Understanding the War between Russia and Ukraine
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is plastered across both traditional media and social media. Many have immediately taken sides in the war with the far right backing Russia to the mainstream right wing backing Ukraine. The war is being memed in real time, events are being spun for political advantage, and discussion of the war is quickly leaving the realm of rational discourse.
One of our natural inclinations is to immediately frame the conflict in terms of there being a good side that should be lionized and then a bad side that should be demonized – it is also usually the wrong position to take in any given conflict. Of course, this inclination comes from evolution. In times of danger, we are drawn to collective action and work to the common good because groups that have individuals willing to do so fare better than those who don’t and so the prosocial groups are selected for which includes their component individuals. Group dynamics affects humans more than any other non-insect species because civilization and society are the result of evolutionary pressure in humans, not some work of ingenuity. In fact it wasn’t even our species that first developed it, but rather older species of human.
If we look back to the Peloponnesian War, we have a war between Sparta and Athens. The ancient Spartans were a bestial group of humans that made preparation for war the basis for their culture, murdering Helot slaves in secret to prove their manhood, leaving babies to die of exposure if they looked they would grow up weak, praising themselves for not thinking deeply, slaughtering neutral parties in the war until someone someone suggested to them it might be wrong to do so, and firmly bound to the notion of order. The Athenians were known for their democracy – which Graeber and Wengrow note consisted only of 10-20% of the population – who managed to get their citizens to work together for the better part of a century by building a naval empire that exploited other Greeks to enrich those citizens. Both sides were bad guys in their own particular way.
If we look to the US Civil War we have a war between the Union and the Confederacy. The South were the bad guys in the conflict with the seceding states all naming the defense of slavery being their primary cause for secession. Yet, the Union was of neutral morality, making their primary cause the unity of the former United States and only making it about slavery in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation, and even then only freeing the slaves that were in their enemies’ lands, not slaves in the Union. This proclamation was mainly to keep England and France from joining the war on the side of the Confederacy. We try to lionize the Union today because then radical Republicans pushed through emancipation of slaves just as the Confederacy was surrendering, but Lincoln was clear that if he could save the union without freeing any slave, he would.
Of course, it can get murkier than that. In World War I, there were sides determined by a complex web of treaties designed to make the results of war so horrific that no one would dare declare war and peace would be ensured. Then the Archduke of Austria was assassinated by an anarchist and war broke out anyway with no good side, or bad side, but a war that was just going through the motions – the horrible, horrible motions. In fact, there was so little enmity that the Kaiser of Germany and the Czar of Russia, cousins on opposite sides, vacationed together in the middle of the war.
So, we must not assume that there is a good side or a bad side in any conflict, including the one in Ukraine. So, with that let us look at the primary actors.
Russia was once the primary state of the Soviet Union, which fell when Mikhail Gorbachev – who is still alive by the way – opened up Soviet elections for the first time and allowed a meaningful choice. The Soviet Union was founded in revolution because Marx suggested that Russia could be pushed through capitalism and into socialism by a revolution in the West – presuming the revolution in the West happened first. Lenin and Trotsky had read this and played a gambit: if they could have their revolution first they could use a system Lenin called state capitalism until a revolution arose in the West which could push them through the economic development needed, which was a huge drive behind the concept of internationalism – that socialism cannot exist in one place but needed to be worldwide. The Soviet Union needed a revolution in a more developed part of the world to subsidize them and neither Lenin nor Trotsky ever claimed the USSR had passed beyond the capitalist stage of development. But, Josef Stalin took over after Lenin’s death and he wasn’t a philosopher, but rather a strongman. He simply accelerated the shift of power away from the soviets (worker collectives) and declared that he had established socialism in one country – despite nothing of the sort having happened. Thus decades of harsh rule had been ushered in over the Soviet Union.
So, when given the option, Soviets voted out Gorbachev and the Communist Party and voted in Boris Yeltzin, a corrupt politician who soon was threatened by being unseated in the following election. Yeltzin asked Clinton for help in rigging the election, and Clinton provided it, even if not everything Yeltzin asked for. In fact, it is of note, that part of the deal there was in not expanding NATO because NATO existed solely to fight the Soviet Union and essentially is there to fight Russia now. We made sure the overtly capitalist party won the election. Yet, Yeltzin’s drinking problem which included public drunkenness on the job, led to his resignation and his handpicking of a successor: Vladimir Putin.
As I constantly try to remind people: fascism is defined by the conjunction of three reactionary movements: irrationalism, nationalism, and elitism – and Putin comes close to meeting all three. His support for capitalism and Russia’s oligarchs – and he is a capitalist – makes him an elitist. He has a strong message of Russian nationalism including the recreation of something akin to the Soviet Union without trying to pretend at being socialist, which makes him a nationalist. He does put a strong control on Russian media, including the murder of journalists who break stories of corruption in his regime, but he doesn’t quite try to get the Russian people to think irrationally, distrust all other sources, or other things that we could see in Donald Trump’s presidency where he decried the media as the enemy, told boldfaced lies about events, and backed conspiracy theories. He is teetering on irrationalism, but he isn’t quite there and so isn’t quite a fascist.
