Being open to new facts and new interpretations is essential to dealing with the world as it actually is.
Listen To This Story
I got quite a response to last week’s column, “Western and Russian Imperialism: Our Wrongs Don’t Make Putin Right,” about the segment of the American left that blames the West for provoking Russia, opposes support for Ukraine, and sees the only viable option as giving Putin a deal he likes.
Most people agreed with the morality and necessity of defending innocent Ukrainians from this unprecedented assault — and thanked me for amplifying that message.
One person I heard from was David Edick Jr., of the San Diego World Affairs Council:
Thoughtful perspective … and having spent over 30 years interacting with people & orgs in the USSR and then the 15 independent republics (esp Russia) I can say it IS complicated. Nevertheless, Putin’s greatest flaws are cynicism towards people (including his own, not just Ukrainians or Westerners) and revanchism… the effort to restore what is past. The judgment of history has long been a central point of reference for Putin the czar.
Russia always had all the people, resources, and opportunity to create a strong, post-empire 21st century Russia. Instead, Putin has used corruption and now this bloody war to pursue a 19th century illusion. The people of Ukraine are paying a catastrophic price for this delusional war; Russians will pay even more.
But some came at me pretty hard. A few lectured me, mostly repeating the same talking points I had just refuted in the article — without responding to how I had refuted them.
In fact, the tin-eared response I got from those folks simply underlines my point: A certain segment of the left are so deeply invested in their own calcified views that they are immune to any facts or developments that challenge those long-held beliefs.
All of their analysis is rooted in the simplistic notion of the US as a 24-hours-a-day, apex imperialist predator. Some even complain that I am failing to apply what I myself learned — unearthed in book and journalistic work over the years — about the pathological behavior of power elites from the end of World War II through the George W. Bush administration.
In fact, I still practice extreme vigilance toward any US-backed military and foreign policy actions around the world. But my story was specifically about Vladimir Putin, what he does, what he represents. It was right there in the headline: “Our Wrongs Don’t Make Putin Right.”
It’s also about recognizing that paradigms and their applicability can fade over time. Of course, often, as the saying goes, “past is prologue,” but it is not an absolute model for the future. Being open to new facts and new interpretations is essential to dealing with the world as it actually is.
Same Old Refrain
The opposite of being open is to recite the same things over and over without ever really examining them for truth.
One such claimed fact is that Putin was forced to invade Ukraine to protect Russia from NATO and the unspecified but sinister designs of that coalition on “Putin’s fantasy version of Russia.”
Yet Putin himself never cited a NATO threat, originally. That is no small thing.
In Crimea, on February 20, 2014, he claimed he was liberating Ukraine from Nazis. He only pivoted to blaming NATO after his Nazi claims failed to gain traction outside of Russia.
Another refrain: “They are no worse than we are.”
I received this note from Noam Chomsky:
Misaddressed. You should send this to someone who takes that position, if you can find anyone. Not to someone who writes repeatedly that Putin’s “supreme international crime” falls in the same category as the US invasion of Iraq, Hitler-Stalin’s invasion of Poland, etc.
Those three invasions are not exactly comparable for many reasons but, in any case, my problem is that saying them in the same breath seems to cut Putin too much slack.
That, we most certainly do not want to do. Not with the evidence at hand.
He has been pursuing his longtime “dream” of Greater Russia through assassination, extraordinary rendition externally and through imprisonment and murder internally since the 2000s. During this war, he has ramped up his monstrously immoral methods to now include industrial-scale abduction. The Ukrainian government claims (and international investigators have concurred on a more modest scale) that some 1.6 million Ukrainians have been forcibly relocated to Russia, with about 250,000 of these being children, quite a few of whom have been put into “re-education” camps.
Putin’s desperation and grotesque overreach is understandable. For the past 30 years he and his oligarchs have embezzled trillions in wealth from Russia, beggaring the Russian armed forces. The most significant successful military operations are from the quasi-mercenary groups: Wagner, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin; and the Chechens, led by Ramzan Kadyrov. Both of these groups, according to several analysts, pose a serious threat to the stability of Russia and the entire region. And even their military victories were essentially pyrrhic, as they were won at an unsustainable casualty rate.
Furthermore — and these facts are strikingly absent from discussions on Putin’s “accomplishments” — Russia, though vast, is hardly a modern country in the same sense of China or America. Russia is essentially a nation-state built on two superficially glittering cities and the barely-hidden failed state of services beyond.
Outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, extreme poverty is the norm. One in five homes do not have indoor toilets. Employment, health care, and education are as sparse as functioning washer-dryer units. Much of this may be squarely placed at the feet of Putin — given choices he has made.
It’s easy to ignore the Putin Truth, and those who want to exonerate him can find excuses for his invasion everywhere, from Fox News commentators to the usual retinue of full-throated “left journalists” and Muskian libertarian brands. Some on both ends of the spectrum see Putin as leading the battle against the “globalists.”
Even Bernie Sanders in his new book, where the senator — who, importantly, voted to provide Ukraine with support in its defense — declares that although “oligarchs” certainly run Russia, they also run much of the world now, including the US.
However, as I am sure Sanders himself would agree, all oligarchs are not created equal — the ultimate consequences of their crimes are different and certainly their methods are different.
