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Ukraine invasion advances Putin’s nationalist vision

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President Putin of Russia has embarked on an unprecedented military campaign in Ukraine without direct provocation or justification. In the West, there is a feeling of disbelief and confusion. How can Putin do this? And how can the Russian people accept this invasion?

Putin is an autocrat with great political skill, imperialist ambitions, and capacity for violence. His power relies on these. Putin is adept at creating crises and rivalries that he resolves, fuelling Russian nationalism. For example, Putin established his power by suppressing rebellion in Chechnya following terrorist attacks. The journalist and historian David Sattler claims that these bombings may have actually been orchestrated by the Russian FSB to justify Putin’s rise to power.

In Ukraine, Putin claims Russian-speakers are being persecuted and that separatist regions need protection. The claims, of course, are exaggerated, but they appeal to a particular modern sensibility to protect the victimised.

René Girard argues that the biblical religions contain a ground-breaking awareness of the violence against scapegoats which has unfolded slowly but inexorably, culminating in modernity’s concern for victims. This concern has had a transformative and positive effect, especially for the protection and rights of the persecuted and minorities.

However, it has also resulted (perversely) in new justifications for mob behaviour: victim-sympathy has been weaponised in political and online purges of those accused of being ‘persecutors’ of selected victims. Modern political ideologies and nationalisms are exemplars in this regard, as they are driven by the struggle for ethnic, nationalistic or revolutionary ‘justice’ for their preferred victims.

The claim to protect the victimised allows Putin to make a further claim: that he is only defending his people, not being an aggressor. Girard argues that this is a common way to justify warfare by obscuring the aggressive intent of the party claiming defensive action.

 

"Putin’s vision of Russia is a political and religious amalgam as part of which he sees himself as consolidating and promoting an integrated Russian identity. This identity is fundamentally tied to Ukraine, especially Kyiv."

 

Alongside protecting persecuted Russians, Putin also claims that Ukraine is part of the same political and spiritual space as Russia. He feels this space is threatened by Ukraine’s increasing political autonomy from Russian influence and its alliance with the West, which the Ukrainian people have repeatedly supported.

It has also been threatened by the breakaway of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine from the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin’s vision of Russia is a political and religious amalgam as part of which he sees himself as consolidating and promoting an integrated Russian identity. This identity is fundamentally tied to Ukraine, especially Kyiv. This kind of amalgam is difficult for the secular West to understand, which Putin criticises: ‘We see many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation.’ Putin claims to be restoring Russia’s (and the West’s) traditional politico-religions project, dating from Vladimir of the Rus’s conversion in 988.

Putin also argues that NATO has encroached on Russia’s sphere of influence. While NATO did not make any official undertakings in regard to its expansion (and Russia gave its own security undertakings to Ukraine when Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons), Russia has felt slighted by the West’s disregard for its own power and the West’s attractiveness to Eastern Europeans. According to Girard, this feeling is typical of a weaker party in a rivalry who secretly admires its competitor by wanting to out-do them. By strategically biding its time, Russia under Putin has sought to outmanoeuvre the West politically and rebuilt its economy and military after the collapse of Soviet Union. In so doing, Putin wants to re-capture a glorious past where Russia had ascendency, respect and power.

By re-establishing unity with the Ukraine, Putin is claiming a nationalist vision for Russia that asserts its dominance over Eastern Europe and its supremacy over its primary rivals, the US and Western nations. This nationalist vision has power to unite the Russian people in a mimetic identity that is reliant on maintaining rivalry with the West and dominance over Eastern Europe. Sattler provides an example of this: ‘On a spring day in 1980, I was standing in line for potatoes when a fight broke out in the queue. A man began shouting, ‘These lines are a disgrace. How can we live like this?’ The crowd became animated and an old woman said, ‘Never mind—the whole world is afraid of us.’ After the fall of the Soviet Union, there were decades in which it seemed that no one was afraid of Russia anymore. This led to the syndrome of ‘Weimar Russia,’ a longing for past greatness, which the right demagogue could exploit.’