One of the big issues at hand is that with the fall of the Soviet Union, we went from a bipolar hegemony where the world was split between the United States and the Soviet Union to a monopolar hegemony where the United States was uncontested in its influence over the world. But as Russia reined in the worst excesses of their oligarchs and developed, they became a competitor and America was losing its hegemony. When I say that Russia is a competitor, I don’t mean only for influence, but it became a capitalist imperialist power waging war for resources that drive its economy. We see it in Syria where Russia backs Assad because they can leverage the debt Assad owes them and the fact that withdrawn Russian support would likely result in his ouster in order to get access to Syrian resources.
In fact, this is a key event in the souring of relations between Russia and the United States. Obama was still friendly toward Russia in 2012, having been caught telling Putin he would have more flexibility to appease Russian interests after the election. However, by 2016, both Obama and Hillary Clinton were seeing Russia as an enemy (but not in the legal sense which requires we be at war). The mood had changed because Russia was not in America’s corner – they were competition for the exploitation of resources.
With that said, it should be noted that China has also long ago shed any pretense of socialism, beyond a party name, has developed its economy immensely, and is also a rising competitor as a capitalist, imperialist power. When you see a lot of focus on China, it is often driven by the idea that they are this competitor though that never makes it down to the narrative. With that said, the suggestion that the genocide in Xinjiang being just US propaganda is baseless naysaying.
The Russians here are certainly bad guys.
Ukraine has a similar background, unexpectedly. They separated from the Soviet Union when it collapsed in 1991 via a referendum that December, five months into Yeltzin’s first term. They then popularly elected their own corrupt politician, Viktor Yanukovych, taking office in 2010. He was on good terms with Putin, who even helped him flee when he was chased out of power. But he was popularly elected and he was chased out of power by a US orchestrated coup in 2014.
There were two major strains that dominate and had dominated Ukrainian politics: pro-Russians, who heavily populated the areas of Ukraine that used to be Russian, and Ukrainian nationalists who want enmity with Russia – so who was put in charge in the coup? Ukrainian nationalists, of course. The most far right of those nationalists include those who marched in Kyiv this past New Year’s Day celebrating a Ukrainian nationalist leader who fought alongside the Nazis in World War 2 and the Azov Batallion which has an official regiment in the Ukrainian Army despite being openly Neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic. In fact, The Intercept recently wrote a scathing article on Facebook allowing praise of this group during the war with Russia.
Amnesty International has noted issues in Ukraine such as pro-Russian media content leading to violence against reporters and official pressure by authorities, the government failing to protect LGBTQIA and transgender-specific marchers, a general bias to not prosecute crimes by the far right, and human rights violations against Russian dissidents in the East (though it must be noted that pro-Russian forces have also committed similar crimes cited in the same report). An earlier report from 2017 lays the charges out better, including torture, murder of journalists, unlawful detention, and looking the other way at atrocities done by non-governmental groups.
The Ukrainian government is a right-wing coalition of overtly fascist, covertly fascist, and non-fascist forces and thus Ukraine is also a bad guy in this conflict.
The Cause of War
While plenty of media outlets are giving their typical warhawk declarations of what is happening and why – it is too early to tell exactly what is going on because we do not have full information. Vladimir Putin certainly knows why Russia is at war and who they are at war with, but we only know what Putin tells us and he could be lying. The media whitewashes Ukraine in order to make Putin look bad, regardless of whether or not he should for this war. As time goes on, more will become apparent about exactly what is going on.
Difficulties arise because every side has their own propaganda to lead people to support their side that intentionally leaves out vital facts and invents others. It takes time and the compilation of evidence to sort out exactly what is true and what isn’t. This also plays in heavily into why I say that Putin has not quite risen to the level to declare him irrationalist – the United States, Ukraine, and Russia are all participating in this low-level irrationalism which is commonplace across governments rather than an exception, and has been for centuries. Either irrationalism is a generic trait of modern government or Russia doesn’t quite make the cut.
However, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, a group of journalists who point out specific misinformation in mainstream media in the US, has laid out much of the misinformation in the US media leading to this war – and since I am preoccupied with grad school I’m going to just lay out the articles below:
As for Russia, Putin has declared his intentions to be a de-Nazification of Ukraine – a noble goal – and has claimed that his war is not against Ukraine itself, but specific Ukrainian nationalist groups engaging in violence. However, his claims are likely far from the truth as well, playing to a Russian audience that has mobilized an anti-war movement already, and on shaky ground given that the Russians and pro-Russian forces have engaged in similar atrocities as the Ukrainians had. We have lies upon lies to sort through and hoping that somewhere in the middle there is truth.
