Unfortunately I don’t have anything smart to say about Ukraine, it’s all so sad. But since the last three posts on this blog could be construed as russophilic, let me disavow that viewpoint immediately. Although, as mentioned in comments, Zuuko was ahead of the curve in making a Hitler-Putin comparison in the last post. Now everyone from Hilary Clinton to MGIMO Professors are making the comparison – he should demand royalties.
For the last week or so, I have been incessantly refreshing the Ukraine news, and I’ve never yet really been happy about something that happened. For where to get information, I have found the reporting done by Varlamov (in Russian) in Crimea e.g. here and here, to be the most useful. The Guardian used to have a very good liveblog, but they stopped doing it recently. Still, I think their coverage is better than others. The New Republic is unrepentantly hawkish, but was very good right in the aftermath at gettting Russian and Ukrainian views on the situation published, e.g. Tikhon Dzyadko. Lenta was the go-to site for information in Russian, but now due to the replacement of the editor with a pro-Kremlin figure and the subsequent apparent resignation letter from staff, they probably will not be a good source anymore.
In terms of what brought us here from the West’s point of view, I am inclined, for all that Stephen Walt seems to be really unpleasant on a personal level, to more or less agree with his viewpoint. It is of course a little too fatalist to say Russia has interests here, so this is how it plays out no matter what – but it’s true that Russia has to care about what happens in the Ukraine and is threatened by a Western-allied Ukraine right on its borders, while it’s totally irrelevant to the US, and that explains the dynamic really well.
From Russia’s point of view, the justification for the particular actions is that this is what “Great Powers” do. The U.S. may not consider Russia to be a world power anymore, but Russians want to be one, and one way to show that they are is by breaking international law. Laws are for the weak. Did the U.S. ask Russia before invading Iraq? Before its intervention in Kosovo? So why should Russia, world power, care what the U.S. thinks? Hell, the U.S. didn’t even offer Kosovo statehood, so Russia is being way more magnanimous. It feels good to be a world power, so it’s this game of one-upmanship, and this dynamic of “Poetic Justice as Fairness” as described in a different context by John Holbo that’s both an a posteriori justification for Russian actions, and a motivating factor for them. It’s really dumb, but it explains moves like this one, where in response to a dumb move by two US senators where they asked FIFA to exclude Team Russia from the World Cup, in an even dumber move, a Uniross official asked FIFA to exclude the US team. What’s more, I don’t think this is just for show, for the “commoners to swallow”. I think it goes to the root of Russian thinking on the matter, even in Government, and even for Putin.
As to what comes next and who “wins” – I have no idea what comes next, other than that probably Russia will take more than just Crimea. But I do want to share this quote of George Orwell’s on predictions from James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution:
It will be seen that at each point Burnham is predicting A CONTINUATION OF THE THING THAT IS HAPPENING. Now the tendency to do this is not simply a bad habit, like inaccuracy or exaggeration, which one can correct by taking thought. It is a major mental disease, and its roots lie partly in cowardice and partly in the worship of power, which is not fully separable from cowardice.
so let’s hold off on saying Putin is this unstoppable force that will get his way everywhere. And for “winninig” which a lot of people, East and West, talk about, well, in part, this isn’t a zero-sum thing. I think basically a large portion of analytic mistakes made by people come from a failure to recognize what’s zero-sum and what’s not. It looks to me like Russia lost (it used to have a pliant Ukraine government, at maximum it will now have a piece of Ukraine and a piece with a government that is reliably pro-Western, and economic trouble), the West lost (talked and couldn’t back it up, ending up looking silly), and Ukraine lost (loses part of its territory). As The Descendents once said, Everything Sux.