Telling Ourselves Stories
America's simplistic morality tales cannot ascribe legitimate strategic goals to an adversary; instead, he must be crazy, insane, Hitler.
The view that war is politics by other means, the realist idea that nations pursue strategic goals with some sort of calculation of interests behind them, is not for us. Americans must reduce everything to good versus evil, democracy versus autocracy, light versus dark. Leaders throughout history have sold wars with this b.s., of course. America’s problem is we seem to actually believe it’s true.
Imagine facing an enemy who refuses to surrender despite overwhelming odds, leaving the other side the choice between a protracted urban war or an air attack to resolve the situation. In the case of Putin and Kiev, our nightly news is flooded with images of the targeting of civilians and screams in response from Washington about war crimes. In an earlier war, however, the American answer was the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two more targets at the end of a long and ugly war, where women and children were casually incinerated to save, we were told, additional casualties on the ground.
See, it was okay to do this because America is basically good. If you twist that logic hard enough it comes out that we did the Japs a favor by nuking their cities. The cries of “but it’s different!” because of whatever, Pearl Harbor, are left unanswered by the blackened ghosts of the Japanese who died not knowing what a favor the U.S. did them.
And that action in 1945 (echoed by the destruction of whole villages in Korea and Vietnam and the bombing of Fallujah) leaves the United States in a unique position it pretends not to know about. As Putin and others may talk about nuclear threats, history records that we alone actually used nuclear weapons against civilian targets. Little tin pots like Putin or Kim may issue threats but only the United States has gone through with it. It’s a helluva basis for morality.
America’s simplistic morality tales mean it cannot ascribe a legitimate strategic goal to an adversary; instead, he must be crazy, insane, new Hitler, bonkers, pure thug, bully, war criminal, a danger to his own people, bent on world domination, anything out of the Bond-villain community. Local or regional problems are thus inflated into existential threats to democracy. We can’t just beat Putin in Ukraine, we have to destroy his economy, regime-change him, murder him outright to even the moral score since he dared challenge our worldview.
This causes us to make serious mistakes. In Putin’s case, few allow that maybe he really is scared of NATO forces walking right to his border, and that he seeks a buffer zone in the Ukraine. That is certainly what he has said (we don’t believe him). At the end of the Cold War, the West denuclearized new nation states like Ukraine and redrew their borders in line with Western aims. Moreover, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the West did not dismantle NATO. The alliance—formed for the collective defense of western Europe against the Soviets—was left not only to stand after the Soviet Union was gone, but thrust eastward, claiming territory that would have been among NATO’s first targets had the Cold War gone hot.
As the West turned up the heat instead of bringing Russia in from the cold, NATO went from a defensive alliance to a political cudgel. From Putin’s point of view, he faces an adversary which actually believes it has the moral responsibility to dictate global political arrangements, even in regions that are more important to him than they are to Washington.
Putin tried to make his needs known, that Ukraine should stay neutral. His proffer was met by a coup (likely abetted by the U.S.) which brought pro-U.S. nationalists to power. His response was, and almost had to have been, the invasion of Crimea. These are not wars of choice in the way say Putin invading Iraq might be, but wars of strategic necessity to him. Had the U.S. had the philosophical ability to understand this, it might have found a reasonable negotiating strategy instead of poking the bear in one of his most sensitive areas until he reacted.
That is the background, but why attack Ukraine now? In its arrogance America has decided it all has to do with America, actually the least important factor here. So we hear about Trump and Putin’s bromance, wonder if Biden is weak, speculate the horrible ending in Afghanistan is at fault. But if you think like Putin, your focus is elsewhere.
Putin looks at the warpigs in charge today, the same Obama team from the 2014 overthrow—Blinken, Sullivan, Nuland, and Susan Rice—and feels threatened anew. And it was then-Vice President Biden who personally ran Obama’s Ukraine policy. He knows CIA paramilitaries are on the ground in Ukraine.
Then, in November 2021, the U.S. and Ukraine signed the Charter on Strategic Partnership, asserting Kiev’s right to NATO membership. The Charter was a policy statement by the Biden administration, and an intolerable prospect for Russia. By imagining Putin as nothing but a megalomaniac, America unknowingly drew a red line for him. It is easy to imagine planning for the current invasion began at that same time.
Convinced NATO will never reject Ukraine, Putin took his own steps to block it. By invading, he created a “frozen conflict” knowing NATO cannot realistically admit countries that don’t control their borders (how to apply Article Five when a country is already at war as it joins NATO?). Such frozen conflicts already cripple Georgia, Crimea, and Moldova, as well as the semi-independent areas of Donbas and Luhansk. Now add Ukraine to that list. If you understand this, you also know what happens next in Ukraine: not much. No need to drive much further west, Putin has already gotten most of what he wanted.
This is why sanctions won’t accomplish much, besides raising the price of gas for Americans. Putin is chasing a goal that has eluded Russia for three decades. Sanctions will not cause him to give that up, any more than previous sanctions caused him to hesitate striking. Russia and America are talking past one another, identifying different motivations and different end games.
Ukraine is a pawn in a larger struggle. The Ukrainians bought the big lie in the ’90s that if they denuclearized America would protect them. They now join the long list of countries goaded by the U.S. into fighting to the last man in support of American foreign policy goals. Ukrainians are very brave, but it was Americans that put them in harm’s way by using their country as a crush zone, with little consideration for the people now paying the price.
At some point (it took decades in Afghanistan) Biden will realize he misunderstood his adversary and seek to cut and run. It seems we are close. Zelensky’s propaganda campaign, the atrocity of the day scheme, has failed to bring NATO into the war. Americans get bored easily. He’s just about jumped the shark. If Russians bombing a children’s hospital isn’t enough, there is no enough.
Biden wants all the points due a wartime president without actually going to war; he is practicing political opportunism, not statecraft. That will collapse mightily if Putin declares victory first. So soon enough Zelensky will get the call from the White House letting him know time is up; he’ll have to take a deal with Russia to reset the status quo for a faux “win.” Biden needs the war to end before it begins to look like he lost. Zelensky can reject this and go down hard, like Diem in Vietnam in the 1960s, who didn’t realize his time in America’s lap was up, or he can leave Ukraine a “hero,” beaten but never broken—book and biopic movie deal, ceremony in the White House, yada yada yada.
International affairs researcher Matthew Waldmanwrote, “‘strategic empathy’ isn’t about agreeing with an adversary’s position. It is about understanding it so you can fashion an appropriate response.” That is the key to some sort of resolution in Ukraine, and the key to a more effective foreign policy for the U.S. going forward. This is all uncomfortable for most Americans, raised on a steady diet of if we do it, it is moral; if they do it, it is evil. But given the dubious success record of this policy across U.S.-supported dictatorships of the Middle East, and Central and South America, and failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and likely soon, Ukraine, maybe a new way forward is worth a look.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.