We sometimes forget that “casus belli” in Latin is both a singular and a plural noun, and it should always be treated as such. A close look at history reveals that there are no simple causes for the Russia-Ukraine war and pinning blame on the villain-like figure of Vladimir Putin or historic Russian imperialism is intellectually sloppy and politically propagandist.
Peter Isackson | Fair Observer
The problem with any war is that both sides always believe they are right. In this age of electronic communication and sophisticated tools designed to distort reality, both sides also heavily invest in propaganda. Those who attempt to introduce nuance while a conflict is raging are typically bullied by one of the sides to fall into line, as we pointed out in our analysis of an astonishing interview by a Western journalist of India’s Minister of External Affairs, Dr. S Jaishankar. In times of war, perspective itself becomes the enemy.
Decades after the final victory or peace treaties, historians may calmly assess the events that led up to a war, tease out the play of rivalries that triggered it, elucidate the economic and cultural factors that defined its emotional character and assess the impact of the the personalities involved in launching and prosecuting the war. Such analyses, when conducted by objective historians, reveal complex networks of meaning and multiple factors hidden from public view at the time of the war. The “truth” concerning the causes of any war can never be fully described. More significantly, for a true historian, it can never be reduced to a simple attribution of blame.
The title of a well-argued article by Bhaskar Majumdar that appeared on Fair Observer a week ago illustrates a risk that has become all too common in today’s journalism. It is the temptation to reduce the analysis of every conflict to a simple blame game. Its ultimate aim is to identify a single individual who will bear the brunt of the blame. Who can forget the evil Saddam Hussein, purveyor of weapons of mass destruction so deviously hidden no one could ever find them? Our politicians and media explained how he had to be eliminated to usher in a glorious period of peace and prosperity that would inevitably follow. Or Muammar al-Qaddafi? Or Bashar al-Assad? To say nothing of Ho Chi Minh, Salvador Allende or Hugo Chavez, who were never elevated to absolutely Satanic status but still became the focus of a noble combat to replace pure evil with unadulterated good.
None of the cases cited above ended well. So why do our politicians and media persist in the same vein even today? Is it just a lazy habit or is there a novel strategy this time around? Psychologists understand that attributing blame to one group of people for some social, political or economic ill is easy to do. One day it’s Mexicans and another, Asians, Arabs, Russians, Jews or simply immigrants in general. Animosity towards such groups obviously becomes exaggerated in times of war. But we should also be aware that, even in times of peace, this tendency persists. It is at the core of every form of racism.
To successfully stir the emotion of the population of any nation committed to war, propagandists cannot rely only on suspicion or hatred of the group alone. An effective war mentality requires two other essential factors that will become the foundation of every effective effort of propaganda. The first is an ideological gap, a factor of cultural differentiation that claims to describe what another group of people believes in or is committed to. The second has become even more important in this age of media celebrities. It is the focus on a single personality to bear the blame. Eliminating that agent of evil will restore purity to the world.
Ideology can be many things. It can even be assembled from diverse components. These include religion, language, economic theory (capitalism vs. communism), implicit or explicit moral codes, and style of government (e.g. democracy vs. autocracy). The ideology need not be real in the sense that it is consciously embraced by all or even a majority. It can simply be a convenient label based on officially inculcated aspirations. In today’s Western anti-Russian propaganda, the preferred choice for labelling the ideology combines one abstract notion, “autocracy,” and one supposedly concrete reality, “Russian imperialism.” Both notions appear rather nebulous, a simplistic formulation of a far more complex reality. The key to believing that they amount to an ideology is the identification of a unique and consummate evil-doer, whose mind is focused on that credo. The arch-villain who embodies the ideology we are authorized to hate today is of course Vladimir Putin.
HOW NUANCE CAN BE OVERTAKEN BY SIMPLIFICATION
In his article, Majumdar makes a number of pertinent points about the Russian context that help clarify some key aspects of the conflict. He evokes the background to the conflict and acknowledges its complexity. He also reminds readers of the tendency, in times of propaganda, to revert “subconsciously, if not consciously” to the reflex developed during the Cold War. He describes it as putting “things in easy perspectives: a binary black and white, the US against Russia, us versus them.”