 

"Firm action to sanction Russia and support the Ukrainian military must be taken, even if it costs the West at the petrol pump. Moral stances exact a financial cost."

 

Putin understands this longing for an identity of greatness over against one’s rivals. He last exploited it during the Crimea annexation. At that time, his approval rating rose from 60 per cent to 80 per cent. He needs such a bounce when popular feeling in Russia is turning against his government. A combination of government corruption, political repression and the mishandling of the COVID pandemic have created discontent. Putin wants to engage the ‘Crimea effect’ as part of which, according to Nikolai Petrov of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, Russians ‘forgot their worries and felt everything was allowed and anything was possible.’

Girard identifies the dynamics of the ‘Crimea effect’ in the mimetic unification that brings transcendent peace and joy to a previously disunited group. It is a unification that is defined over against the scapegoated other, who is seen as a monstrous enemy that must be defeated.

Such efforts at creating national identity are ultimately an attempt at re-sacralising modernity in a negative way. It tries to re-create a transcendent identity based on a worldly value: hyper-nationalism built on scapegoated victims in the mode of 20th century totalitarianisms.

However, this hyper-nationalism is only effective in the short- to medium-term, for two reasons: Firstly, modern people cannot suppress their understanding of scapegoating and must eventually recognise their victims. Girard argues that this is shown by modernity’s inability to sacralise or divinise victims, that is, turn victims into gods or demons, like archaic people could, in support of their own politico-cultural system. Secondly, totalitarian constructs such as autocratic nationalism cannot satisfy the deep and infinite need for identity and communion that lies in the human heart.

Nevertheless, in the meantime, much destruction will be wrought, as we are seeing in the Ukraine. All those who stand on the side of the victimised — in this case, the majority of the Ukrainian people — must stand up to the Russian invasion, though without escalating it. It is a delicate balance, but firm action to sanction Russia and support the Ukrainian military must be taken, even if it costs the West at the petrol pump. Moral stances exact a financial cost.

In the long-term, cooperation based on common values, rather than rivalry and competition, is, of course, needed to avoid conflict. This will involve establishing clear international norms, such as for self-determination and against invasion and greater engagement with and understanding of non-Western identities and problems, particularly that of Russia. The question is whether the West — riven by its own political and cultural polarisations — can pursue such an enterprise. An autocratic and imperialist Russia looks to be an obstacle to such an enterprise. Much will depend on what occurs over the coming days in Ukraine. 

 

 

Joel HodgeJoel Hodge is a lecturer in theology at the Australian Catholic University and a Jesuit novice. 

Main image: Russian President Vladimir Putin (Hannah Peters / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Joel Hodge, Ukraine, Russia, Invasion, Putin, René Girard

 

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Existing comments

Thanks Joel. Strategically, Moscow (or at least, the Kremlin) has been 'repossessing' land for some time. Ukraine is a different story. If successful in its land grab, Moscow will have even larger control of the Black Sea. Its support of Syria is about control of the Mediterranean. Biden's claim that Moscow wishes to reclaim the Soviet is meant for home consumption in the US. Putin is interested in the old Russian Empire. An image that must worry some people with history is that of the Russian submarine this week surfacing in front of Constantinople. That's what I mean by Old Russia and its funny and deluded idea of itself. The writings of Lesley Chamberlain on the Russian belief in motherland and a special divine authority are a good introduction to why some Russians see all of old imperial Russia as their land.


Philip Harvey | 25 February 2022  

Australia in 2020 had a GDP of 1.331 trillion USD. Russia had 1.483 trillion USD. It stalks its neighbourhood while we quiver. If money talks, we would be stalking our neighbourhood and making the neighbours quiver. It's obviously not money but spinal fibre of some kind that makes the difference.

We should re-introduce compulsory military national service, like Israel, Switzerland, white-minority Rhodesia and South Africa ....


roy chen yee | 25 February 2022  
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I agree. We should cast a much larger shadow, but we have left it too late, and have retained no real self sufficiency in manufacturing. I fear also that Australians, like modern Americans are now a very soft people.


