Welcome to the latest Rebel Wisdom newsletter on the topic of the Russia/Ukraine conflict. This is such a vast and consequential topic, that it is difficult to find the right level of analysis. In this newsletter I've pulled together some of the best writing and commentary that I have found, with links to follow and explore, and added my own impressions from my time as a foreign affairs journalist.
This is such a huge sensemaking challenge because with a situation this complex many seemingly contradictory perspectives have elements of truth. Commentators are running out of world-historical adjectives to apply to the situation, for obvious reasons, as the implications for the world are vast and unpredictable.
The level of analysis I’ve settled on for our latest video piece are the deep mythological and religious dimensions of this conflict, with a conversation with Gary Lachman, the author of ‘The Return of Holy Russia: Apocalyptic History, Mystical Awakening and the Struggle for the Soul of the World’. He talked through the way that Putin has increasingly tapped into Russia’s deep past and framed himself increasingly as something like a religious leader.
As the meme goes, everyone who considered themselves an expert in Covid last week is now suddenly an expert in geopolitics. Using Dave Snowden’s Cynefin model, which divides situations into four categories (Simple/Complicated/Complex/Chaotic) the conflict in Ukraine is a ‘complex’ one. This means it’s deeply entangled and interrelated, so we need to avoid collapsing our sensemaking down to any singular explanation, no matter how tempting or persuasive.
Any 'explanation' of what is going on that relies on a single factor, is by definition wrong, whether that's "Putin's crazy" or "the West is really to blame" or "it's actually all about resources". These explanations terminate thought and understanding, into a place where we're then largely looking for evidence to support our pre-existing position rather than exploring and increasing our understanding and capacity.
This newsletter is my attempt to outline the most important factors to understand what's going on at the moment and link to others who have explained better than I can.
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Also, things are changing fast. Even in the day I have been writing this things have turned significantly on the ground. Yesterday the smart take was that Russia's invasion was struggling, and that Putin had likely miscalculated. This may still be true, but the story today is of Russia ramping up the attack, and a forty-mile long Russian military convoy slowly but inexorably making its way to Kyiv.
On this topic more than many others I may have reason to consider myself well informed. I've worked as a foreign producer for many years with Channel 4 News, which is generally regarded as having some of the best international news coverage in the world (including multiple International Emmy awards). I've also made a couple of documentaries in Russia, including one for Unreported World (also an International Emmy award-winning strand) called 'Russia's Radical Chic' on the nascent opposition to Putin in 2012, led by a reality TV star who was also Putin’s god-daughter.
I know a fair amount about international affairs, it was my job for years and a keen interest long before that. And yet the more I know about it, the more I realise how much more there is to know, and how many more informed people there are out there. Using the Dunning Kruger graph to map our progress, the ultimate destination when understanding any kind of complex system is something like "it's complicated/contextual" and that there is always more to learn.
Unfortunately the nature of social media is that the deceptive certainty and clarity of the view from Mount Stupid tends to cut through and be rewarded, while the inevitable context and caveats of the "it's complicated" don't go viral.
The other tendency is to frame everything through our pre-existing lenses and obsessions. Christopher Snowden had a fantastic thread on this, collating together facile takes blaming the Ukraine conflict on single causes from Brexit, to trans rights to 'toxic masculinity' and white privilege.
The Big Picture
The biggest picture is well articulated in the most recent newsletter from N. S. Lyons called ‘Ukraine and the End of Dreams’, situating the conflict in the ongoing failure of the naive liberalism of the 20th century, and how the shock of the invasion is itself a sign of the lack of imagination of an entire political class who thought that trade and commerce would make such events impossible.
"I’m struck, for my part, by the uniformity of the language we’ve seen used by much of the Western world’s blurry-eyed and slack-jawed commentariat to describe their feelings these last few days. By the nearly identical incredulity that something is now happening which is not meant to happen, that the world is not functioning as it’s supposed to function.
