Reprinted from The Nation by permission of the author.
Ukraine is a country we are just getting to know. What is more important is to hate Russia: an emotion in which Americans have been well trained. Media workers and the experts they interview, one notices, can’t help stumbling occasionally: “the Soviet Union – I mean, Russia.” A history of contempt takes us back to an entity at once exotic and primitive, suspended in time and space.
This Russia hovers between barbarism and modernity, between Asia and Europe, an uncertain profile that has long troubled the Western mind. But the task has now been simplified: Hate Putin, hate “Putin’s Russia,” hate Russia – before, during, and after the fact, and in excess of the facts. And the Russian people? We will come back to them.
The Western moral calculus that ramps up war fever can be detected in a headline like “Fear of Reprisal for Bridge Blast Dims Kyiv’s Joy” (The New York Times, October 10, print edition). You sense it, too, in the teacherly posture of news analysis: “Putin’s Plan to Bomb Kyiv Into Submission? History Says It Won’t Work” (the Times, October 11). Was that, in fact, Putin’s idea? Pretty clearly, he did not decide to bomb Kyiv until Ukraine blew up the bridge connecting Crimea to Russia. The tone of polite journalism on this subject hardly differs from that of the tabloids: “How Moscow Grabs Kids and Makes Them Russians” (ABC News, linked on Drudge Report, October 13).
A recent on-the-ground story by Jeffrey Gettleman in The New York Times conveyed the experiences of a freelance American soldier in Ukraine; the long headline and deck in the print edition brought together the politics and human interest and the necessary ethical judgment: “American Finds in Ukraine the War He Sought: A Morally Clear Effort After Tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.” What is the meaning of the second part of the headline? War is a kind of health, it says, if only we find the right war. But the phrase “moral clarity” has also become a mantra for left-wing activist reporters. It instructs you to know where you are headed before you set out to write. Don’t let a morally clear viewpoint be confused by subtle, complex, and inconvenient facts: Those are the boring middle part of the story, and they can safely be skipped. Clarity is crystallized by silent omissions and an economy of truth. Your choice of adjectives and adverbs, meanwhile, will vouch for your passion.
The media in the US and in other NATO countries have achieved a harmonious moral clarity, and they are skipping the part with the inconvenient facts. “Putin’s Russia” functions as a kind of suture that binds the relevant wartime emotions to a generalized hatred of Russia – Russia past, Russia present, and the Russia to come. An exemption is carved out for courageous Russians who protest openly, or the disaffected ones who have left the country or hope to exit soon. How many does that leave us to hate? Possibly quite a few.
The Gettleman story was filed from Soledar, a town in Donetsk Oblast in eastern Ukraine, 80 miles northwest of Luhansk, where clashes between Russian-leaning inhabitants and the Ukrainian army go back to the ascent of an anti-Russian government in 2014. Yet the story makes a puzzle out of one old woman’s reluctance to obey Ukrainian orders that all non-Russians should evacuate immediately. The solitary woman whom the American soldier and the reporter met on the road may simply have preferred not to follow those orders, not to leave her home (without hope of ever returning), but to gamble on the Russian army sparing it. This was not a Peasant Mystery. It was more like an ordinary calculation.
Why have such perceptual errors become so common? The reason is that they fit into the selective division of allowed facts in the liberal-corporate media. We hear of the anti-war protests in Russia, of the anger toward Putin by generals who want him to be more decisive and among the populace who never wanted the war, and we hear of the new repression and censorship inside Russia. All this is the proper work of a free press. And Ukraine? We seldom hear of the censorship there, of the banning of opposition political parties, of the fact that all men of fighting age are forbidden to leave the country – or of the law that made Ukrainian the mandatory language of public workers, and thereby demoted Russian in Donetsk and Luhansk, which was itself a signal cause of the war. (Try to imagine the effects of prohibiting the Spanish language in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.) We do not hear of the assassination of Ukrainian mayors who were insufficiently hostile to Russia, and mainstream attention has sunk to zero (except here and there, in a subordinate clause) regarding the history and politics of the Azov Battalion.
None of these facts justifies anything that Russia has done. But they are, to repeat, facts, and they should be known by the citizens of a country that is well on the way to committing $100 billion in assistance and weapons to Ukraine for the purpose of prolonging this war. Such facts are part of the present crisis, which honest reporters have a duty to convey. But this means full publicity must also be accorded to facts that are inconvenient for your own position – in this case, your loyal membership in a West for whom the defeat of Russia has become suddenly more important than climate change, nuclear disarmament, the prevention of starvation in Africa, and many other causes that cannot be thought of honestly without a recognition that they stand in some tension with unconditional victory over Russia.
