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American Thinker
American Thinker
25 Mar 2023
James V. DeLong


NextImg:How can we deal with Putin if we don't understand him?

An axiom of any conflict situation is that, to be successful, or even to survive, one must study and understand the adversary's position.

See John Stuart Mill, On Liberty:

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.

Or Sun Tzu's Art of War:

Know yourself and know your enemy. You will be safe in every battle.

You may know yourself but not know the enemy. You will then lose one battle for every one you win.

You may not know yourself or the enemy. You will then lose every battle.

The term "axiom" (defined as "a self-evident or universally recognized truth") is appropriate, because it is difficult to imagine even the most obstinate contrarian arguing that ignorance is bliss and refusing to inquire into an adversary's thought processes.

Given this truth, one of the many distressing things about the Russian-Ukrainian war is that the American public has no clue as to the motivations and thinking of the Russians, even as the nation is being committed to supporting Ukraine to the edge of nuclear war, and possibly over that cliff.

Nor is it clear that the nation's leaders, including the mainstream press, have any such understanding, or even interest. All we get is propaganda and bluster.  Serious communication about the roots of the conflict is absent.

To help remedy this situation, the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies has published an outstanding "Special Issue on the War in the Ukraine" containing six essays that "bring together a group of historians and political scientists ... who have dedicated their careers to the study and understanding of Russia and the former Soviet Union."

My attention was initially caught by Geoffrey Roberts, the British historian of Russian affairs, writing on "'Now or Never': The Immediate Origins of Putin's Preventative War on Ukraine."

This essay is devoted to the when and why of President Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022. As far as possible, it refrains from speculation and relies almost entirely on the record of Putin's public pronouncements during the immediate prewar crisis. That public record is currently the best available evidence of his motivations and calculations. What this evidence shows is that Putin went to war to prevent Ukraine from becoming an ever-stronger and threatening NATO bridgehead on Russia's borders. At the heart of Putin's preventative war thinking was an imagined future in which Russia would confront an existential threat.

As Roberts goes on to say, one need not agree with Putin's thinking (Roberts is non-committal), but understanding it is crucial if peace and stability are to be restored.

The other, equally impressive, works are as follows:

"How likely is it that Vladimir Putin will be able to Claim some sort of Victory in Ukraine? An Assessment based on Events from February - early November 2022" (Alexander Hill)

"The Russia-Ukraine Conflict and the (Un)Changing Character of War" (Paul Robinson)

"War in Ukraine: The Clash of Norms and Ontologies" (Andrej Krickovic, Richard Sakwa)

"At War with the West: Russian Realism and the Conflict in Ukraine" (Andrei P. Tsygankov)

"The Case for Neutrality: Understanding African Stances on the Russia-Ukraine Conflict" (Olayinka Ajala)

They all deserve study.  One should also honor the courage of those willing to stand for reason and analysis in the current hysterical atmosphere.  As Alexander Hill says in his introduction:

All of those writing here are unwilling to sacrifice their critical faculties for fashionable short-term political ends, and as serious scholars their desire to understand rather than to judge is paramount. As such, and as I hope you'll agree having read their work, they have produced a thought-provoking range of essays on current events and the background to them that will challenge many of the assumptions on which much Western media reporting and wider understanding of the war rest.

One can only hope that such thinking penetrates the fog in Foggy Bottom.

Image: World Economic Forum via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.