Bob | 27 February 2022  

Timely and a little unsettling. Perhaps the old woman in the potato queue has nailed it with her observation; few of the rest of the world want to queue for anything. It's not the Russian people we fear but their way of life; the perception of a risk of regimented scarcity and all the power being held by a zealous regime. Closer to home we're becoming adapted to standing in line for necessities and laughing off the peculiarities of rationed supply; who'd have figured no toilet paper at the shop would bring a sense of unease: FOMO (fear of missing out). What's interesting in this scenario, even this article title is it's Putin (the man) versus the Ukraine, the UN, the EU. He is much maligned, perhaps deservedly so, but his political manipulations have made it almost impossible to determine any alternate party or individual's bona fides; I doubt he'll hold an election any time soon! Undigestable as it seems, I cannot see any alternative than Putin gets his way or a very bloody (world) war which sees his eventual removal from power...and what's left?
Sanctions being applied to "oligarchs" family assests and their children being expelled from schools...what have their children got to do with it?


ray | 25 February 2022  

Neville Chamberlain-like pieces of paper “establishing clear international norms, such as for self-determination and against invasion” are useless without enforcement.
The UN didn’t stop the takeover of Crimea, nor China ignoring the Hague ruling on the South China Seas.

Biden said his chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal was an “extraordinary success.” Does anyone imagine Putin and Xi believe him? Putin saw the Democratic Party malign Russia for years with the lies of the Russia/Trump collusion hoax. Biden even boasted that Putin feared him becoming President, “because I’m the only person…who’s ever gone toe-to-toe with him.”

Yet Biden destroyed US energy independence. The US now imports 7% of its oil from Russia. And Europe was left further dependent on Russian energy when Biden withdrew support for the EastMed gas pipeline from Israel to Greece and Italy, which was opposed by Russia.

Last year, in Sochi, the topic was “Global Shake-up in the 21st Century”, where Putin ridiculed the Woke insanity now pervasive in most Western institutions. A library couldn’t catalogue this insanity, like Princeton University wailing, “Ballet is rooted in white supremacy and perfectionism.” Imagine Putin ridiculing the Bolshoi Ballet?

Putin and Xi might reckon the West is ripe for picking. Taiwan next?


Ross Howard | 25 February 2022  

When you mentioned Rene Girard, I wonder how useful these brilliant schemes of explaining matters by learned French Academicians are. The salient fact to me is Ukraine unilaterally disarmed. Trusting Russia was like the lady of Riga who went for a ride on a tiger.


Edward Fido | 25 February 2022  

Joel we have to look deeply into this tragic situation unfolding before our eyes. We must look at all sides in this.
I urge al to please take the time to listen in to this timely & critical on-line conversation held by American citizens on the situation in the Ukraine just yesterday . Over 800 people joined in (1200 were booked in) . American Peace activists deeply concerning about US imperialism and expansion . The message from the night was clear NO more wars; No more sanctions; no more NATO and there were calls from 2 previous USA veterans for American to urgently remove their nuclear weapons off the European continent .
Titled "How to Respond to War Threats on Russia : Understanding U.S. Objectives
- The Role of NATO, a U.S. Commanded Military Alliance . Cut and paste https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Jkk8mSDEVA


George | 25 February 2022  
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Thanks for the link, George.

Joel's article conveniently ignores the role of the US in the coup against the pro-Russian Ukraine government that installed an anti-Russian Ukraine government, he glosses over the subsequent persecution of ethnic Russians in the Donbas by neo-Nazi thugs associated with the current Ukraine government, and he falsely states that "NATO did not make any official undertakings in regard to its expansion". Declassified documents prove the latter statement to be completely false: https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/russia-programs/2017-12-12/nato-expansion-what-gorbachev-heard-western-leaders-early.

The question no-one is asking is why does NATO exist at all, except to militarily threaten Russia?

I am not disputing that Putin is a thug and his invasion of Ukraine is evil. But we need to understand the long-standing provocations from the West since 1991 that make Putin's paranoia understandable (and possibly inevitable). How would the US react if Cuba or Venezuela wanted to position Russian missiles on their territory close to the US? Oh wait, we already know the answer to that question from 1962, when the US almost started WWIII because Cuba wanted to make a sovereign decision to station Soviet missiles on its own territory.