Watching as so many stumble around in a daze, as if having just been awakened momentarily from a deep slumber, I can’t help but recall the neoconservative Robert Kagan’s 2009 book, The Return of History and the End of Dreams. I don’t think it was a great book, frankly, but I do love the title. Because for at least three decades now the Western world has been living in a dream.
This was the dream of global liberalism, made dream-able by the momentary advent of unipolar American hyperpower in the wake of the last Cold War. For years since that moment every bump and jolt that threatened to jostle the sleepwalking Western world out of this dream, from America’s disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the rise of China, seems to have provoked only a little tossing and turning between snores.
But now it seems Vladimir Putin may have succeeded at last. Startled awake by another major war in Europe, the liberal establishment may have, just maybe, now sat up and realized they’ve been under the spell of the “Great Delusion” – as the indefatigably realist scholar John Mearsheimer has memorably dubbed it – this whole time. And that in the 21st century the world is pretty much the same as it ever was in any other century."
The New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman is the (often lampooned) apogee of this "naive liberalism" worldview. He famously posited the "Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention" where he said that "when a country has reached an economic development where it has a middle class strong enough to support a McDonald's network, it would ... not be interested in fighting wars anymore."
The idea was that economic integration would make fighting wars too damaging, but what the Ukraine conflict is showing that the opposite is also true, that economic integration can make it more difficult to take meaningful action against an aggressor. Sanctions hurt the target, but they also hurt the country imposing them. The economic entanglements with Russia, and in particular the European reliance on Russian gas brings the question of how much economic pain are Europeans themselves willing to endure on behalf of Ukraine, and how much are governments willing to risk electoral pain themselves by imposing actions that impact domestically.
The unspoken assumption behind Friedman's argument was that democracy was the only system of government that could succeed economically, and so any government that went to war and caused huge economic pain for their electorate would face consequences at the next election. This was the famous "end of history" argument made by Francis Fukuyama. But since Russia, and to an even greater degree China, have proven that economic strength can be achieved with authoritarian government, this gives them much more leeway to throw their weight around militarily.
While Lyons' argument has a degree of truth to it, I believe it may also be an oversimplification. These ‘realist’ arguments have a lot of narrative force, a sense of unpalatable truth revealed. Great power politics has indeed returned, if it ever went away, but it's far from clear if that's all that is going on here. We will discover this over the next weeks and months, but it may well be that the shock felt by western commentators was not only due to a lack of imagination, but also by a clear eyed appreciation of the difficulty of the task that Putin has taken on. Simply put, that Putin has become so convinced by his grandiose plan to restore the Russian empire, and so convinced himself of Ukraine's lack of a right to exist, that he has made a gigantic error of judgement.
As things stand on Tuesday, Russia still holds most of the cards, with their huge convoy heading towards Kyiv, but it does look like their initial hopes of a quick and easy victory were misplaced. Many Russia experts did not expect an invasion as they thought Putin did not have the manpower to secure Ukraine. It seems to be an open question as to whether he has miscalculated, and whether his conviction that Ukraine was a fundamentally illegitimate entity has led him to assume that they would not put up much of a fight.
In Unherd, Edward Luttwak argues that Putin Has Overplayed His Hand.
“The Ukrainian army did not run away, it did not surrender, it did not abandon its weapons to walk home, and neither was it quickly outmanoeuvred by the much better-funded Russian army, which has had the fuel, ammo, and replacement parts for much more intensive training than the badly underfunded Ukrainians. It turns out that motivation beats even training…
Day after day, Kharkov and Kyiv not only held out but were not even attacked, except by a few missiles, more terrifying than destructive.
That is when Putin’s timetable and entire war plan fell apart.”
Ben Judah, a senior fellow of the Atlantic Council and author of the brilliant 'This is London', addressed this potential overconfidence in his article for Slate, 'The Terrible Truth So Many Experts Missed About Russia', where he describes how Putin has become all-powerful and almost totally isolated.
