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The Ukraine Archives
A perspective on the war that you won’t find in mainstream media
A year ago tomorrow, Russia invaded Ukraine. The resulting war has killed tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and tens of thousands of Russian soldiers and more than 8,000 Ukrainian civilians and has wreaked mayhem on a massive scale.
For all the talk about what would constitute “winning” or “losing” for each side, this war is a loss for both sides and for the whole world. Even leaving aside its immediate and longer-term human and economic impacts (which extend well beyond the war zone), the conflict sets back humankind’s hopes of addressing various critical, maybe even existential, transnational challenges. And it is driving the world more deeply into a new cold war that could prove catastrophic in its own right.
I’m proud of the things this newsletter has published about the Ukraine war—not because I think they’re all great, but because collectively they represent a clear alternative to the perspective offered in mainstream media, where both reporting and commentary have tended to succumb to the conformist pressures that emanate from wars.
So I thought I’d mark this dark anniversary by listing some of these NZN posts—both written pieces and podcasts—along with a brief summary and/or reflection for each. I’m confining the list of written pieces to the first six months of the war, but a few of the podcasts are more recent than that.
Almost all of these posts are “unlocked”—available to the entire reading public, not just paid subscribers. But if you find the perspective they represent valuable and you’re not already a paid subscriber, I hope you’ll consider becoming one to support the work we do here. I also encourage you to share on social media any posts you think hold up well in retrospect. You can also, of course, share this meta-post should you feel that urge.
Thanks to all who have read and shared NZN over the past year, and a special shoutout to the paid subscribers whose support—in both material and less tangible terms—sustains this enterprise.
Pre-emptive disclaimer: Pointing to American policies that (IMHO) made this war more likely is not the same as blaming America for the war. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a clear violation of international law, and Russia bears sole responsibility for that crime. But I think it’s important to recognize America’s past policy missteps, because if we keep making these kinds of mistakes the world is in big trouble. Or maybe I should say even bigger trouble.
I. Written pieces
Jan 24, 2022: “How cognitive empathy could have prevented the Ukraine crisis” This piece, posted exactly a month before the invasion, argued that a series of US presidents—starting with Bill Clinton—had made conflict over Ukraine more likely by failing to give due consideration to how their policies would look from Russia’s point of view. If I were writing the piece now, after I’ve studied up on the issue more, I might add a softening qualification to one count of the indictment, but I’d also add whole new counts to the indictment; I’m now more convinced than ever that the US has egregiously mismanaged its relationship with Russia over the past three decades. I think we could be living in a much better world right now if US foreign policy had been in the hands of more enlightened people.
Feb 21, 2022: “Why Biden didn’t negotiate seriously with Putin” This piece, posted three days before the invasion, aimed to explain why the Biden administration had declined to address what Russia had said was its main demand: a formal commitment that NATO would never expand to Ukraine. (A state department official later confirmed that the administration had refused to even discuss this issue with Russia.) This piece is pretty hard on Blob mainstays Michael McFaul and Tom Nichols, and if I had it to do all over again, I’d… be hard on them again.
March 8: “Inside Putin’s Head” The above two pieces, by emphasizing how the NATO issue and related issues figured in Putin’s national security calculations, implicitly depicted him as a rational actor. But nobody is a purely rational actor, and in this piece I looked at how other aspects of human psychology could help account for Putin’s growing antagonism toward the West over the past two decades. In particular, I focused on the psychology of status—and Putin’s apparent belief that neither he nor Russia had been getting the amount of respect from the West that they deserved. NATO expansion was among the US policies that were seen by Putin as both a security threat and a sign of disrespect. (In much more recent pieces, published this year, I’ve gotten into some relevant aspects of Putin’s particular personality and also into the question of whether the invasion was driven by imperialist aspirations.)
March 15: “War and Mindfulness” The thesis statement of this piece: “[M]indfulness—which is, in an important sense, a relatively dispassionate state of mind—is close to being the ideal state of mind for navigating the landscape of war and peace. I think that if Americans were less reflexively emotional, and more mindful, there would be fewer wars—and the current war would be less likely to metastasize into a regional war or, God forbid, go nuclear.”
April 6: “The Psychology of Atrocity” I wrote this after the Bucha atrocities came to light. Some people objected to the clinical tone in which I addressed the question of why such atrocities happen. I would direct these people to the War and Mindfulness piece, above.
April 11: “The Blob has won the Ukraine framing war” In this piece I gave no fewer than six reasons why I think it’s a bad idea to view the war as part of a larger contest between “democracy and autocracy.” As the title of the piece suggests, I didn’t expect that my argument would carry the day. It hasn’t.
