Decency May Win the Battle for Ukraine, but Lose the War
Watching Ukraine stymie the Russian military feels comforting. The good guys are winning it would seem. In a world where people like Assad and Duterte and Erdogan and Mohammed bin Salman seem to operate with impunity, it is nice to see a case where might does not make right. A bully picked a fight and is losing.
I am celebrating…for now, but the victory (if attained or in whatever partial form it might take) is all too fragile.
Ukraine’s Victory Owes a Major Debt to Western Might
What’s happening in Ukraine is very human, the result of resolve and belief on the part of a very brave military and citizenry. It is also a war of armaments being produced by two competing systems: Russia’s and that of “the West” (whatever that term really means).
In this day and age, you simply cannot fight a war without institutional support. There exist power structures that have a life of their own and which enjoy immense latitude over the lives of millions. I can’t pretend that those aren’t a major subtext to this plot, if not the plot itself. On the one side is the semi-Soviet mafia-run oil enterprise known as “Russia,” which has the power to reduce to ruins any former Soviet republic it chooses (plus the occasional invite-only freebie, like Syria). On the other side is a consortium of more or less democratic, more or less free markets and their dynastic petrochemical suppliers, with a military-industrial complex that has the power to reduce to ruins (or at least penury) any non-nuclear power it chooses (see: Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba). It’s nice that the latter has chosen to take Ukraine’s side in this conflict, but the support lacks the character of principle.
Where was this support for the righteous in Syria? Why has the West been largely silent about the conflict in Ethiopia?
There’s an important difference between these conflicts and the one in Ukraine — more on that in a second — but for now, it’s enough to note that absent a set of norms we adhere to consistently, we can’t say that “right” was defended from “wrong.” We can only say that one set of powers picked one side, and another picked another. The strongest will prevail, but force is the underlying narrative, which is exactly Putin’s ultimate aim: to affirm the legitimacy of coercion.
The Institutions of the West are Susceptible to Subversion
It’s nice to see NATO support Ukraine, but I can’t help but imagine how things would be different if the former US president had succeeded in pressuring a few Secretaries of State to invalidate election results, stalled certification of the vote, and refused to leave office.
These games of “what if” typically bore me — hypotheticals are usually just another tedious entry in the game of whataboutism that internet commentators love to play solely to lend specious weight to their POVs — but given the electoral jiujitsu playing out in states across the country and the decided partisan tinge to the judiciary, this particular hypothetical is not so hypothetical. The intent evidenced on January 6th hasn’t gone anywhere. If anything, it’s metastasized.
If the party with a weird affection for strongmen had stayed in power, its stated intent was to undermine NATO, just as its second most recent president undermined the United Nations. Refusal to fund was the left jab; the invasion of Iraq, the right cross haymaker and final nail in the coffin. The US, same as Putin, wants impunity. Not that the UN ever stood in its way — the vetoes on the Security Council were always a “get into war free” card that “the West” could play whenever it suited its aims; but the charade itself had value, until we shredded it by circumventing the body altogether to declare “war” on Iraq.
A second Trump administration — whether legitimate or illegitimate — might very well have fomented disunity, no different than Rand Paul has been doing his best to do in the Senate for inscrutable reasons. Trump’s sympathies were always much more with the strongmen of the world than they were with the effete democratic socialists of Denmark or the Netherlands. Many in the US, like Putin, want to be able to exercise naked force (coincidentally, “Naked Force” is the name of my upcoming slash fiction novel about two star-crossed statesmen who enjoy one fleeting moment of passion at a world economic forum and proceed to conduct a coded romance via red phones until one of them falls ill with leukemia — look for it on an e-reader near you soon!).
This is the reason Putin supports Trump. He can recognize a fellow traveler easily enough. He wants a leader of “the West” to “tell it like it is,” which Trump was only too happy to do. “You think our country’s so innocent?” Trump was fond of asking in defense of Putin and the exercise of raw power. As stated above, so here again: this is what Putin wants — to legitimize force and violence. That’s the world he is comfortable in. It would be so much easier if his agents didn’t have to skulk around to poison his critics.
The institutions of the West — for all their seeming permanence — can easily be turned to nefarious aims. With Trump poised to retake the presidency in 2024, this time abetted by a compliant court and a fake war on election fraud, Putin’s wish may be closer to reality than we care to think.
The Real Cause We’re Supporting May Not Be so Pure
As I mentioned above, there is a stark difference between Ukraine and Syria or Ethiopia. I can’t help but notice that we have been very quick to rally to the cause of a country full of white people. And not just any white people, but a lot of blonde, blue-eyed white people.
I’ll pause here to take questions from the crowd.
“Are you playing ‘the race card?’”
“The ‘race card’ is not a thing, except among people who want to change the subject.”
“You aren’t ‘woke,’ are you?”
“Am I aware and concerned that people of color have been treated differently in the past? Am I a decent person? Yes and yes, respectively.”
With that out of the way, we have to interrogate our disparate responses to different races, and the optics (and the actual track record) are not good. Just as we mobilize armies of volunteers to search for the Gabby Petito’s of the world while failing to lift a finger for Rajah McQueen, we were strangely lackadaisical about stopping Putin from helping Assad gas and otherwise massacre a darker-skinned population. You might argue that what happened in Syria was an internal matter, but that ended the moment chemical weapons were used and Russia strode in. At that point, it was an international question. We largely shrugged. Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen for more than half a decade, and again — the world hasn’t just shrugged, but kept arming the Saudis. Israel, immune seemingly to both history and irony, continues to confiscate the land and belongings of a dispossessed populace, and there again, all “the West” has done is fund, equip, and cheer. When our own president invaded a brown people’s country on the flimsiest of pretenses, not only did we not protest — we gleefully joined the march to war. We compliantly oohed and ahhed at the sight of shock and awe just like we were supposed to.
If the real cause we’re supporting is in fact simply a reaffirmation of systemic racial empathies and animus, its victory may do nothing but reinforce the capricious, sublime, colonial tyranny so common in the West.
I am glad we’re supporting Ukraine, and I will be glad if Ukraine succeeds in chasing Russia all the way out of the Donbas; but I don’t necessarily feel any safer for it. I know how easy it is to wind up the wrong side of The Line. Reducing the arbitrariness of where that line is drawn and including everyone on the right side of it is the only thing that makes us truly safer, not the West beating Russia.
That is the real war between right and wrong, and in that battle, right’s victory in Ukraine may prove a pyrrhic one, if we aren’t honest about all that it leaves undone.
We have seen the enemy, and the enemy is us.