"This was not just a shock on American political Twitter. It was a shock to many of the leading experts and policymakers in the United States, Europe, and even Ukraine. The head of German intelligence was so caught off guard that he was still in Kyiv and had to be evacuated.
But nowhere did the shock feel more profound than among foreign policy analysts in Russia, where overwhelming consensus, until that very moment, had been that Putin would never launch such a war.
The phrase—“the Putin regime”—which has been stuck to all discussions of Russian politics now for almost 20 years, in some ways itself helps explain why so many people who believed they understood the country turned out to be so wrong about the Ukraine conflict. It has become clear that what exists inside the Kremlin is no longer a “regime” at all—a system of government where multiple figures can affect and feed into decision-making, from security chiefs to billionaires—as many believed.
Instead, it has transformed into what political scientists call a personalist dictatorship, where the whims of one man, and one man only, determine policy, a fact that has terrifying implications for Russia and the world."
The Conventional View
The best single article from the more 'conventional' perspective I have yet read on the conflict is an interview in Politico with Fiona Hill, a Russia advisor who has worked with both Democrat and Republican administrations. It's a nuanced and learned take on the dynamics at play, how we got here and also some of the western missteps that have emboldened Putin.
“Ukraine has become the front line in a struggle, not just between democracies and autocracies but in a struggle for maintaining a rules-based system in which the things that countries want are not taken by force,” Hill said. “Every country in the world should be paying close attention to this.”
There’s lots of danger ahead, she warned. Putin is increasingly operating emotionally and likely to use all the weapons at his disposal, including nuclear ones. It’s important not to have any illusions — but equally important not to lose hope.
“Every time you think, ’No, he wouldn’t, would he?’ Well, yes, he would,” Hill said. “And he wants us to know that, of course. It’s not that we should be intimidated and scared…. We have to prepare for those contingencies and figure out what is it that we’re going to do to head them off.”
In some ways I have a fairly conventional take on Russia during this conflict, in that it's clear that the primary driving force is Putin's obsession with reinstating the Russian empire and that in his own words, he doesn't see Ukraine as a real country. We can argue about whether there is any nuance or lessons to be learned from the west's tactics and treatment of Russia, and there are valid perspectives that I will return to later in this essay, but this is a situation with some pretty clear ethical and moral dimensions. In other ways I occupy one of the loneliest and most unpopular places on the map in foreign policy terms, as a former liberal interventionist, which I will explore in a later newsletter.
Returning to the view expressed by Lyons, and expressed persuasively in varying ways by "post-liberal" thinkers such as Mary Harrington and other writers in places like Unherd, that the liberal project is over, there are others who argue that Putin's aggression may actually be bringing it back to life. American strategist Richard Fontaine outlined some of the geopolitical shifts that had taken place already since the invasion in this fascinating Twitter thread.
The world’s major economies, save China, have combined to foment a financial crisis in Russia, casting aside the previous worries about systemic economic risk. That, in turn, may provoke domestic unrest with unknown implications.
Germany has moved from a pacifist laggard on defense spending to announcing a huge increase, moving ahead of 2% of GDP. “We must put a stop to warmongers like Putin,” the new Chancellor says. “That requires strength of our own.” A new Germany.
Finland and Sweden are firmly aligned with the West and against Moscow, and the invasion may tip them into NATO membership.
Neutral Switzerland – Switzerland! – will freeze Russian assets as a result of Moscow’s aggression. Full neutrality has become untenable given popular revulsion at the invasion.
The sanctions response has been global, with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore and more joining the anti-aggression bloc. Economic and geopolitical implications stretch well beyond Europe.
China is badly exposed, having trumpeted a “no limits” friendship with Russia. It is openly siding not with the numerous wealthy, powerful, and unified countries opposing Moscow’s aggression, but rather with a reckless country that is being isolated and impoverished.
