian government. Wagner had no legal authority, and its boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, held no official position and was not appointed or elected. Yet it would seem that there is at least consensus on the characterization of last weekend’s high-stakes drama, something out of a military thriller, as a coup attempt, mutiny, or rebellion—the “false flag” theory that Russia orchestrated this crisis to root out traitors and exile them to Belarus seems rather unlikely.

The crisis, which has since de-escalated somewhat (and is again giving rise to all kinds of conflicting narratives about who stands to benefit most), has fascinated Chinese commentators. Examples of once-loyal outsider armies turning on the emperor and the imperial government—though they were not always mercenaries, and their ethno-cultural compositions were not always clear-cut—are abundant throughout Chinese history, from the first dynasty of Qin (221–06 BC) and successor Han’s (202 BCE–9 CE, 25–220 CE) mobilization of non-Han armies to fight “barbarians,” all the way to the decentralized military of China’s last, the Qing (1644–1911). The warlord period (1916–28), which set China back decades, was a period of professional military men that became embodiments of this era’s namesake. Prigozhin himself has been compared in modern discourse to a warlord.

Warlords herald warning signs of disunity and fragmentation. They often manifest during periods of border violence. The most famous historical example is perhaps that of the Goths that the Western Roman Empire recruited to wage its frontier wars in its latter days. The Goths were a rich cultural complex of diverse peoples that came to be merged into two groups, Visigoths and Ostrogoths. Among the Visigoths, there was a certain Alaric I, who, in 394 CE, fought for Rome against other Goth leaders. Anger at the Roman emperor’s tactic of sacrificing his men and being overlooked for recognition laid in Alaric a seed of burgeoning mistrust and resentment that eventually culminated in his momentous sack of Rome on 24 August, 410 CE. In true mercenary fashion, his former employer and sovereign had to pay him to go away. 

The shock of Wagner’s rapid advance to Moscow this month—and the potential chaos that could have ensued—brings to mind what the ancient Chinese military strategist, Sun Zi, wrote (or at least the many writers and editors that compiled the eponymous Art of War). Like all masters of war that understand its irretrievable costs, Sun Zi suggests that war should not be engaged in unless the survival of the state is at stake, and cannot be fueled by the whims of human emotion:

Anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by content.
But a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life.
Hence the enlightened ruler is heedful, and the good general full of caution. This is the way to keep a country at peace and an army intact.

Art of War, Attack by Fire (20–22)

What seems quite probable is that Russia will be much more cautious about deploying a mercenary group as powerful as Wagner in the future. There will be considerable limits placed on its operations in all theaters, from Syria to Africa. But we are in completely uncharted territory as to the broader direction of the conflict. A conversation among the great powers about a more “contained,” less “chaotic” war—absurd as it sounds—seems necessary. The West and NATO-aligned countries remains focused on weakening Russia permanently and restoring Ukraine’s full borders, while many in the Global South and the BRICS countries—including India, a democracy that is closer to the US than Russia’s closest friend, China—remain sceptical of a West-led settlement to the end of the war.

What is categorically necessary for a ceasefire and eventual peace—including the maintenance of Ukrainian sovereignty—is an immediate end to the bloodshed and fighting. While the Buddha was not concerned with outlining a theory of war or geopolitics, the early text of the Dhammapada contains an interesting hint to not just the reality, but ideal of our—highly flawed and problematic—world, which invites further exegesis:

“Victory breeds hatred, for the vanquished is stricken with suffering; but the tranquil man lives in happiness, disregarding both victory and defeat. [our emphasis]”

Dhammapada, verse 201

Might a “palatable peace,” one that is neither victory nor defeat for both sides, be the best and most realistic way forward? There is historical precedent: look no further than the history of the Korean Peninsula. The minimization of chaos and potential for national collapse would have to be negotiated out of the (presently) irreconcilable Ukrainian and Russian conditions for peace. China made the right step last year in warning all great powers against the use of any nuclear weapons to win any conflict. The thorny and certainly unpalatable scenario of a negotiated truce would probably have to build on principles that, as the Dhammapada indicates, do away with a notion of a “vanquished” who will only endure suffering. How this can translate into realpolitik and a geopolitically balanced settlement will be the great global challenge of the next year or more.

See more

Блеф или военный мятеж? Что означает ультиматум Евгения Пригожина (Russian only) (Belsat)
No nuclear weapons over Ukraine, Chinese President Xi Jinping says, in clear message to Russia (South China Morning Post)

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