If the West wants a more peaceful world, it really should start practising what it preaches.


Peter Schulz | 26 February 2022  

Peter, thank you for your comment. I could have been clearer: I meant that there were no official agreements about NATO expansion. You point to comments made by some government officials about NATO non-expansion in the early 1990s, but no official agreements were entered into. This fact-check piece gives a good summary: https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2022/feb/28/candace-owens/fact-checking-claims-nato-us-broke-agreement-again/. The persecution of Russians in Ukraine is also not clear evidentially: https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2022/feb/25/vladimir-putin/putin-repeats-long-running-claim-genocide-ukraine/. I understand what you mean about Russia feeling threatened, which likely could have been better managed by the West. At the same time, Russia's aims look to be imperialistic and its invasion is illegal and immoral. Ukrainian politics has been complex and messy, though the current Ukrainian resistance, as well as elections in recent years, seem to demonstrate a popular desire to not be politically tied to Russia.


Joel Hodge | 03 March 2022  

Interesting, in a confusing time, not helped by much agitprop by the GOP, Trumpers and Fox in the US which are more eager to denigrate Biden and the Democrats (with mid term campaigns emerging).

Putin is reflecting a popular strategy masquerading as conservative ideology and values e.g. white Christian nationalism masking corruption and using EU, NATO and the 'west' as targets. Same obsessions are shared by some in the 'Anglosphere' i.e. 'owned' government, fossil fuels, client science denial, aversion to open society, rule of law and liberal democracy.

Shared by many Brexiters and Trumpers, with Koch Network think tanks and Russian funding of far right in Europe, US etc.; it's only now that investigative media in the UK, US and Europe are recognising the 'architecture'.

A loose but related corollary to Putin as leader was/is Erdogan in Turkey who was allegedly 'warned' (by Gulen & secularists) that his inner circles were becoming too overt in their business activities and was 'not a good look'; his reaction everyone was looking for real and imagined enemies..... 'Gulen conspiracy' The latter is not unlike the far right 'Azov Battalions' in Ukraine used as scapegoats by Putin's spruikers in west too; ignoring fact that every nation in Europe and the Anglosphere now has well established far right on the fringes, but worse, in the mainstream and media...).

An added phenomenon regarding modern day Russia is that it is a nation state neither an empire nor Soviet Union, it cannot really pull on the significant resources of republics and/or protectorates, fossil fuels yes, human resources, no.

The demographics of Russia proper are and have been in decline for a long time and it's the youth and working age population that are being hit, especially since they have more skin in the game long term..... and more encouragement to emigrate....


Andrew J. Smith | 26 February 2022  

And Trump calls this bastard a genius? What a coward Putin is! He turns his guns on innocent women and children and a peaceful neighbour. NATO and the US tremble shivering in the corner, the former refusing to recognise Ukraine because to do so would expose them to the very situation that is the reason for their existence.
The West wring their collective hands and slap Putin's wrist with their puny sanctions and China smiles broadly and gives Russia a $117 bn gas and oil safety net.
What a wonderful world!


Francis Armstrong | 26 February 2022  



I'm surprised ES has published this article without a balancing article from Russia's perspective. I'm not fan of Putin and I realise he's a tyrant, but this current conflict could have been avoided if NATO and the EU hadn't given Ukraine the green light and guaranteed them a "somewhere in the future" NATO and EU membership ...... but without actually doing it. That's basically the equivalent of a coward pushing his best friend into the face of a bully so that he cops the broken jaw, while the coward makes a few calculations to decide how to respond next.
Ukraine is no longer of any stategic interest to the US or EU, so why didn't NATO heed the warnings and make an explicit declaration that Ukraine would be neutral territory like Switzerland? This would have saved a lot of conflict and lives in the disputed zones over the past 15 years. And where in the current debate/news reporting do we hear any mention of the 2014 coup/revolution - depending on which side of the fence you sit.
People in Latin America, Africa, Middle East and Asia will be looking at this conflict with familiar eyes.This is nothing new for them. They are used to seeing things from multiple perpectives and living with conflicting ideologies. Most of what we label "the third world" had been afflicted by western-sponsored coups and conflicts since the invention of the sailing ship.
We have forgotten our own history. So we need to demonize someone like Putin and treat them as a tryant. This war-wongering will only prolong the conflict and push Russia closer to China. This situation could have been diffused with intelligent international strategic planning. But politicians are currently too busy playing politics for their own domestic and selfish gains to look at and learn from history. How about we sit down and listen instead of resorting to such predictable rhetoric. And I say this to the Russians as well. We are still fighting the Cold War! It's not about east/west, north/south, democractic/communist anymore. Just sit down, talk, and work it out. Only the war mongering oligarchs on both sides of this conflict are benetting from this. And our media and Joel are lapping it up blindly.


