Ukrainians Are Nobody’s Pawns

The nationalist conservatives and the dogmatically anti-interventionist wing of the Right are attempting to rally opposition to American support for Ukraine’s defense against Russian invasion. But their arguments have a curiously inward-focused character.

They don’t seem to want to talk about the invasion itself. Dwelling on the horrible, brutal details would, at the very least, make an emotional case for defeating Russia. Nor do they seem eager to talk about Ukraine’s heroic resistance or Russia’s statements about their geopolitical aims or their plans for Ukraine.

Instead, the anti-interventionists are more concerned with their intramural contest against other factions on the Right. At an “emergency conference” meant to prevent support for Ukraine, these conservatives complained, not about the artillery bombardment of Mariupol, but about the “bombardment of the neocon moment that we are in,” while “speaker after speaker targeted the GOP hawks more often than they spoke about Ukraine itself.”

Sohrab Ahmari is quoted muttering darkly that near-universal support for Ukraine reflects, not the justice of their cause, but rather the success of “mind control strategies.” He goes on to write about Ukraine as if the whole thing is a conspiracy directed by State Department hawks, particularly Victoria Nuland who “in 2013 went down to Maidan Square to personally supervise the velvet revolution.” The article he links to with the phrase “personally supervise” is not some exposé of a secret American conspiracy. It’s a perfectly non-sensational news report about Nuland making a single visit to Kyiv to meet the protesters and talk with both sides.

A petition signed by these anti-interventionists blames the conflict on “leading interventionists in the United States and Europe” who are “goading the West into an abyss of war and suffering.” The people of Ukraine appear in this narrative only as “victims,” who “bear the brunt of Russia’s aggression and of the [Western] attempt to bog down Moscow in a long, devastating insurgency.”

One suspects much of this is a dodge by those who have long been sympathetic to Putin’s regime and the dream of using authoritarianism to promote religious traditionalism, which fits well with the ideals of the “nationalist” and “integralist” Right. But their resulting portrait of events in Ukraine is one in which the Ukrainian people have little or no agency, in which they are merely pawns on a chessboard in a game planned out in a State Department conference room.

In reality, the events in Ukraine are being driven primarily by the Ukrainians themselves. We are watching in real time as the people of a nation, one-by-one, choose the kind of society they want and take control of their own fate.

It is important to understand the history behind this invasion. The roots of the conflict could be traced all the way back to Genghis Khan—it was the Mongol invasion that imprinted a culture of strongman rule on the Russian psyche—but more proximately, the action begins in 2004. Two big things happened that year.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s government launched a politically motivated prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the billionaire “oligarchs” who made a fortune in the carve-up of state-owned assets after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This wasn’t because Khodorkovsky was unusually corrupt; to the contrary, he was reforming the accounting of his enterprises to meet the transparency of Western standards. But Khodorkovsky was also supporting political activism independent of Putin. He was seen as a threat to Putin’s political monopoly, so he was repeatedly targeted by rigged prosecutions.

This was an announcement to the post-Soviet oligarchs that they could make as much money as they liked and cruise their ridiculously large super-yachts around the Mediterranean—so long as they stay out of politics, take orders from the regime, and serve as piggy banks for Putin and his cronies. It was a relapse to Mongol-style strongman rule.

The other big event in 2004 was a presidential election in Ukraine. Viktor Yanukovych was the candidate considered friendlier to Russia, while Viktor Yushchenko was considered friendlier to the European Union. So Yushchenko suddenly came down with a case of dioxin poisoning so severe it has been written up in medical journals because no one had ever been subjected to such a high dose before. The culprit was never identified for certain, but the main suspect fled to Russia. The Russians have a long history of poisoning their political opponents, with dioxin, polonium, novichok, and underpants.

Since this didn’t manage to knock Yushchenko out of the running, Yanukovych and his pro-Russia faction simply rigged the vote. The response was a series of mass street protests, the Orange Revolution, that forced Yanukovych to accept a new, un-rigged election, which Yushchenko decisively won.

So two decades ago, we see Russia and Ukraine moving in opposite directions—Russia back into the arms of a strongman ruler, Ukrainians launching their quest for liberal democracy.

