Russia, Ukraine, and Western Media
Rhetoric of Justifiability: Russia, Ukraine, and American Media
On October 7, 2001, I was two days away from turning eight years old, glued to the TV in my room, fidgeting as I waited for WWF Sunday Night Heat to begin. I screeched when the incoming broadcast switched from my beloved wrestling to the president of the United States, George W. Bush. My mom shushed me, and I glared back. “We’re going to war!” she snapped. “We’re going to war.”
Although I was young for the most turbulent years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I noticed how deeply those foreign conflicts defined American life. I remember freedom fries, yards bedecked with stars and stripes every inch or two, and lots of debating at school. Even as little kids (usually just parroting the opinions of our parents), we stepped in to defend or attack President Bush’s decisions. As time went on, my memory is of a deep shame across the board, with liberal columnists embarrassed, consigning their role in the lead up to the abyss, and conservative neighbors, demurring; they just plain stopped talking about the whole mess. By my high school years, I remember greeting the events in Tahrir Square with suspicion, not because I knew anything about geopolitics, color revolutions, freedom fighting, or anything really—but just because I felt one thing in my marrow: the US mucks up everything it touches. Be suspicious. Stay out of it.
Admittedly, that was a one-dimensional read on the Arab Spring; my thoughts are more complex now. Nonetheless I’ve spent the last decade assuming most Americans felt the same, at least generally. Even through any number of interventions in places like Libya, Syria, and Yemen, this view held—supplies might, advisably or not, be sent, bombing raids and drone strikes might be undertaken, but we kept most boots off the ground.
News coverage of the supposedly looming conflict at the border between Russia and Ukraine now has me feeling differently: many people seem, at minimum, open to the idea of a traditional war. I don’t think this response has to do with a shift in the way Americans think; rather, I suspect it’s a product of changes in media strategy, that is, how conflicts are sold to us.
The key term in getting people on board has been “justifiability.” In this piece, my goal is to analyze this rhetorical strategy, laying bare how it works, how it limits the bounds of acceptable discourse, and thereby hopes to corner any anti-war voices, forcing an impossible dilemma. The only question, we are told, worth asking is: “would a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine be justifiable?”
The answer, of course, is no. Full-scale, WWII-style blitzkrieg is not justifiable. But it’s also extremely unlikely. The change in force patterns has been going on since April of 2021 (and is part of a military exercise; the troops don’t seem to have moved since then). You’ll notice, however, that it received little mention until December. Ukraine’s President Zelensky himself has said the West is overreacting. And this makes sense: Vladimir Putin is a dictator, but he’s no fool. He hasn’t maintained power for so long through recklessness and mania. The Russo-Georgian War of 2008 was over after five days of fighting. Recent unrest in Kazakhstan ended after Russian troops were deployed to the country, staying only briefly. Even the annexation of Crimea was by nature a limited incursion based on an argument about local self-determination (as in Abkhazia and South Ossetia). We can disagree with that logic if we want, of course. But the point is that even these conflicts show no likelihood of all-out slaughter grounded in nothing but bloodlust for conquest. As Harun Yilmaz described: “A full-scale war in Ukraine does not really fit into how the Kremlin has used hard power in its geopolitical games. The examples of Georgia, Syria, Libya, and (so far) Ukraine, show that it pursues a cost-efficient policy.” Russia, based on its past actions, would not seem to have any aim that requires a WWII-style mass invasion of Ukraine. Period.
The rhetoric of “justifiability,” however, has blinded us to this. It makes a truly realistic foreign policy impossible. So how did we get here? And what sorts of conversations are ruled out by our media’s way of discussing this tense situation?
Whether in conversations with friends or while following coverage of the situation in Eastern Europe, justification always comes up. The Jesuit-run America Magazine, for example, recently published a piece entitled, “Just War Theory and Ukraine: Why Military Action against Russia is Justifiable.” An article in The Washington Post, even while arguing for the need to see Russia as more than just the USSR 2.0, feels the need to begin its conclusion with “whether you think these moves were justified or not.” When I tried to discuss the broader context of the conflict, one interlocutor demurred with “that’s nice, but, at the end of the day, a Russian invasion isn’t justifiable.”
