We are now several months into the conflict with Russia. I say “we” because we are all pretending here in the West that the real war is between Russia and Ukraine but (nod nod wink wink) if we clandestinely, in some sense, provide full support to Ukraine then maybe the Russians, foolish and backward as they are won’t notice and we can simultaneously pretend that we aren’t flirting with the prospect of a long, arduous and inconceivably destructive war. I want to say at the outside that I think what Putin has done is unconscionable; God only knows what the impact will be, as all four of the horsemen of the apocalypse are on the march again. I think that the collusion of the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church is even more unforgivable. Be that as it may, I also believe that the attempt to deeply understand the motive forces for this war, as it is very difficult to set things right (let alone avoid a similar future catastrophe—or even to stop this conflict from spreading) in the absence of such understanding.
I have spoken publicly (on my YouTube channel and podcast) with American policy expert Frederick Kagan, who was recommended to me by some of my conservative associates in the US—people with extensive political experience and, simultaneously, knowledge about foreign policy. Kagan is rather hawkish in his outlook and reputation, and was criticized for this (as I was for hosting him) in the social media comments sections accompanying my YouTube channel. Our joint episodes, by the way, have been viewed or listened to by at least three million people. I’m saying this just to provide evidence that these discussions have some impact in the broad public sphere.
Dr. Kagan essentially put forward the thesis that Vladimir Putin is a prototypical authoritarian, and that Russia’s foray into Ukraine might properly be viewed as an expression of the imperial expansionism that typified the Soviet Union: so, Cold War, round two. Accompanying this view is the interpretation of Putin as a thug in the Hitlerian mould, carrying a chip on his shoulder, interested primarily in self-aggrandizement, and capitalizing on Russian patriotism and an associated populist appeal to fortify his pretensions to empire and desire for an unlimited extension of personal power. This perspective, which appears to characterize what might be called the Western “patriotic” response to the Russian incursion, has its very real justifications. It appears part of uniting in response to an enemy; part of justifying what is necessarily a binary decision process: are we at war, or not? If yes, then the question arises: is the enemy bad? By definition. Otherwise the war is unpardonable—and if we believe that to be the case, we will enter the fray demoralized and compromise our chances of victory.
But one of the primary justifications for a war, perhaps, is that we have something to gain. I see that we have little to gain in the current situation, and certainly much we could lose. Russia is a nuclear power, and we run the very real risk of backing them into a corner. And that, bad as at is, is only one of many the options for disaster that currently face us.
Many people watching my exchange with Dr. Kagan suggested that I broaden my understanding by reviewing the work of Dr. John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, who offers an alternative interpretation: one that more specifically highlights the faults of the West. Dr. Mearsheimer’s remarkably prescient 2015 University of Chicago lecture Why is Ukraine the West’s Fault? (available on YouTube, and now watched by thirty million people—an unheard-of number for an academic lecture). I was concerned that Mearsheimer might be a Russian apologist, in some relatively simple manner, although that does not seem to be the case. In a singularly lucid one hour presentation, Mearsheimer explained that NATO and EU expansionism into Ukraine (the invitation proffered to Ukraine to join the EU; the formal statement of the desirability of NATO’s extension into Ukraine) has already and will continue to pose an intolerable threat to the Russians, who view Ukraine both as an integral part of the broader Russian sphere of interest and as a necessary buffer between the Europe that has invaded Russia to terrible effect in 1812 and 1941 and that is no more trustworthy to Russian eyes now than previously. Mearsheimer compares the former element of that view to the US Monroe Doctrine, which makes the Western hemisphere sacrosanct with regards to, say, the movement of Soviet missiles to Cuba) and the latter to the stark realities of the difference in the importance of Ukraine to Russia (crucial) and to the West (irrelevant, except for the transmission of Russian natural gas and any and all current exploitation for the purposes of shallow moral posturing).
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