After this promising start, the mood changes. In the course of the article Majumdar even appears to contradict himself. He slowly builds up to a position that denies the very nuance and perspective he promoted in the opening paragraphs. Towards the end of the article, he simplifies history to the very pattern of black vs. white that he earlier warned against. How else may we interpret this pair of assertions? “US President Joe Biden may have been at fault in Afghanistan but he is not at fault for Ukraine. Putin is the man responsible for this conflict.” Back to the Manichean blame game.
How did the author slide into the kind of reasoning he derided? He commits three common errors of pseudo-historical reasoning that deserve our attention. They can be seen as illustrative of the process by which, in times of armed conflict, propaganda falls, “subconsciously, if not consciously” into place. The first is logical, the next, linguistic. The third is what literary critics call the “intentional fallacy.”
In the very first sentence Majumdar aptly calls into question “the popular narrative of the Cold War.” He identifies it with George W. Bush’s famous assertion: “If you are not with us, you are against us.” In other words, it reduces a problem to two competing and mutually exclusive narratives, one of which will be considered right or good, and the other wrong or evil. At this point, we would expect the article to highlight the importance of nuance and complexity in its analysis of the conflict in Ukraine. Nuance means that attribution of an absolute moral quality to any position is likely to be inaccurate. Complexity means two things. The first is that there will likely be other factors that will inevitably lead to formulating more than two competing and mutually exclusive explanations. But, whatever the number of causes identified, even when they seem contradictory, they may prove to be complementary. For example, Russia’s motivation may be simultaneously imperialistic (expansive) and anti-imperialistic (countering NATO’s expansion). Selecting one and ignoring or suppressing the other is what propaganda typically does.
Majumdar appears to veer towards propaganda when, after evoking the fact that the US might be justifiably blamed for “neo imperialism and more,” he tries to answer the question that appears after the subheading: “US Provocation or Russian Imperialism?” His argument begins with a curiously hesitant assertion about blame for the war. “Some of the popular narrative in many countries is that the US is responsible for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, at least in part.”
Why “some” of the narrative? And why “popular narrative?” What does this convey? It is clearly dismissive of the idea he hasn’t even begun to explain. It is the first step in the logical error of reducing the complex to a simple opposition and discarding one of the terms of the binary pair by branding it illegitimate. Instead of exploring the relative merit of two views of the conflict, this paragraph presents them as mutually exclusive hypotheses, one of which must be eliminated from consideration. There is a simple choice to be made: Russia is to blame or the US is to blame (though possibly only “partly”). In other words, the reader is confronted with a formulation identical to the Cold War logic that the author critiqued as simplistic in his first paragraph.
To make his case for placing the blame on one side only, the author astonishingly writes: “John Mearsheimer, professor at the University of Chicago, has popularized this line of thought.” This is a curious and rather disingenuous linguistic trick. Those who are familiar with Mearsheimer know that he is a very serious academic who, despite the interest of doing so, is never invited by the popular media to clarify public issues. In other words, contrary to Majumdar’s assertion, he has never “popularized” anything.
With a verbal sleight of hand the author puts the political scientist’s well-researched analysis into the category of “popular narrative.” This is both an unjustified factual distortion and, in terms of logic, a category error. Its effect is to dismiss Mearsheimer’s very serious contribution to an issue of monumental importance for all of humanity by invoking a misattributed adjective: “popular.” Mearsheimer as a writer of pulp fiction?
Majumdar is by no means a propagandist, but this kind of confusion of terms and categories is precisely what propaganda encourages. To be fair, the author’s assimilation of the ambient propaganda is most likely subconscious, if not unconscious in the Freudian sense. But that is how propaganda works, as Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, explained in his own book, Propaganda. The word propaganda in Latin means “things that are spread or propagated” through the cultural atmosphere. That means we are all the designated receivers. That should remind us why in times of propaganda, when the Cold War mentalities Majumdar describes are developing, it is important to apply logical and linguistic rigor to everything one receives. Even that won’t make us immune.
