A few weeks before last Christmas, it was revealed that Hillary Clinton had recorded on video, for the first time, the speech that she would have delivered if she had defeated Donald Trump in 2016. This was the trigger for the media to recall a number of other addresses which were written but never articulated because the circumstances in which they would have been relevant did not in the end materialise. These drafts included the words that General Dwight D. Eisenhower would have used if the D-Day landings had failed and the attempt to liberate Europe had to be abandoned and the presidential statement that Richard Nixon would have offered if the Apollo 13 astronauts had landed on the moon, but then been stranded there with nothing but certain death ahead of them.
Yet in many ways the most stunning of the set of speeches crafted but not uttered at the hour was not one for and by an American, but instead designed for our own Queen Elizabeth II. In 1983, at the height of tensions during the Cold War, a war-gaming exercise was held in which the Russians had undertaken a large chemical weapons attack on the United Kingdom which had led to the conclusion that the only response available was to start a nuclear exchange that could lead to total destruction. It was to fall to Her Majesty to deliver this news to the British public. It is not known whether or not she ever saw the text, let alone rehearsed it, but that the words were written at all is truly chilling.
What seemed just to be historical when reported in December 2021 feels a little less far-fetched today. Rationally, of course, it is no more likely that a speech like that will be needed as of now than it was back then but the shock of the past few weeks has made reasonable people less certain of the power of rationality.
Why does Ukraine invoke such a fundamental level of concern at the moment? It is, after all, not true that this continent has not seen serious conflict since the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945. The 1990s witnessed a series of horrendous atrocities in the Balkans. Despite that, the current crisis feels like one of a different order.
There are at least three reasons for this. The first is that what happened in the Balkans was brought about by the utter implosion of Yugoslavia, historically and evidently a created entity in which people from very different ethnic and religious heritages had been brought together in the aftermath of the First World War. It was in essence a civil war, not that this would not make it much better for those caught up in it (indeed civil wars are often the most appalling form of conflict) but that is not the same as state-on-state carnage.
The second is the uncertainty as to where this invasion might end. As barbaric as the clash between first Serbia and Croatia, then within Bosnia and from there Kosovo undoubtedly was, there was no sense that if Serbia had “won” and succeeded in subjugating other components of Yugoslavia, that it would have moved on to attempt to conquer Austria or Greece. Nor was there any suggestion that if Croatia had broken free thanks to a triumph on the battlefield it would have turned upon Hungary. This time, there is a numbing unease as to whether the unstated objectives are not only to render Ukraine a satellite state of Russia but to move then against the likes of the Baltic states or perhaps even on to nations such as Poland which were never incorporated by force into the old Soviet Union. “Where will this end?” is not the sort of question which a citizen finds appealing to ask themselves.
Finally, a crucial distinction between Yugoslavia in 1992 and Ukraine in 2022 is the rise of social media. The proliferation of communications makes the suffering in Kyiv and beyond feel so much more personal. Even LinkedIn, in ordinary circumstances always far more sober than other platforms, lies testament to stories of the people whose lives have been turned totally upside down in a few days. Even if one wanted to bury a head in the sand it is virtually impossible to do so. We are all involved.
Which simply compounds the sense of helplessness. Absent a complete change of approach coming from Moscow, which realistically would seem to require a change in personnel, it is hard to conjure up much optimism. A likely scenario could be an extended war of attrition in Ukraine with the relationship between the rest of Europe and Russia entirely severed as a consequence. Effectively, a new form of Cold War of some kind. What is happening will probably shape international society and the international economy for years ahead.
Depression is not, though, a strategy. We need to keep faith in reason as far as we possibly can. In the 2016 speech that she did not make at the time, Hillary Clinton had intended to refer approvingly to Abraham Lincoln’s call to “the better angels of our nature”. Ukraine needs the better angels now.