The next big crisis came in 2014. After the triumph of 2004, Ukraine’s pro-European factions fought among themselves, making it possible for Yanukovych to come back and win the presidency for real in 2010. But he made a promise to continue his predecessor’s policy of integration with the European Union.

In 2013, Yanukovych reneged on that promise, derailing a treaty with the European Union in favor of economic dependence on Russia. Protesters flooded into Kyiv’s central square in what was called the “Euromaidan.” This preference for the European Union is about much more than economics. It is about opposite models of government. As boxing champion Vitali Klitschko (now mayor of Kyiv) put it at the time, “Today they stole our dream, our dream of living in a normal country.” By a “normal” country, the Ukrainians mean a European-style country, a liberal democracy rather than an authoritarian kleptocracy.

Yanukovych proved them right by trying to clamp down with Russian-style strongman methods, pushing through restrictive laws banning virtually all forms of protest and sending in riot police to shoot protesters. As support for these measures collapsed, including among the security forces Yanukovych was relying on, he fled the country and Ukraine’s parliament voted him out of office. To highlight how much he represented a kleptocratic model, Ukrainians opened his opulently over-the-top estate for public tours so the people of the country could see where their stolen money had gone.

In Russian propaganda, of course, you will still hear Yanukovych’s ignominious flight described as a “coup.” (If you want to sort through all of the various claims and counter-claims about Ukraine, I recommend this thorough review by Cathy Young.) But let’s keep it simple. What kind of coup is immediately followed by disbanding the riot police and holding a new election?

Russia’s response in 2014 was to invade Ukraine. Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula outright and also broke off several eastern provinces by holding an absurdly rigged separatist “referendum" with the support of Russian military operators sent in unofficially and referred to by the locals as "little green men."

Combine this with a string of assassinations of Putin’s critics and political rivals on British soil, and the poisoning and false imprisonment of Russian anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny. The story we see is that Russia has let itself be pushed farther into the dead end of war and dictatorship—while the Ukrainian people have been struggling to go the opposite direction.

That brings us to the current day and the unlikely figure of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. What carried Zelensky into office was a fictional tirade against official corruption, delivered by his character in a television comedy about an ordinary man who become president of Ukraine. Then life imitated art. That in itself illustrates the different directions taken by Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine still has enormous problems with official corruption—but the Ukrainians keep trying to find leaders who will tame it. Russia also has a lot of corruption, and it is all being run out of the Kremlin by a man with an iron grip on power and a $700 million yacht.

At every stage, when given a choice between a European liberal social model, versus the old Russian strongman model, Ukrainians have consistently chosen a liberal model. The biggest choice they have had to make was on February 24th, when the Russians invaded their country in a plan clearly based on the assumption that Ukrainians would not resist. They had to decide whether they were willing to risk their own lives for the kind of government they wanted. It was Zelensky who set the example, refusing an offer of evacuation and staying in Kyiv despite being targeted for capture or assassination. In doing so, he merely reflected the similar choice made by millions of his fellow citizens.

Prosecutor General of Ukraine Irina Venediktova during the exhumation of a mass-execution site in Bucha Ukraine, 12 April 2022. Mykhailo Palinchak / Alamy 

Ukraine is a country that is struggling for freedom and is increasingly defining itself by that struggle. As Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko puts it, Ukrainians are self-consciously building “an anti-tyrannical politics in Eastern Europe” a “political culture” that is “democratic and republican”—not in American partisan terms, but in the political philosopher’s sense of those words.

This remaking of Ukrainian society is reflected not just in big ideas but in myriad concrete choices. One that is most relevant right now is the remaking of the Ukrainian military. A former American military commander in Europe recounts his experiences watching the Ukrainian military rebuild itself since 2014 by adopting a liberal society’s model of organization, which relies less on a corrupt centralized command and more on the individual initiative of self-motivated soldiers and junior officers.

As another overview puts it:

[T]raining and battlefield experience against the Russians and their separatist proxies in Donbas allowed commanders of small, dispersed units to think for themselves, overturning the old Soviet model of top-down leadership that has paralyzed Russian units and forced top generals to venture to the front lines, where several have been killed.

Ukraine’s military has been winning because it has chosen a Western, liberal model.

We have been watching the geographically largest country in Europe, with a population of more than 40 million, struggle over a period of decades to transform into a European liberal democracy. These people are nobody’s pawns.

