The war in Ukraine is a giant disaster and Putin should not be valorized for it
As someone who was regularly accused of secretly supporting, and/or being secretly supported by Vladimir Putin for something like eight years straight — despite never actually supporting Putin, nor receiving any support from him — it’s interesting to now be regularly attacked by the real-deal, self-avowed Putin supporters for not supporting Putin strongly enough. The prevalence of people in my online periphery who openly espouse support for Russia’s war effort has become highly noticeable — and it’s a trend I probably would have been inclined to dismiss a few years ago as something a Russiagate pundit would make up or exaggerate. But today, it’s undeniably a “thing.”
When the Ukraine war started in February 2022, much of the alternative-media online ecosystem quickly gravitated toward a “realist” conception of the conflict’s origins — modeled on the basic analytical premises of John Mearsheimer. Roughly speaking, this perspective calls for developing an accurate understanding of Russia’s stated grievances, or “security concerns” as they’re sometimes known, and then for mollifying these concerns to avoid unnecessary conflict. Of course in understanding the concerns, one need not endorse their validity — in fact, you can easily reject the substantive or logical validity of said concerns while still acknowledging that the concerns are what motivate a powerful state actor, Russia — and mollifying them should therefore take a high priority because of their potential to generate conflict.
Yet in the two years since the invasion, a shift has become visible in prevailing online attitudes toward Russia’s stated grievances, at least within my personal online periphery: “understanding” the grievances has increasingly given way to an affirmative endorsement of the grievances’ validity. That is: not just acknowledging these concerns, with the aim of avoiding conflict and better managing relations with Russia — but affirmatively arguing that the grievances themselves are valid, and can validly justify the subsequent remedial action taken by Russia — i.e., launching the invasion and continuing to prosecute the sprawling war effort. At which point, you’re just outright supporting the Russian state.
I’ve always been a big proponent of the “understanding” part of this whole calculus. The motivations of powerful state actors are always important to understand, because certain actions taken on the basis of these motivations can have huge consequences — and in the case of a state like Russia, potentially extinguish all human life on Earth. That’s a destructive capacity Russia shares uniquely with the United States, with which it’s had no operating arms control agreement since 2023 — leaving their respective nuclear arsenals, the two largest in the world by far, subject to no mutual inspection.
But the jump from “understanding” the grievances to “actively endorsing their validity” is one I’ve never been compelled to make for a variety of reasons, including that I don’t actually agree with the substantive case for it. Which is to say, I don’t agree with the value judgment that Russia acted justifiably in launching the invasion of Ukraine. I also think the creeping conflation between “understanding” a state’s grievances and “actively supporting” the legitimacy of those grievances can be damaging in the sense that it serves to stigmatize the very project of learning maximum information about the motives of powerful state actors. Because having made the analytical-to-normative jump, “understanding” such motives could now come to be more commonly associated with “endorsing” them. Which is an accusation I’ve always been inclined to fend off. By noting that US policy in Ukraine has contributed to the instigation of conflict, I’m not endorsing the instigation of the conflict. But increasingly, people seem to be doing just that — again, at least within my personal online periphery. I’m also generally uninterested in cheerleading the conduct of any warring government, whether it’s Russia, Ukraine, the US, or whoever else.
To me, the Ukraine war is an objective disaster, and that is a point I have made personally, in Moscow, with senior-level officials of the Kremlin in attendance. The grandiose metaphysical argument often used by Russian war partisans to paper over the disaster — that Russia is on some epic spiritual quest to defeat Western decadence and save traditional values, or whatever — has always struck me as little more than a hastily concocted ideological cover story for the disaster. Which is exactly what governments always try to concoct when they want to maintain popular support for an ongoing, disastrous war: frame it as some kind of exhilarating civilizational clash, therefore imbuing the death and destruction with some alleged higher cosmological purpose.