And that’s precisely the power of this word: of course, such an action cannot be justified from our perspective. There is almost no one in the West who would mindlessly applaud Russia eating another sovereign country whole. As a result, basically anyone has to reply: “you’re right; it’s not.” But as we’ve seen such a move is, at minimum, unlikely. What this discourse achieves, then, is little more than foreclosing of the bounds of the conversation. It keeps us narrowly fixated on a tall tale and implicitly primes the minds of millions for a conflict—even if it isn’t exactly this one. The recent histories of both Russia and Ukraine go out the window; worse, their domestic politics, which necessarily play an enormous role in tensions between these countries, are consigned to oblivion. By discussing matters this way, we ignore all the actually relevant considerations in determining whether a war is avoidable, unavoidable, desirable, or undesirable. Worst of all, by allowing ourselves to stoke tensions that are yet but embers, we increase the likelihood of bloodshed; we will an inferno into being. We may as well be mouthing: “war is peace.”
Abstracting from this situation, questions of “justifiability” rarely end up having much to do with whether a war in itself is just. The invasion of Afghanistan was, from what we knew in 2001, “justified.” The September 11th attacks had, after all, just taken thousands of lives and shattered our national psyche. Never mind that the Taliban, hoping to avoid a full-scale war, offered to turn Osama bin Laden over to a third country for trial. We were hurting and felt, somewhat understandably, that the regime responsible for protecting him had to go. Even knowing that, how many people would say the war we ended up fighting was “just” or “good” for the US (let alone Afghanistan)? Afghanistan was already reeling from a decade plus of war in 2001. Now hundreds of thousands are dead, more are displaced, sanitation issues and starvation are rampant. UNICEF claims that extreme malnutrition in children is as high as 9.5%, with rates of stunting in kids at 41%. Reports indicate that we funded and armed groups who have committed “grave human rights abuses.”
The War in Iraq was arguably even worse. In 2003, most Americans believed that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. There were no weapons of mass destruction. But we thought there were! And so, on that pretext, we launched an invasion. It cost taxpayers over $2 trillion, an average of $8000 each. The human costs were even more grievous. Civilians made up over 70% of the 190,000 deaths (as of 2013). The impact of sanctions on children was horrendous, even before the war. A 1997 report describes them as “probably unprecedented in recent history.” US military intervention did not help matters. ISIS has its roots in the post-invasion insurgency of Iraqi Sunnis.
Can we really say that asking if “x is justifiable” out of the gate has any bearing on what becomes of a war, or even if it turns out to have been worth fighting in the long-term? The answer is a resounding “no.” The only reliable guide to whether a conflict requires a diplomatic or a military solution is deep study of the relevant histories, relationships, and actors. With this in mind, I will now turn to just these questions in Eastern Europe and lay out exactly which factors have been left out by our obsession with “justifiability.”
Facts on the Ground: Ukraine
Post-Soviet Ukraine has had trouble achieving economic and political stability. Its GDP remains below 1990 levels (when it was still in the USSR). The country’s liberalization resulted in the rise of a class of oligarchs who ate up newly privatized industries and became unbelievably wealthy in the process. These plutocrats, depending on their economic concerns, have looked either to Russia or the West for their fortunes, drawing in foreign influence and cementing connections with other governments and corporate players. Their money has not been given back to the people of the country, but instead has been used to buy up property in places like the US and to build-up private paramilitaries to protect their interests. As a result, Ukraine’s democracy has long been unstable, if functional, with the country’s Russian-speaking East and Ukrainian-speaking West trading off power and influence throughout the 90s and 00s.
This corruption and see-sawing of national dominance led to protests and uprisings in 2004–5 and, more famously, in 2013–4. The latter of these, better known as Maidan or Euromaidan, resulted in the ouster of the cartoonishly corrupt and Russia-connected president, Victor Yanukovych. We must not, however, merely connect Yanukovych’s gangsterism to his eastward stance. As Eurasia.net’s six-part series on corruption in Ukraine shows, graft and self-enrichment have been de rigueur since Leonid Kravchuk, the country’s first post-independence president. The reign of Ukraine’s Europe-aligned post-Maidan president, Petro Poroshenko, is no exception. Maidan, then, expressed a deep desire for change in the country, but one that has gone unfulfilled by either “side” in the conflict.
Rampant corruption means that most of the nation’s political parties and movements even now are beholden to these oligarchs; this includes the notoriously resurgent far-right, which has (while remaining statistically small) enjoyed outsized influence in post-Maidan Ukraine. These groups, since they have a mobilizing ideology and the support of wealthy backers, have, in some cases, even become parts of the Ukrainian military and made connection with Western Neo-Nazis. Their existence should not surprise us. Ukraine has endured centuries of foreign rule, giving its nationalism a deep sense of embitterment paired with a radical hope. These conditions tend to create radical political movements (since, if you want to be free, you better be willing to fight), whether on the Right or the Left, though in Ukraine’s case the Left’s ties to the USSR have mostly ceded extreme nationalism to the other side. The loss of Crimea certainly did not help in this regard—no one likes losing parts of their country.
