Monday 13 February 2023

On "Putin's American Cheerleaders"

Critical Thinking skills

I have to preface this post by revisiting "critical thinking skills"--that phrase used by university programs in the humanities and social sciences as a core justification for their existence.  The vast majority of university students graduate from these programs.  In theory,  millions upon millions of university-educated Americans and Canadians can claim an expertise in identifying arguments based on logic and evidence and, conversely, immediately spot logical fallacies:  the ad hominem, the straw man, guilt by association, and rhetorical obfuscation.  

"Putin's American Cheerleaders"

I read Adrian Karatnycky's Wall Street Journal article, "Putin’s American Cheerleaders: How Jeffrey Sachs, Mark Episkopos and Dimitri Simes contribute to the Russian propaganda effort" against the grain, as a string of logical fallacies light on rebuttal evidence.  The headline makes obvious the ad hominem intent to attack the authors rather than their arguments.  

We Are at war

But let's be clear:  we are at war.  The war is being fought by Ukrainians, but it is a war between Russia and the collective West, led by the USA.  The war has caused global precarity, massive destruction and the deaths of thousands.  Beyond the concrete devastation, the war in Ukraine is, above all, a propaganda war.  Arguably, propaganda will determine the outcome of this war.  In this context, we shouldn't be surprised that we are all likened to soldiers on the battlefield, and any deviation from the Western narrative is collaborating with the enemy, if not betrayal and treason. 

And yet . . .

Even if we are all conscripts in the propaganda war should we accept "to do and die" in a nuclear Crimean War without stopping "to reason why"? Is it unreasonable to invoke "thinking skills" in the midst of this war?  No-one knows the whole story of this war.  Even in Kyiv or Moscow or Washington or Berlin or London or Ottawa, even on the battlefield, even with drones and satellites, people know as much and as little as they can see and hear and read.  In a war, especially in a propaganda war like this one, enormous effort is put into controlling what is seen and heard and read. 

The Dominant Western narrative

The dominant Western narrative, primarily in the legacy media, is that escalation is the only acceptable solution to the conflict in Ukraine.  The argument is presented that Russia must be defeated because failure to defeat Russia now will lead to Russian expansionism and greater escalation somewhere down the road.  Overlaying this argument is an appeal to morality.  Russia must be defeated because the invasion and the conduct of the war are immoral, criminal and evil.  Anything less than total Russian defeat would be a victory for evil.    

Does the Western narrative hold up under scrutiny?

Under the microscope of critical reasoning skills,  the arguments for escalation do not hold up well.  Let me quickly insert that this does not mean that they are wrong or untrue.  They are simply unproven, counterfactual, hypothetical, and speculative.  We will inevitably try to imagine what Russia might do after the war, but there is a weakness in trying to be too specific and too certain about what might happen in the distant future.  We can say with fair certainty that a negotiated peace--what the Western narrative qualifies as a Russian victory--would include some sort of autonomy if not outright Russian control of Crimea and the eastern regions of Ukraine; that is, those regions with significant populations of ethnic Russians where President Viktor Yanucovitch, who was overthrown in a bloody coup in 2014, had his strongest democratic support.

The Moral argument

The moral argument for escalating the war is equally weak.  The argument depends on our accepting as axiomatic that the war is between absolute evil and pure goodness.  The goal of propaganda is to promote this vision, but even cursory scrutiny of the context of the war makes this absolutist vision impossible to maintain.  Some 13,000 people were killed in the Donbas region in the aftermath of the bloody coup overthrowing President Yanocovitch in 2014 and before Russia's full-scale invasion in 2022.  Even the US Congress has banned the sale of weapons to Ukraine's Azimov Battalion on the grounds that the battalion openly includes neo-Nazis in its ranks.

Naming and Shaming

I first read "Putin's American Cheerleaders" because it provides a list of a half dozen Americans who question the proxy war between Russia and the West going on in Ukraine--which isn't generally easy to come by.  The article is a telling example of widespread, ham-fisted attempts to discredit, shame and silence anyone who dares to question the war. Articles of this ilk are emotionally evocative and are based on an underlying presumption of moral superiority shared by writer and reader.  The vocabulary is emotionally charged but logical consideration of risks and outcomes is avoided.  For potential outcomes, the war in Ukraine should be compared to other recent wars spearheaded by the USA--Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Vietnam and Korea--but these are comparisons which the dominant narrative tends to avoid.