One thing that you should not do is take that because the United States mainstream media is lying and misinforming that the opposite must be true. This is common amongst “tankie” groups who purport to be on the left. They simply take whatever the United States opposes and lionize it as ideal – because if the United States is against it it must be good. That sort of simplistic thinking will only lead to conclusions, such as supporting the fascist Ba’ath party because the United States went from supporting it and engineering its rise in Iraq in the 1950s and 1960s to opposing it when its imperial ambitions were better suited elsewhere. The United States does not oppose Russia because Russia is good, but because it is just as bad and is a competitor to US interests. Reality is much more complex than assuming every conflict is a duality and that there is always a good side or always a bad side. Even the United States does good internationally from time to time, such as being on the correct side of World War 2.
You also should not assume that because the US mainstream media is manufacturing consent for a war with Russia, and in other places it is manufacturing consent for war with China, that it is always unreliable. The question is what interests it has and where it is primed to lie and where it is primed to tell the truth. The primary benefactors of US imperialism are US companies – the big ones – the ones who own mainstream media outlets and pull in major profits from commercials run by other big companies. They have a reason to lie in cases like this, but they don’t have a reason to lie about the effectiveness of a vaccine or who won a sports championship. For most things the mainstream media is reliable – but it will stifle information that threatens its power base. You will also have plenty of well funded outfits eager to spread different misinformation for their own interests as we saw with FOX News, Brietbart, One America News, and of course a lot of pseudoscientific groups pushing against genetic modification and selling “natural cures” that aren’t safe. A lot of people are trying to lie to you from different sides and you must always wade through it carefully.
What I can speak to are two issues. First, there is the issue that NATO expansion, an alliance that exists solely to fight a supposed threat that hasn’t existed in the past three decades. As Russia is the de facto enemy of that alliance once the Soviet Union fell, its growth is hostility directed toward it and as Eastern Europe is drawn into NATO, it is no different than the threat Kennedy saw when the Soviet Union placed nuclear missiles in Cuba – the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, it should be noted that even then we had missiles close to the Soviet Union’s borders as well stationed in Turkey. These are threatening maneuvers that necessarily set such events in motion, especially with someone like Putin in charge.
The second is that this is a nationalist conflict – this is a good argument against nationalism. It is Russian nationalists and Ukrainian nationalists fighting one another not due to any inherent threat or harm caused by one another, but only threat or harm caused by each being nationalist and oppressing the other’s ethnic minorities in their own country. By overthrowing the government that was both democratically elected and got along with Russia, Barack Obama set ethnic conflict into motion by putting nationalists in power along with non-nationalists who are apathetic and would avert their eyes for political gain. By constricting our notion of the group we are a part of so significantly that our neighbors are outside that group and by putting the importance of group membership so high in how we treat others we create conflict that leads to the sorts of horrors we see now, or as we saw in the Holocaust or the Atlantic slave trade, or the genocide of King Leopold II.
There is question of whether we are seeing massive war crimes by Putin at the moment or if we are seeing something more akin to US drone strikes on Al Qaeda – but with more accuracy (most dead in drone strikes were not Al Qaeda, but innocent civilians). If Putin were targeting, and carefully targeting, only Ukrainian nationalist militias, would your average Ukrainian resident know it? Probably not – Kyiv has been suppressing reporting in the media that is favorable to the Russians and would likely be pushing a narrative that everyone is in danger. Is Putin carefully targeting nationalist militias? Also, probably not – the ability to do that is mainly a phenomenon made up by the United States and Israel when they have attacked civilian populations.
However, given all the context we have access to and the unknown questions behind it, I am taking the prudent stance of neutrality. These are two bad actors fighting it out, even if there is disproportionate power. There is reason for conflict and the only real conclusion that we can make yet is that the US overthrowing democratically elected governments for its own geopolitical goals is disastrous because it leads to horrors like this. It led to the Middle East going from one of the most socially progressive areas in the world to being horribly regressive as religious extremists filled the role of opposition to imperialism leaving secular democratic elements absent. It led to the horrors of the Pinochet government in Chile. It led to Putin. No greater good comes from these interventions by the United States, nor by Russia – but only good to a select number of elites.
On March 1, Amnesty International released a statement which included the following words:
Since the Russia invasion began on February 24, Amnesty has been documenting the escalation in violations of humanitarian and human rights law, including deaths of civilians resulting from indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas and infrastructure. Strikes on protected objects such as hospitals and schools, the use of indiscriminate weapons such as ballistic missiles and the use of banned weapons such as cluster bombs, may all qualify as war crimes
While the information sources available when this article was first posted were not reliable on the subject, Amnesty International is a reliable, neutral source and claims that they have observed direct war crimes and evidence of war crimes. On that basis, we can now say that Russia is committing war crimes and is in the wrong in this war and critical support of Ukraine can be given rightfully in this crisis. Supporting the Ukrainian government in general is still morally repugnant, but hoping for their victory over Russia is now preferable to neutrality.
Featured Image via Haaretz – Fair Use.