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The Crackpot Realism of America, Russia, and Ukraine
On the suffering that may come
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is catastrophic. Vladimir Putin is murdering innocent Ukrainians and endangering his own citizens, who will suffer further as Russia is isolated from the Western world. Ukrainians have bravely resisted Putin’s onslaught. Ukraine cannot materially defeat Russia—at some point, if a peace deal is not reached, the Russian army will overwhelm Ukraine—but Putin’s victory will come at a horrific cost. A refugee crisis threatens to destabilize Europe while Russians watch the remnants of their free press die overnight. Nuclear war, while not likely, is more probable than it’s been in decades, posing an existential threat to the human race.
A Putin puppet regime in Ukraine will be a tragedy, though one inordinately difficult to realize, like American attempts to nation-build in Iraq and Afghanistan. What will be worse than the end of Ukrainian sovereignty will be the number of lives lost to make it possible. One dark reality that many in the West will soon have to reckon with is that the future of a democratic Ukraine is not worth a larger land war or a nuclear threat. In diplomacy, human life must be prized first, and if a so-called appeasement strategy is what saves us from further civilian slaughter, it will have to be the strategy pursued. If the price of de-escalation is Putin attempting to transform Ukraine into another Belarus—or at least laying permanent claim to Crimea and Donbas—than that may be the price that has to be paid. This is not an argument to raise spirits. It is merely what is in front of us and what could be required to avoid years of bloodshed. Any talk of appeasement conjures World War II, Chamberlain and Hitler, but liberals and conservatives alike make the mistake of treating the current moment as a twentieth century redux. Putin’s Russia, enfeebled if well-armed, cannot dominate the world. American elites and war-curious liberals cloistered in New York and D.C. imagine, each day, someone can take the role of Hitler in their lives. Trump is not Hitler and Putin is not Hitler. Modern Russia can barely manage to lord over the old Soviet countries in its midst.
There is danger in Russia’s weakness. Today, Putin has far less to lose than the Soviet leaders of yesteryear, who governed a genuine empire. The West imposes sanctions instead of deploying troops, which is reasonable, but in each dramatic move, America and Europe risk driving Russia into a corner beyond negotiation. Nuclear weapons grow in appeal when you have nothing left to give. Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s demand for a no-fly zone is deeply dangerous and gaining mainstream support in the West, even as NATO rightfully promises never to impose one. The benign phrase—what’s so awful about airplanes zooming away from certain parts of the sky?—masks what it truly would be, the beginning of a Third World War. Once American or NATO troops shoot down Russian planes, a new war will be launched among the superpowers of the world. Hundreds of thousands or even millions could die. War must be avoided at all costs because it is so difficult to unwind once mass armies are engaged. We operate on far more dangerous terrain than midcentury because there are so many more nuclear weapons, enough to easily annihilate civilization in a matter of minutes.
Crackpot realism abounds. It emanates from the Right, where it’s always had a home among the warmongers and neocons, and now permeates the Left, where solidarity with Ukraine has led to calls to pump them with arms and artists and activists to plead at the Guggenheim, of all places, for a no-fly zone. The term, coined by the sociologist C. Wright Mills, was used to describe the military men in the aftermath of World War II who would gladly—and with great moral fervor and mania—escalate deadly conflict. Putin is a crackpot realist, of course. The American foreign policy establishment, for much of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, has been filled with such creatures, too. The anti-war Left is adrift on Ukraine, shouted down by liberals who want to take the fight to Putin at any cost and have made Ukraine, a nation they hardly considered before the start of February, a cause célèbre. This is the same cohort of people who go to therapy over climate change and hungrily devour Don’t Look Up. As terrifying as climate change might be, nuclear war remains the far graver threat. Humanity can plod through rising sea levels, superstorms, and broiling summers. Nuclear warfare will not be survived.
Russia, a capitalistic autocracy, does not wage war in a vacuum, just as China, hungrily eying Taiwan, won’t one day. Americans do not want to hear this. The liberal-left, emboldened by the Ukrainian cause, has found an obvious villain in Russia and a clear freedom-fighting underdog in Ukraine. The Ukrainian flags are everywhere—in storefronts, at roadsides, on Twitter. Standing for Ukraine, for many, has replaced Black Lives Matter as the de rigueur declaration of virtue. Russia hawks on the Right have embraced the cause too, vindicated in their long-standing hatred of anything with the whiff of Soviet. For the Left, Russia has been resented since the nation’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and Donald Trump’s choice to repeatedly praise Putin. Had Russiagate not manifested itself, would so many liberals be lustily cheering on Ukraine? Perhaps. It is notable, though, the Uyghurs have never been championed in such a way. Neither have the Yemenis nor the Afghans dying in the streets as the United States bleeds the Taliban-run country dry. None of these crises make easy bumper stickers.
Foreign policy is tough because answers don’t always sort along neat ideological axes. Domestic politics can be manipulated more easily. It has been fascinating, overall, to watch those most enlivened by the awokening of the late 2010s and early 2020s—those driven to not only embrace the cause of social justice but to infuse identity-first critiques into almost all facets of everyday life—turned toward Ukraine. There is no simple way to sum up the “woke” view or even quickly explain critical race theory, but if there’s one consistent thread throughout it all, it’s that white supremacy defines much of what America was and remains, that the nation itself, founded by slave-owners, will be extraordinarily difficult to redeem. The police, a racist construct, must be defunded or abolished. Schools and corporations and media outlets must reorder and reeducate to account for pervasive racism that is as prevalent today as it was in the 1950s. To cure America, in the words of Ibram X. Kendi, present discrimination is needed to account for past discrimination.