Guilt by Association

While Mr. Karatnycky concedes that "experts are free to challenge the pro-Ukraine views held by the vast majority of Americans," he decries the fact that these American experts have appeared on a Russian program hosted by Vladimir Solovyov, whom he describes as a Russian propagandist. Karatnycky has more to say about Solovyov than about the "American cheerleaders."  The Americans' failure is guilt by association with Solovyov.  According to Karatnycky, what Jeffrey Sachs said on Russian media was

that a “massive number” of Americans “wish to exit the conflict in Ukraine,” condemned the U.S. administration for “disinformation,” and called President Volodymyr Zelensky’s conditions for peace “absolute nonsense.”

None of these claims about American attitudes are obvious errors of fact.  Zelensky's conditions for peace go beyond total Russian defeat and surrender.  They sound a lot like the "conditions" imposed upon Germany after the First World War. The Washington Post has reported that the Biden administration has been asking Zelensky to dial down his "conditions for peace." 

Framing the War as exclusively between Russia and Ukraine

Karatnycky's awkward--and therefore revealing--attempts to frame the war as between Ukraine and Russia leaving the USA and even NATO out of the equation is typical of the dominant narrative.  People who dare to suggest a negotiated peace are not identified as critics of the war but "Ukraine critics." Americans who endorse escalation of the war are identified as "pro-Ukrainian."

NATO Expansion isn't a threat!  Really!?

Jeffrey Sachs is characterized as a "Putin cheerleader" because, as with a number of other "foreign policy realists," he "has long argued that the West provoked Russia into invading Ukraine in 2014 by virtue of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 'threatening' expansion toward Russia."  Karatnycky's quotation marks around the word "threatening" are intended to display a tone of sarcasm.  Still, no matter what your politics, how can anyone look at the ongoing expansion of NATO to Russia's borders and logically conclude that the expansion of an inimical military alliance to a nation's very borders is not "threatening"?

What Jeffrey Sachs said . . .

Furthermore, beyond the threatening posture of NATO, as Sachs points out in an interview on Democracy Now, [ . . .] the United States, very unwisely and very provocatively, contributed to the overthrow of Mr. Yanukovych in early 2014, setting in motion the tragedy before our eyes."  

What Cannot be said:  Ukraine is ethnically divided between east and west

One argument which shaming the authors is designed to preclude is that Ukraine is ethnically divided.  As Sacks elaborates:

The "Minsk Accords" must also be denied

The resulting Minsk Accords, as we have seen, are quashed and denied in pro-war editorials, even when the narrative requires contradicting its own sources.  Sachs argues:

What happened — and this is crucial to understand — is that, in 2015, there were agreements to solve this problem by giving autonomy to these eastern regions that were predominantly ethnic Russian. And these are called the Minsk agreements, Minsk I and Minsk II.

John Bolton was in Ukraine in 2019 and reports that Volodymyr Zelensky, who was elected promising to end Ukrainian corruption and make peace with the eastern regions,  "was determined to get the Donbas back as soon as possible and end the war within the Minsk agreements" (457 The Room Where It Happened).  However in the intervening years there has been consistent repudiation and denial of the Minsk Accords in Western and Ukrainian media.  It is as if they never existed.

The Zeitgeist:  Preparing for the historical dialectic

Karatnycky claims that "Most U.S. guests on Russian media come from the fringe."  He names Virginia State Sen. Richard Black and former United States Marine Corps intelligence officer, former United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) weapons inspector Scott Ritter.  However, the first name on his list of "Putin's American Cheerleaders" is Tulsi Gabbard, a former American Congresswoman and candidate in the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primaries.  In her interviews, she has a very simple and clear message:  "The world has never been closer to a nuclear war."

The rule of the historical dialectic is that the Zeitgeist will change over time and the dominant thesis of the age will give way to its antithesis.  If the rule of the dialectic holds in this case, those "fringe" arguments against escalation, which are everywhere on social media in blogs and vlogs and interviews but nowhere in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, or Globe and Mail, may soon become the dominant Western narrative.


  1. some of my friends are shy about posting online so I am posting this email message as Anonymous: I read your blog with interest. Feel free to post my comments.
    Just a few points of reaction. As with any war, the threads leading to the outbreak are often murky and complex. Also, in western democracies, despite coverups, conspiracies, and difficulties ascertaining the truth, we generally tolerate dissenting voices, be some of them ever so silly (Fox’s Tucker Carlson).
    Personally, have always believed that Crimea will be a bargaining chip in any negotiation for peace. For example, if not and outright transfer, it may be possible to have an internationally supervised referendum. However, given that propaganda has always been an important part of war, Ukraine and the West would be fools to lay that card on the table right now, not to mention the morale effects on Ukrainian fighters.
    Russia attack all of Ukraine, a sovereign country, and is escalating rather than calling any kind of cease fire to talk peace. I tend to think that countries (Finland, Sweden) that have asked for speeded applications to join NATO were worried about a threat to them from Putin. I believe Moldova would currently agree!
    Finally, I have to say, that of the wars in my adult lifetime, I have the least problem justifying Ukraine’s defense against Putin’s attack. I refer to it as Putin’s war because with 15 year sentences for any dissent I’m not at all sure that the majority of Russians support it. Do I worry about the consequences? YES. Proxy wars between nuclear opponents are right up there on my existential spectrum. I find myself hoping for a regime change in Russia as I read about the escalations on both sides….

