Category Archives: Ukraine

an existential threat?

John Mearsheimer made the case against Ukraine on a well-attended panel discussion at the American Political Science Association. I don’t agree with those who disapprove of giving him a platform. If he’s wrong, his views should be aired so they can be rebutted, and I think that’s what happened when my Tufts colleague Oxana Shevel and other co-panelists debated him at APSA. If he has any actual insights, we should listen and use them.

I would emphasize a point that probably arose already in the panel discussion (some of which I had to miss). Mearsheimer said repeatedly that Russia faces an “existential threat” in Ukraine and is responding rationally and predictably. When he completed this phrase, it turned out not to mean a threat to Russia’s sovereignty, autonomy, or security within its borders. Mearsheimer meant a threat to Russia’s status as a great power.

I do not doubt that Putin and other Russian nationalists view a successful and European-oriented Ukraine as diminishing Russian global power. But this is the problem: Russia is not actually a great power.

In 2019, before the pandemic and the current full-scale war, Russia ranked right below Canada (population: 38 million) in GDP, and well below each of four European countries (Germany, the UK, France, and Italy). Its medium-term economic prospects were much worse than theirs because Russia is so dependent on fossil fuels. In population, Russia lies right between Bangladesh and Mexico (which has almost as big an economy), but its population has shrunk since 1992.

To be sure, Russia has a large military. In 2019, it ranked fourth in the world in military spending and sixth in the number of military personnel (at least on paper). But it arguably could not afford this expense. The Russian military cost 4.3% of its GDP, versus 3.7% in the USA, which nevertheless spent 11 times as much. That year, the proportion of the population that was enlisted in the military was four times as high in Russia as in the USA (an economic burden). And Russia was probably getting bad value for its military spending because of endemic corruption.

Russia has a vast supply of nuclear weapons, sufficient to end civilization. Nuclear weapons guarantee its security against a foreign invasion, and certainly pose a risk to other countries. Perhaps they are an asset in a conflict like the current one, because the US would be more likely to supply Ukraine with aircraft and long-distance guided missiles absent the nuclear threat. On the other hand, nuclear weapons are difficult to use to support conventional political aims.

It is a dilemma if Russia lacks the underlying basis for being a superpower yet views any events that diminish its great-power status as existential threats. However, the proposed solution of allowing Russia to act like a superpower is not only unjust; it is also unrealistic. Sooner or later, Russia must navigate the difficult road that Britain and France began to travel after 1945, reluctantly and incompletely acknowledging that they could no longer have empires. The USA should also make that transition, but in our case, the imperative is justice rather than necessity, since we actually retain the capacity to project global power.

See also: Russia in the larger history of decolonization; when states are blind

civic education in Russia

The Russian Education Ministry recently unveiled new curricular units for grades 1-11 under the label of “Talking About What is Important: Our Country is Russia.” I learned about the curriculum from this article in Meduza, but the magic of Google Translate allowed me to read the whole thing in English. It’s fascinating as a window into Russian pedagogy and state values, as well as a dim reflection of practices that some Americans would advocate–or even use already–for our children.

Perhaps the creepiest part comes in the Materials for Grades 5-7. Students compete in teams to answer quiz questions, such as “What is the tallest building in Europe?” (answer: Lakhta Center, St. Petersburg) and “What order do the colors appear in the Russian flag?”

At this point, the lesson plan says:

Teacher: While the results of the game are being summed up, I want to note that regardless of points scored, you are all great, because you know a lot about geography, history and culture of our country. …

We see manifestations of genuine patriotism even today, above all during the special military operation. Its launch on February 24 of this year was announced by the President of Russia V.V. Putin. In his speech, the President noted: “Circumstances require us to take decisive and immediate actions. The People’s Republic of Donbas turned to Russia with a request for help.” Among the goals of a special military operation are to protect the population of Donbas, subjected to bullying and harassment by the Kyiv regime, to disarm Ukraine, and to prevent the deployment of NATO military bases. The Russian armed forces, together with the forces of the DPR and LPR, are actively working to achieve these goals. Huge military and other assistance of the collective West to the Ukrainian authorities is prolonging the fighting and increases the number of victims of the operation.

Over the past months, we have learned the names of our heroes, Russian patriots. Here are some more facts. Captain Alexander Romanov during the battle discovered a group of Ukrainian nationalists and decided to push them into the minefield. As a result of the operation, the nationalists surrendered, Captain Romanov personally neutralized 26 men. Thanks to the successful operation, Russian troops occupied the salient without losses.

(The list of heroic feats continues.)

