Can We Have an Intelligent Adult Conversation About Russia?

We should simultaneously condemn Putin’s criminal war of aggression and be careful not to slip into arrogant insanity ourselves. Wars bring out the worst in all sides, and creating a world without war will require the United States to be self-critical rather than self-righteous.

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—which has already killed hundreds if not thousands of civilians and created a refugee crisis—is the most serious act of international aggression in nearly 20 years. “Aggressive war” was deemed at the Nuremberg tribunal after World War II to be the “​​supreme international crime” for good reason. Violating a country’s sovereignty by sending in soldiers to overthrow its government is an act that must be condemned and punished by the international community, especially because allowing countries to get away with this kind of aggression will end up legitimizing expansionism and encouraging more of it. If unchecked, it will return us to a world of international anarchy where strong countries gobble up weaker ones.

Putin’s war is obviously indefensible, and it’s not clear how popular it is even in his own country. Courageous Russians have taken to the streets, risking arrest and prosecution, to protest the war. Many millions more are likely to be quietly wondering why on earth their president has dragged them into this conflict, which will kill and terrorize their Ukrainian friends and relatives and send thousands of Russian soldiers home maimed or in body bags. To die for a just cause can at least bring family members some solace, but to die for a senseless horrible crime inflicts on families a whole other kind of lasting pain. Polling before the war indicated little Russian support for an armed incursion; one December survey found that “only 8 percent of Russians supported a military conflict against Ukraine.” There is some evidence that Russian troops are demoralized—unsurprising, since the reasons Putin gave for invading Ukraine were incoherent and appear to not to have inspired a swell of national support. Almost nobody outside Russia defends the invasion—even China seems unexpectedly unsupportive.

It’s not yet clear how the war in Ukraine will go for Putin, or even what his ultimate objectives are.1 But there are signs that it could be, as veteran foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn put it, “an unforced error of historic proportions.2 There are reports that Russia is meeting greater resistance in Ukraine than it expected, and despite Russia’s overwhelming military superiority over Ukraine, a drawn-out occupation will be bloody, internationally unpopular, and a major drain on Russia’s treasury. Putin’s argument that Ukraine is culturally a part of Russia seems to be undercut by the fact that Ukrainians themselves are taking up arms to stop him. 

Putin has done more than wreck a neighboring country and flout international law; he has taken the insane step of threatening the world with nuclear annihilation if it thwarts him, by putting Russian nuclear weapons into a state of combat readiness, citing “aggressive statements” by Western countries.3 This is deeply alarming: Putin appears isolated and deranged, and a nuclear war with Russia would be world-ending. We have, since the end of the Cold War, largely avoided public discussion in the West of the fact that the world’s great powers are constantly pointing civilization-destroying weapons at each other, which they could deploy at a moment’s notice. But this crisis reminds us that, while it may look as if the world is largely at peace, that “peace” is built on the constant threat of the most extreme violence, and things could spiral out of control quickly.

It’s partly because so much is at stake that we should be concerned not only by Russia’s behavior, but by the arrogant self-certainty of many commentators and public officials in the U.S. and Europe. Looking back on our country’s history, it’s clear that when the U.S. is on the right side of an issue, its capacity for self-criticism can disappear in dangerous ways. For instance: the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and the ruthlessness of the Japanese Imperial Army, imbued the U.S. with a thirst for vengeance that was used to justify all manner of atrocities against the Japanese, including the firebombing and nuking of civilian populations (as well as the internment of Japanese Americans). After 9/11, a horrific attack on innocent office workers, the U.S. went on the warpath senselessly, launching disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our country’s barbaric actions in these countries—torture, indefinite detention, invasions, drone strikes—aided jihadist recruitment. Many Americans were convinced by President George W. Bush’s declaration that the enemy was “evil,” so that any criticism of American conduct seemed like complicity with evil—meaning that American conduct was temporarily placed beyond criticism.

