It is always hard to speculate about world-changing events like Russian President Vladimir Putin’s horrific war with Ukraine. For commentators, witnessing unfolding (perhaps unravelling) history, renders them hostages to future events. Well, that’s the saying.
The real hostages are of course the Ukrainians caught in war, and even the Russians who will be hurt by prolonged brutal sanctions. The war, of course, also concerns us all, given the nuclear power plants involved, the threat of nukes and Ukraine being a major agricultural exporter to Africa and the Middle East. Not to mention the emergence of a possible third world war.
But given the potential for this calamity to grow and envelop the world, a very understandable impulse is to frame Putin as “evil” and “alien” — he’s threatening us all.
I don’t mind classifying Putin a villain or a monster (he is). But the question is whether he is innately or pathologically evil; whether he is on an essential level, evil, or whether his actions render him a monster? If the latter, the way to stop Putin’s evil, namely the war, would be to negotiate and find a compromise before it’s too late.
For most observers, Putin’s actions seem totally irrational or barbarous — almost inviting the question as to how a compromise could even be reached with this monster. Putin himself plays up his image as a strong and ruthless leader, overtly threatening nuclear war.
And as with evil, there’s something inexplicable about Putin’s actions. Why did he strike? Why now? Political scientists and analysts offer differing explanations.
Yet the media and the political establishment seem hell bent on telling one particular narrative: Putin is evil; his evil may emanate from the shrunken, ice-cold heart of a premeditated psychopath, or the confused mind of an irrational madman, heart ablaze with ambitions for a restored USSR.
Either way, there are frequent and unhelpful claims that Putin is behaving like Adolf Hitler.
This narrative is absurd. For a simple comparison, Hitler came to power in 1933. World War II began in 1939. His expansionist plans were put into practice almost immediately.
Putin, however, has been in power since 1999. He has been consistent in warning of a new Cold War and criticised United States military bases close to Russia.
If he were the crazed, unhinged psychopath who was always going to try to resurrect a fallen Soviet or Russian empire — the depiction by much of the mass media — we could have expected Putin to act sooner and with greater aggression. Instead, Putin has often offered cooperation with the “West” (to return to the unwelcome nomenclature of the Cold War). He had even requested membership of NATO.
What’s so dangerous about the “Putin is evil” narrative is that the West cannot accede to any demands Putin would make as a trade-off because that would be tantamount to appeasement. Negotiations with a monster become akin to carving up Europe for Hitler, or bargaining one’s soul to the devil. No contextualisation is possible for fear of false equivalence or whataboutism. More emotional than that, there’s a sense of betraying the brave resisters of Ukraine, many of whom have shown remarkable and admirable courage.
One reason not to accede to the media’s narrative is precisely because it dooms Ukraine to Putin’s violence. In one sense, whether or not Putin is evil is beside the point. For all the concern about avoiding looking like Neville Chamberlain, the West wants Ukraine to fight to the last Ukrainian (as political scientist John Mearsheimer put it).
Recently US Democrat Hillary Clinton endorsed the idea of a prolonged US-backed Ukrainian insurgency, in the same vein as the US-backed Afghan mujahadeen. Even Clinton seemed aware of just how unfortunate her historical example of choice was. But if Clinton’s tactics were adopted, we could expect endless war — perhaps even in the form of civil war and potentially the rise of reactionary militias. After all, recall Clinton’s role in NATO’s horrific destabilisation of Libya.
Channelling the unthinking rhetoric of George W Bush’s war on/of terror, Clinton argued that Putin’s invasion stems from a hatred of democracy — which conveniently clears the US of any wrongdoing.
Thus, we are being encouraged to condemn Putin by hawks in such a way that would require us to give up hope for Ukraine. Alternatively, there is agitation for no-fly zones, which means all-out war as that would entail shooting down Russian planes.
Surely, it would be much better to assume Putin has at least some rationality — however irrational the war — and press for a political solution to prevent needless butchery and nuclear catastrophes.
Policy analyst Anatol Lieven has argued that Putin may accept a neutral Ukraine that abandons long-range missiles and cedes Crimea, which Western powers have already in practice ceded. Importantly, such concessions would not be appeasement as these measures would entail concessions from Putin also — he wouldn't get a Ukrainian puppet president or any more territory. It is also worth considering the possibility that Putin’s actions, however unconscionable, were in part provoked by US actions, and thus rather predictable.
George Kennan, architect of the US’s Cold War containment, warned in the 1990s that a new cold war would occur if NATO continued to expand. “I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else … We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way.” The full interview is worth reading.
More recently, a prophetic and powerful presentation by political scientist, Mearsheimer has gone viral. In a 2015 speech, Mearsheimer warned: “I think what’s going on here is that the west is leading Ukraine down the primrose path and the end result is that Ukraine is going to get wrecked. The policy that I am advocating, which is neutralising Ukraine and then building it up economically, and getting it out of the competition between NATO on one side and Russia on the other, is the best thing that could happen to Ukrainians. What we’re doing is encouraging Ukrainians to play tough with the Russians … If they do that, the end result is their country is going to be wrecked.”
Would this not have been a more humane solution than what has taken place? None of this excuses Putin’s war. But if we are to be consistent in our opposition to militarism and aggression, we must oppose both Putin’s war and NATO. The solution to both, at least in this conflict, may in fact be connected.
Simply put, it means standing against the militarisation of Europe by campaigning for negotiations and diplomacy. We should all show solidarity with Ukrainians but also campaign for a de-militarised Europe.