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Putin’s War, And Ours

A weak and divided West confronts a militant, imperialistic Russia. Nothing good will come of it
Screen Shot 2022-02-21 at 8.37.47 PM

There will be war in Ukraine. I don’t know how anyone could have watched Russian president Vladimir Putin’s extraordinary extemporaneous speech to his nation just now and conclude otherwise. It was shot through with every grievance in the book, and concluded with him declaring that Russia will recognize two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, creating the pretext for war.

It was a frightening speech, because Putin looked enraged and not fully in control of his emotions. It seemed to me that this has gone beyond any kind of rationality now; it’s personal with him.

What should we do if the Russians invade? I was at a Danube Institute geopolitical conference in Budapest early today, and naturally everybody was talking about Russia and Ukraine. I missed the opening keynote by Tony Abbott, the former prime minister of Australia, but I was told by several people who heard that it was a hawkish anti-Russian stemwinder. I’m not surprised. I was at a small dinner party with him on Friday night, and when Russia-Ukraine came up, Abbott was passionate in his belief that the West can’t let Putin get away with attacking Ukraine.

But what does that mean, exactly? I didn’t hear his proposals today, so I can’t say. But I talked to a bunch of different Hungarians in the coffee break, and every one of them was alarmed. Their general view was that Abbott — whose views on the matter, when I heard them articulated on Friday evening, sounded like a standard Republican senator’s — is wholly unrealistic

“He talked about the moral high ground, but for people like him, the moral high ground is far away from where we live with our families,” one fumed. This person went on about how arrogant the Americans and other Westerners far from the potential battlefield seem. “What do you call it in English when people refuse to see any evidence that doesn’t confirm their beliefs?”

“Epistemic closure?” I said.

“Yes, epistemic closure.” The Hungarian shook her head in disbelief.

“We Hungarians are supposed to be the fascists because we are governed by a prime minister who is a realist,” one Hungarian fumed. “If there is a regional war, it will affect us and our children. We get 80 percent of our gas from Russia. That’s just a fact. Europe gets most of its gas from Russia. What are we supposed to do, freeze?”

Another Hungarian, on the Australian PM: “He lives on an island. He has no idea about what it means to live in a small country that has had to fight for its life for centuries against stronger powers.”

There was more of this. I don’t mean to crack on PM Abbott. Again, I did not hear his speech. But I was really struck by the emotion all these Hungarians had in reaction to it. They had been watching the American discourse about Russia and Ukraine, and were visibly anxious that this whole thing is a game to the US leadership. One Hungarian man said to me in the hallway, “Nobody likes having a bear live in their backyard, but if you have a bear in your backyard, you had better find some way of living with it.”

In a later session, Charles Crawford, former UK ambassador to Poland and to several Balkan countries, gave a compelling presentation about psychology as a weapon of geopolitics. He showed the by now famous clip of the British woman trying to teach Afghan women about the glories of conceptual art:

Crawford said this kind of thing is cited by the Russians as an example of Western decadence. He might have put up an image of Sam “Dog Boy” Brinton on the screen. Look:

Or this:

The more the world sees of what American life and culture is doing to its young (e.g., 21 percent of Generation Z now identifies as LGBT), the less any sensible peoples will want to have to do with America. We have long thought of ourselves as a light unto the nations, but now we are becoming a flashing neon warning sign.

Crawford then brought up what he called the “Soviet strategy,” which involves playing a weak hand well by telling one’s adversaries that your side is tougher than you can imagine. He showed this video of Putin, back in 2002, answering a reporter’s question about Russia’s war in Chechnya. The reporter asked if he didn’t think that Russia, by going after Islamic militants there with overwhelming force, risked killing the civilian population of Chechnya. Here, in Russian (no subtitles), was Putin’s answer:

Back then, The New York Times translated Putin’s words like this:

“If you want to become a complete Islamic radical and are ready to undergo circumcision, then I invite you to Moscow. We are a multidenominational country. We have specialists in this question as well. I will recommend that he carry out the operation in such a way that after it nothing else will grow.”

The room was silent. Crawford summed up the psychological impact of Putin’s statement like this:

“You Europeans, with your cafes, your nice conference rooms, and the like, that’s very nice for you. But you come to Russia, if you dare.”

