Questioning the Ukraine war does not make you a 'Putin apologist'

Writing in Commentary, neoconservative Joshua Muravchick labels those who believe that the roots of the current Russia-Ukraine War lie at least in part in the post–Cold War expansion of NATO as "Putin apologists."  He groups into that category the Democratic Socialists of America (including several members of Congress); some writers at the far-left Nation magazine; members of the Quincy Institute, including its president, Andrew Bacevich and senior fellow Anatol Lieven; The American Conservative's Patrick Buchanan, Rod Dreher, and Scott McConnell; Frontpage Magazine contributor Robert Spencer; frequent Tablet contributor Lee Smith; conservative commentator Candace Owens; Fox News's Tucker Carlson; former congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard; and, last but not least, former president Donald Trump.

The "Putin apologists" on the left, Muravchik writes, are motivated by "an anti-war reflex" and a belief that "the American system, as an avatar of capitalism and systemic racism, is inherently malign."  Some of the "Putin apologists" on the right, he explains, are "ideological isolationists" who "share the left's contempt for America."  Others on what he calls the "Trumpist right" call themselves "patriots," but "their passions focus powerfully on disputes with other Americans" rather than our country's foreign adversaries.  Muravchik doesn't appear to realize that the passionate focus of his article is his "disputes with other Americans."

Muravchik calls the NATO expansion argument of the "Putin apologists" flimsy because Putin's view that NATO expansion threatens Russia's security is "nonsensical."  "NATO," he writes, "does not threaten Russia and never has threatened it."  NATO, he continues, is a defensive alliance, and adding Ukraine to NATO "would not change this a whit."  It apparently doesn't matter to Muravchik that Putin's and Russia's perception of NATO differs from his own or even from the reality that NATO is a defensive alliance.

Muravchik ignores what is one of the most important qualities of a statesman — what Halford Mackinder described as "an insight into the minds of other nations than his own."  That insight was lacking, for example, during the Vietnam War, when the Johnson administration thought offering Ho Chi Minh massive government aid projects (like the Tennessee Valley Authority) would convince the communist leader to make peace and give up his quest to conquer South Vietnam.  It was similarly lacking when that same administration (persuaded by defense secretary Robert McNamara, who knew next to nothing about communism or Russian history and culture) thought slowing or stopping the U.S. deployment of nuclear missiles would convince Soviet leaders to do likewise.  More recently, the inability to gain insight into the minds of other nations on the part of the George W. Bush administration led to the delusional and costly policies of trying to spread democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan — policies, it is worth noting, championed by many neoconservatives.

In his famous "Long Telegram" in 1946, George F. Kennan explained that Soviet/Russian foreign policy was motivated by "a neurotic view of world affairs" and an "instinctive Russian sense of insecurity."  That traditional Russian insecurity, Kennan noted, grew "as Russia came into contact with [the] economically advanced west," which triggered "fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies."  Russia's rulers, he wrote, "have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form, fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of western countries."  That is why Russian leaders, according to Kennan, "have always feared foreign penetration, feared direct contact between the western world and their own, feared what would happen if Russians learned truth about world without or if foreigners learned truth about world within."

Kennan explained further that throughout its history, Russia "had never known a friendly neighbor or indeed any tolerant equilibrium of separate powers, either internal or international."  Russia's leaders, he wrote, had an "instinctive fear of [the] outside world."  He viewed Soviet leaders as simply the latest of a "long succession of cruel and wasteful Russian rulers who have relentlessly forced their country on to ever new heights of military power in order to guarantee external security of their internally weak regimes."  Kennan described Russian nationalism as a "centuries old movement in which conceptions of offense and defense are inextricably confused."

International developments since the end of the Cold War have done nothing to calm traditional Russian insecurity.  Russia's leaders have witnessed a steady expansion of NATO to the frontiers of Russian territory — to include the Baltic States, many eastern and central European countries that were once members of the Warsaw Pact, and several Balkan nations.  And some Western leaders publicly promoted the admission of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO and the European Union.  Kennan, writing 50 years later in 1997, predicted that NATO expansion — then in its infancy — would produce among Russia's new leaders — who had recently lost part of their empire — a return to that insecurity that would manifest itself in more extreme forms of nationalism and militarism.

There is nothing "nonsensical" about questioning the wisdom of NATO expansion or suggesting that the current Russia-Ukraine War might not have happened if NATO had not expanded or at least expanded in a more prudent fashion.  Nor are those who question the wisdom of NATO expansion "Putin apologists."  That is a smear intended to silence dissent from the "NATO must defend Ukraine" narrative that has been incessantly promoted by a jingoistic media and much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.  Questioning the wisdom of NATO expansion does not equate with excusing or justifying Putin's aggression, but it may help us to find a diplomatic way to end the war before it widens.

Image via Public Domain Pictures.

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