A Surge of Unifying Moral Outrage Over Russia’s War

PARIS — The man the Kremlin holds in dismissive contempt, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, has emerged as an online hero. His Twitter account has leapt by hundreds of thousands of followers a day (he now has 4.3 million). Often dressed in olive-green fleece and cargo pants, he has accused Russia of war crimes, signed a formal application to join the European Union, and morphed into a symbol of hope and grace under pressure.

As Russia pursues its ruthless invasion, Mr. Zelensky has used social media adroitly to outmaneuver his nemesis, President Vladimir V. Putin. So, too, have many of the 44 million citizens of Ukraine. TikTok, the video-sharing app with more than a billion active users, has shaped views of the conflict and contributed to an intense wave of global sympathy for Ukraine. Call it Resistance 4.0, the influencers’ war against an unprovoked Russian invasion.

Mr. Putin’s assault against a phantom “genocide” in Ukraine meets the nimbleness, even the humor, of a people unified and galvanized by the Russian leader’s obsessive talk of their nonexistence as a nation. The Russian leader also claims the war is nonexistent and is in fact “a special military operation.”

Technology, blamed of late for every ill from the death of truth to the spread of loneliness, restores feeling and revives human connection as the war unfolds. Brave civilians brandishing newly acquired rifles against armored divisions cannot leave the onlooker cold.

“I don’t really have any choice because this is my home,” Hlib Bondarenko, a computer programmer who has lined up for his weapon in Kyiv, tells The New York Times in a video. This is not the remote, clinical war of drones and satellites. It poses perhaps the most acute moral question of war, especially one pitting the weak and righteous against Goliath: What would I do?

Volunteer fighters armed with assault rifles patrolled central Kyiv on Friday, ready to defend their country.CreditCredit…Michael Downey for the New York Times

The answer appears to be: something, at least. Protest marches have unfurled under blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags across Europe and the United States, from Chicago to Warsaw, from Berlin to New York. Ukrainians living abroad have lined up to return home and fight. As with the Spanish Civil War, when volunteers flocked to support the left-leaning government against a military rebellion, the conscience of Europe has stirred. Taboos have tumbled.

Swedish and Finnish and Swiss neutrality has evaporated. Postwar Germany’s refusal to prioritize military spending and send arms to conflict zones has ended. A united 27-nation European Union has decided, for the first time, to provide Ukraine with more than half-a-billion dollars in aid for lethal weapons. The outright collapse of the Russian economy is declared an objective by the French economy minister.

“It’s a sea change,” said Anne-Claire Legendre, the spokeswoman for the French Foreign Ministry. “A new world has defied Putin, the master of propaganda.”

Salomé Zourabichvili, the president of Georgia, told France Inter, a French radio station, that “Putin has already failed because he has given birth to a monster: European power and European defense.”

The outcome of the five-day-old war is of course still in the balance, with Russia unleashing a rocket assault on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and a Russian military convoy, at least 40 miles long, poised north of Kyiv. But if Mr. Putin planned a blitzkrieg to decapitate Ukraine in short order, the impact of his plan with reality has been confounding.

Aftermath of a Russian shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday.Credit…Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA, via Shutterstock

Nowhere has the European sea change been more pronounced than in Germany, where one legacy of Nazism was reluctance to exercise national power to the full. Another was hesitancy over confronting Russia, one of the countries Hitler invaded. All that ended on the date of the Russian invasion, Feb. 24, 2022, “a turning point in the history of our continent,” as Chancellor Olaf Scholz said.

He told the Bundestag, the Parliament, on Sunday that “at the heart of the matter is whether power can break the law.” That was also the question in Berlin in 1933 as Hitler took control. It is therefore an existential question for Germany. The essential issue, Mr. Scholz said, was whether “we find it within ourselves to set limits to an international warmonger like Putin.”

The war, in other words, is a pivotal moral challenge to the 21st-century world, as seen by the power that committed the greatest moral outrage of the last century.

This, after all, is a war in which a nuclear power, Russia, confronts a state, Ukraine, that gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994 in exchange for Russian promises that its sovereignty and territorial integrity would be respected.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in Kyiv on Tuesday.Credit…Umit Bektas/Reuters

The Ukrainian online counter attack is unrelenting. In a TikTok video, a young Ukrainian woman in a red hat and trainers offers a primer on how to drive captured or abandoned Russian military vehicles. She pushes buttons, flicks switches, yanks the gear stick, and, with a smile, surges off into the snow, gripping an unwieldy steering wheel.

