The main thing I’m struck by when watching this crisis unfold with Russia is how the whole thing could been avoided.
There are in fact many ways it could have been avoided, though most of them are now relatively trivial history. Yet it’s worth stepping through a couple of those, if only to clear the stage for a solution that remains viable.
A lot of people are pushing for the nuclear option, partly because of how cool the latter two words sound, after being used metaphorically for ages in various unrelated contexts. Yet mutually assured destruction, at least in the more literal senses, is hardly so awesome. Surely if there was ever a time to nuke Russia it was at the end of world war two after it defeated Japan as well as Germany. But we went soft and cooked Japan instead, merely warning the Soviets.
More dovish types are making noise about how we could have avoided all this by just not poking the bear. They go on with the narrative that we deliberately obliterated an agreed buffer zone by expanding NATO to Russia’s borders and also that we’ve sponsored terrorists in Ukraine by backing their coup, ensconcing them in government and military roles to commit atrocities against ethnic Russians for eight years, much like our actions with regard to Georgia, Syria, Afghanistan and so on.
But what nobody seems to get — and even Putin himself has been banging on to diplomats and the media for ages about this — is that reasonable dialogue has long been abandoned, swapped out for weapon flows and unadulterated posturing, as the respective baseline and ceiling of all foreign policy.
Much more could be said about that, but the underlying key to it, and the whole conflict in general, is how each side has structured its most basic arguments. Bear with me now. I know that politics is really about pressures and feelings, but trust me, there is something we all need to understand here.
If you’ve been fortunate enough to watch a moderate share of MSNBC you will be quite familiar with the term ‘Whataboutism’. This refers to the exclusively Russian and formerly Soviet tendency to distract from any accusation and return its momentum with an attribution of hypocrisy. It’s the only argument Russia ever uses.
An example that’s easy to relate to would be when an obese lawyer says to a gaunt orphan, “what do you mean “my pussy hat looks a bit lopsided? Have you even heard the expression ‘emotional intelligence’?” and the little idiot says, “what about when you smashed my untouched porridge ration in my hair and cut next to my jugular with shards of the bowl as a warning to use words like ‘empathy’ properly in future?”
Its tiresome, for sure. In fact it is so easy to get angry about it that we can overlook what is most offensive in its essence. By distracting from our particular critique of them it tries to make everything about our alleged issues and accordingly obscures what is even worse in them than the specific fault we called them on, which is how they think they’re better than us.
In the West we don’t mess around with our enemies’ heads like that. Our most basic argument is exceptionalism: we’re the best.
Only when so much becomes clear are we in a position to see the way out of this conflict in Ukraine.
Putin was ironically right that abandonment of reasonable dialogue was the problem, but we could never see that because outrage at how demonstrably evil he always is prevented us from realising that both sides are completely agreed on the only premise that really matters: We’re the best and you’re the worst.
This explains a lot of things, including the extinction of dialogue. Like whataboutism, every pretence of rationale has only concerned trivial details at most. Think about it for one second. What would it matter if Russia rattled off a list of what would otherwise seem like obvious justifications, when in fact we are the best and they are the worst?
Well that’s precisely how it is and they think exactly the same thing. Everything else is entirely peripheral. The single most overwhelmingly significant point is held in common. So for all relevant intents and purposes, they are us and we are them.
That’s the missing key, but it’s been buried till now in obscure traces in our culture, like esoteric metaphysics and band names. Now that we can see it clearly, maybe there is a new avenue for progress.
We could at least get started on genuinely reasoned dialogue that patiently works through the main strands of what seemed like an obscure mass of distractions and untangle it with simple undertakings that would otherwise appear as unthinkable concessions.
For instance, perhaps Ukraine could be a neutral buffer instead of a focused zone of friction, or people in Donbass could be left alone.
Some are even saying that these are Putin’s only demands, but until that is actually confirmed they may provide food for thought as options to move forward with.