Another snippet, this one from grades 3-5, provides a portrait of a Russian classroom as the Ministry imagines it:

Teacher: Today let’s think together again about what it means to love your Motherland, and how to learn it. For this it is important to answer the question “What do we call the Motherland?”. It is both simple and very complex issue. Of course, the Motherland for us is our country Russia. And what else? I would like to hear your answers.

Sample answers of children: “The motherland is also the people who live in our country, and our family, and the place where we were born, and the culture”.

Teacher: Let’s listen to the lyrics of the song “Where the Motherland Begins” by Veniamin Basner to the words of Mikhail Matusovsky. …

I had the opportunity to work with Ukrainian teachers in Kyiv in 2017, so I knew their national curriculum at the time. It had patriotic elements, but also democratic, classically liberal, and cosmopolitan aspects, and it seemed to align with guidance from the Council of Europe. I did not see anything about democracy or individual rights in the new Russian materials, even as lip-service.

We must teach students about politics, government, history, and social issues–to equip them to participate on an equal footing. However, civic education is always dangerous, because the government is able to compel children to learn about itself. I realize that conservative critics believe that American public schools teach youth to support expansive state policies and bureaucracies that they oppose. For me, a greater risk is a curriculum that idolizes the nation and its existing system and policies–much like the Kremlin’s. These disagreements are inevitable and even healthy. The best we can do is to have an ongoing, critical, diverse, deliberative, and influential public debate about what students should learn, so that this crucial question is not settled by politicians alone.

when states are blind

Although an account by former Russian paratrooper Pavel Filatyev and a Washington Post article today by Greg Miller and Catherine Belton should be read with caution, these sources paint a consistent picture.

Before the February invasion, the Kremlin believed that the government of Ukraine was compromised and the Ukrainian public would support a Russian occupation. Russian agents had strong reasons to disbelieve both assumptions; they had even conducted reliable polls in Ukraine that showed a high willingness to fight. But they had no incentives to tell their superiors the truth.

Putin also believed he was ordering something like 200,000 soldiers to invade and occupy a compliant Ukraine, but the real number may have been closer to 100,000. Commanders all down the line had incentives to lie about how many men had actually been recruited, had reported for duty, had remained on base, and had received basic training and essential equipment.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian security services received US and British intelligence that Russia was preparing to invade and duly reported those assessments to President Zelensky. But they also knew about poor Russian preparation and thought that the invasion was probably a bluff. At the same time, many Ukrainian officials feared that Russia had fatally compromised own security services–mirroring the Kremlin’s assumptions. US intelligence also underestimated Ukraine’s potential in the case of war, which may have delayed US military aid.

Clearly, the errors were worse on the Russian side, and they may be continuing. A study by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and colleagues claims that “business retreats and sanctions are catastrophically crippling the Russian economy,” contrary to what Russian government statistics currently suggest and what Russian leaders may sincerely believe. Likewise, Russian apologists for their own system who cite conservative values, like traditional gender roles and faith, seem blind to facts. Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus have three of the four highest divorce rates in the world. Eight percent of Russians attend church regularly, as compared to 48% of supposedly decadent Americans and 19% of Ukrainians.

Time will tell who is right about the Russian economy and other issues. The general point is that no government can automatically or easily know what is going on. A government may not even know how many soldiers are enlisted in its own national army, let alone how the economy is really performing or how the public would respond to new events.

A government can allocate resources to collect information. When William the Conqueror suddenly obtained absolute power over England, one of his first acts was to order a census of its land and people, the Domesday Book. However, state capacity is always limited (there was no new English census for two hundred years after William’s), and money does not straightforwardly buy truth. It can even create incentives to mislead. Miller and Belton report that the Kremlin now regards Viktor Medvedchuk as a traitor because he delivered nothing in return for huge payments from Russian intelligence.

The more authoritarian a government is, the more it can give itself the right to collect information. It can employ surveillance, coercion, and even torture. On the other hand, authoritarian governments tend to monopolize information, depriving themselves of independent checks on what they believe. They invite people to lie to obtain preferment or avoid punishment. And they often focus on collecting information that most directly affects their own survival (such as the names of potential opponents) rather than information that would help them govern effectively.

I suppose that an authoritarian government that is broadly popular, such as the Soviet Union at the height of WWII, may perform decently well because individuals are motivated to try to do what they say they are doing. For instance, military officers don’t merely claim that they have followed orders; they do their best to follow them. But when authoritarian governments have lukewarm support, they are highly vulnerable to misinformation.

To various degrees, democratic governments restrict their own ability to collect information. At the limit, a highly democratic government could not employ spies, because it would be fully transparent to its own citizens. (That would deprive it of some ability to collect information–for better or worse.) There are many other reasons for democratic systems to misunderstand reality, including groupthink and confirmation bias, an urge for popularity, short time-horizons, failures to invest in research, and sheer human error.