  2. This is a war - not a "propaganda war". Of course there will be propaganda on both sides, and of course neither side will talk about anything but absolute victory (to do otherwise would give the opposing side a leg up on negotiations), however, to frame it as a propaganda war minimizes the bare-faced fact that it is "war", plain and simple. If it was war here in Canada, we wouldn't be framing it as a "propaganda war", and would bristle at a faraway land minimizing it as a propaganda war; it's easy for us to say...
    NATO is not a "threat" to Russia - does anyone honestly believe that Norway and Finland wish to join NATO in order to invade Russia? The reason countries adjacent to Russia wish to join NATO isn't complicated; they are afraid of Russia's imperialistic nature, especially under the current regime.

  3. The war in Ukraine is a war which "has caused global precarity, massive destruction and the deaths of thousands." In the West and even in Russia, so far, it is a propaganda war. I don't minimize the war in Ukraine, but I do think that those who repudiate a negotiated peace and the Minsk Accords, and insist upon escalation do minimize the devastation in Ukraine. Those governments which are encouraging continued fighting, notably the US, still refuse to give Ukraine the weapons--long-range missiles and jet fighters--which would allow the Ukrainians to fight beyond their own borders. It is criminal that Russian missiles are landing on civilian targets, but no-one in the West seems to take notice of the fact that Western-supplied missiles from west Ukraine must also be killing Ukrainian civilians in the east. Invoking Norway and Finland joining NATO has to be a joke. It is well understood that for the Russian state, Ukraine is existential. Western commentators love to insist that the war started in February 2022, but I think it is obvious it started in 2014 when the USA showed its support for a bloody coup against the democratically-elected President of Ukraine. How could such a US-supported coup not appear threatening? When the people of Ukraine have been allowed to have a "normal" election they have shown democratic support for a Russian-speaking president who could unite east and west Ukraine--Yanucovytch in 2010 and Zelensky in 2019--but the combination of right-wing Ukrainian nationalists and US support keeps overturning the democratic will of the Ukrainian people and replacing it with propaganda.

  4. The RAND Corporation have been advising the Pentagon since 1948. I'm referencing two of their papers both available on Overextending and Unbalancing Russia is a brief from 2019 and a link to the full report is in the first paragraph. It outline various strategies to overextend Russia and thereby reduce their ability to make war (and possibly a regime change). Some key approaches were increasing oil and gas production enough to drive down prices, and increasing sanctions. The failure of the first is self evident and sanctions were largely ignored by everyone except the US.
    The second paper titled Avoiding a Long War and is from January, 2023. It concedes that the most likely scenario is where neither side achieves total victory and that it's in the US's best interest facilitate a negotiated settlement, largely to free up its military to be ready for possible action with China. I think actions are already underway towards this goal.
    Unfortunately Mr. Zelensky, may now be considered an impediment to swiftly negotiating an end to the conflict. He's been increasingly isolated since last fall. His interior minister and staff were killed in an accident. His minister of propaganda (an ethnic Russian and one of his closest aides) was dismissed, and subsequently denounced him. The anti-corruption purge has removed a number of high ranking ministers and aides, even reaching his defense minister.

    So, to make a few realpolitik predictions. You will soon see more news stories about Ukrainian corruption, forced recruitment, civilian torture, casualty rates, etc. in order to take the shine off the conflict and Zelensky. The US will push for a negotiated settlement that will not include the return of Crimea or Donbas to Ukraine control. NATO membership will not be forthcoming.

  5. Fascinating. I've just finished reading the document you referenced: "Avoiding a Long War: U.S. Policy and the Trajectory of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict." It is the most pragmatic, clear-headed analysis of the war and how it might/should end that I have read. The authors are straightforward that their perspective is what is best for US interests and that Ukraine's interests and those of the USA may overlap but are not the same. In this analysis, what is best for the USA is also what is best for the common good; most notably, avoiding nuclear war and a war between Russia and NATO. Thank you for the source and comment.

  6. Hmm. Signs the shift is happening. From today's Wall Street Journal:

    Opponents say Mr. Zelensky’s grip on the media has
    a whiff of authoritarianism. Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhniy, the
    popular chief of Ukraine’s armed forces and a potential
    political rival to Mr. Zelensky, needs the president’s signoff
    for media interviews but rarely gets it, according to people fa-miliar with the matter.


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