The eyes of the world are focused on Ukraine, the thoughts of Western leaders galvanized against Russian aggression under its ice-cold President, Vladimir Putin. My good friend and long-time media justice advocate Sam Simon, who bases his view of history on the experience of the Holocaust and failure in the 1930’s to predict the rise of the Third Reich, always asks, “What are we right before?” This question is ripe for us today. It is hard predict what lies ahead, but we must remain attentive to unfolding events.
At the time of this writing (acknowledging that events are fluid) the common thinking (at least through the lens of US Security Council experts) is that Putin will extend the invasion deeper into Ukraine through various cyber, military and propagandist means. A question to ponder (though not to distract) is: how far will he go, and why?
The answer to this can be found in a core emphasis during his lengthy rant this week to the Russian people, including the comment, “Modern Ukraine was entirely and fully created by Russia, more specifically the Bolshevik, communist Russia…This process began practically immediately after the 1917 revolution, and moreover Lenin and his associates did it in the sloppiest way in relation to Russia — by dividing, tearing from her pieces of her own historical territory.”
Rather, Ukraine and its relationship to Russia has a complicated history, dating to the time of the czars. Its independence was proclaimed by the people who live there, not created by Russian Bolsheviks. Putin’s bizarre claim based on inaccurate historical data has been vehemently opposed across Ukraine, as evidenced by widespread protests in support of the Ukrainian government.
The New York Times editorial board further reminds: “Mr. Putin’s elaborate and grievance-filled riff on Soviet-Ukrainian history was another effort to persuade Russians that their nation has a legitimate historical claim to Ukraine, a theme that has become something of an obsession with the Russian president.”
What makes this argument so dangerous is that it is rooted in unfounded mythology like ancient ethnic hatred in the Balkans, devout religionists against LGBTQ individuals or among white supremacists in the US, which cannot be countered by reason or facts. Such visceral beliefs are more difficult to confront than political, economic or even strategic disputes. There is no rational way to offer a counter argument as Putin orchestrates Russian media (mostly controlled by the government) to pound out the message that Ukrainians are actually Russians and that the current conflict is a Western plot to sever this vital part of Russia from the motherland.
So “what are we right before?” How can we effectively challenge Putin’s actions? It is frightening to imagine the level of pain and destruction in an all-out war should this invasion deepen into Ukrainian territory. But the first step is not to underestimate Putin’s obsessive belief in believing that he has been ordained to restore Russia to its former greatness (does “I alone can fix this” ring a bell?).
In a fascinating Op-ed, Madeleine Albright—the first US diplomat to interview Putin when he came to power in 2000—said this: “I hoped the meeting would help me take the measure of the man and assess what his sudden elevation might mean for U.S.-Russia relations, which had deteriorated amid the war in Chechnya. Sitting across a small table from him in the Kremlin, I was immediately struck by the contrast between Mr. Putin and his bombastic predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.
“Whereas Mr. Yeltsin had cajoled, blustered and flattered, Mr. Putin spoke unemotionally and without notes about his determination to resurrect Russia’s economy and quash Chechen rebels. Flying home, I recorded my impressions. “Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.”
Next, along with my friend Sam, we must heed the lessons from the 20th century and not assume that we have so progressed as a human race that we cannot fall prey to autocrats and liars who have the power to steer the course of history to their own ends. We must realize that another major international conflict is not a remote possibility; with new technologies and pervasive social media, events can escalate exponentially.
Third, if we learned nothing from the recent Olympics, we should be mindful of the image of Putin’s attendance in Beijing and understand the potential in an alliance between these two powerful autocrats. We live in an interrelated world. Isolating one region from another is infinitely more difficult than it once was. If China and Russia forge an alliance akin to NATO, it would be a formidable alliance indeed.
Finally, for those of us who have historically been critical of US Foreign Policy (in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, in Latin America and Vietnam), it is important to affirm US citizens who rally around core democratic principles of equality under the law, freedom of expression and human rights. Despite society’s ills—which are many—events in Ukraine remind us that there are moments when tyranny from without is equally threatening to complacency from within. It is vital for Americans to project a united front when dealing on the global stage. Comments from the likes of Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump and others picking holes in US foreign policy while praising the “genius” of Vladimir Putin are counterproductive.
Contemplating the future can be scary. Putting our heads in the sand is dangerous. It is imperative to see Russians actions for what they are—rooted in blind supremacy based on an inaccurate reading of history—as an essential first step in active listening to “what we are right before” as we witness in real time the historical events that are about to unfold.