AURELIUS | 27 February 2022  
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1. Putin warrants demonising and is a tyrant.
2. Russia's feelings about what Ukraine wants to do by way of foreign and military alliances are irrelevant.
3. The feelings of the USA and the EU are similarly not relevant to what Ukraine wants to do by way of foreign and military alliances.
4. The nations of Eastern Europe all have histories that give them justified fears of Russian Imperialism. The actions by Russia of the last week make entirely clear that those fears were entirely justified. Not only has Putin invaded Ukraine, he has openly threatened Finland and Sweden. He should perhaps reflect on what happened last time Russia engaged Finland in a war.
5. I am surprised to find a Putinbot on Eureka Street.


Bob | 27 February 2022  

Not a 'putinbot' Bob. Just a peacemaker. And i yes I did agree Putin was a tyrant, but continually demonising him will only lead to nuclear war where we all lose out. Its not about labels. Its about being smart and not falling into Putins gaslighting war game.


AURELIUS | 28 February 2022  

Hi Bob..... I am no "Putinbot". My ancestors in Australia were refugees from the Prussian war. I just want peace. Unless you are prepared to stand up and hold a weapon yourself, I suggest we are merely engaged in rhetoric. The Israel/Paletsine conflict will also be never ending until both sides make compromises. Same with China. Same with Russia. Find middle ground. Compromise. Alternative? Nuclear war. Lose. Lose


AURELIUS | 28 February 2022  

I am with Margaret Thatcher when it comes to compromise. No great cause has ever been won under the banner of compromise. I am more interested in justice and truth.


Bob | 01 March 2022  

Nuclear war is an empty Putin threat designed to weaken resolve to militarily assist Ukraine. Now we have a prominent Cardinal Vigano praising Putin's land and resources grab quest as some holy grail unification of Russian Orthodox Christianity. Why doesn't the church keep its snout out of politics?


Francis Armstrong | 14 March 2022  

Very rational response, Aurelius (unlike some others in this thread), and if the boot was on the other foot, the US would agree with you.

In 1962 Cuba wanted to exercise its sovereign right to station Soviet missiles on its own territory to prevent another US invasion (Bay of Pigs in 1961). The US threatened WWIII at the prospect of hostile missiles on its doorstep, and Khrushchev wisely backed down. Unfortunately, the US and NATO have not been as smart on this occasion, and here we are.

I wonder how the US would react if the Russians organised a coup in Canada, installed a pro-Russian government, and then talked of planting missile silos aimed at the US in Canada.


Peter Schulz | 28 February 2022  

There is no moral equivalence between self-interested autocracies such as China, North Korea and Russia, and the many liberal democracies where, imperfect as they are, the people do not have to live in fear of their rulers.

That pragmatics on the part of democracies may be necessary to de-escalate a situation between an autocracy and a democracy does not change the moral fact that it is never OK for an autocracy to point nuclear missiles at a democracy and it is always OK for a democracy to point nuclear missiles at an autocracy. Otherwise, you're saying good and evil are the same.


roy chen yee | 01 March 2022  

Russia needs to be crushed so firmly that it doesn't just have to leave Ukraine, but it is obliged to give back the Crimea to the Ukraine, get out of Georgia, and give Kalingrad to Poland, as well as to demilitarise, and pay reparations to Georgia and Ukraine, as well as all other former victims of their imperialism (the whole of the old Warsaw Pact).