The same danger is present here. Because Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is an obviously aggressive act, and because we are prone to “good and evil” thinking, there is little discussion in the Western press of the way our own policies made the present invasion more likely and the way that our own decisions could now make the situation worse and lead to a nightmarish nuclear confrontation.

It has been, for instance, terrifying to see prominent commentators and politicians float the possibility that the United States should enter a direct military confrontation with Russia. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) have both advocated the U.S. create a “no fly zone” over Ukraine—in practice, a commitment to shooting down Russian planes. A former NATO commander also said the the option should be “on the table.” Public polling suggests that when Americans hear the term “no fly zone,” they think it would be a good idea (although to get an accurate measure of public opinion on the proposal, one would have to mention that it includes a heightened risk that the the respondent’s loved ones will die horribly in a nuclear holocaust). Fortunately, the Biden administration appears to understand that shooting down Russian planes is a horrible idea (maybe even “the worst idea possible“), because it risks a full-scale war between two nuclear armed powers (and Putin has already started brandishing nuclear weapons at the West, something Russia analysts do not view as an empty threat). But as casualties in Ukraine increase, so will the pressure for Western countries to directly confront the Russian military. Charismatic Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has (understandably) been asking the U.S. and Europe to “close the skies,” a policy that sounds reasonable until one thinks about what it actually entails, which is the kind of hot war between great powers that could swiftly escalate into Armageddon.

We have to admit it: war turns many ordinary people deranged and stupid, even those on the “good” side. They’re not to blame for that: depictions of mass killing are traumatizing in a way that makes it hard to think straight. When the bullets start flying, and we start seeing devastating news stories of children being horribly dismembered, it is understandable to become consumed by rage and a desire to see wrongdoers punished. Outraged by the other side’s atrocities, we can forget to check our own standards of moral conduct—the Kyiv Independent reported that Ukrainian special forces commander vowed to start executing Russian prisoners of war (a very serious violation of the Geneva Conventions). Impassioned hatred can lead to actions that feel satisfying and righteous without actually saving any lives—and perhaps even putting more lives at risk. Shooting down Russian planes, for instance, might lead to a conflict that would kill far more people than are dying already. Yet it feels more “right” than “doing nothing.”

When the moral issues in a conflict seem clear-cut—as they do with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—it is easy to see anyone who calls the complete righteousness of the Good Side into question as an “apologist” for the Bad Side. But intelligent adults must be capable of discussing global politics with nuance; to criticize U.S. policy is not to be “with the enemy.” It should not, for instance, be considered “pro-Putin” or “Putin apologism” to note that in the years leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there were good reasons to believe that if Western countries tried to expand NATO to Ukraine, and the U.S. continued to fill Europe with weapons systems that could target Russia, Russia might feel provoked and encircled and be more likely to take irrational actions. This is not to say that the “feeling” is justified, any more than someone explaining what makes bees attack is justifying bee stings. But foreign policy analysts ranging from Henry Kissinger to Noam Chomsky had pointed out years ago that the West was failing to approach the Ukraine issue in a way that would maximize the chances of a peaceful, mutually satisfactory result. As Roane Carey summarizes in the Intercept:

Responsibility for this war rests with Russia and Russia alone. But that should not obscure the fact that NATO, led by Washington, laid the groundwork for confrontation with a series of missteps after the breakup of the Soviet Union, provocations that fueled Russian resentment and fears of Western encirclement. First came the ill-advised expansion of NATO in the late 1990s, which was criticized not only by the left, but by a long and impressive list of former establishment cold warriors, including George Kennan, Richard Pipes, Sam Nunn, and many more. Western leaders had an opportunity to reorder the European security architecture in a way that included Russia at the highest levels after the fall of the Soviet Union. Instead, led by President Bill Clinton, they committed to the eastward expansion of NATO, an organization built on the premise of confrontation with Russia. Even more misguided was the Western vow in 2008 to include Ukraine and Georgia in NATO. As Anatol Lieven, a Russia specialist at the Quincy Institute, put it in a recent interview: “We never had the slightest intention of defending Ukraine, not the slightest.” NATO’s declaration, he said, was “deeply immoral” for its hollowness. President Joe Biden’s current CIA Director William Burns, a veteran Russia expert formerly at the State Department, has long argued against both of those provocations, most recently in a memoir published just a few years ago. Even New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, that popinjay of pompous platitudes and parrot of establishment opinion, noted that, in this unfolding disaster, “America and NATO are not just innocent bystanders.”