WHAT MEARSHEIMER SAYS
Majumdar takes Mearsheimer to task for daring to suggest that NATO’s eastward expansion might have provoked the Ukraine war. He implies that the distinguished University of Chicago professor has mistakenly (if not treasonously) chosen the other camp in the binary choice concerning the attribution of blame. But Mearsheimer never hesitates to qualify Russia’s invasion as illegal and an unambiguous act of aggression. What he refuses to accept, because history makes the case clear, is the literally unprovoked idea that Putin’s aggression was unprovoked. Western propaganda, echoing the White House and State Department, has created a Pavlovian association between Russia’s invasion and the adjective, “unprovoked.” In so doing, it dismisses with a swipe of the hand decades of historical evidence easily available to anyone even mildly curious about events in the region, especially over the past eight years.
The point Mearsheimer has been making for many years is simply that this conflict was predictable. Because meteorologists study the conditions of pressure, temperature and humidity, they can reasonably accurately predict the dynamics that will define the forecast for days or even weeks to come. One of the main factors Mearsheimer focused on was the evolving attitude and actions of the West, and more particularly the United States as the reigning hegemon. Telling that story in no way resembles “a popular narrative.” Instead, it’s a complex bundle of facts contained within a systemic chain of events. And the US has consistently played a major role at every phase.
In a second and perhaps even more astonishing category error, Majumdar dismisses Mearsheimer’s analysis as “curiously imperial.” Perhaps he believes that Mearsheimer is a “useful idiot” or a Kremlin stooge. Is he suggesting that Mearsheimer seeks to justify a Russian plan of imperial conquest for which there is no evidence other than the invasion of Ukraine itself, which can be more easily and neatly explained as the reaction to a very real campaign to expand NATO right up to Russia’s border?
To buttress his case, Majumdar cites the concerns of the Baltic nations based on the history of their relations with tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union. In so doing, he appears to suggest that there is some kind of essential character trait in Russian civilization that requires it to act as an imperial power and to repeat identical or at least similar actions that took place in entirely different historical conditions. There may be some truth to this when studying the long duration, but basing the hypothesis on the feelings of the neighbors rather than the words and actions of the agent cannot be considered evidence. After all, Russia never reacted “imperially” to the Baltic states’ integration to NATO, despite seeing it as a broken promise by the United States.
Though cultural continuity will always be a factor that plays out over the long term, making such suppositions about Russian imperialism fails to acknowledge that the modern Russian state is fundamentally different from both tsarist Russia and the USSR, just as the modern French republic and Britain’s parliamentary democracy no longer function as absolute monarchies, while nevertheless retaining numerous vestiges of the tradition of aristocratic privilege and colonial reach.
As the leader of the school of realism in geopolitical analysis, Mearsheimer focuses not on vague fears and historical memories, but on how power is structured, the tools it possesses and how it uses them. He seeks to detect patterns and laws that tell us how the power game will play out, given what we know about the playing field and the assets of the teams. Just as empirical science constructs hypotheses, predicts effects and draws conclusions on the basis of the success or failure of the empirical facts, prediction plays a fundamental role in political science.
Accurate prediction, when it is taken seriously, can render a vital pragmatic service. It can facilitate prevention. Forewarned is forearmed, says the proverb. In contrast, as Hamlet noted, “taking arms against a (predicted) sea of troubles” ultimately leads to being drowned in the tsunami. Mearsheimer claims his predictions could have spared us the drowning Ukraine is now undergoing. Anyone enterprising enough to consult his predictions from as long as seven years ago would notice how accurate they have been. We are witnessing a conflict that, in multiple ways, is now threatening the world. Western propagandists seem more tempted by the hypothesis Hamlet wisely rejected: in this case, the West’s decision to massively provide “arms against a sea of troubles.”
