Showing posts with label war in Ukraine. Show all posts
Showing posts with label war in Ukraine. Show all posts

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.

Wednesday 8 February 2023

Is the War in Ukraine about Democracy?

The number of articles, essays and editorials on the war in Ukraine is overwhelming.  They also tend to be quite tedious because the vocabulary--the word choice and adjectives--invariably announces in advance what the authors are going to say.  Any fact can be spun in one direction or another to fit an established narrative.  Is it possible to say anything about this war without surrendering to spin?  I have decided that on this subject less is more.  My ambition is to present a few facts and let you, dear reader, decide what conclusions or interpretations should be derived from those facts.  Hmmm, already I'm being disingenuous.  I'm choosing the facts, so my choice of facts already implies a particular interpretation or conclusion.  Let me try again.

It is a common claim that the war in Ukraine is being fought to preserve democracy both in Ukraine and, in some accounts, more widely in Europe and the Western world.  In his State of the Union this week, President Biden called the war in Ukraine "the defense of democracy." I have come across a number of agreed-upon facts that may not contradict this claim but should at least invite us to consider the question.  These are uncontested facts.  They may be avoided or re-spun or buried beneath a mountain of verbiage, but no-one is denying that they are true.

1.  Viktor Yanucovitch was elected President of Ukraine for a five-year term in 2010.  The election was overseen by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR).   According to the organization's final report:   "The presidential election met most OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections [ . . . .] The process was transparent and offered voters a genuine choice between candidates representing diverse political views."

2.  In 2013, President Yanucovitch pursued a trade agreement with the EU but pulled out of the negotiations before it was signed.

3.  Demonstrations began in Maidan Square in reaction to the news that the trade agreement would not be signed.  Demonstrations continued for months and eventually became violent.  Over 100 people were killed.  President Yanucovitch fled the country in February 2014 for exile in Russia.

4.  In February 2014, Russian forces seized control of Crimea.  

5.  In May 2014, Petro Poroshenco was elected President of Ukraine and signed the EU trade agreement June 2014.

6.  In 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky was elected President of Ukraine, winning 73.22% of the vote over the incumbent Poroshenco with 24.45% of the vote.  Later Poroshenco had to flee the country accused of corruption and treason.

7.  In February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

In this selection of facts, I have dutifully avoided any claim which might be contested.  Recently I came upon this web site which offers a breakdown of election results in Ukraine.

Here is a breakdown of the 2010 election results in which Victor Yanucovitch won the presidency.  I invite you to consider the names of the areas where Yanucovitch had the greatest support.  If you have been following the news on the war in Ukraine, I invite you to compare the sites where battles are being waged with the areas where Yanucovitch had his strongest democratic support.

 Note, for example, these particular regions where Yanucovitch had strong democratic support and battles are now being waged.

Crimea:           78.24%

Donetsk:           90.44%

Luhansk:           88.96%

Kherson:          59.98% 

Odessa:            74.14%

Zaporizhzhia:    71.50%

 Yanucovitch's opponent in the presidential run-off, Yulia Tymoshenko of the All-Ukrainian Union – Motherland Party, challenged the results but her complaints were eventually withdrawn. The OSCE/ODIHR report noted that "During both rounds, Ms. Tymoshenko misused administrative resources for campaigning, thus blurring the line between her roles as candidate and state official and skewing the playing field in her favour."  The report also points out that

In the most recent census, 67.5 per cent of the population declared Ukrainian as their mother tongue, while 29.6 per cent named Russian. As official voter information and election material was available only in Ukrainian, an insufficient command of Ukrainian may have formed an obstacle for minority voters to gain full access to election related information.

Nonetheless, Viktor Yanucovitch of the Party of Regions eventually won the democratic vote, and held office until he was overthrown in 2014 and the war began.

Ironically, in his White House memoir, John Bolton claims that "The State Department didn't want me to meet with Tymoshenko separately because they thought she was too close to Russia [. . . .]" (448 The Room Where It Happened).





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