The European Union, which for two decades has talked about taking on a military role, with very little to show for it, is suddenly providing EU-funded fighter jets to Ukraine. Crossing a Rubicon.
The world is disconnecting Russia from globalization’s benefits: trade, travel, finance, technology, & drawing a curtain around the country. The result will be a poorer, more isolated & weaker Russia. A bet on diminishing Russian capability rather than changing its behavior.
All this and more over a long weekend. We don’t know how this war ends, other than in tragedy for all those caught in its grasp. But already some geopolitical outlines are coming into focus. There will be more to come.
A counterpoint to that argument also appears in Unherd from war correspondent Aris Roussinos, where he argues that the odds are stacked firmly in Russia’s favour and the Ukrainian successes so far are likely because the Russian military has been deliberately light to minimise casualties.
“If there was any Russian ambition to shatter Ukrainian morale in the war’s opening hours, that gambit has failed. Yet Russia has, at the time of writing, deployed less than half of its forces assembled at Ukraine’s borders. It is still too early to make confident pronouncements about the war’s final outcome: we are still in its opening phase, and the real battle for Kyiv has not yet begun.”
This is not to say that any of these takes is correct, but to say that things are genuinely in flux. We don’t yet know how things will play out.
On the ground in Ukraine
There is some excellent reporting from on the ground in Ukraine
Maxim Eristavi: a Ukrainian-born Eastern European journalist, storyteller, and public speaker, whose work explores the intersection of identity politics, disinformation, and Russian colonialism.
The Kiev Independent for real-time news developments on the conflict.
The excellent ‘slow news’ service Tortoise has started a clever new project collecting Voicemails from Ukraine on its website.
“I can’t eat. I can’t drink, because I literally do not feel exhaustion. I do not feel hunger. I don’t feel thirst. I’m shaking all the time and I’m working all the time… It’s so strange. I’m a scholar. I analyse literature. I translate. I’m such a peaceful person, and right now I am asking the whole world to give us more weapons.” Mariia
Samo Burja - past guest on the channel and the founder of Bismarck Analysis - gives his take on Russia’s serious strategic advantage: its mastery and dominance of on-the-ground and land-based warfare.
In contrast, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kamil Galeev argues that Russian defeat is probable. We overrate the Russian army, underrate the Ukrainian one, and misunderstand Russian strategy & political goals, he argues, pointing to the role of status games in Russia’s military-industrial complex in sustaining chronic structural problems.
Viewing the conflict (as most journalists do now) through the lens of Twitter, a strong feeling is that on a topic as vast as this, expertise really does matter. Many of the contrarian and heterodox voices with their single minded focus on small parts of the information landscape, reactive rejection of anything that seems like a 'conventional narrative' and desire to opine on all subjects, have made fools of themselves.
In the immediate aftermath of the invasion last Thursday, from my perspective at least, there was a moment of narrative unity in opposition to the Russian invasion, and a moment of silence from the usual sources of anti-western sentiment. This was partly because many of those usual suspects had spent the previous weeks pouring scorn on the idea that there would be an invasion and blaming western media and governments for irresponsibly hyping talk of war.
Shortly after the start of the invasion Matt Taibbi (who to be fair is usually one of the most well researched and interesting critical voices), published an apology for missing the story and over-focusing on the west, having spent the previous weeks pouring scorn on the Biden administration for claiming Putin would invade.
"Part of news and even commentary is admitting mistakes, and though I always made sure when discussing the subject to note Vladimir Putin could still invade Ukraine, I have to admit, I didn’t see this happening. My mistake was more like reverse chauvinism, being so fixated on Western misbehavior that I didn’t bother to take this possibility seriously enough. To readers who trust me not to make those misjudgments, I’m sorry. Obviously, Putin’s invasion will have horrific consequences for years to come and massively destabilize the world."
