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 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 the ad hominem intent to attack the authors rather than their arguments obvious.
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?
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:
Ukraine itself is ethnically divided. On the western part, it’s ethnically Ukrainian, but complicated there, too. But on the east, which is the Donbas, Luhansk and Donetsk, the two regions that are the center of this war, these are predominantly Russian, ethnic Russian, Russian-speaking, Russian Orthodox, and, after Yanukovych’s overthrow, the place where paramilitaries demanded independence of these regions or joining Russia.
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 dialecticKaratnycky 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.