So why treat them this way? Why indulge the fantasy that everything is really being run out of Washington, DC, or maybe Brussels? Denying the agency and choice of the Ukrainians is an authoritarian outlook, because that is precisely how a strongman leader views the people whose lives he presumed to dispose of.

Consider a report from a Polish official who describes how Vladimir Putin once offered to partition Ukraine between Poland and Russia: “He (Putin) went on to say Ukraine is an artificial country and that Lwow [Lviv, in Western Ukraine] is a Polish city and why don’t we just sort it out together.” The Poles, who have experience in the last century of being partitioned by the Russians, obviously declined. But the story is revealing of Putin’s mindset, in which the people are objects to be divvied up among the rulers with no need to consult them about what they want.

That helps explain why, for all their loud talk about “sovereignty,” the nationalist conservatives can so casually deny it for Ukraine. Despite their protective camouflage of populism, the nationalist authoritarian vision is one in which a small clique or cadre decides for itself how the people’s lives and property are to be arranged—in Ukraine, and also possibly here at home.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/04/19/ukrainians-are-nobodys-pawns/
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Kiev fell to the Mongols in 1240. Moscow fell in 1236 (Baghdad fell in 1258). To a significant degree the current war is a consequence of Stalin’s brutality towards the Ukraine and Ukrainian resistance to Stalin. This sad history goes unmentioned in the article .

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Another day, another Ukraine article written by a think tank apparatchik.
This particular article is the most propaganda-heavy i read so far (and i read a few).
The techniques used to promote false narratives and influence the minds of the readers are a bit too obvious in my opinion, have to admit im a bit disappointed, i expected a more original propaganda from a “senior fellow at the Atlas society”.
Anyway here is a link to a different opinion
Former NATO Military Analyst Blows the Whistle on West’s Ukraine Invasion Narrative – scheerpost.com

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Good post. It is dangerous to look a foreign policy and military issues excessively through the lens of domestic politics. (Orwell mocked those British leftists who, in 1944, claimed that the real reason for US troop presence in England was to suppress a working-class rebellion) There is some of that in the attitudes of some people on the American Right re Ukraine.

Still, it is odd to see “liberals” and “progressives” who have rejected any sense of American patriotism becoming fervent Ukrainian patriots…people who would never think of flying an American flag at their houses but were quick to put up Ukrainian flags. And people who were big on ‘social responsibility’ (ESG) investing and would reject any investment in a defense-oriented company but are now huge fans of the Javelin antitank missile…who have mocked ‘toxic male values’ such as physical courage but are now in great praise of the virtue when shown by Ukranians.

And, given the history of the suppression of inconvenient stories and the current absolute media hysteria about the ‘danger’ of free speech on Twitter, it is understandable that media information and narratives are looked at with a jaundiced eye.

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To a significant degree this war is a consequence of the West playing the ultra nationalist card in Ukraine.
The Ukrainian people voted Zelensky because they wanted the peace he promised, but never delivered, instead the war against Donbass was intensified, and the ultra nationalist influence grew, the NATO, US and Israel armed Ukraine to the teeth, trained their army including joint NATO exercises.

I didn’t follow the politics carefully of pro/contra Ukraine defense prior to the invasion, but I did note weekly op-eds by Patrick Buchanan asking why the US should involve itself in an area of no strategic value to itself. But even to my naive self that argument seemed strained when Russia appears to want to claim itself as a global enemy to the US.

The present situation now shows that Russia cannot conquer all of Ukraine by force, but can likely extend the war by constant bombardments and actions near to its borders. It seems unlikely that the Ukrainians can force the Russians out while their country is reduced to ruins in parts. The delivery of heavy howitzers from the US will allow counter bombardments against Russian gun emplcements, but any attacks on non-military positions inside Russia itself will likely raise public support for Putin within Russia. Therefore the only relief is going to be if the sanctions bite deep enough to make Putin fearful of his position, in which case a cease fire of some sort might be advanced from the Russian side.

My feeling is that Ukraine and its allies must stay the course with sanctions until Russia removes its forces completely, including from the Donbas. Whether that’s a possible result is difficult to predict.

Can someone sum up the Russia/Ukraine conflict in 140 chars or less?