Though the government that came to power post-Maidan was West-aligned, it still engaged in behaviors that further split the nation. It placed restrictions on the Russian language (spoken throughout the Eastern part of the country). Top social networks were banned for being Russian. The authorities renamed streets and tore down statues. Celebration of Nazi collaborators (and nationalist heroes) like Stepan Bandera became even more common. Such Ukrainization measures only caused rebels in Donbas to dig their heels in further, solidifying their existing connection to Russia. A country already divided by language, economic stagnation, and war saw divisions deepen.
2019 promised something different. In that year, Volodymyr Zelensky, a total political outsider who played the president on a comedy TV show, acceded to the highest office in Ukraine. Everything about him seemed new—he was Jewish in a country where figures like Bandera had popular support. He had nothing to do with any of the existing oligarchs and, not unlike Donald Trump, represented a familiar face, someone normal people were used to having in their homes (if only on video). He won in a landslide, garnering 73.4% of the vote. His opponent in that election was Petro Poroshenko, the public political face of Maidan. While many factors contributed to Zelensky’s victory, one undeniable boon was his commitment to peace with Russia. Poroshenko’s Ukrainianization policies had not brought the country together. Most Ukrainians simply wanted an end to war and instability. Times had been tough since the fall of the USSR; they deserved, people thought, peace and prosperity.
Zelensky kept this promise of amelioration for some time, even surrounding himself with supposedly pro-Russian figures and canning some pro-Western ones. The New York Times even ran a piece suggesting his enemies thought he would “capitulate” to Russia. This reality held until the turn of 2020–2021, when his rhetoric became more belligerent. While no one knows for sure, his losses in local elections in 2020 (which were especially severe in Ukrainian-controlled parts of the Eastern warzone) may have played a role; certain Western publications and think tanks were certainly prodding him in this direction up to that point. While today Zelensky lambasts Western fearmongering, in April 2021 he had done an about-face from his original position, refusing to take a Crimean war of reconquest off the table. Matters remain uncertain. Zelensky has threatened to arrest ex-president Poroshenko; he did arrest Viktor Medvechuk, a major player in Ukraine who many see as a Russian ally. He’s also sanctioned Russia-aligned media along the way.
That’s where Ukraine finds itself today: an uneasy president in need of a new base of support. Wars sometimes help to cement nationalist spirit in the face of a common enemy. At the same time, Zelensky seems well aware that an all-out invasion is unlikely. In this moment of tension, why increase the chance of conflict?
Facts on the Ground: Russia
The story of post-Soviet Russia is not dissimilar to that of its southwestern neighbor. Shock therapy instituted by the IMF and other Western interests led to a 15% drop in real GDP in 1992, with the following years seeing similarly massive declines. In essence, this approach meant that teams of technocrats oversaw the mass privatization of the socialized Soviet economy, allowing those with power and foreknowledge to buy everything up while people’s savings were being wiped out by hyperinflation. The ’90s saw a decrease in life expectancy, the rise of criminal syndicates (many of which, as in Ukraine, were affiliated with oligarchs), and two wars in a would-be breakaway Chechnya. The man who oversaw this mess, Boris Yeltsin, was a drunk and something of a national embarrassment. But no matter how much the people ailed, the West continued to support him, even backing him up when he bombed his own parliament in 1993. At least 123 died, though many think that number is far too low.
If you’ve ever wondered why Vladimir Putin has remained so popular despite his corruption and authoritarianism, the answer is that he succeeded Yeltsin and reversed this seemingly terminal decline. ’90s Russia was hell and, while Putin rose to power through the existing system (and even owed his position to Yeltsin), he realized that without reinvestment the country was doomed. To this end, he arrested some of the worst offenders and cut a deal with others: they would stay out of politics and pay taxes and he would let them continue to grow rich. The deal sounds pretty bad from the outside, but when the mafia runs your cities and everyone you know is starving, a little bit of cash flowing into the country goes a long way. Since Putin’s early days, Russia’s economy has improved (excepting the 2008 crash).
Putin also brought the Second Chechen War to a close (after some enormous “mistakes” by Yeltsin) guaranteeing Russia’s national integrity. This matters because Russia’s nationalism is a deeply wounded one. Having spent the ’90s crashing and burning after the superpower days of the Soviet Union, Russians were unwilling to give up any territory (in their eyes having already lost so much in the break-up of the USSR). Embarrassed by the West (and especially the US), Russia now looks for opportunities to be a thorn in its side (hence support for separatists in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and Donbas). We promised them not to expand NATO and yet we did (over and over again), a move that as eminent a figure as George Kennan thought a bad idea. Putin has remained in power through all of this, nursing the wounds and grudges (just or unjust) of an offended Russian nationalism. His strategy, both at home and abroad, has been a careful reassertion of power, tailing the erosion of US hegemony (and a concomitant opposition to more post-Soviet NATO members).
