I lived for a year in Prague in the former Eastern Bloc teaching English. (It was five years after that fall of Soviet empire.) I taught Czech telecom employees and I’ve had Russian roommates and friends. In the decades since returning stateside I’ve read a lot about the region and its history. All of this is to say, I’m no expert on anything, but I know enough to be very skeptical of so much of what is written about the war in the Ukraine.
Here are 21 points I’m writing down for the sake of my own sanity.
[Update on #5 and #16. 2/12/23]
1. There are governments in which ordinary people have a lot of influence over domestic affairs and governments in which ordinary people have little influence over domestic affairs, but there are basically no governments of polities larger than a citystate in which ordinary people have influence over foreign policy. Governments keep the information under wraps, they keep their opinions under wraps (except to the extent their opinions become propaganda), and they often keep the outcome of their policies so far as possible under wraps. Speculating about foreign policy thus is little more than sports talk radio. All of which is to say, I don’t share the general feeling that we have a responsibility to cheer for Ukraine and hate Russia, or vice versa, as if that will impact anything.
2. When the USSR broke up Crimea and Donbas voted overwhelmly to join the newly-sovereign Ukraine. They did this under the presumption that they would be allowed a degree of regional autonomy, particularly the right of the majority Russian speakers in these territories to continue to speak Russian and conduct public business in Russian. Kiev has continuously refused to allow this (Right up to the Minsk agreements). Why do central governments so reflexively and stupidly resist regional autonomy when it’s almost never in their interest to do so?
3. We, as ordinary citizens, have no way of knowing how much or in what way the U.S. was involved in the 2014 coup (The ‘Maidan Revolution’) that overthrew the pro-Russian regime and replaced it with a pro-Western regime.
4. We, as ordinary citizens, have no way of knowing how much or in what way Russia was involved in organizing the separatist movements in Crimea and Donbas.
We, as ordinary citizens, have no way of knowing who blew up the Nord Stream pipelines or why. When elites become incompetent as they are across the globe today you can’t assume that whoever benefits from something was the cause of that something. UPDATE: Seymour Hersh, who is as reliable a reporter as there is on U.S. foreign actions, has published this piece revealing that the U.S. and Norway destroyed the Nord Stream pipelines.
6. I agree with the general Russian POV that NATO no longer serves the national interests of its members, and at the very least should not have been expanded to the Russian border. I also believe Ukraine’s long-term future would have best been served as part of the Russian orbit.
7. By those measures however, whatever the outcome of the war, Putin’s invasion is a colossal failure. I don’t mean just that NATO is stronger than ever with Sweden and Finland wanting to join. That may be temporary. What is not temporary is that because of Putin’s actions–and Zelensky’s response–the Ukrainians for the next century at least will think of themselves as a rightful part of Europe (with whom they have fraternal conflicts from time to time, of course) held down by Russia/Asia, rather than a country that was part of Asia (with whom they have fraternal conflicts sometimes) held down by Europe. It could have gone either way, but this war cemented Ukrainian identity for the foreseeable future as anti-Russia. For example the Holodomor famine will be seen as persecution by Russia and not by Stalin or the Soviet system.
8. In this conflict the Russians are clearly superior in weapons and oil, and Ukraine and the West are clearly superior in propaganda/marketing and finance. All my life I’ve known self-proclaimed ‘realists’ who think diplomacy is for wussies and reality is like Settlers of Catan or Risk, just armies and resources. We’ll see if they’re right!
9. It’s not clear that the attacking party can ever win a modern war. Putin’s invasion went better than expected but now he has no realistic end game except to hope that a lack of energy will drive the Ukraine and the West to concede. It might work! But this strikes me as putting the fate of your armies and your countries in the hands of others.
10. Vladimir Putin is not much like Hitler. For one thing he’s very bad at speeches and diplomacy. As for diplomacy he’s been trying to change NATO for decades and I think many European leaders might go along but Putin never seems to be able to close a deal. You can say they’re controlled by the U.S. Maybe. But Trump liked Putin better than most heads of state (though he was never a Putin puppet as some of his opponents wanted us to believe) and Putin couldn’t get him to renew that missile treaty (too lazy to look up the name). And don’t talk to me about the ‘Deep State’. Trump overcame the bureaucracy when he really wanted to. Putin just can’t seem to model what a new security framework would look like. And as for Putin’s public speaking, the fact that most people sympathetic to Russia’s POV were sharing Mearsheimer clips instead Putin speeches tells you everything. And the photo-ops? A flower arranger from Danville could have put together better staging than anything Putin has done. (And I look at pro-Russian sites.) This goes back to #8 above. I wonder if Putin went into this war convinced that armies and resources are what matters, Ukraine wasn’t a real country, and the West’s strengths weren’t illusory. We’ll see how that plays out.
