Some thoughts on the war in Ukraine
Not that you asked...
[One of Putin’s “traitors”]
(This will be another of those posts in which I fear there is a good chance that I will displease some people on both sides of a political divide. It is not my intention, but I’ll accept it as a possible consequence of saying my honest piece.)
Let’s get this out of the way first: I can scarcely say how tired I am of the endless energy the anti-Trump left in this country has for trying to turn Vladimir Putin into Satan himself (or perhaps he’s Beelzebub working at some demonic administrative level just below the real King of Hell, you know, the guy with the orange skin and the puffed-up combover). I was tired of it already early in 2017. I’m really tired of it now.
Trump is out of office now for more than a year and we are still hearing from these people what a grave threat to American democracy is posed by a tinhorn little thug in Moscow, through his sinister pawns on the American neo-fascist/Nazi/totalitarian right.
I once contemplated writing something academic about the ‘Russia stole the 2016 election!’ myth on the left, along the lines of a chapter in a book collection I wrote on myths both left and right about United Flight 93, but I ultimately found it too difficult to sustain attention to the mind-deadeningly monotonous iterations of the narrative long enough to gather all the data I would need to fill out such a lengthy piece. “Too dumb to write on,” I finally decided.
I take the pathetic flip of much of the elite left in this country on Russia since the Obama administration as evidence of their dishonesty. Only a decade ago, they mercilessly ridiculed a Republican candidate for President when he suggested that Russia was our #1 foreign opponent. But, oh, how they’ve changed that view now that Russia can be connected, however tenuously, to Evil Orange Man! Some are even willing now to positively credit Romney for great insight—long after the point, of course, at which they ensured he has no real power in the contemporary American right by mercilessly ridiculing the claim when he made it.
There is a species of writer, ideologically ranging from leftists to liberals to neo-conservatives, who bend themselves into knots to make Putin and Russia into a massive threat to American democracy. I have addressed some of the members of the species here and here.
Listen, I got caught up as a kid in the symbolic energy of Rocky IV too. (The Soviets killed Apollo Creed, for God’s sake! THEY KILLED APOLLO!!). I know how easy it is to set that universe of myths and narratives into motion, especially if you’re old enough to have lived through the Cold War. And Putin and Russia are certainly a military threat to neighbors and, owing to their nuclear capability, to the rest of the world.
But it’s hallucination to imagine our democracy is crumbling because of Russian interference in our political system. It is unfortunately the fact that the chief threats to American democracy reside inside the country: in the insular haughtiness and lack of empathy for co-citizens of our elites, in the ignorance and gullibility and eagerness to play stupid but emotionally affirming polarizing games of too many of us, elite and non-elite alike, in our amoral distraction with soul-deadening cultural trends that have warped our traditional values into rejection of things that every mentally competent 12 year old once knew as obviously true.
So, much of the left has been contemptible on this Russia question.
Now that that’s out of the way, then, let me point out how much of the right has been engaged in the same kind of dirty and divisive work with respect to Russia and its leader…
The Russian invasion of Ukraine (and that’s what it is) is a monstrous act, and Putin’s justification for it (to “denazify” the Ukraine) is so transparently false that it merits no serious entertainment. (He has neo-Nazis in his own country that he might do well to attend to first, if that were a serious concern of his, before undertaking the glorious mission of purging the Nazi influence from a country with a Jewish head of state).
I don’t for a minute deny that the geopolitics of the area are highly complex and without simple solutions. But I find the effort on some parts of the American right to spin what the Russian regime has initiated in a way to reduce its moral monstrosity and Putin’s responsibility for the monstrosity at least as objectionable as what I described in my opening paragraph.
So who is Vladimir Putin, if he is not the Great Satan of the American anti-Trumpers? (Which, to repeat, he is not).
He is a nondescript, petty, autocratic, kleptocratic, run of the mill, brutal KGB-trained thug, running a failed state that he has contributed greatly to ruining and has done nothing to improve.
He is interested in what autocrats the world over are interested in: maintaining and expanding his own power. There is good evidence that he has also enriched himself considerably through his position as dictator.
He is no Great Satan. He is a tyrant without any apparent redeeming qualities among many others just like him currently in existence. The important difference between him and most of the rest of them is that he has invaded another country and is currently killing civilians in that country, and he controls a nuclear arsenal that constrains what others in the world can do to control his increasingly unhinged behavior.
Why is he doing this, then, if he’s not the Great Satan committed to random propagation of Evil?
He is wagging the dog. He is hopeful that his war and the jingoistic display associated with it will divert the attention of Russians from the fact of his utter failure at the task of governance in his own country. The evidence that Russia is a society in free fall is overwhelming, and no one who has looked carefully at the data on this can reasonably believe otherwise.
Here is some of the most alarming evidence of that failure:
1) Russia has very high violent crime and murder rates. Both have been declining for a number of years, but they were both extremely high when that decline began, and they still have rates much higher than anywhere in Western Europe or the Anglosphere. Their murder rate currently is still nearly twice ours, and ours is several times higher than anywhere in Western Europe. Russia is a terribly violent society, much more so than healthy societies.
2) Russia has a catastrophically high suicide rate. This is related to the very high rate of serious alcoholism, which in turn contributes to other serious health problems, and has helped keep Russian longevity considerably lower than anywhere in the West. Russia is a society in which self-destruction is common.
3) Russia has an extremely high abortion rate, more than twice that in the US. Putin is purportedly engaged in efforts to lower this, but to date those efforts have borne little fruit. Russia is a demographically declining society that willingly contributes to that decline by aborting astonishingly high numbers of babies.