One of the reasons I was skeptical in late 2021 and early 2022 of US intelligence leaks pronouncing the imminent invasion of Ukraine was because the idea struck me as genuinely crazy: a disaster for Ukraine, a disaster for Russia, a disaster for Europe, a disaster for the US… a disaster all-around. My intuition on that has been subsequently borne out, with crazy amounts of dead bodies piling up in pitiful, monotonous World War I-style trench warfare — not to mention the generally heightened nuclear risk that’s materialized since February 2022, as well as the wider acceleration of bloc conflict within the international system. Ukraine has somehow become a site of proxy warfare not just between the US and Russia, but also between the US and Iran, and bizarrely enough between North and South Korea — among others. “World War III” quickly morphed from a far-fetched speculative concept to something that’s regularly on the tip of policymakers’ tongues. I don’t admire or adulate anyone whose actions contributed to bringing about these circumstances — and that would obviously have to include Putin. This of course doesn’t mean that I would suddenly refuse to acknowledge the role of NATO or Biden Administration intransigence or US foreign policy myopia in contributing to the conditions that led to the war — that tends to be the stuff I’m focused on 95% of the time. But in the other 5%, I’m happy to reiterate the soundness of my initial intuition — that launching the war in the first place would be an act of insanity. I’m not inclined to arbitrarily flip-flop two years later for no particular reason and start making an affirmative moral and strategic argument in favor of something that two years ago I correctly intuited would be a crazy disaster.
Putin is a politician who’s been in power for 25 years — probably way too long for any human to trustworthily wield that power — and is in the process of converting Russia into a full-blown war economy. His 2022 invasion of Ukraine, and the US/NATO response to it, unleashed a massive surge in global arms production:
Cold war levels of military expenditure return to Central and Western Europe
Military expenditure by states in Central and Western Europe totalled $345 billion in 2022. In real terms, spending by these states for the first time surpassed that in 1989, as the cold war was ending, and was 30 per cent higher than in 2013. Several states significantly increased their military spending following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, while others announced plans to raise spending levels over periods of up to a decade.
Russia and Ukraine raise military spending as war rages on
Russian military spending grew by an estimated 9.2 per cent in 2022, to around $86.4 billion. This was equivalent to 4.1 per cent of Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2022, up from 3.7 per cent of GDP in 2021.
Figures released by Russia in late 2022 show that spending on national defence, the largest component of Russian military expenditure, was already 34 per cent higher, in nominal terms, than in budgetary plans drawn up in 2021.
Yes, cartoonish exaggerations of Putin as some all-powerful demonic tyrant have been a constant fixture of US politics since 2016, bound up with maniacal domestic perceptions of Donald Trump. These exaggerations have always been both substantively stupid and politically cynical; I’ve spent more time than I’d probably care to admit refuting them over the past eight years. But there does seem to be an overcorrection of sorts happening within certain quarters, where increasingly a parallel exaltation of Putin has emerged, sometimes veering on deification. This looks to have largely originated in the reasonable desire to “understand Russia’s security concerns,” but progressively migrated over the past two years into a belief that can be accurately summarized as: “Putin was right to invade Ukraine and the Russian war effort is both morally justified and somehow metaphysically necessary.”
As confirmed by the Tucker Carlson interview last week, Putin appears to accept no personal responsibility for his role in launching an invasion that has led to hundreds of thousands of corpses strewn across the pointless killing fields, with members of the same family often fighting each other, as I was told when I visited Russia in December. He also evinces no reservations about censoring speech critical of his war policy — a strange thing for Americans supposedly opposed to censorship to venerate. No apparent second thoughts about his expansion of conscription — probably the one action any government can take that is most quintessentially antithetical to civil liberties. Instead, Putin seems content with his meandering historical digressions, as much of Tucker’s interview was occupied by him doing. American admirers seem very impressed by this skill — which is not so much in historical fluency, as it is an ability to avoid answering direct questions about his war policy.
Putin was sarcastically dismissive of Tucker in the interview, rejecting several invitations to opine on issues that could have conceivably drawn support from right-wing Americans. Tucker gave Putin every opportunity to expound on his notional adherence to Orthodox Christianity, for instance — or to castigate the moral decadence of the West, denounce sexual deviancy and “wokeness,” or similar bugaboos easily translatable to an American audience. But Putin rejected those opportunities, even as he made sure on several occasions to highlight Russia’s increasingly close ties with China, which the same right-wing American viewers are being taught to view as the Ground Zero of dangerous America-hating communism.