April 20: “The Ukraine War Speech Code” In this piece I (1) complained that people (like me!) who say American policy missteps made this war more likely were being unfairly stigmatized (as “Putin apologists” or as “reciting Putin talking points” or whatever); and (2) explained why pointing to such American missteps needn’t (as some stigmatizers assumed) absolve Putin of blame for the war. A week later in the Earthling, the weekend edition of NZN, we explored an example of the speech police doing their work.
August 2: “How the war in Ukraine could lead to war in Taiwan” This piece argues, in effect, that the speech code described in the piece above could stifle discourse in a way that makes a Chinese invasion of Taiwan more likely.
Feb 28, 2022: “In Defense of Whataboutism” Only a few days into the war, I could sense that my habit of highlighting American hypocrisy—especially America’s tendency to condemn violations of international law yet casually violate international law when that’s convenient—would, in a wartime environment, incur even more blowback than usual. So I launched this pre-emptive strike. A year later I can report that the enemy remains unbowed.
II. Podcast conversations (All links are to the video versions; audio versions are available in the Nonzero podcast feed.)
The day after the invasion I spoke with political scientist Steven Ward, author of the book Status and the Challenge of Rising Powers. The book isn’t about Russia or Putin, but Ward’s broader work on the psychology of status as it plays out in world politics is relevant to both. This conversation helped convince me to write my “Inside Putin’s Head” piece, above (in which I cite Ward).
Two weeks into the war I spoke with Katrina vanden Heuvel, Washington Post columnist and former editor of the Nation and longtime student of Russian affairs. Katrina has long been an advocate of “strategic empathy,” and we tried to deploy some of that in this conversation as we explored how things got to this point and whether a near-term resolution of the conflict was possible.
In April I talked to Marlene Laruelle, a professor at George Washington University and author of the book Is Russia Fascist? In contrast to “essentialist” interpretations of Putin’s disposition and ideology—which basically depict them as eternal and unchanging—Laruelle’s take is that Putin’s ideological inclinations have evolved in response to circumstances. She says, for example, that Putin became more illiberal as he came to feel that western-style liberalism was being imposed on his country via activist NGOs, punitive sanctions, and financial support for his liberal opposition. And, though she does think Putin is in some sense an imperialist, she refers to this inclination as “reactive imperialism.”
In January of this year I spoke with Ivan Katchanovski, a political scientist who grew up in western Ukraine and now teaches at the University of Ottawa. We spent a lot of time on the pivotal events of 2013 and 2014, when the “Maidan Revolution” led to Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine. Katchanovski’s most controversial argument is about how the “Maidan Massacre” unfolded, but he has other unconventional takes as well. For example: He thinks Putin would have found Ukraine’s movement toward European Union membership (the issue that triggered the Maidan Revolution) tolerable if the prospect of NATO membership had been taken completely off the table. Katchanovski also offered useful correctives to misconceptions (including one I had held) about America’s role in the revolution.
In December I debated Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist and well known Russia hawk. My exchange with Anders over Ukraine began with his twitter criticisms of a Washington Post piece I wrote, and continued in this podcast dialogue. This is a good example of how people who disagree sharply can have a civil conversation.
And speaking of disagreement:
Last month I debated my old friend Fred Kaplan, who covers the national security beat for Slate, about the war and its origins. And in mid-March, a few weeks into the war, I’d discussed it with noted neoconservative journalist and longtime sparring partner Eli Lake. We disagreed about a lot, but Eli shared my view that maverick perspectives on Ukraine shouldn’t be marginalized via “Putin talking points” innuendo.
A few weeks before the invasion, Pulitzer-prize-winning New York Times columnist Tom Friedman graciously agreed to come on the Nonzero podcast after I criticized one of his columns pretty harshly (in my Jan 24 piece about cognitive empathy, above). We agreed about a lot and disagreed about some things, and Tom showed an impressive and unusual willingness to seriously entertain alternatives to his views.
In November I talked to Samuel Charap of the Rand Corporation. He’s an advocate of an early diplomatic resolution of the conflict but is more hard nosed and knowledgeable than many people who fit that description.
In October I talked with Seth Harp, a journalist who has reported from the war zone and who is one of the most passionate opponents of war I’ve encountered.
I’ve had several conversations—including one in March and one last month—with Nikita Petrov, a Russian who left the country shortly after the invasion and now lives in Armenia (and who used to work here at Nonzero). Nikita has never been a Putin fan—he attended rallies supporting Alexei Navalny back before Putin sidelined Navalny via imprisonment—and his opinion of Putin has only dropped over the past year. It’s interesting when my insistence on looking at things from the Russian leader’s perspective gets pushback from … a Russian.
Image: From a Medium post by Geraldine Moriba.