We should never assume the reliability of information provided by any institution. For instance, today’s Washington Post article is not Gospel truth; it is a piece of reporting that depends on sources who have interests and journalists who have frameworks. But it is equally foolish to reject all official information as biased. Often the best we can do is to examine the processes and incentives that have generated data. For instance, if the people inside a system are reasonably protected against political interference and reasonably likely to be rewarded for accuracy, the system is more credible. And if information that comes from several autonomous organizations converges, the odds improve that the results are valid–although cultural and ideological biases could still operate at that level.

Overall, authoritarian governments tend to be unreliable sources. Often they pay the price for their own errors.

See also conflict v mistake as a framework for politics; is society an artifact or an ecosystem? (and what that means for citizens); China teaches the value of political pluralism; etc.

Russia in the larger history of decolonization

In the first half of the 1900s, empires were headquartered in London, Paris, Vienna/Budapest, Istanbul, St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Berlin, Rome, Tokyo, and Washington. They were not quite simultaneous. For instance, the apogee of the Japanese empire came in 1942, well after the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires had disintegrated. However, during a single human lifespan, most of the world was dominated by competing empires, most of which fought in the two world wars.

To varying degrees, these capitals and metropoles have had to confront moral issues as their empires have been denounced from outside and within. And they have had to confront deep practical challenges as they have lost the capacity to dominate far-flung countries.

They have handled these moral and pragmatic issues in various ways and to varying degrees, none of them completely well. Perhaps Germany, Japan, and Italy made the cleanest breaks as a result of their defeats in 1945. I know the German case best, and it reflects a strong repudiation of imperialism. However, the moral introspection followed the military disaster–and not immediately.

The two imperial powers that were able to delay the reckoning longest were the US and the USSR, because they emerged from WWII with their military power intact, not defeated or exhausted. Also, both had ideologies that persuaded many of their own people–if few others–that they had never been empires in the first place. The US had the Declaration of Independence and the Monroe Doctrine and called itself the leader of the free world. The USSR was supposedly a union of equal republics united by universalist ideals; Lenin had been a trenchant critic of imperialism.

Today, the USA still has plenty of work to do decolonize. We must equalize power and reckon with past wrongs, above all the conquest and slavery that built the 50 states as well as the remaining territories. And we must recalibrate our relations with the rest of the world. The Afghan and Iraq wars were not only morally untenable but also humiliating defeats for the USA. They echoed the Suez crisis, which taught London and Paris that their imperial days were numbered. There is even a plausible argument that AR-15 are being purchased in huge numbers–and some are being used in mass murders–because of the post-9/11 wars. I suspect that the catastrophes of Iraq and Afghanistan bubble just below the surface of many of our current controversies. Americans feel betrayed by elites. We define our elite enemies in somewhat different ways, but it’s a fact that bipartisan elites supported these wars. Still, we are having a robust conversation about these themes–including an ugly backlash–and our neocolonialists seem to be in retreat in foreign policy.

As for Russia: there may well be a better internal conversation about colonialism there than I would know. Indeed, I am in no position to assess current Russian culture. I am sure that the Russian conversation about colonialism should be robust, fully acknowledging that the Tsarist empire was an example of European colonialism, the Soviet Union was a Russian-dominated empire, the Russian Federation is still 20% non-Russian, the “near-abroad” consists of sovereign states, and recent interventions in countries like Syria and Mali have been morally repugnant (but not unusually so–for instance, Russia’s involvement in Mali directly follows France’s involvement there).

These are moral points. Meanwhile, as a pragmatic matter, Russians must acknowledge that their GDP (even before the current war) was $1.7 trillion: half the size of Germany’s, a tenth of China’s, and less than a thirteenth of the USA’s. The Russian economy is not only relatively small but depends on unsustainable carbon extraction.

The Russian Federation should find its way to being a mid-sized federal republic with a distinctive and diverse cultural heritage, remarkable natural resources, a post-carbon economy, and decentralized power.

Seen in global perspective, it is not actually surprising that Russia hasn’t made this journey yet. It never faced the crises that confronted most of the other empires of 1900-1950. The collapse of the USSR in 1989-91 could be interpreted as a temporary weakness and betrayal, not as a delayed and incomplete conclusion of Russian imperialism.

In The Atlantic recently, Casey Michel wrote, “The West must complete the project that began in 1991. It must seek to fully decolonize Russia.” That statement strikes me as colonialist in itself, replicating the moral superiority and pragmatic hubris that countries like the USA must learn to surpass. Why would “we” succeed in decolonizing a region on the other side of the planet, even if doing so were our business? Citizens of the Russian Federation must decolonize their own country or else continue to decline, both morally and pragmatically. Ukrainians may assist, but their role is to save Ukraine, not to reform their neighbor. And we are right to support Ukraine–for the sake of that country.