Mearsheimer is neither a politician nor a propagandist. He has no dog in the fight, no stake in the game. None, that is, other than his quest for scientific clarity. In the past, he has generally sinned on the side of promoting American hegemony. But that is precisely why he, as an American patriot, has consistently mobilized his capacity for scientific observation not with a view to condemning or excusing other empires, but in the interest of improving the chances of preserving US hegemony, which he admits has provided him with a way of life he has stated on many occasions that he appreciates.
IS THERE A DISTINCTION BETWEEN HEGEMONY AND EMPIRE?
The same cannot always be said of Mearsheimer’s critics. This is especially of those who possess – or rather seem possessed by – an imperial rather than a merely hegemonic mindset. Because whether or not Russia, with its already large landmass and unimpressive economy, has imperial ambitions, it is clear that the US has consistently had such ambitions, and never more so than in the past 75 years, a period in which it consciously took over Britain’s role of dominant Western empire.
Hegemony, Mearsheimer’s focus, or empire? What is the difference between these two similar notions? Hegemony is about relative geopolitical influence, the famous “balance of power” that regulates matters in any global or extensive system of relationships that admits of a “rule of law” or, at the very least, a “law of rules.” The idea of hegemony relies on and implies a respect for authority. Empire, in contrast, is about exercising control and exploiting resources. Respect of any authority other than its own, if it exists, is secondary. Empire is driven by its capacity to extract wealth from other parts of the world and enforce the obedience of other peoples. Hegemony is abstract; empire is concrete. Thus there can be a science of hegemony but only a history of empire. The first is a game, the second, a racket.
Mearsheimer justly claims to be a political scientist. He analyzes behavior, but as a respected intellectual – in contrast with opportunistic think tank academics and consultants – he typically does not seek to directly influence or alter other people’s or his own government’s behavior. He nevertheless hopes his work will have an impact on political decision-making, but makes no special effort to frame policies and even less to enforce them. The most valuable outcome of a true political scientist’s work is prediction, just as the most valuable outcome of a natural scientist’s work is the confirmation of laws of nature.
That is why Majumdar’s claim that Mearsheimer has a “curiously imperial” mindset makes little sense. Predicting a behavior based on one’s understanding of physical or psychological laws combined with familiarity with context simply should never be interpreted as in any way excusing the behavior thus described or serving the interests of the party it describes. But that is what authorities in the West have been doing systematically with anyone who suggests an alternative to their version of propaganda.
An accurate prediction of an unwanted event should thus never be confused with consent. But that is what Majumdar appears to be suggesting. Mearsheimer has been studying the situation in Ukraine and speaking about it publicly for the past decade. Some are now hailing him as a modern Nostradmus for predicting in eerily accurate terms the current war back in 2016. Is that what Majumdar means by a “curiously imperial” argument? One might say the same thing of the soothsayer who told Julius Caesar: “Beware the Ides of March.” That marked the historical moment the Roman republic disappeared, to be replaced after years of civil war by the empire.
Majumdar persuasively begins his article like a political scientist but somewhere along the line drifts into a discourse that resembles propaganda. Statements such as “US President Joe Biden may have been at fault in Afghanistan but he is not at fault for Ukraine” are doubly doubtful. First, with regard to Ukraine, it is far too early to accurately allocate fault in such a long, complex story. As for Afghanistan, and whatever fault one can attribute to Biden, that is even more complex.
Biden’s relationship with events in Ukraine is in itself a complex story. Anyone even vaguely aware of the events leading up to and including the Maidan uprising in 2014 or who has heard the voice of US State Department’s Victoria Nuland in her hacked phone call with Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, will be aware of Biden’s active role in Ukraine. At the time Barack Obama had made Biden his point man in Ukraine.
Is it really stretching things to suspect that Biden, even before becoming president, had already been implicated in the events that led to the invasion? Did what happen in the Obama years have nothing to do with the events that accelerated as soon as Biden was took over as president in January, 2021. Nitpickers may go further and mention another seemingly insignificant player known to have played a peripheral role in the drama: Hunter Biden. How peripheral was it? In short, it’s far too early to let Biden off the hook for his potential personal fault in Ukraine. Just as many accused George W Bush of wanting to finish his father’s unfinished business in Iraq, family relations may have something to do – however marginal – with the events that have unfolded in Ukraine over the past eight years.