The trouble with the woke view of domestic America is that it simplifies and flattens hundreds of years of tumult, tragedy, and hope. America, in 2022, is the least racist version of itself to date—views on interracial marriage, for example, have improved remarkably over two decades—and stands out, still, as an example of the possibility of a multiracial republic. None of this should excuse America’s sins and inequities. Healthcare is far too expensive, housing is far too expensive, and segregation remains a deep challenge, even in large liberal cities. Racism persists. There are more poor whites than poor Black but a higher percentage of Black Americans are still mired in poverty. The point is merely that America is gradually improving, that no one who lived through Jim Crow could credibly argue such a clear Apartheid system exists in the United States today. Even the rise of Trump, a bigot who courted white nationalists, has been complicated by the fact that a growing number of working-class Latinos, Blacks, and Asians were drawn to his message. America is not a failed country. It is an imperfect one.
Those at the barricades of woke have had no trouble taking up the Ukrainian cause. On one hand, this is logical. Even as the Ukrainian president cries out for a no-fly zone over his country, he cuts a sympathetic figure and Russia, in every sense, is the aggressor, slaughtering civilians for imperialist designs. Zelenskyy as hero-savior allows liberals to overlook inconvenient facts, like the presence of neo-Nazis in the Ukrainian National Guard. Oddly, the fervor over Ukraine has also caused an otherwise America-skeptical lot to overlook where their pessimistic critique would have true purchase. Domestic affairs in America are better than they once were, but the military-industrial complex is as expansive as ever, with troops stationed across the world. On the foreign policy front, America has repeatedly failed, and even in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, America is not blameless.
NATO expansion was the original sin. Given Putin’s savagery, it’s not an argument currently in vogue but NATO’s continued existence after the end of the Cold War was once worthy of debate in mainstream foreign policy circles. In 1997, George Kennan, the architect of America’s containment policy at the outset of the Cold War, warned that expanding NATO would “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion” and “impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking,” all predictions that have come to pass. William Perry, Bill Clinton’s Defense Secretary from 1994 to 1997, blamed America’s drive for a NATO expansion eastward for deteriorating relations in the twenty-first century. “They were very uncomfortable about having NATO right up on their border and they made a strong appeal for us not to go ahead with that,” Perry said in 2016. “Basically the people I was arguing with when I tried to put the Russian point ... the response that I got was really: ‘Who cares what they think? They’re a third-rate power.’ And of course that point of view got across to the Russians as well. That was when we started sliding down that path.”
Robert Service, a leading historian of Russia, noted recently that the United States only compounded these errors by dangling the carrot of NATO membership over Ukraine, a nonstarter for neighboring Russia that was guaranteed to enflame tensions. Last November, the U.S. and Ukraine signed a Charter on Strategic Partnership, which asserted America’s support for Kyiv’s right to pursue membership in NATO—an intolerable prospect for Putin, according to Service. Calling Ukraine “one of the hot spots in the mental universe of Vladimir Putin,” Service argued that “nothing was done to prepare the Ukrainians for the kind of negative response that they would get.” Anatol Lieven, the noted journalist and Russia expert, argued in a recent interview that the West “has aided Ukraine and has strongly encouraged Ukraine to try to join the Western alliance while not actually offering Ukraine anything but the vaguest possibility of membership in future.” When Putin delivered his dark speech setting the stage for his invasion of Ukraine, he mentioned NATO 40 times.
Putin is sadistic and cruel, but he is operating under a pretext that should be familiar to any American who has studied their own history: the Monroe Doctrine. Putin holds a deranged view of Ukraine as a false country with a false language, as one that must be subsumed into Russia. Yet it’s possible a military invasion could have been headed off if America and Europe did not do so much to try to tug Ukraine into Western Europe’s orbit. Democratic reformers in Eastern Europe, since the 1990s, have associated joining NATO, a military alliance, with the flourishing of democracy in their own nations, ignoring the paths of nations like Finland and Austria, which maintain non-aligned democracies. The operative question becomes how the United States would treat an Eastern European military alliance that deployed troops to the Mexican and Canadian borders to keep watch. It is not hard to imagine the war that would come next.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine should not deeply horrify anyone familiar with the American history of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. We have murdered countless civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and many other nations. We have fomented violent regime change throughout South America and the Caribbean. We have crushed the economy of Cuba. We illegally bombed Yugoslavia. We waged a heinous drone war in Pakistan. None of this excuses Putin’s actions, but it does offer context that is forever necessary when assessing foreign policy decisions. Putin’s invasion is absolute madness. And so was Iraq.
The focus now must be on peace. Peace can only come with an agreement that both Ukraine and Russia can live with, a prospect that Western talking heads do not want to accept. World events do not follow the logic of a board game or a comic book. Villains declare victory and heroes are hard to find. Putin cannot control Ukraine like he dreamed he would. The West, meanwhile, cannot safely integrate Ukraine into their fold, fulfilling another lost dream. As tragic as these last couple of weeks have been, far greater terror awaits if we don’t find a path to de-escalation.