I think this is very interesting: a reader who knows Russia and Ukraine, on how he reads the unfolding “Putin angle” news.
I’m a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant, now a naturalized citizen of the United States. I also was a Bernie Sanders voter in the primary, who will be voting for Hillary Clinton in the general election.
This is probably the weirdest year of my life politically. On the right, the anti-immigrant and antisemitic fervor is really a choice cut of hate. The apparent mutual interest of Russia and the Trump campaign has meant that on both the right and left, there is legitimate critique. However, it has also meant there’s a home for a very familiar panic about Eastern Europe and, honestly, people using the critique as cover for rank bigotry who were interested in that bigotry long before Trump and Russia were even a story. Lastly, the DNC e-mails specifically regarding Sanders’ religious views and raising it as an issue with voters WITHIN the Democratic electorate, was a dispiriting reminder that despite what has been a pretty nice life, given enough opportunity bigotry can have a house anywhere, even among friends.
However, I’m writing today to provide context for Russia’s actions, from my own experience. When Russia invaded Ukraine, they did it while putting their arms up and saying it wasn’t them, even as it was clear to everyone that it was. There were the anecdotes, of course, about the Russian military insignia of the people coming into Crimea and Eastern Ukraine being torn from their uniforms. Regardless of the truth of those anecdotes—of basically Russians barely modifying their own uniforms, doing the least amount of work to seem not like the Russian army—they got at what is a reality: the transparent cynicism of Russia, the tendency to do the terrible thing and tell the whole world they’re not doing it until they’re years deep into a conflict they can’t escape.
I wanted to mention that because in the recent stories, there’s been this emerging picture of Russia as a legitimate threat to the United States, run by a chessmaster. Russia is not a legitimate threat, and Putin is not a chessmaster. Russia is a transparently desperate country. The sanctions and financial freezes have spread Russia thin. They’ve impacted the oligarchs that run the country. They’ve impacted its long-term capacity to use war as an economic plan and perpetually hold sovereign states as territories on a whim. They’ve reduced its capacity to control its client states.
The well is running dry. And what they’re doing is the same thing they did in Ukraine. The world was getting away from them, they had something they could not control or overwhelm, so they went in to Crimea and Eastern Ukraine and tried to take it through brute force—all the while putting their hands up in the air and denying they had anything to do with it. Even now, in Putin’s speeches, it is clear he is coming not from a position of strength, but one of great weakness, asking essentially for a mercy that he does not currently deserve, seeing things like the banning on the basis of doping as signs of additional punishment.
So Russia may be behind the DNC hack. We may be seeing this fight because they’re desperate to elect the man they resemble the most, because it’s the only way out of it they see for themselves. It’s not prowess or intelligence though; it’s desperation and lashing out. Putin took the spirit of the Russian people and defaced it for years, replacing it with militarism and the use of the church as a prop for the state. This was sustained by capital, by investment. And it just isn’t there any more. Robbing the people of their spirit, the rulers of the country now have lost the capacity to fund the things that occupied the void. Their enterprises in Ukraine and Syria look more like past recipes in Chechnya, Georgia and elsewhere for forever war. It’s only a matter of time before the client states, the installed rulers, are once again challenged but do not find the support they once had. It is just history cycling.
But to be clear, Russia is not a danger to us so much as it is a danger to itself. A smarter government would have figured out a way other than the invasion of Ukraine, other than perpetually hostile acts such as this hack. A smarter government would not be in a position where it basically has to cut all its own domestic programs to fund wars that will go on forever. A more gifted politician wouldn’t be in a position of accumulating strikes against themselves while demanding mercy. I think this is already the view President Obama holds, as documented in his statements on Russia with Jeffrey Goldberg.
I think this election was and remains a choice between being governed by fear and being governed by perspective, between seeing monsters all over and understanding where we all really are respective to one another. Russia’s latest transparent ploy, even as its consequences are currently being felt deeply, will eventually be seen for the desperate and unsophisticated acts they are. Donald Trump’s series of transparent ploys, his perpetual financial and moral bankruptcy, will be seen the same way, the desperate, angry flicker of a flailing movement unable to navigate a changing world. And we will live this coming January in the same country as this past January—a fractured place working to rebuild itself, to be better than its past, and hopefully a little smarter.
I believe this to be true of the United States. I hope one day it will be true for the Ukraine; that it will escape not just the specter of this war, but its older history of corruption as a necessary fact of life. And I hope in time it will be true for Russia itself, either through the reform of its current leaders or through their eventual displacement by those who want something more for their people than desolation and war. It was possible for Iran. These realities do change with the work of people who do not give up their hope even when it seems no one in power has much time for it.
I will be casting my vote this November for perspective, up and down the ballot, rather than for a Republican Party and a nominee that can only see a wolf at every door who wants to convince you that his own barking is coming from the outside. I will be describing, at the onset of whatever panic, this same world to my friends that occupy it with me, where our understanding is the antidote to our fear, where the strength of our country is in our knowledge of it.