4) The divorce rate in Russia is among the highest in the reporting world. Russia is a society in which the most basic institutions of love and responsibility that a stable society requires are weak and getting weaker.
It is sometimes claimed in some corners of the American right that Russia is a bastion against Western progressivism, a Christian society holding out against depravity. But how is a society in which violence, suicide, divorce, and abortion are so common conceivably understood as an bulwark against depravity?
Putin has done much strategic alliance-building with the Russian Church hierarchy. He claims to be a devout Orthodox Christian, and he misses no opportunity to be photographed in churches or with high-ranking officials in the Russian Church, such as Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow. Nominal Orthodox Christian identity is very widespread in Russia, and Putin certainly knows how much more force is lent to his political agenda by the ability to invoke its cultural symbols in alliance with that agenda. Perhaps the clearest evidence of the tenor and balance of power in Putin’s relationship with the Russian Church is the depressing manner in which Patriarch Kyrill has abnegated his priestly responsibility to tell the truth and defend the members of his flock against the unjustified violence of dictators and their armies.
Nothing culturally that is happening in Russia is consistent with a society in which Orthodox Christian culture and belief are deeply entrenched and practiced. In fact, practical religiosity in the form of church attendance is very low in Russia, and that’s quite consistent with the other awful social facts I just listed.
High numbers of Russians claim Orthodox Christian affiliation in surveys, but the data indicate very low levels of actual religious attendance at services. In fact, even in the midst of the precipitous decline in American religiosity, our regular church attendance rates are much higher than Russia’s.
The situation regarding Christianity in Russia, so far as all the empirical evidence indicates, is that after the fall of communism, many Russians went back to self-identifying as Orthodox but they didn’t really change their religious behavior much.
I would put the claim that Russia is an exemplary Christian state in the same class as the claim that Putin himself is a practicing Christian. He has asserted this, certainly, and of course the real evidence is ultimately internal. But I cannot help but wonder how a Christian leader could have as little concern as Putin has evinced over the fact that his countrymen are killing themselves, directly and indirectly, at a rate higher than that in just about any other country in the world. I have a hard time imagining any serious Christian leader of such a country who could look at the social disaster among his own people and not weep publicly on a daily basis in empathy for those suffering.
One of the reasons by the way that Russians are destroying themselves at such alarming rates is likely because the real Russian poverty rate is much higher than officially acknowledged, perhaps between 30-40% depending on what you use as the poverty floor. Putin has claimed to be concerned about this and promises to halve poverty within a few years, but no details of any plan for doing so are in evidence. It would be foolhardy to hold your breath waiting on this, as Russia shows no signs of any impending economic renaissance.
Those on the right who mistake Putin for something he is not simply because the left hates him would do well to recognize that the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.
This is the backdrop against which the invasion of Ukraine has taken place.
Autocrats throughout history have done such things when their own societies are in free fall as a way of distracting the public at home from their evidence failures as leaders. And it often works, at least in the short term. It seems to be working reasonably well in Russia, though there is some evidence of internal dissent. Putin, in perfect consonance with the character of an autocrat, has characterized those in his country who oppose his war as “scum and traitors.”
God willing, the ranks of the “scum and traitors” will increase and the Russian people will find someone to put in Putin’s place who is more suited for the job of successfully running the country.
To put the matter lightly, I am not a fan of American military involvement in foreign wars in which our own interests are not directly involved. I have read too much history to have faith in the “let’s spread democracy through global intervention everywhere” narrative of the progressive left. Going into a country, blowing everything up, and then giving them some voting machines (or worse still spending tons and tons of American money in the effort to build a “democratic culture” from the ground up, overnight) and thinking things are going to go well is about as foolish a method of international statecraft as one can imagine. Russia and its former satellites have a long history of natural resistance to Western political practice and institutions, and I see little reason to believe that is going to change soon. That’s their affair to sort out, not ours.
However appalled I am by the human suffering there, and I am very appalled, I am also not at all interested in getting a lot of my countrymen killed to engage in the fool’s errand of “saving” a country—Ukraine—for democracy that has never in fact been properly democratic.
War is awful. Full stop. It would be superb to have a world without it. Alas, we do not have that world. We have this one.
It is difficult to see the images of death and destruction in Ukraine, especially when it becomes clear how indiscriminate the Russian military has been and how many of those deaths are civilians. We should properly despise Vladimir Putin for making this come to pass simply as a way of distracting his own people from his patent failure as leader of their country. We should do what we can short of direct military engagement to obstruct his efforts there and elsewhere, in the hope that the Russians themselves, seeing the failure of his invasion piled on top of his other failures, will deal with that brutal and incompetent thug as thugs deserve to be treated. But it is not clear to me what can be done beyond that without running a huge risk of making things even worse than they are.
This position may seem unsatisfactory. Frankly, it seems so to me at times. I wish some clearer, more definitive solution were available. I especially wish it given that I have friends with Ukrainian roots and family and friends still in that country. The grad school friend I mentioned in a recent post, for instance, who has communicated heart-breaking reports of how things are going for people on the ground there. I feel personally enraged that my friends and their loved ones are being made to suffer by a cheap thug dictator.
Politics is a nasty business, it must be said. But we have no choice but to do it. As an abstract theoretical project, it can be entertaining, and I admit to being entertained by it in that way.
But when it is a matter of realizing that you can do relatively little to stop people with bad intentions and significant power from doing horrible things to other people, it makes me aspire to be a poet instead.