Konstantin Kisin of Triggernometry has also been vocal during this conflict. An ethnic Russian with family in Ukraine, he has been very unhappy at the contrarian takes and loud in rejection of those who try to create a moral equivalence between Russia and the west. He argues that the west's values "are simply better" and that we should be less reticent about enforcing them.
As has the writer Daniel Pinchbeck, going as far as to call out his friend Russell Brand for what he sees as unacceptable relativism in his coverage of the conflict in his newsletter ‘From Russia With Hate’.
“I am surprised by the failure of a number of popular alternative journalists/public intellectuals, ostensibly on the “Left” (a term in transition), to condemn this reprehensible invasion and to reckon with what it represents. I can understand how and why these public intellectuals — including Glenn Greenwald and Russell Brand — tend to promote relativism. They focus on the historic flaws and military aggressions of the US and NATO as roughly equivalent to Putin’s aggression. I understand why they suspect an underlying drive — on the part of America and its allies — to seek more conflict in order to fuel the military-industrial complex and enhance its corporate profits. However I think their analysis is critically flawed. I am concerned they will lead their followers into deeper confusion, thus making it more difficult for us to understand what is happening and respond effectively.
Brand proclaims there are no “goodies and baddies” among the government leaders involved in this crisis, but only “baddies and baddies.” Greenwald expresses a similar viewpoint. I think they have gotten themselves trapped in a regressive logic that isn’t letting them see this situation clearly. We can be furious at US, UK, and West European governments for their many corruptions, deceptions, blood-drenched invasions, and coup d’etats over many decades. This is reasonable. But the unfortunate, inconvenient reality is that we have entered a larger struggle for the future of humanity. I believe this requires breaking free from the consolation of relativism.
There is an inescapable moral reality that must be addressed. Sometimes one has to take sides. Once again, as in the Twentieth century, the global struggle is between dictatorship and Democracy. Democracy is flawed, imperfect, disappointing, often corrupt, and fragile. But Dictatorship is far worse.
There may not be “goodies and baddies,” but there are still degrees of “badness and worse-ness.” Those degrees are particularly important now, in an age of asymmetric information warfare and exponential technology (including military technology). The West is bad in certain respects, but Russia under the dictatorship of Putin is much worse — in fact terrible — and very dangerous for the future of the world, particularly in alliance with Chinese totalitarianism.”
Both Kisin and Pinchbeck deserve praise for this, given that both are making an argument that will go down badly with their core audiences.
However, nature abhors a vacuum, and it is only a matter of time before the contrarian narrative re-establishes itself.
The Integral Perspective
Using the Integral philosophy, spiral dynamics map that we've found useful at Rebel Wisdom, Putin is animated by a 'red' level of development, based on power and 'might makes right'. The west is largely 'green' or postmodern/relativistic. Putin has rightly recognised that this makes the west divided and fragmented. One of the drawbacks of the Green worldview is that being relativistic, baked into it is an instruction to try to understand the world from others' perspectives, and this can be a fatal flaw when faced by a perspective that is simply indefensible. You only have read Putin's own words to understand that his perspective is that Ukraine and the other independent former Soviet states have no right to exist, and that he sees himself as a world-historical figure who can restore the Russian empire. It's unclear how much Putin's worldview is even shared by other Russians, who are braving arrest and worse to come out in large numbers to oppose the invasion.
The flipside of the relativism, and the saving grace of the Green worldview is that it HATES oppression of any kind. Even though it is radically relativistic, it believes absolutely in the right of individuals to create their own identities and to live their own lives. Seeing the pictures from Ukraine and hearing the voices of Ukrainians who do not want to live under Russian occupation is a clarifying moment for a Green worldview.
It is a warped perspective in the west that bends over backwards to try to give Putin the benefit of the doubt rather than offer solidarity with the Russian protesters who are risking everything to come out, claim their right to have their voices heard and oppose Putin's regime.
