If 2022 had a spirit animal, it would probably be the honey badger. The tiny, smart, thick-skinned, sharp-clawed omnivore with a nutritional preference for honey can shred a snake’s head or take on a pack of lions in a fight. It is often cited as the world’s bravest animal.
In many ways, the honey badger epitomises the small, stocky figure of president Volodmyr Zelenskiy, defying countless assassination attempts to appear on Kyiv streets and Ukrainian front lines to boost the morale of his troops and his people. Less than a year ago, he seemed like a busted flush with an approval rating of 30 per cent and a people unsure if he would fold at the first Russian bark, while the rest of the world watched as he undiplomatically ticked off Joe Biden’s US for repeated warnings about an imminent Russian invasion.
Last week he took the hazardous trip to Washington, a wartime leader in military fatigues, to present a soldier’s medal of honour and the national flag to Biden. The world watched in some degree of awe as he implored us not to turn away.
If a year of unspeakable man-made horror, pain, death and exile has any good news for the world, it is this. In an extraordinary turnaround, thanks to Zelenskiy and the people of Ukraine, the veil of the emperor strongmen has been pierced.
An abiding image of this conflict will be of Vladimir Putin, clinging to the self-image of the bare-chested superhero in the carnival mirror while the rest of the world sees a paranoid war criminal skulking deep in his lair, isolated at one end of a 6m long table, “a small man of five-six saying he’s five-seven”, to quote Nina Krushvheva, – the academic and great-granddaughter of former leader of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev. Putin is terrified of his own people and even more terrified of humiliation now that his great military power has been rumbled as a fake.
For all that, it’s important to remember that the violent machismo is far from imaginary.
Since his rise to power in 1999 it has been paraded in brutal wars in Chechnya and Syria, in the annexation of sovereign territory, in the signature murders and imprisonment of domestic opponents at home and abroad, the sabotage of foreign elections and -probably- of pipelines, all while appointing himself the leader of a global backlash against western liberalism.
“The liberal idea has become obsolete”, he told the Financial Times three years ago, winning the fandom of China’s Xi Jingping, Duerte of the Philippines, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, Viktor Orban of Hungary and of course Donald Trump.
Two days before Putin invaded Ukraine in February, when thousands of troops were massed along the Ukrainian border, Trump gave an interview to a radio show describing the Russian’s move as “genius” and “savvy”. As a necessary reminder of Trump at his most star-struck, ignorant, dangerous and dense, it’s worth quoting in full.
“I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius.’ Putin declares a big portion of Ukraine – of Ukraine – Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful. He used the word ‘independent’ and ‘we’re gonna go out and we’re gonna go in and we’re gonna help keep peace.’ You gotta say that’s pretty savvy. In September, he praised Xi for ruling China with “an iron fist. One point five billion people. Yeah, I’d say he’s smart”.
The notion of Trump holding the US presidency this year, with the fate of Ukraine and Europe in his hands, is unthinkable. Another rethink is due for those who dismissed the January 6th Congressional Committee as mere theatrics. The committee members probably helped to avert a generational catastrophe by highlighting the treachery of election-deniers at the heart of its democracy. For now at least, the United States can exhale.
No one can afford complacency. The oil kingdoms on the verge of losing their source of power and wealthy have acquired a new global status thanks to Putin’s war. Israel’s shunt to the extreme right is an atrocity in waiting. The Turkish president’s main opponent has been jailed for two years for insulting public officials. In Viktor Orban’s Hungary, the attacks on EU values continue.
But it is also true that around the world this year, from Putin to China’s Xi to Iran’s supreme leader to Brazil’s Bolsonaro, people have challenged and exposed the fragility of authoritarian regimes.
In Iran it was young women protesters who risked torture, rape and state-sanctioned murder from Ali Khomenei’s regime of power-crazed old zealots following the death in custody of 22 year old Mahsa Amini for an alleged headscarf infraction. As the atrocities mounted, few outsiders predicted that the protesters would endure.
The heartening – possibly game-changing – fact that men have joined them in numbers is finding an echo in Afghanistan where male university students walked out of exams in protest at the Taliban’s decision to ban women students – suddenly and literally barred by armed guards and barbed wire – from a university education. A Kabul university faculty member named Obaidullah Wardak also announced his resignation in protest at the “unjust and immoral” ban. Remember, Afghanistan is the only country in the world where frightened old men have gone so far as to ban teenage girls from school; 448 days now and counting.
It’s true that male solidarity was a long time coming but it has to be celebrated and encouraged. Beyond the inner circle of supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada there are moderate Taliban who want their daughters educated. The old fanatics may double down but they cannot endure against a people united in moral courage.
Real hope resides in the heroism of Iranian women and in Ukraine’s extraordinary beacon of hope and resistance to the world.
A happy, just and peaceful new year to them all.