11. U.S. intelligence and Biden said Russia was going to invade Ukraine before it happened, and many people including Mearsheimer and Zelensky (and me!) were skeptical. Weird to have U.S. intelligence not be full of it.
12. Zelensky is good at teevee. By not fleeing at the hint of trouble like most post-Soviet leaders (See Kiev 2014) and using the medium of television skillfully Zelensky averted what could have been a quick war. What his endgame is, I do not know. I doubt he has one.
13. Putin could have done what he did in 2014 in Crimea and gotten away with it. There he recognized Crimea as independent, moved Russian troops in to defend it, and presented this as legitimacy within international law. He could have done the same in the Donbas republics. That’s what most non-anti-Russian commentators (like Mearsheimer) assumed he would do. Instead he invaded the Ukraine from Byelorus. This broke any semblance of legality. Whatever happens, it’s Putin and Russia’s responsibility. Say, if you wish, that they took the West’s bait or Ukraine’s bait, or whatever, but take it they did.
14. Almost all analysis of Putin’s motives is fantasy. I think it is clear that Russia was not trying to conquer the entire Ukraine. I think it’s also clear Russia was attempting more than only annexing Donbas. Some of the passages in the early speeches and Putin’s interviews in the past give me the impression that he thought elements in Ukraine would accept or even support the invasion, possibly even units of the army. He also seems to have underestimated Zelenksy and/or the effects of television. Certainly if Zelensky had fled as most post-Soviet leaders would have done, it’s quite possible the war would have ended quickly with Donbas annexed to Russia and Ukraine permanently agreeing not to join NATO. Strange that Putin did not anticipate that Zelensky would be good at teevee, when that was Zelensky’s career before he got into politics, but I would guess that gives evidence of Putin being in the ‘realist’ camp of #8 above. Certainly, blogs supportive of Russia almost universally seemed to embrace the idea that because Russia has better weapons, troops, and strategies backed by vast energy resources it can’t lose. They also seem shocked and disgusted by Zelensky, as if he were cheating by being good at teevee.
15. Calling a war a ‘Special Military Operation’ is ridiculous and seeing Russia-sympathizing sites go along with this is embarrassing.
16. If the coming European energy shortage is anything like the Oil Embargo that I vaguely remember from my childhood, there will be a lot of political repercussions. (In the US that’s when the somewhat competent center-left governments of the postwar era gave way to the Reagan/Clinton nonsense that is now being renamed ‘neoliberalism’.) Will this be the end of ‘neoliberalism’ in Europe or will it double-down into something even worse? The year ahead in Europe should give us an interesting peek into the future when fossil fuels are in rapid decline. [UPDATE: Europe has just miraculously benefited from the mildest winter in years. So they have a year to prepare for next winter.]
17. Plebiscites carried out during wartime have no legal standing. I would guess that a solid majority in these territories by this time wants to join Russia and I actually think they should join Russia, but until there is peace there aren’t poll watchers, safe access to polling, and most of all refugees who fled can’t vote. As with #14 above seeing anti-Western or pro-Russian sites talk about these votes as meaningful is embarrassing.
18. Annexing territory during wartime (which is what Russian is doing) is also illegal. Obviously.
19. Fascism and fascist influence is a problem throughout the former Soviet bloc. Whether that’s paramilitary organizations like the Ukraine’s ‘Azov Brigades’ and Russia’s ‘Wagner Units’ or the appeal of philosophers such as Carl Schmitt and Ivan Ilyin or the ridiculous deification of figures like Stepan Bandera. That said, ‘Denazification’–one of Russia’s primary stated war aims–strikes me as a meaningless term. I’m sure the Russia’s mean something by it, but in practice how will that end up as anything but ethnic cleansing?
20. The only sure outcome of the war is that Germany will lose. German industry will relocate to countries with cheaper and more reliable energy sources. At least in the short term the US will ‘win’ by tying up Russia (not really a win but that’s how foreign policy elites seem to think) and absorbing much of the fleeing German industry. For better or worse the U.S. dollar will continue as the world’s reserve currency, since China won’t be willing to run the enormous deficits necessary for a currency to become a reserve currency. How Ukraine and Russia eventually come out of this depends upon the battlefield and the policies they make in relation to it. Certainly I don’t expect the U.S. to encourage a peace, and Putin isn’t likely to offer a deal that wouldn’t get Zelensky or any other Ukrainian leader lynched.
21. So overall, like Trump and Covid, nothing good will come out of this. Russia and Putin are no antidote to the world’s problems. Certainly, the US is not a good-faith actor. Zelensky is a civilian leader with very limited power. Ukraine could have prevented all this by allowing Russian speakers in Ukraine to speak Russian. Russia could have done what they did in 2014 without widening the war. Wars are the products of failure and their outcome is usually more failure. That’s what we can expect.
In short my heart goes out to the Ukrainians in their cold cities and villages this long winter ahead and all the ordinary (non-fascist) soldiers on all sides just trying to do what they consider to be their duty.