If Mr. Putin’s solemn face is the image of the autocrat who believes that a country spanning 11 time zones is not big enough, and that Europe’s break from war has gone on long enough, this playful Ukrainian driver of a Russian tank appears as the impish personification of the 21st century meeting the 19th. The video, with 8.7 million views, has gone viral.

Mr. Putin’s Russia leveled Grozny during the Chechnya war. It leveled Aleppo in Syria. Can it level Kyiv with a TikTok world watching? The question hangs over the war as the Russian leader’s frustration grows.

Just over a decade has passed since social media played the role of great liberator, connecting the youth of the Arab world in uprisings against their despotic rulers. But technology, it transpired, was twin-souled like Goethe’s Faust. The organizing tool of the freedom fighter might equally serve the surveillance system of the despot.

Russia-Ukraine War: Key Things to Know

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Civilians under fire. Russian forces targeted Ukrainian cities with increasingly powerful weapons on the sixth day of the invasion, inflicting a heavy toll on civilians. Explosions shook Kyiv and Kharkiv, while Russian troops moved to capture Mariupol in the south, a critical port city.

Russian convoy. Satellite images show a Russian military convoy stretching 40 miles long on a roadway north of Kyiv, with a number of homes and buildings seen burning nearby. Experts fear the convoy could be used to encircle and cut off the capital or to launch a full-on assault.

Migration wave. At least 660,000 people, most of them women and children, have fled Ukraine for neighboring countries, according to the U.N. refugee agency. It’s the most intense wave of European migration since at least the 1990s.

Supply chains. The invasion of Ukraine, a large country at the nexus of Europe and Asia, has rattled global supply chains that are still in disarray from the pandemic, adding to surging costs, prolonged deliveries and other challenges for companies trying to move goods.

Facebook, owned by Meta, was used by the military in Myanmar to stir a frenzy of hatred against the Muslim Rohingya that led to the mass expulsion and genocide that began in 2016. It was used by Russian intelligence agencies to interfere in the 2016 American election.

But the war in Ukraine has demonstrated some lessons learned, as well as the enduring liberalizing potential inherent in a borderless virtual world.

During a meeting at the Parliament, lawmakers applaud Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s speech addressing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.Credit…Michael Sohn/Associated Press

Big tech companies like Google, Meta and Apple have taken several steps to counter the Russian disinformation that proved so effective in the past. At the same time, their platforms have revealed growing Russian opposition to Mr. Putin’s war and allowed Ukrainian influencers to display the courage of a nation where, from rural village to metropolis, nobody appears to be surrendering.

If the idea of truth, in the United States as elsewhere, appeared to have been lost in the disorienting bombardment of social media, with the line between fact and falsehood ever fainter, the sheer enormity of Russian lies — the denial of the existence of a war, for example — appears to have done something to restore its value and importance.

“Who else but us?” said Zakhar Nechypor, a Ukrainian actor, as he armed himself with a rifle. Who else indeed and what truth more raw?

Ivan Andronic, a plumber who moved from his native Moldova to France 18 years ago, said in an interview that he felt his mother and mother-in-law back in Moldova were now at risk. Mr. Putin could do anything, even embark on nuclear war. “He is very dangerous,” Mr. Andronic said. “We must fight him together, and his own population must turn on him.”

Togetherness is a word enjoying a revival. The Ukraine war appears to have dented a cycle of growing loneliness in which Covid-19 played a significant part. The unbearable lightness of online being has given way to the unbearable gravity of a European war.

A break has occurred in the world where people are corralled into herds by social media algorithms, trolls and bots. Where they forsake community to become tribes with megaphones. Where they turn in circles, succumbing to technological neuroticism. Above all, where they grow lonelier, caught in a vortex, starved of connective tissue, hungry for status, often bereft of moral conviction.

In their place, quite suddenly, a life-and-death struggle presents itself with its moral imperatives. As Europe initially hesitated, Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister and the president of the European People’s Party, tweeted:

“In this war everything is real: Putin’s madness and cruelty, Ukrainian victims, bombs falling on Kyiv. Only your sanctions are pretended. Those EU government’s, which blocked tough decisions (i.a. Germany, Hungary, Italy) have disgraced themselves.”

Very soon, almost overnight, Europe did what it is rarely capable of doing. It united to end that disgrace and face down Mr. Putin.

As the German philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “Under conditions of terror, most people will comply but some will not. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a fit place for human habitation.”

A protest sign with a depiction of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia outside of the Russian Embassy in London on Tuesday.Credit…Toby Melville/Reuters

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