The strongest argument that the west bears a great deal of blame for the conflict has been made in the viral video from 2015 by the ‘realist’ American political scientist John Mearsheimer, who argues that the west overpromised to Ukraine and gave it a false sense of security that they would come to its aid.
This is a coherent view that has clear elements of truth to it. However accepting it means accepting that Russia has the right to impose its will on Ukraine and its other neighbours. This may indeed be unavoidable given Russia's nuclear arsenal and the fragmentation of the West, but it should be acknowledged that it's a position with its own moral compromises.
Wokeness to blame?
Another explanation that has been quick to surface is that the west has been weakened by "wokeness", with a focus on luxury beliefs and an obsession with identity politics and pronouns.
While I think there is some value to the perspective that the identity politics worldview that sees the west as essentially just about power and privilege and therefore not worth defending has some truth, the focus on wokeness as a causative explanation seems dangerous to me. Partly because it echoes and validates Putin's own messaging, which sees the west as decadent and immoral. Putin's view is not based on the recent excesses of woke culture or the recent conflict over trans activism, but is based on a more fundamental objection to subjects like gay rights being about immorality and degradation.
It's not just "pronouns in bio" that Putin and the Russian traditionalists are objecting to, are even the most fervent anti-woke warriors in the west going to argue that we need to turn back the clock on the acceptability of homosexuality?
To complete the thought, it's not just wokeness that is causing the division in western cultures, it's also the backlash to it and the culture war that is raging between the two sides over it, which is why we need to look for a synthesis position rather than seeing it as a zero sum game. As Cathy Young, no defender of identity politics, outlines in her recent article in Arc Digital:
"The view of the liberal West as decadent, weak, and riven by profound divisions was common in authoritarian and totalitarian societies (including Soviet Russia) long before the current brand of “wokeness” existed. Among those whose worldview boils down to “respect strength and despise weakness,” even liberal (as opposed to “woke”) versions of equality, diversity, and justice—and other liberal values such as tolerance, intellectual pluralism, and individualism—are likely to be seen as signs of a weak and unstable society.
If toxic, illiberal, and polarizing trends on the left endanger social cohesion in liberal societies and embolden the foreign autocrats who are watching, surely this is also true of toxic, illiberal, and polarizing trends on the right: anti-immigrant hysteria, populist grievance and anti-“elite” class warfare, apologetics for racism and misogyny under the guise of combating “political correctness.”
Another view that has been getting a lot of traction was expressed by this tweet by Jocko Willink's co-host, tweeting as 'Martyr Made': "You’re not gonna like this, but: your outrage at Russia is not real. It was put there by ppl who know you better than you do yourself. There have been dozens of wars w/millions of casualties in the last 20 years, and you didn’t care about any of them until you were told to."
Speaking personally, as someone who has been covering the Syrian conflict since 2011, I can say this is categorically not true. Since Russia entered the war there they have been engaging in actions that no democracy could get away with, including sustained and indiscrimate bombing of civilian areas, deliberately targeting hospitals and also engaging in horrific practices like "double tap" bombings, where a smaller first strike lures in the emergency services who are then attacked with a larger bomb blast. The Russians have been found guilty of war crimes by a UN panel.
Russia only involved itself in Syria once it was clear that the US had vacated the scene, when Obama ignored his own 'red lines' over chemical attacks there. Russia has been allowed to operate largely with impunity around the world for years now, so it's unsurprising that they took the lesson that there would never be consequences for military action.
This is a statement that is likely to go down badly, but it seems unclear to me what will be seen as the greatest error in the future, the invasion of Iraq or the non-intervention in Syria, and which will have been seen to create the greater instability in the world.
In a future newsletter I will talk more about the legacy of Iraq and how that has completely overwhelmed our sensemaking and response to international affairs.
Yesterday we had an excellent discussion with our Rebel Wisdom members about the situation in Ukraine, to join conversations like this check out membership options here.
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