The funny thing is, much like his equivalent in Ukraine, Putin saw a massive drop in his approval ratings in 2021. Since his grandstanding on the conflict, his numbers are back up. Does Putin want war, or does he want to win points at home? Is he planning a blitzkrieg or trying to call America’s bluff, pull a stunt, and showcase the strength of his position? President Biden’s slip-up, admitting we would likely not send troops if Russia invaded, seems to suggest he’s testing the waters. Putin, for all his gangsterism and ill-uses of power, has stuck around for so long because he’s a cool-headed strategist, not an ideologue. That’s worth keeping in mind.
21st Century Hegemony
All the above suggests that an invasion is not actually imminent unless we make it so by reducing the issue to a question of “justifiability.” This desire to assert ourselves and prove our mettle has traditionally weakened US unilateral hegemony. Our failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria all testify to how aggression erodes what remains of America’s universal power, allowing countries like Russia and China to increase their influence. This bears mentioning because, in debating this question of “justifiability,” I’ve had a few interlocutors protest: “Sure. Maybe the situation is different than the media describes. But the world would be worse without American hegemony and so we must assert ourselves to protect it.”
I believe that takes way too rosy a view of what US global power has meant for many in the world. The peoples of Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Bangladesh, Angola, and any number of others places would like a word. But even if I were to concede that US global hegemony is intrinsically good, such a perspective remains unhelpful and limited.
This view strikes me as narrow-minded both about the present and the future. In the long-term, hegemony always erodes. The British Empire is no longer the global superpower (nor is Alexander’s empire, for that matter). There is no way to indefinitely maintain unilateral hegemony. The question then is always how to identify what condition that power is in, and, if it’s in decline, which course will best preserve its influence (and, hopefully, do as much good for the people of the world as possible—though it’s a lot to ask states to think in those terms).
And so, we’re left with the short-term: what’s the state of US power? As the failures outlined above show, it’s certainly not where it was in the 1950s. As far back as the ’90s, we had the chance to negotiate our way to a more multilateral world (and buy substantially more good will in the process). We turned that opportunity down and made an enemy of Russia (which, even in purely hard-nosed terms is not good—since the US’s more obvious competitor is China). That’s not even to mention what people repeated throughout my teenage years: “the world is tired of American bombs, of your playing at world police.” Why should we expect this policy of confrontation to have any consequences besides those we’ve seen over the last 25 years? Why not try to make good on whatever goodwill is left? What do we have to gain by clinging to our power so tightly? It’s only going to slip through our fingers.
The War Racket
In 1934, decorated Marine Corps major general Smedley Butler testified before Congress that a cabal of American oligarchs had tried to bring him in on a scheme to turn President Franklin Delano Roosevelt into a figurehead. They asked Butler to come on as a fascist-inspired leader so that they could short-circuit FDR’s “socialistic” New Deal. History has come to know this plan as the “Business Plot.” The experience led Butler to reflect on his lifetime of fighting wars in places like the Philippines, China, Nicaragua, and Mexico. He came to a very simple conclusion: war is a racket.
That’s the name of his short 1935 book, which argues that war exists predominantly to make money for investors, not to settle disputes between states. The text’s whole purpose is best summarized by one of its earliest lines: “[War] is the only one [racket] in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.” For Butler, the key to understanding international relations is that war serves mostly politicians and the already rich, not the everyday people who fight and die while the others rake in the dough.
What better explains sudden interest in a war that everyone from everyday Ukrainians to the president of that very country seem to think is undesirable and even unlikely? The rhetoric of justifiability seems well-honed to do one thing and one thing alone: to help normal folks the world over forget that war means very little gain and immense, truly immeasurable, loss. Its goal is the circumscription of discourse, a hemming in of the possibilities buried in a complicated and difficult history; in effecting this end, it obscures the way in which continued diplomatic negotiation is a better path for Ukraine, Russia, and the US as countries and for their people. Such rhetoric cannot be justified except in those terms. It merits only one response—the final words of Butler’s book—to hell with war!
Featured image: Maidan square in Kyiv, Ukraine in photo by Bert Kaufmann via Flickr.
Chase Padusniak is a doctoral candidate in Princeton University's Department of English, where he specializes in late-medieval mysticism and urban political culture. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.