Putin was even teed up to criticize Joe Biden and praise Donald Trump — but clearly had no interest. The furthest he went was to say that talking to Biden right now would be a waste of time.
Putin is obviously intelligent and can often make some fairly astute observations about US politics. They are usually less partisan than many US partisans would like to think. Democrats were surely drooling at the possibility that he’d lavish praise on Trump, and segments of online Trump supporters were probably hoping for the same, convinced that Trump will follow through on his very powerful relationship with Putin to end the Ukraine war in “24 hours,” as Trump has taken to pledging in campaign rhetoric. But rather than tout Trump, Putin said their relationship was no different than his earlier relationship with George W. Bush. “I had a very good relationship with Bush,” Putin said. “I know that in the United States, he was portrayed as some kind of a country boy who does not understand. I assure you that this is not the case.”
When he launches into the winding centuries-old historical disquisitions, Putin departs from the hardened insightful realism he can sometimes display in other contexts. There are lots of ways for politicians to avoid answering questions from journalists. One of them is to say “it’s complicated” and change the subject. Tucker might’ve been a bit passive during the long medieval lecture, but I’m not sure I would’ve been able to handle it much differently under the circumstances — Tucker was still able to elicit noteworthy answers even with Putin’s unyielding elisions. But this required a degree of tact that most in the media would definitely not have been capable of, which is ironic given the preemptive denunciations of Tucker for even daring to do the interview in the first place.
I’m not sure how to interpret Putin’s long digressions into World War II without inferring that he was deliberately attempting to invoke a parallel between himself and Hitler. Which isn’t the most reassuring thing one might have expected to hear:
PUTIN: In 1939 after Poland cooperated with Hitler, Hitler offered Poland peace and a treaty of friendship. An alliance demanding in return that Poland give back to Germany the so-called Danzig Corridor, which connected the bulk of Germany with East Prussia and Königsberg.
After World War I, Hitler asked them to give it amicably but they refused. Still they collaborated with Hitler and engaged together in the partitioning of Czechoslovakia. After World War I, this territory was transitioned to Poland, and instead of Danzig, a city of Gdańsk emerged.
Before World War II, Poland collaborated with Hitler. And although it did not yield to Hitler’s demands, it still participated in the partitioning of Czechoslovakia, together with Hitler. As the Poles had not given the Danzig corridor to Germany, and went so far, pushing Hitler to start World War II by attacking them. Why was it Poland against whom the war started on 1 September 1939? Poland turned out to be uncompromising, and Hitler had nothing to do but start implementing his plans with Poland.
So apparently Putin’s roster of historical analogies is just as limited as everyone on the opposite side of the Ukraine conflict, with Russian foreign policy also justified by a tedious over-reliance on WWII mythology — just as no American politician can ever utter a peep without bringing up Neville Chamberlain, whose actual record they have a Facebook-brained understanding of.
The fact that Putin was repeatedly asked by Tucker about NATO expansion, but kept ignoring the prompt to continue his grandiose historical treatise about the artificial nature of the modern Ukrainian state, doesn’t disprove that NATO expansion played a role in bringing about the Ukraine war. Lots of pro-Ukraine pundits have been saying “SEE! He never cared about NATO! It was all a ruse!” But what’s probably true is that Putin never exactly cared about NATO qua NATO. As of 2023, NATO has officially expanded to include 832 miles of border with Finland, and that’s obviously not prompting anywhere near as extreme a reaction as in Ukraine. But NATO still obviously mattered specifically vis-a-vis Ukraine. So yes, it’s not NATO as such that should be regarded as precipitating the war — it’s NATO’s specific encroachment into Ukraine, and the unique significance assigned to that encroachment given Ukraine’s specific bond with Russia, at least as Putin sees it. For him that same significance does not exist with Finland, or with the Baltic states. So Putin’s emphasis on the historical artificiality of Ukraine, and Russia’s historical claim to the territory, is not incompatible with the role of NATO in precipitating the war.
But in conclusion, continuing to believe that the Ukraine war is a disaster, and that none of the belligerents in the war (US, NATO, EU, Ukraine, Russia) deserve to be heaped with praise for their role in the disaster, doesn’t prevent me from understanding the disaster most effectively. In fact, it preserves my ability to do so.