AMBIGUITY OF WORDS CHOSEN TO DESCRIBE HISTORICAL RELATIONSHIPS
After categorically exculpating Biden, Majumdar focuses on what he represents as the unique fault of the Russians and Putin in particular. White House and State Department propagandists can only applaud.
Propaganda always uses the shifting and imperfectly perceived meaning of words to create beliefs meant to distort reality in ways that are slight enough that the public is unlikely to notice. Majumdar provides an interesting example when he casually calls NATO’s attitude with regard to Ukraine as “welcoming.” Let’s call this a generous interpretation of a somewhat less palatable reality. This verbal ploy elides the subtle distinction between a pair of related actions: welcoming and inviting.
If Ukraine had simply asked to join NATO, it would be fair to describe NATO’s position as “welcoming.” It is even true that at the very beginning, back in 2005, Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine’s president at the time, actually did formulate a request to join both NATO and the European Union. That set off a period of debate, both internal and involving Russia, about the long-term implications of Ukraine joining NATO.
That debate was never resolved. But there was a critical moment in 2008 when US President George W Bush insisted not on “welcoming” Ukraine but on actively inviting it to apply for NATO membership. In reality, Yushchenko’s earlier request itself had already been the result, not of the spontaneous desire of Ukrainians, but of pressure from the US that had already been expanding NATO. The initiative by the US with regard to Ukraine, unlike the Baltic states, was consistently resisted by France and Germany, two major members of NATO.
Things took a different turn when the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010. The Ukrainian parliament voted specifically to exclude the goal of integration into not just NATO but to becoming a member of any military bloc. It’s a status called neutrality. The law nevertheless permitted and even encouraged cooperation with alliances such as NATO while promoting the idea of joining the European Union.
ANNOYING COMPLEXITY OF HISTORY
In other words, at the end of 2013, the status of Ukraine was that of a nation that in 2008 had been invited to join NATO by the US, though – and this is significant – not by Europe. But because Ukraine itself had declined the invitation, the question of being welcomed became moot.
At the end of 2013 – as is now well documented – the CIA stepped in (not for the first time) to help foment the protests that had begun peacefully but were becoming increasingly violent, This was the direct effect of the American initiative of “welcoming” the participation of Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist groups, known for their extremist neo-Nazi culture and their taste for brutality. The strategy worked. This became clear when the elected president Yanukovych fled the country, leaving it in the capable hands of a band of political actors vetted and briefed by the US State Department.
The rest of the story is well known to anyone who even vaguely followed events in Ukraine. A corrupt billionaire fully aware of the US agenda was elected president. Petro Poroshenko served out his five-year term presiding over a deeply kleptocratic state. With a civil war raging in the east and corruption installed as a way of life, he nevertheless managed to become unpopular enough to be voted out of office in 2019 in favor of a comic actor who convinced 73% of Ukrainian voters that he would be more competent than the incumbent. Or at least that he would be less corrupt, like the president he played on television. Moreover, Volodymyr Zelenskyy promised to be the outsider capable of doing what Poroshenko had been unwilling to do: collaborate with Russia, Germany and France on applying the Minsk accords that granted autonomy within the Ukrainian state to the disputed Russian-speaking areas of the east.
Majumdar simplifies things in the extreme when he describes Putin’s ambitions in these terms: “Running a kleptocratic regime, this authoritarian leader needs to squash a democratic Ukraine.” This is half correct. Russia is indeed kleptocratic and authoritarian, but no more than – and some might claim even less than – any of the regimes that have been installed in Kyiv since 1991. Ukraine is no more a democracy than Russia itself and has never found a way of recovering durable political or economic stability since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It might be more realistic to rewrite Majumdar’s assertion with this formulation: “Running a kleptocratic regime, this authoritarian leader [Putin] needs to squash another kleptocratic, authoritarian regime: Ukraine.” In their majority, the Ukrainians definitely want to be independent of Russia, but they have never shown any aptitude for democracy.