“This is not a policy question,” Crawford said. “This is a psychological question.”

Tonight’s long, rambling, angry broadcast by Putin telegraphed the words and images of a Russian leader who is halfway crazy and ready to fight. However true that really is, I think one would be nuts to underestimate him at this point. He might be bluffing — but what if he isn’t? Is the US really willing to risk a shooting war with the Russians over … Ukraine?! A long-suffering country that is on Russia’s border, and has been part of Greater Russia for centuries? I fully agree that Putin should leave Ukraine alone, but come on, this is literally in Russia’s backyard, and we are not under a NATO treaty obligation to defend it from Russian aggression.

Europe doesn’t want to mix it up with Russia over Ukraine, and I don’t blame them. You can blame the Europeans for being weak if you like, but you can’t goad people who do not have the capacity to risk armed conflict with Russia, and who have no material interest in heightening tensions with Russia, to go along with an aggressive US response. I was genuinely moved by the Hungarian responses today. If they were at this particular conference, unless they were media, they were all likely to be conservatives. Hungary borders Ukraine. The Hungarians, having suffered de facto Soviet occupation for forty years, have no love for the Russians. But they also like to keep their own liberty and sovereignty, and their own lives. A conservative, military veteran friend back in the US texts tonight that he’s having it out with his neocon friends and family, who are fuming over Biden’s supposed weakness, and how the US has to stand up for Ukraine’s freedom or be seen as weak, etc. He told me they can’t answer how many American deaths are worth fighting for Ukraine, nor can they wrap their minds around the fact that America shot its wad on these two failed Mideast wars over the past 20 years, and have a military led by a senior officer class who is not held to account for its lies and bad decisions.

In other words, it sounds like these conservatives are living back in 2002, when America was the sole world hyperpower. Guess what? We blew it.

What would happen in Russia wins in Ukraine? That’s the question taken up by this Foreign Affairs essay. Nothing good will come of it, at least not from a Western perspective. It’s going to be extremely costly for Russia, economically, but maybe Putin thinks it will have been worth it to have divided the West and restored Russia to great power status.

In the long run, after a Russian victory, I foresee a new front on the left-wing McCarthyism that progressives have been undertaking these past few years via wokeness. In his new piece, Glenn Greenwald talks about Trudeau’s repression in Canada, and about how liberals refuse to see themselves for what they are: despots. For example, this screenshot from Greenwald’s essay:

And this tweet from a liberal retired Harvard Law school professor who used to be shortlisted as a SCOTUS nominee in a Democratic administration:

I expect to see many establishment Republicans take this line too if Cold War 2.0 kicks off. It’s instinctual — that, and an inability to come to terms with the fact that we are an Empire in decay. Ukrainians are going to pay the price for Putin’s inability to accept Russia’s decline, and America’s determination to use Ukraine to poke the bear. American soldiers who will yet be deployed for more foolish foreign wars will also pay. And, God help them, people in countries caught between these two empires will as well.

Last point: in recent remarks, Putin cited Solzhenitsyn’s words about how Ukraine has always been inextricable from Russia, but he edited out the great man’s belief that nevertheless, the Ukrainians must be free to make their own choices. From a Joseph Pearce essay about Solzhenitsyn and Ukraine:

Although Solzhenitsyn feared the consequences of an independent Ukraine, he respected the right of the Ukrainian people to secede, a right which they duly exercised as the former Soviet Union unraveled. Reiterating his subsidiarist principles he insisted once again that “only the local population … can decide the fate of their locality, of their region, while each newly formed ethnic minority in that locality should be treated with the same non-violence”.

Today, almost six years after his death, Solzhenitsyn’s position is still the only sane and safe solution to the Ukrainian crisis. Those regions of eastern Ukraine which desire to secede from the Ukrainian-dominated west of the country should be allowed to do so. There are already two nations in the de facto sense. It makes sense, therefore, that this de facto reality should be honoured with de jure status. Any other suggested solution is not only unjust but will lead to even greater injustice in the form of war, terrorism and hatred. In this, as in so much else, the voice of the prophet should be heeded.

Maybe the declaration of these new puppet republics in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine is not a pretext for war, but the only way to avoid it. I doubt that very much, but I hope so.

Meanwhile, Beijing eyes Taiwan…