Those Americans who started paying attention to Ukraine only at the moment Russia invaded it may be baffled as to why NATO is being blamed by anyone for anything. A good primer on the background is provided by international relations expert John Mearsheimer in his 2014 Foreign Affairs article “Why The Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault.” Mearsheimer warned then that by encouraging Ukraine to turn toward the West and away from Russia, but making it clear that the West would not defend Ukraine, “the West is leading Ukraine down the primrose path, and the end result is Ukraine is going to get wrecked.”  Zeeshan Aleem of MSNBC gives an excellent explanation of the relevant context here. Aleem concludes that “The West didn’t want to set limits on NATO’s enlargement and influence or lose face. So what it did was gamble.” When NATO and the U.S. held military drills with Ukraine, when the U.S. kept nuclear weapons in Europe, when NATO crossed what it knew to be Russia’s “red lines,” it fueled Vladimir Putin’s grievances and made him more likely to lash out. To emphasize it once more, this does not justify Putin’s crimes. But we need to look at the context and think about what we could have done differently to avoid this bloodshed. A refusal to practice self-scrutiny and humility is only likely to make global conflict worse.

A few more points should be borne constantly in mind as this war unfolds:

  1. War is far worse than it looks on television and in the newspaper. It’s hard to look at the photos published showing paramedics trying and failing to save a dying Ukrainian child. But as hard as these photos are to look at, we should remember that even these are sanitized depictions of the war. The mainstream press does not show dismemberment and extreme gore, even though these are commonplace in war. They do not show what a body looks like when it has been hit directly by a shell (for more on how war is sanitized so as not to disturb us too much, see my article in the latest print edition). While it’s understandable that such images are not shown for a general audience, it also means that the full extent of the horror is concealed from those of us seeing events unfolding from afar. This means that Putin’s crimes are even worse than they appear—“hundreds dead” does not even begin to convey what we are talking about. It also means that the world’s chief priority must be to stop the war. That sounds obvious, but it needs to be remembered that:
  2. War is also exciting and meaningful for some people. Considering how horrible war is and that we have a tendency to condemn and lament war in rhetoric, you would think that it would be easy for human beings not to make war. And yet, we possess a dark part of ourselves that can get a little excited by war. These incentives toward escalating conflict are arational or irrational, but they are nonetheless real. Wars make for compelling drama. They give us meaning. They allow us to feel part of a righteous crusade that gets the adrenaline flowing. You can already see people on social media for whom war is exciting. This is one reason why wars persist despite being the worst imaginable horror. As long as we the observers are insufficiently revolted by war and get excited about it, we will be prone to discard possibilities for diplomacy in favor of vengeance. (The United States, it should be remembered, bombed Japan in 1945 even after Japan had offered to surrender, because the Air Force wanted a “big finish” to the war. This was possible only because the Americans dropping the bombs had ceased to see the enemy as human, and thought in abstractions.)  
  3. War drags every side into the moral abyss. I do not know if the report that Ukrainian forces intend to shoot Russian prisoners of war is accurate. (The Kyiv Independent deleted its tweet about the story, whether because it was inaccurate or because it made Ukraine look bad is unclear.) But it would not surprise me if it happened. War causes both sides to do morally depraved things, since war is organized mass murder by its nature. The report on the Ukrainian officer said that he was taking vengeance because of the shelling of children by Russian artillerymen. Indeed, one can see how anyone who had seen such a thing up close might want to kill those responsible. This is how violence begets violence. Even if Ukraine has justice on its side geopolitically, Ukrainians cannot escape the fact that in defending themselves, they have to commit acts of hideous violence against Russian soldiers just as human as themselves. The overall war may not be morally complicated—it has an obvious aggressor and defender—but if we set ourselves up to see Ukrainians as heroic, we may be surprised to find out that some things have been done that mar this picture. I am not saying this will necessarily be the case. But only that we should remember “good guys” often end up doing very bad things when they are avenging an extreme horror.4