The promoters of the war in the West never ask themselves why the US is so heavily engaged in Ukraine? Are they so averse to killing or the ways of war? If so, shouldn’t they have stepped in on Yemen’s side in the Saudi war on the Yemen republic?
When interrogated about the problem of organized crime in the US, many Americans will shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, at least the Mafia essentially kills its own and leaves the rest of us alone.” One might expect them to conclude that when two authoritarian neighbors in Eastern Europe begin slaughtering each other on their own disputed territory, why should we feel concerned to the point of funding their entire military?
That actually was President Barack Obama’s policy. He famously told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg: ““The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.” As with everything concerning nations that have acquired the habit of meddling in the affairs of others, this has to be taken with a grain of salt. Obama said it at the very moment when his State Department was intrusively working in the wings to favor one of the two authoritarian rivals (Ukraine) over the other (Russia). To some extent washing his hands of this troubled zone, Obama delegated to his Vice President Joe Biden the task of managing what were essentially covert operations of deep military engagement in the name of NATO.
Majumdar’s informative article highlights some important aspects of Russia’s and Putin’s authoritarian ways as well as his often illegal and destructive actions. But when analyzing the causes of a complex drama that has now become dangerous for all of humanity, it is always helpful to refrain from simplistic explanations that rely on identifying a blameworthy individual. We always want to understand the psychology of leaders guilty of aggression, but speculating about their “real” motives and asserting that they explain everything is precisely what propaganda does as a routine. This is especially true when teasing out the causes of something that has become clearly much more than just “a major geopolitical crisis.”
As the days go by, the war in Ukraine increasingly resembles the initial rumblings of World War III. At the NATO summit in the final days of June US President Biden responded to a question about how long Americans would have to support the high price of gas with these words: “As long as it takes, so Russia cannot, in fact, defeat Ukraine and move beyond Ukraine.”
Apart from the message to Americans that their comfort and well-being is less important than the government’s commitment to a foreign war, this can be interpreted in several ways. One possibility is that this reveals what has been a pattern for decades: the inclination of every US government to commit, though in a slightly modified role, to yet another forever war. It is the duty of an empire to maintain a permanent military presence at all strategic points around the globe. Time in such endeavors is never an issue, especially when, with no troops on the ground, no Americans are coming back home in body bags.
Another rather more surprising possibility, is that this may indicate a serious change of strategy. The conditions Biden evokes could presage the terms of a negotiated settlement. If the end of hostilities could be presented officially not as a victory of Russia over Ukraine but as Ukraine’s heroic achievement of a newly defined independence from Russia accompanied by the assurance that Russia would make no other territorial claims and accept NATO on its borders everywhere except Ukraine, everyone might save face. That rosy scenario seems unlikely, given another remark Biden made in the same interview: “What happens if the strongest power, NATO, the organizational structure we put together, walk[s] away from Russian aggression?”
A third is that the US will continue until it has put a dagger in the heart of Russia, or at least of Vladimir Putin. That may explain why the chit-chat in the West has increasingly turned to considerations of Putin’s bare chest. That lighthearted banter assumes that at no point would Russia, or the US itself, be tempted to use nuclear weapons capable of compromising the survival of humanity itself. Or that, profiting from the confusion, Israel might take the initiative to nuke Iran or North Korea to nuke its own chosen targets, just for the sport of it.
When the future of the human race and the planet itself is at stake, offering simplistic takes on who is at fault tends to be destructive rather than constructive. Taking time to tease out all the details — something John Mearsheimer and a few others have been doing over the years – is probably worth the effort. We owe them our respect.
This article was originally published on Fair Observer.
Peter Isackson is Fair Observer’s Chief Strategy Officer. For more than 30 years, Peter has dedicated himself to innovative publishing, coaching, consulting and learning management.