Bob | 27 February 2022  
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I absolutely agree. However that wont happen unless Nato and the US, the five eyes intervene in a military way. I'm surprised the Black sea flank has been left unpatrolled by any country since Putin massed his troops at the border. Sanctions can only do so much and Putin regards them as irrelevant. Finally Germany is providing Ukraine with weapons.


Francis Armstrong | 28 February 2022  

Since Putin has publicly put his Strategic Nuclear Forces on what is basically War Alert, I think any precipitate action outside the current combat in the Ukraine would be extremely dangerous. I am all for the West providing Ukraine with war material, but direct military action against Russia is dangerous in extremis. An academic from Sydney University raised concern about Putin's physical health, which may be affecting his judegement on the ABC's Morning Breakfast program today. The Ukrainian resistance, both military and civil, has been much stiffer than expected. The Ukrainians are very proud of their Cossack heritage and will not roll over easily. Peace talks are in the offing. What we in the West need to do is to ensure, as much as we can, that more little bits of the Ukraine are not gobbled up. Ukraine is, and should remain a viable country. Russians are protesting against this war. Once the body bags come back to Russia it will cause serious opposition. Sadly, Putin has a brutal way of dealing with opposition. It is a dreadful situation.


Edward Fido | 28 February 2022  
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To hell with Putin. His threat of nuclear retaliation is an empty threat to deter Nato, US and Europe responding militarily.
This will apply to the Ukraine people - a North American Cree Indian prophecy: “When the world is sick and dying, the people will rise up like Warriors of the Rainbow…”


Francis Armstrong | 01 March 2022  

Putin is behaving like a man possessed. The late Fr Gabriele Amorth, the former Rome exorcist, would probably say Putin was both deranged and possessed. Putin reportedly has Covid. It looks like the only way Putin can be stopped is by someone in the clique surrounding him arranging for him to be 'offed', just as Stalin was reputed to have been. This may happen. The announcement would say Putin died of Covid. It would be an immense relief to everyone, including the long-suffering Russian people, many of who have demonstrated against this war. Peace would then have a real chance.


Edward Fido | 02 March 2022  

I wonder what his bigger problem will be at the Pearly Gates, putting people in harm's way for no good reason or making a scandal of the prophetic voice of a distinguished arm of Christianity in the Orthodox Church in Russia.

Scripturally, to destroy a reputation is akin to murder, and to make a scandal of a prophet by causing a disparagement of his reputation is the same as to kill him.

Of course, making a scandal of a prophetic voice is also practised in the West as is seen in current attempts to paint the Church or the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith as cultural irrelevancies in the matter of what one must do if a baptism is invalid.


roy chen yee | 03 March 2022  

Perhaps Roy can enlighten us as to which 'prophetic voice' in the Russian Orthodox Church sanctioned and blessed Vladimir Putin's invasion of a sovereign fellow Orthodox nation? (The majority of Ukrainians are Orthodox. Catholics are a minority.)


Edward Fido | 16 March 2022  
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Edward I'm not trying to steal Roy's thunder. The Russian Christian Orthodox Church under Patriarch Kirill has collaborated closely with the Russian state under Putin.

Patriarch Kirill has backed the expansion of Russian power into Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Despite calling for the "speedy restoration of peace", Kirill also referred to Moscow's opponents in Ukraine as "evil forces", stating "we must not allow dark and hostile external forces to laugh at us."

He has been known to say that any internal dissent in Russia are "shrieks in the darkness!" Akin to posts in Eureka.

He wears a very nice embroidered outfit that would put Pell's impenetrable garments to shame. Unfortunately he is an empty headed blowhard beating Putin's drum and no one could take his vitriolic rantings seriously.


Francis Armstrong | 21 March 2022  

No problem. Either my reply is in the moderator's in-tray or I've forgotten to post it from its first incarnation in Word. But, basically, it says that Edward should read the post again.


roy chen yee | 23 March 2022