War, children, is just a shot away, it’s just a shot away.
- Paul Simon, Gimme Shelter (1969)
Wars can, of course, be started quite by accident. They can be started because the warriors on one side or the other are overly enthusiastic about what they are doing and their enthusiasm leads them to do things that may have unintended consequences. They can also be started because one side or the other lacks a sense of direction and accidentally invades another country. Or they can be started because scenes from video games appear on the internet and give the impression that aggressive acts are taking place that are in fact not taking place except in the mind of the creator of the games but the other side is unaware that what appears to be an invasion is in fact merely an illusion. All those things have been happening in Ukraine but as Vladimir Putin would be the first to explain, there has been no invasion of that country by Russian forces.
The first thing one must keep in mind is that there are really no Russian soldiers involved in that conflict. Some of the Russians who are there are soldiers, but they are not acting in their capacity as soldiers- except insofar as fighting as a soldier is considered being a soldier. Explaining when a soldier is not a soldier, Alexander Zakharchenko, the East Ukrainian pro-Russian separatist leader explained it this way: “Among us are fighting serving soldiers, who would rather take their vacation not on a beach but with us, among brothers, who are fighting for their freedom. . . . There have been around 3,000 to 4,000 of them in our ranks.” He refers to them as soldiers but since they are in fact on leave they are not acting in their capacity as soldiers but as citizen volunteers. The fact that some of them were seen driving Russian issued armored vehicles is no surprise because it is not unlikely that in Russia a soldier on leave is required to take his or her armored vehicle with him or her to the beach or wherever the soldier is planning to go on vacation, in order to keep it in good running shape.
It is not only the vacationing soldier who can create the impression of an invasion. The same thing can happen when a soldier with a bad sense of direction and no GPS wanders into what would be considered enemy territory if the territory into which he or she wandered was at war with the country on the other side of the border. That happened to at least 10 Russian paratroopers in late August.
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There was no suggestion at the time of their capture inside Ukraine that they were folks who had foregone a beach vacation in order to enjoy some rest and recreation time in Ukraine and, accordingly no one suggested that they were not in fact acting as soldiers. They were apparently real paratroopers doing real paratrooper kind of work and they simply got confused as to where the border between Russia and Ukraine was. Since they mostly enter countries from the air and the pilot of the airplane tells them where they should land, it’s easy to see how that mistake could happen. A Russian defense ministry spokesman said the paratroopers who had probably come in from the air, were “patrolling the Russian-Ukrainian border, [and] crossed it by accident on an unmarked section.” He went on to point out that they offered no resistance when they were captured thus conclusively demonstrating that they were not engaged in hostile activity but were simply lost.
Another thing that can cause a war to start by accident is if one side, in order to demonstrate the bad acts of the other side, broadcasts to the world images of a purported aggressor sending self-propelled armored vehicles into another country if those images are in fact simply images taken from a video game. That happened on August 26 when NATO showed pictures of a convoy of self-propelled armored vehicles that appeared to be driving into Ukraine. The images were, of course, not real. Russia’s Foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov explained that NATO was using “images from computer games” to prove that there were Russian troops in Ukraine. He said, referring to these images, that “hiding the evidence is an outstanding characteristic of the U.S. and many EU countries” when it comes to Ukraine. (It is not clear why showing a video from a computer game would be considered “hiding the evidence” and no one asked Mr. Lavrov to explain.) Of course if those pictures were not from a video game Mr. Lavrov would have had a tough time explaining why their entering Ukraine was not part of an invasion.
If it were not for the helpful explanations by Mr. Putin’s assorted spokesmen we might be concerned about how events in Ukraine will ultimately play out. For good reason.