How do we respond to dystopian images and messages in the news? Roger Petersen contributes his analysis on the war in Ukraine and the weapon of fear.
After Vladimir Putin's announcement that he was readying "deterrent weapons," it wasn't long before great fear broke out here, too. The colleague who searches the history of his social media channels for apocalyptic keywords. The neighbor in whom the fear of a nuclear attack creeps up again, which she had forgotten since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The relative who remembers the Hamburg bombing nights. None of this bears any relation to the fear that prevails in Ukraine. But it is there in Germany, in Europe, even in the big American cities. And she plays a part.
In war, fear is a weapon. Political scientist Roger Petersen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has researched this and has been looking for patterns for a long time. So far he has found them in the post-wall resistance movements of the Baltic States, in the Balkan Wars of the late 20th century, in the Iraq Wars, and in Thucydides' key work, The Pelopponese War, from ancient Greece. Fear comes in two phases during war, he wrote in a 2006 article for the Journal of Military Ethics. Fear comes first, then dread. Fear sets in when war is still approaching as a premonition of death, violence and destruction. The horror spread throughout history when the enemy stood before the walls of the city. When the foreboding became the certainty of the atrocities and the killing. All generals made use of this weapon.
But what Petersen also explored is defense against the weapon of fear. He identified five strategies. Put simply, these are anger, shame, contempt, reason and hope. One could now apply the concept to the current situation, because all these five strategies are obviously already in use: the anger has spread mainly via the Internet, as has the shame that the West is doing too little for Ukraine. Contempt, as defined by Petersen, lies in the sanctions aimed at denying the enemy prosperity. Reason can be found in the speeches by Annalena Baerbock and Olaf Scholz, by Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron. But no one stands for hope as clearly as Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian people. The schematization doesn't work that simply.
Roger Petersen appears on the screen for the video call from an academic office on the East Coast of America. White wooden coffers on the walls, bookshelves, friendly light. "It's all a bit different," he says of the war in Ukraine. Putin's threats should also not be classified in the well-known pattern. They didn't produce fear in the traditional sense, but something that American psychology calls "anxiety." This is the anxiety of a vague fear that can become permanent. "Very uncomfortable," says Petersen. But not the fear used in war. "Putin doesn't formulate any specific threats, he doesn't say I use these medium-range missiles to attack that target. He just hints that I have weapons, that's where the nuclear power plants are, it could all end very badly and who knows what it will all lead to." But such anxiety causes other reactions.
Fear usually produces the fight-flight response or freeze. "Anxiety" just creates the feeling that you live "in a very uncomfortable world". For those affected, this means that they are increasingly looking for solutions and ways out. That is why such vague threats are not just an instrument of deterrence. If this anxiety lasts long enough, so the calculations presumably go, the West will get involved in negotiations and conditions. Putin might then have a way out of the anxiety.
The scientific calm with which Petersen can draw the line between fears is enviable. "Well, I'm 62 years old," he says. "I grew up not far from Strategic Air Command in Omaha, Nebraska. As children, we wondered whether we would die the first time Strategic Air Command was attacked, or slowly die from radiation afterwards. We talked about that when we were ten years old. Now we're imagining things like that again. That's Putin's advantage, because then we could pressure the Ukrainians to make some kind of deal because we want to end our anxiety."
But he finds Volodymyr Zelensky much more interesting. "He tries to turn this anxiety into concrete fear when he says that the Baltic states are next, that Putin could go as far as the Berlin Wall. I think he's trying to encourage the West to intervene or ground down Ukraine. Which won't happen." But Zelensky is convincing, from his performances in Kyiv to his speeches to the world, to Europe, to his people: "He can do it. He's a natural. He played this role as an actor and thus won the elections. And he can throw out phrases like 'I need ammunition, no rides'. That goes straight into the history books." That is why he is so effective, especially in the country.
"If you look at his speeches, he creates a sense of community that goes well beyond patriotism," he says. "In his March 3 speech, for example. He says, 'We are a special, an extraordinary people'. He doesn't say we have achieved something special, extraordinary. It's like the story of Masada in Israel. It's the awareness, 'We'll fight to the end, even if we all die.'" It's one of the strongest narratives out there. And that worked well on the internet too. "Everyone likes an underdog." He also makes use of the outrage machine in the West, especially the Internet. "It can create feelings of guilt. He does that very specifically. The three girls in Kyiv whose father died. He says that people are dying for Europe. I found his speech on the EU very good. One can hardly deny that."
And how do sanctions help when fear and anxiety are involved? "They're mainly there to make the West feel good. Political science has consistently studied sanctions and found that they stop only 5 percent of the wars that have already started." And the oligarchs? "They band together and overthrow Putin? That's not plausible. Take someone like Abramovich. He has citizenships in Israel and Portugal, lives in London. You can take five yachts away from him and he still has one. And he won't risk his life for them."
Information warfare also has its limits. "There were very strong ties in the resistance in Lithuania or in the partisan struggle of the Serbs against the Nazis. These were village communities. No one there joined the struggle for ideological reasons. It was the other farmers from the field or the uncle. The ideology always came later." The communities on the Internet are much too superficial. And the effect is wearing off anyway, you don't believe the Twitter feeds anymore. "Like I said, I'm from Nebraska. There Covid could rage as it wanted, but people still didn't put on a mask."
However, Petersen also says that the Internet is a new dimension for him as a political scientist. "Here at MIT, we're more of the bomb-and-gun type. This is still new for us. In Georgia in 2008 we only found little about North Ossetia on the net. And now the Ukrainians have won the information war to such an extent that Germany has fundamentally changed its policy." However, he says: "This war will now be waged more with bombs and guns again." It will be a brutal throwback to a time so many dismissed as the dark past.
The fear and anxiety will therefore remain for the time being. On the internet, however, there is another strategy that is currently being recommended by many in the know: stop what the pandemic has established as "doom scrolling", this manic scrolling through your social media accounts , in which news, rumors and threats build up into a mental thunderstorm. The rule of thumb, on the other hand, was to query reputable sources twice a day.
That, too, is a step backwards in times that seemed long gone.
Translated from German.