I am skeptical that large-scale moral self-criticism is an engine of social change. (See “alerting people to their privilege,” for some evidence.) However, defeat can be an effective teacher.

See also: Putin’s cultural nationalism;  why I stand with Ukraine (from 2015); and Ukraine means borderland (2017)

civilian resistance in Ukraine, revisited

In February and March I posted about prospects for nonviolent resistance in Ukraine and in Russia and then about what I called “civilian resistance,” where the latter category includes violent as well as nonviolent actions by people who aren’t organized in military units. Well before the war, I had met many Ukrainian activists for democracy who had demonstrated exceptionally strong expertise and networks for civilian resistance. Besides, I am a proponent of nonviolence, which is the focus of the last third of my new book.

However, at that time, I accepted the conventional wisdom about the military situation, which has proven wrong. I assumed that Russia would quickly occupy substantial portions of Ukraine, perhaps all the way to the Dnipro. I thought that Russia’s challenge would then be to maintain control at relatively low cost and with some degree of perceived legitimacy–at least as perceived by Russians. Russia would use violence, but I guessed that the occupiers would want to win hearts and minds to some extent. Those factors would make the occupied territories a promising location for civilian resistance.

Instead, Russia seems to have occupied not much more than the ground where their troops are currently stationed. They have taken many more casualties than expected and committed more atrocities. Their losses in no way excuse the massacres of civilians, but they may help to explain them. Discipline has broken down; Russian troops may be looking for revenge. Russia has lost the contest for legitimacy among Ukrainians, Europeans, and many others, which means they don’t benefit from exercising restraint. Inside Russia, “amid a growing police crackdown, public expressions of opposition to the war have slowed to a trickle — singular acts of defiance amid a wider silence.” Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military has accomplished far more than I, for one, expected.

For these reasons, civilian resistance looks less relevant, more dangerous, and less necessary than I had thought. Yet it remains a worthy topic, for two reasons.

First, the war could play out as Katherine Lawlor and Mason Clark predict:

Russian President Vladimir Putin likely intends to annex occupied southern and eastern Ukraine directly into the Russian Federation in the coming months. He will likely then state, directly or obliquely, that Russian doctrine permitting the use of nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory applies to those newly annexed territories. Such actions would threaten Ukraine and its partners with nuclear attack if Ukrainian counteroffensives to liberate Russian-occupied territory continue. 

This is by no means inevitable, but if it happens, then a combination of an armed partisan insurgency plus civilian resistance inside the occupied portions of Donetsk and Luhansk might be Ukraine’s best option.

Second, civilian resistance has been important to the war effort so far. For instance, Sergey Mohov offers an excellent thread on “a hyper-informal cross-continental network of volunteers” that has been delivering specific items (“from food to tourniquets to UAVs to cars and ambulances”) to front-line Ukrainian military units. This is one of many decentralized, self-help efforts that support the official military effort. They are not completely new. When I was in Lviv in 2015, I saw civilians collecting boots for soldiers in Donbas, who were suffering (in part) from the Ukrainian’s government corruption. Ukrainians have a lot of experience organizing around their own state, which comes in handy when their government is well led and well motivated but overstretched.

It’s important not to draw sharp lines between violence and nonviolence or civilian and governmental actions. Consider these examples: A Russian military unit refuses orders, not out of idealism but in fear. Ukrainians willingly line up to enlist in the army. A small Ukrainian military unit acts effectively without receiving orders. Residents of eastern Donetsk and Luhansk protest forced mobilizations. Pro-Russian military bloggers circulate strongly critical assessments of the campaign that undercut official propaganda, albeit with a nationalistic flavor. A Russian citizen relocates to a decent job in a foreign country out of disgust with Putin. A Russian citizen goes into exile without a job, for political reasons. Ukrainians in the diaspora send ammunition to the front. Ukrainians in the diaspora send bandages to the front. The Ukrainian government uses facial recognition software to identify dead Russian soldiers and notifies their next of kin. Ukrainians in EU countries advocate for banning oil purchases. Non-Ukrainians in EU countries advocate for boycotts. Chinese companies cancel Russian contracts out of concern for EU relationships.

These examples do not belong to two categories: nonviolent civil disobedience versus war. They fall along several continua, from violence to nonviolence, from decentralized to hierarchical, from idealistic to self-interested, and from pro-Ukrainian to Russian-centered. I presume that similar continua arise in all conflicts. My own value commitments are not simple. For instance, I am not a rigorous pacifist or a radical opponent of hierarchy, although I would make a case for nonviolence and self-help. Perhaps the best approach in a situation like this is a diverse mix of strategies.