Do the people who call “Putin’s Russia” a totalitarian state affix any answerable meaning to the word “totalitarian”? Russia indeed has a heavy-handed authoritarian government whose censorship and obstruction of dissent have greatly increased since the start of the war. Even so, there have been protests inside Russia; the crowds have not been fired on, and most of the persons involved have not been arrested. The media hosts and the clutch of military, think tank, and academic experts who call Russia totalitarian should see if they can find anything remotely comparable in the annals of Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany. A recent report on NPR told of a Ukrainian family returning to the bombed-out city of Mariupol. They were coming back voluntarily, though they blamed the Russians for the damage. They had decided to leave their safe haven in Warsaw, where permanent refuge was available, because they felt that Mariupol, even when occupied by Russian soldiers, was still their home. How many civilians ever chose to go back to a city occupied by Hitler’s army or Stalin’s?
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February met the definition of an international war of aggression. But it was not unprovoked. Ever since the change of government in 2014 and the subsequent series of military clashes with Russia, Ukraine has subjected the Donbas region to persistent artillery shelling. The current war might have been avoided but for two circumstances: the US refusal to accept Ukraine as an independent nation outside NATO, and the Russian refusal to accept Ukrainian membership in the EU. A chance to resolve the dispute was apparently agreed on, in late March, by Recep Erdogan and Volodymyr Zelensky, with a proposed cease-fire set to open the way for negotiations. The US dispatched then–British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to scuttle the deal and inform Zelensky that a cease-fire was not an option agreeable to the West. Whether or not you classify it as a war crime, the deliberate protraction of the suffering of war is an immoral act. We say we do it because this is what Ukraine wants. But there is no evidence that the Ukrainian people want a long war, just as there is no evidence that the Russian people desired the invasion in February.
The Second World War is the picture that has held us captive. Every tyrant since then has looked like Hitler or Stalin. So every temptation to fight becomes an urgent imperative whose only alternative is appeasement. During the Cold War, the picture seemed to fit real events, but the Cold War ended and still the picture held us captive. The myth of the Second World War corrupted the wits of many clever people during the Vietnam War. Any act of aggression thereafter by a hostile non-Western government, in response to which the US had an ostensible moral justification and an economic or political motive for intervention, flipped the same switch: The year once more was 1938, and diplomacy was Munich. Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin have all been tapped to answer our need for a new Hitler. Or, for that matter, a new Stalin. George Will in a March 2014 column referred to Putin as “Stalin’s spawn.”
Eight years later, in his column on October 7, Will averred that “the behavior of the Russian army in Ukraine demonstrates…a centuries-old continuity: a culture of cruelty.” The reports of atrocities in Bucha are now proof of “Russia’s endemic cruelty” – in short, to be Russian is to be cruel. The diagnosis is medical: “Putin’s Russia has a metabolic urge to export its pathologies.” But consider now the implications of the “metabolic urge.” It resembles what used to be said about the desire by men of the darker races for white women – that, too, was an ingrained and irresistible reflex. Combine the biological tinge of this amateur analysis with the word “endemic” and you are inhabiting a well-known frame of mind: nation-as-race, race-as-virus. There were people in the 1930s who called the Jews a “bacillus.” Hatred is an extraordinary passion.
Let us try and return things to the human scale. Anyone who lived through the 1980s can remember the call to American leaders to overcome the “Vietnam syndrome” – that is, to restore the national self-confidence that enables a great nation to fight its good wars. We were told that this syndrome had been surmounted by the US invasion of Panama and, close on its heels, the Gulf War. Read the grim history of actual Russians in Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time, and you see how inconceivable they must find the idea of war as a healthy restorative. Some 21 million Soviet citizens were killed in World War II, and – though we find the fact hard to acknowledge – the Soviet Union itself was responsible, more than any other country, for the victory over fascism. The journalists and professors who have called Russia a fascist country are playing a poisonous game with words. They get away with it because war is only a distant dream to a great many Americans, and because most Americans now know the Second World War only as a myth.
“I’m trying to figure out,” President Biden said on October 6, “what is Putin’s off-ramp?” A better use of his time might be to determine our own off-ramp, short of the total defeat of Russia on its own border. The US withdrawal from the INF Treaty in 2019 and from the Open Skies Treaty in 2020 must have left Russians wondering how far the US would go in the cause of nonappeasement and reordering the world. Because an all-but-avowed American goal since the second expansion of NATO in 2004 has been to dismantle post-Soviet Russia: a design already achieved in part, which no imaginable Russian leader will permit the US to complete. And what would follow after bringing Russia to its knees, militarily and economically, even if that were possible? The sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines and the Crimea bridge, and now the Russian attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, are sowing such mutual hatred that compromise on either side will soon be as inadmissible as defeat. No one seems to have thought it through.
David Bromwich teaches literature at Yale University. His latest books are American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us (Verso Books), and How Words Make Things Happen (Oxford), both published in 2019.