I read the linked document, which as you say is a different opinion/propaganda. My take is that he ignores the fact that the Donbas “rebels” are to a large degree Russian military personnel in mufti. He asserts that the law removing Russian as an official language was somehow a trigger (at the same time that Yanukovych was being supported by Russia and Crimea was being annexed).

Hmmm…

In history class I learned that before WWI, the Republicans were anti-war because they were conservative. I had to be taught that that word - “conservative” - did have an original meaning; the tendency or desire to conserve. In that case, conservative Republicans did not want to waste blood and treasure on somebody else’s conflict. The benefits to the U.S.A. were far from clear.

Just before I read this article I read Matt Taibbi’s (on SubStack) - he’s pointing out that there’s a pretty uniform pro-war consensus going on. Anyone even questioning whether, how, or how much we (the U.S.A.) should get involved, is relegated to non-mainstream outlets. Not to mention slammed and d**ned.

It’s funny that this article says it’s conservatives who are anti-war. I’m in my mid-60s and I remember when it was the liberals who were anti-war.

Really, though - the “dogmatically anti-interventionist wing of the Right”? That’s pretty inflammatory.

The article’s very good despite all that.

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For War against Donbas substitute Civil Rebellion by Donbas Separatists. Has the conflict been intensified during Zelensky’s tenure. Reports I read implied the so-called border of control hadn’t moved much.

Zelensky could promise peace only by ceding Crimea and Donbas for eternity, something no national leader could stomach. And it seems unlikely he promised peace under those conditions.

Was Ukraine “armed to the teeth”. Apparently not enough teeth to dissuade Putin from invading. The major arming has occurred in the past month.

And for my education, please define the difference between a nationalist and ultra-nationalist.

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[The monitor-bot has informed me that the “Body is too similar to what you recently posted.”]

An ultra-nationalist is a person who is more nationalist that I think he or she should be.

Source of this “fact”? Also keep in mind the guy was an inspector in that area, so its very unlikely he would have “ignored” such an important fact, and if you read the article, he addressed this very issue and stated how many Russians were fighting in Donbass.

Maybe its time to correct this before making comments?
Also try to read opposing sources, not just the official ones, then draw your own conclusions. Things are far more complex than the anti-Russian media is depicting them.

Intensifying of bombings on civilians in Donbass does not need changing “the border of control”

Inform yourself. Also its logical he could not have promised peace otherwise, anything else would have been promising war not peace.

If Mexico decided to join Russia and China, and if Russia armed Mexico to the teeth, do you think that would dissuade the US to invade Mexico?
The major arming occurred over years, in 2016 the US congress decided to stop weapon delivery to Ukraine when information was leaked that some of the modern armament was ending in the hands of neo-nazi battalions like Azov. The decision was later overturned when Azov was included into Ukraine national guard.
A nationalist like the Ukraine nationalists, that condone intentional killings of Russian speaking population and have a total disregard for laws and humanity, are ultra nationalist, or nazi. Personally i prefer ultra nationalist term.
Here a link to a BBC documentary
Ukraine: On patrol with the far-right National Militia - BBC Newsnight - YouTube

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Anytime someone replies with “inform yourself” I get the feeling that person is full of himself. Having read this article and that by James Baud that you published, I feel as informed as the next guy. Snark from you won’t change that.

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The Washington consensus elite along with the delusional European Union failed to consider that other parts of the world don’t read the Guardian or the New York Times.

(140 characters without spaces)

Note: I think the above statement can also sum up any number of realities across the political spectrum from the election of Donald Trump to the Ukraine crisis to the mysteries of the Nazca Lines of Peru.

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Fair enough, but Zelensky being elected on a platform of peace is one of the few things over which all sides of the media agreed, and it was mentioned a lot. When you contradicted that, it seemed like a proper response. Sorry for the snarky tone.
Here is a link from a source that is not friendly to Russia.
Ukraine - The election of Volodymyr Zelensky and continued Russian aggression | Britannica

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@DataDriven and I just had a conversation about this recently. While these folks are definitely on the Right, I don’t think its quite fair to consider them “conservatives”. Or at least in any way representative of mainstream conservative thought.