  4. People are not their governments. We talk casually about “Russia” invading Ukraine, just as we talk about “China’s” actions or “U.S.” actions. It’s a common way of speaking, but it’s dangerously misleading, because it treats states and the people living under them as synonymous. Many Russians are bravely risking arrest to challenge their government. Americans abroad did not like it when people in other countries held them personally responsible for the crimes of George W. Bush. Let us be careful not to allow the crimes of Vladimir Putin to cause general Russophobia. We should also be prepared to embrace the Russian people when Putin is finally ousted and they have a new leadership. Sanctions and international “pariah” status should be tied to the specific crime of the invasion. We should make it clear that Russia can be welcomed as part of the international community if it respects the sovereignty of other nations (a rule we ourselves should be committed to following). 
  5. We should remember the lessons of post-9/11 madness. After 9/11, the United States of America went berserk.5 Enraged at the killing of its people, it wrecked country after country thoughtlessly. Some people lapsed into the silliest forms of jingoism—when France wouldn’t join the catastrophic Iraq war, the Congressional cafeteria renamed French fries “freedom fries.” We’re already seeing some of this kind of absurdity—a Quebec restaurant has taken poutine off the menu because it sounds like Putin, a college in Italy postponed a course on Dostoyevsky (the decision was reversed). The International Cat Federation has banned Russian cats from competitions. A cultural boycott of Russia over the invasion of Ukraine might be a way to exert some kind of indirect pressure but, notably, when people in the United States have tried to use boycotts against Israel over its crimes against Palestinians, there has been immense backlash. If we decide to shun all things Russian, we must ask whether we are really doing it out of a carefully worked-out tactical theory, or whether it just feels good and we are mad and want to do something. We must also ask whether certain measures that harm the vulnerable in Russian society might constitute an inhumane form of “collective punishment” for the crimes of a small number of people whose decisions cannot be changed by the Russian populace.
  6. We have to be prepared to accept unsatisfying outcomes. It may be tempting to think of any concessions to Vladimir Putin as “rewarding aggression.” But as Noam Chomsky puts it in a valuable interview, “the choices are now reduced to an ugly outcome that rewards rather than punishes Putin for the act of aggression — or the strong possibility of terminal war.” It’s unclear right now what the possible agreements to end the conflict might be, but if it comes down to a choice between something that gives Putin more than he deserves and something that escalates the possibility of a hot war between the United States and Russia, we should prepare to have to accept an outcome that feels unfair. As Zeeshan Aleem notes, many experts suggest that “Ukraine’s neutrality or some kind of altered NATO status should be part of the discussion in diplomatic backchannels. Critics will say this constitutes “appeasement” of Putin. But as Biden has already made clear, the U.S. is not willing to wage war with Russia, and it certainly isn’t going to allow Ukraine into NATO when Russia is attacking it, since that would require all of NATO to go to war with Russia. The issue now is to think clearly about how to end a conflict that could spiral into World War III.”
  7. We are seeing the consequences of the U.S. jeopardizing its credibility. The United States government routinely violates international law. It claims the right to take military action wherever in the world we see fit and to overthrow sovereign governments without the approval of the international community. In Putin’s speeches justifying the invasion—which are worth reading to understand his state of mind—he dwells on the lawlessness of the U.S. For its part, the Biden administration has been pretending America is innocent, making the ridiculous claim that the U.S. has “no tolerance for overt or tacit spheres of influence.” I do not know if there is an answer to the question: why was the U.S. allowed to invade Iraq, and suffered none of the kind of economic consequences now being used to punish Russia, but Russia is condemned and punished? The answer, of course, is that we have a double-standard: a crime is considered worse if Putin does it than if we do it. This is why the most persuasive parts of Putin’s speech are those in which he points out the ridiculous hypocrisy and deceptiveness of the West. The United States keeps nuclear weapons in Europe pointed at Russia—one of Putin’s demands before the invasion was getting nuclear weapons out of Europe—but would never accept Russian nuclear weapons on the U.S.-Mexico border. The fact that Putin’s speeches are right about this is maddening, because it gives them some force they would not have if he had to confine himself to all the balderdash about “de-Nazifying” Ukraine. We need to ensure, going forward, that if we want international rules to be obeyed, we scrupulously obey them ourselves. Otherwise, when we demand pariah status for countries that use illegitimate military force, their citizens will feel aggrieved and singled-out, and they will have a point.6