Now, to be sure, if our oligarchs traded places with Russia’s, they’d no doubt adjust their modus operandi to a different system. American oligarchs in Russia would behave much more crudely and blatantly, and Russian oligarchs in America would learn to make big gifts to charitable institutions and rely on lawyers, lobbyists, and PR people instead of open window dry dives and polonium tea parties.
The most salient point, however, is that Western oligarchs function under a democratic legal and political system, which, while flawed, still allows for opposition without imprisonment or death. Untold individuals and groups monitor, criticize, and often act, including filing lawsuits and proposing legislation, to blunt the harm these oligarchs do. Take Sanders as an example. Could he be as outspoken about them were he in elective office in Russia? Based on the fate of Putin’s best-known domestic adversary, Alexei Navalny, certainly not.
The War Racket vs Peace Dividend
Finally, some people who objected to last week’s column tweeted that I was furthering the aims and vast profit-minting machine of the US military-industrial complex (MIC) by opposing Putin and his demands. To which I retorted, via Tweet:
Thought for today: Putin must be (secretly of course) one of the largest shareholders in Western defense contractors, because he has single handedly kept them in business.
— Russ Baker (@RealRussBaker) February 19, 2023
My point, if it could possibly be made any clearer, is that those who want to starve the beast of the MIC ought not ignore how good Putin is for what Gen. Smedley Butler called “the war racket.” If we are to make an argument for the “peace dividend” that was promised after the fall of the Soviet Union but never came — for starters, we need peace.
Instead, the leading advocates of “peace” in the current situation seed doubts about right and wrong, and we see their influence spreading worldwide.
The Washington Post had an insightful article the other day about how people in the “Global South” don’t trust the US — because of which they are starting to waver on Ukraine. (“Global South” is defined as nations considered low in economic and industrial development, and are typically located to the south of more industrialized nations.)
Clement Manyathela, who hosts a popular and influential talk show on South Africa’s Radio 702, remembers the outrage he felt when Russian troops first surged into Ukraine. He had believed Russia’s insistence that it wasn’t planning to attack and felt cheated when war broke out.
“We were lied to,” he said.
But as the fighting continued, he, and many of those who call in to his show, began to ask questions: Why had President Vladimir Putin deemed it necessary to invade? Was NATO fueling the fire by sending so many weapons to Ukraine? How could the United States expect others around the world to support its policies when it had also invaded countries?
“When America went into Iraq, when America went into Libya, they had their own justifications that we didn’t believe, and now they’re trying to turn the world against Russia. This is unacceptable, too,” Manyathela said. “I still don’t see any justification for invading a country, but we cannot be dictated to about the Russian moves on Ukraine. I honestly feel the U.S. was trying to bully us.”
The article mentioned people in other Global South countries as well, including India and Kenya.
Some of the “bullying” is of course in the service of corporations and a legacy of amoral resource extraction, but at the same time, many US concerns are valid. And that’s not the same as bullying. One problem with these countries being ambivalent about Russia and Putin is the very tenuous state of democracy in their own regions, where autocratic tendencies and corruption are common too.
Last week I also touched on the terror the world feels as Putin increasingly floats the prospect of a nuclear war if he doesn’t get his way.
Along those lines, I just saw a salient interview Brad Friedman conducted with Stephen Schwartz, who is the former head of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. As a group they are historically the most level-headed advocates of policy to prevent nuclear conflicts. Schwartz reacted to Putin’s unilaterally suspending Russian participation in START, which is the only remaining nuclear arms treaty. Here, from the summary:
“There is no provision in the [New START] treaty for ‘suspending’ the treaty. You’re either in it or not,” explains Schwartz. “The suspension is, I guess, a wily way for Putin to get what he wants. Which is, I think, frankly, just an extension of what he’s been doing over the last year. This is a nuclear threat by another name.
“It’s an effort to frighten the public in the United States, NATO, and Ukraine into letting him basically blackmail those countries into letting him do whatever he wants with Ukraine. So he’s got this bludgeon — and it’s really the only tool that he has right now — and he’s waving it around until his demands are satisfied.” …
While taking Putin seriously, Schwartz also sees a larger principle at stake. “The way I see it, and I’m no big fan of war at all, is if we just listen to Putin and say ‘You’re right, we can’t risk nuclear war so we’re going to stand back and let you carve up Ukraine however you want. And, hey, if you want to take Belarus and Moldova, who are we to stop you?,’ I think that would be a terrible precedent for the rest of the world. Not only with regard to what Russia might do in the future, but other countries that have nuclear weapons or might want them.
“The Biden Administration and NATO have been very careful. If you look at every time Putin has done one of these things, the United States doesn’t dismiss it and doesn’t panic. They walk down the middle and I think that is the right approach here. We need to show that nuclear weapons are fundamentally useless, not just for prosecuting a war, but also for blackmail.
“We need to isolate Putin in this regard,” argues Schwartz. “Otherwise, the future world that we’re going to live in, brought to you by nuclear coercion, is going to be far worse than anything we dealt with during the Cold War.”
I was glad to see this reality check in print. Everything points to the urgent need to not indulge this man in any way. So many distractions, analogies, and side arguments have emerged and are blinding many. It is a blindness on which Putin is placing his all-in bet.