Political labeling can be a bit murky. I don’t mean to “No true Scotsman” them, but there is a growing trend to lump the most ardent alt-right folks under the banner “conservative” and the most the most radical folks on the Left under the banner of “liberal”.

Its true, but only in the broadest of sense. And really doing so tends to confuse more than illuminate.

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Conservative, liberal, republican, democrat, left, right…a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, these terms still had a concrete meaning, not anymore.

Today feminist and woke ideologies are considered to be “left” despite the fact the values of these ideologies have nothing in common with the values of the classic left.
Opened my eyes to the importance of definitions of terms.
Today neo-liberal is called “liberal”, even though the notions are opposed.
Democrats are called liberal even though they are mostly neo-liberals.
Republicans are called conservative when they are mostly neo-cons.
Woke is called “progressive” or “left” or “liberal”, sometimes in the same phrase, neo-cons are called conservatives…humanity has lost its definitions for the most basic terms.
No wonder confusion reigns supreme.

Which is the actual purpose, as this article clearly illustrates

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A pretty good essay, all things considered. But I would like to raise three main points. First, domestic politics- with Syria the American electorate expressed a clear wish that they didn’t want their sons and daughters going off to fight in foreign Forever Wars. In practical terms, this zeitgeist largely prevails, although in terms of social class the top 10% of the socio-economic spectrum are far more likely to want to launch foreign interventationalism than the other 90%. After all, it’s not their sons and daughters who will be marching off to die on foreign soil.

Second, conservative hatred for the mainstream media landscape and the Washington Establishment invites reactionary opposition. Those who point to the power of Fox News obviously haven’t spent much time in discourse with highly educated conservatives. This filters down through the movement. Lincoln Project conservatives might be popular amongst liberal resistance types, but they are universally despised by the Republican base.

Third, the reluctance of genuine geopolitical thinkers. There is a perception on the part of many, that the Foreign Policy Establishment in Washington might be trying to leverage a prolonged Ukrainian conflict into regime change for Putin. The realistic chances of Putin being removed by either the oligarchs or the Russian people are less than 2%. The sanctions aren’t working and have largely validated the paranoid propaganda of Ukraine as a NATO conspiracy in the minds of the Russian people, whilst simultaneously serving to increase loyalty to Putin amongst the oligarch class.

The fears of those who worry about potential nuclear escalation are entirely justified for one simple reason- rational deterrence simply cannot exist in a chaotic system. Stability should be the primary aim of any geopolitical thinker in such circumstances- and any attempt to argue otherwise, even though swallowing the medicine might seem morally repugnant to shallow thinkers, is tantamount to moral cowardice. We cannot allow chaos and brinkmanship to allow for a concept creep which invariably leads to escalation- with the elimination of 99.999% of humanity running at more than 1% per year for the first time in decades, the stakes are simply too high.

Putin realises the danger. He may be an evil man, but he is not a stupid man. He recognises that with one geopolitical fumble we may be plunged into a new Dark Age of Humanity. It’s why he has been running drills where vital members of the regime are seconded to nuclear bunkers. When he have an American Press and Media which asks the press secretary 167 times under what circumstances will America militarily intervene, then there more rational amongst us should be asking ourselves where is the best place to flee and provision. Perhaps the doomsday preppers were right all along.

The question is how do we de-escalate? The answer is we can’t- because the political realities of the situation allow for no such possibilities being tenable. Ukraine cannot win, but they can’t admit it. The Russians have every chance of securing their military objectives in the East of Ukraine, but no political possibility of bringing a conclusion to the war through the resumption of diplomacy. And the West seems to be pursuing the staggeringly stupid and colossally reckless course of believing that their is a realistic possibility of regime change.

If anything, a sudden end to Putin is the thing we should fear the most- because if anything is likely to bring about Mutually Assured Destruction, it is this specific scenario. So far we have been lucky. Although all our various moves to aid Ukraine and censure Russia have been provocative and interpreted in an antagonistic manner, we haven’t done anything fatal for humanity yet. But we need to be mindful of the existence of Rubicon, the other side of which either lies non-existence for almost everyone we love and everything we cherish, or the afterlife- depending very much on our individual beliefs.

The way many are carrying on, one would have to intuit they are in search of Valhalla, or Ragnarok, at least.

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Looks like someone has been paying attention and taking notes!

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