Now we are in a very precarious and alarming moment. Some are already saying that the post-Cold War peace is over. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, and adopting the mentality that we are in a new Cold War with Russia will make it more likely that we do lapse into such a situation. We don’t need to be in a Cold War with Russia. If Vladimir Putin were ousted as the Russian president, it would be possible to dial back the tension substantially, so long as Western countries cultivate their empathy and stop believing in the fiction that they are law-abiding and pure while “Russia” is by nature nefarious and imperialist. Intelligent adults are capable of discussing global politics without slipping into McCarthyism or warmongering. A mature conversation about Russia can and should include the fact that Putin’s aggression is a hideous crime and the fact that the U.S.’s own flagrant violations of international law have made it less obvious why Putin should respect the rules himself. A mature conversation would consider the question of why certain victims are given press coverage while others are not (like those killed by our allies). A thoughtful, rational adult does not see this war as an entertaining TV drama in which president Zelensky is the heroic protagonist and Vladimir Putin is the cartoonish nemesis, but as a situation in which we need to think rationally and cautiously and ensure that we do not stumble into nuclear armageddon. The casual talk about “no fly zones,” which will only get louder as the carnage mounts, means that many are still far too casual about escalating armed conflict, and do not grasp how important it is for the U.S., Europe, and Russia to ultimately become partners and friends—something we should all desire if we would like to see humanity survive the century.

  1. I stress the use of “Putin” rather than “Russia” because it is clear that “Russia” had no say in the war. The war is not a Russian collective enterprise but a project of Vladimir Putin and a small group of military leaders. 

  2. When I interviewed Cockburn the week before the invasion, he doubted it would happen because he believed it would be an insane blunder for Putin, the Russian equivalent of the U.S. invasion of Vietnam. Most of the sensible analysts I read in the lead-up to the war predicted it wouldn’t happen because it would be a foolish, self-destructive move by Putin. They may have been right in their analysis of the consequences, but overestimated Putin’s strategic acumen. 

  3. Note: I hate the word “Western” and think it reinforces the Russo-Orientalist notion that Russia is some mysterious Eastern other distinct from ourselves, but it is convention so I will use it here. 

  4. Glenn Greenwald offers a useful essay cautioning us to watch out for war propaganda and carefully maintain our critical thinking skills as we analyze the conflict. 

  5. A sense of the spirit of the times can be gleaned from looking at the era’s newspaper editorial cartoons. 

  6. Pointing out that the U.S. has engaged in the very conduct it condemns is sometimes dismissed as “whataboutism”—meaning the tactic of deflecting attention from a crime by asking “what about” another crime. But the point is not to deflect attention away from Putin’s crimes. It is to make sure that we have the moral standing to condemn those crimes, by holding our country to the same set of standards we wish to hold others to, and ensuring that our moral principles are not just hollow cover for the pursuit of our self-interest—in other words, international law for thee but not for me. If the U.S. commits a crime with impunity, it makes it harder to condemn other countries committing the same crime. Calling this “whataboutism” is just evading the question of why there is one moral standard for the U.S. and another standard for others. 

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