Posted by on June 21, 2022 7:34 am
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How to understand Russia and the war

Navigating the debates on Russia’s war in Ukraine can be confusing for the uninitiated. In fact, the differences are largely due to different assumptions regarding politics in general and Russian politics in particular. The assumptions matter, because they inspire policies. They also matter because some assumptions are more plausible than others.

To what do you ascribe the greatest explanatory value? To a) policymakers, their policies and their rhetoric? To b) the institutions in which policymakers, policies and rhetoric are embedded? Or c) to the still larger systems and cultures underlying all of the above?

If you opt for a), you’re likely to believe that Western policies and rhetoric had a decisive effect on post-Soviet Russia’s evolution. In particular, the decision to enlarge NATO — and possibly to have broken promises to the Russians not to do so — appears critically important in explaining Russian animus toward the West and its allies, such as Ukraine.

The strong point of this kind of analysis is that bad policies and bad rhetoric may be undone. Ending the war, therefore, can be achieved by means of negotiation and compromise, as many in the West suggest. The problem is that ascribing so much explanatory weight to policy and rhetoric ignores history, ideology and culture, and presupposes that Russian leaders are exceptionally sensitive human beings who start or end wars because of real or imagined slights. Given what we know about Russian elites, they appear to be the exact opposite: They’re tough, unsentimental and vicious. If so, then hoping to end the war by means of good-faith negotiations is doomed to failure.

If you opt for c), you’re likely to believe that Russian policies and rhetoric — and, of course, the decision to go to war and commit genocide in Ukraine — are the product of deep-seated political, social and cultural structures that have molded Russian society for hundreds of years. To its credit, this kind of analysis, which is usually favored by historians, takes into consideration Russian history and culture, and thus is grounded in Russian reality.

But that same strength is also this approach’s weakness. For one thing, structures appear to deprive Russians and Westerners of agency, dooming them to a repetition of historically codified forms of thinking and acting. Thus, many in this camp argue that it wasn’t Vladimir Putin who created the system, but that the system and culture created Putin — just as they created a whole string of dictators throughout Russian history. If culture is ultimately responsible for the choices Putin and his cronies have made, there is little to be done about Russia. It is not and will not be democratic, rational and enlightened in any way that the West would recognize. Peace is, therefore, impossible. The best one can hope for is a cold war and an impenetrable iron curtain surrounding the malignant Russian state.

I’ve left option b) for last, because it strikes me as most persuasive, possibly because it avoids the extremes of ignoring history and culture altogether or giving them sole responsibility for Russia’s behavior. According to the logic of this middle option, history and culture have molded the institutions, policies and discourses found in Russia, but elites — and especially powerful authoritarian, totalitarian and fascist elites — have the capacity to tailor institutions to their aspirations and needs. Russian leaders aren’t shy wallflowers who take umbrage at any scowl or frown, but neither are they puppets of large historical forces. Instead, they shape political, social, economic and cultural institutions — just as those institutions constrain, but do not predetermine, their policy choices and rhetoric.

Seen in this light, a change in rhetoric won’t lead to peace; nor is peace impossible because “that’s the way Russia is.” Instead, the war is the product of Putin’s choices on the one hand, and of the fascist system he built that requires imperial expansion for its legitimacy on the other. Peace is possible, though not easy to achieve. It will require Putin’s physical or political departure and the replacement of fascism with some form of “run-of-the-mill” authoritarianism or decrepit democracy. Merely flattering Putin, or doing everything possible not to insult or annoy him, is pointless, just as it’s equally pointless to assume that fascism can never be dismantled and that tyrants cannot fall.

The final advantage of this middle option is that it places Ukraine — wherein the war is taking place, after all — into the center of things. Creating peace isn’t just a matter of waiting for the demise of Putin and his system; instead, peace can be achieved only if Ukraine wins the war. Only a humiliating victory can hasten Putin’s departure and create fissures that could destroy Russian fascism. And, better still, a Ukrainian victory is within relatively easy reach. 

The Ukrainians have soldiers who are determined to save their country. The West has weapons that the Ukrainians need. Victory over Russia — and the demise of Russian fascism — is simply a question of bringing the soldiers and the weapons together.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”

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