We have a neighbor in our building, let’s call him Vasily, who is from Belarus, but went to school in Ukraine. He is a scientist like his father, who held a prominent position in the old Soviet scientific establishment. Growing up in the former Soviet Union has instilled in Vasily a mostly healthy skepticism about almost everything and a fear of being seen as what Israelis call a “freyer,” a sucker who can be taken advantage of. Accepting without reservation pronouncements from on high threatens to condemn you to “freyer” hell.
I met Vasily the other day in the lobby of our building and while waiting for the elevator I thought it would be interesting to get his take on the situation in Ukraine. (When did it stop being THE Ukraine?) It’s important to mention that this conversation predated Putin’s actual invasion of the country, an outcome that even most Ukrainians doubted would ever happen. Vasily doubted Putin’s threats of invasion. He expected a kind of water torture game of small incursions that would make it more difficult for the US and its allies to implement their complete playbook of sanctions. In this he was in agreement with most Ukrainians who had trouble believing that Putin would go all the way. We know now how wrong they were.
Doubting the honesty of Putin’s statements situated Vasily in the mainstream of Western condemnation of Putin’s often infuriating propaganda campaign of recent weeks, replete with unsubstantiated claims about the need to protect Russians in Ukraine from genocide and a rather Trumpian reimagining of Ukrainian history. What was unique about my neighbor’s take on the situation was his equally skeptical take on the words of Presidents Biden and Zelenskyy. What were they not telling us, he wondered, that would make Putin’s actions more defensible? For example, some more questioning voices have been wondering recently whether there might in fact be US Special Forces operating inside Ukraine. Or perhaps Putin’s suspicions of American plans to locate missile launch sites within Ukraine’s borders were not the rantings of an isolated paranoid leader.
The rest of my conversation with Vasily is not important. The significant fact, as you can see, is that it activated in me a deep reservoir of suspicion about the honesty of our government and the reliability of the media who are often dependent on the government’s information in its reporting. I’ve written before about my loss of innocence, going all the way back to 1960 when the Russians shot down a US spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers, a name etched in the minds of people of my generation. President Eisenhower stated publicly that the US didn’t even have or use spy planes, but the Russian publication of photos of the downed plane and its now captive pilot punctured that balloon. So, our government actually LIED! The Vietnam put to rest any remaining naivete on that subject.
For those of us who reside inside the comfortable information bubble created by the New York Times, NPR and MSNBC, we too often automatically assume that we are the beneficiaries of unvarnished truth on all matters. Sometimes it takes being close to the ground for an event being reported by these media to shake that confidence. That was the case during our years in Mississippi when we discovered how often published reports of demonstrations or decisions by Movement leaders diverged from the reality we were experiencing. And yet, the next day we could read accounts of a military coup in Tanzania with full acceptance, despite our firsthand experience of the source’s unreliability.
I remember speaking to a Palestinian friend who had returned briefly to Chicago from his Sabbatical in France during one of the recurring Gaza wars. He was astonished by the differences in the coverage of the war here and in Europe and how it was affecting the public’s perception of the situation. Our perceptions of events in the Middle East are particularly at the mercy of the media coverage they receive, resulting both from omissions and from reports that are more than a little tinged by biases of all sorts.
How often have we been suckered into taking a position on international events based on information from our government that proved to be false or unreliable. As examples take the semi-fictitious Gulf of Tonkin attack on American ships that President Johnson used to escalate our involvement in the Vietnam War and the false intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq that justified our invasion of Iraq.
Let me be clear that what I’m saying here should not detract from our condemnation of what Putin is in the process of doing to the people and government of Ukraine. The praise of dangerous aggression by our former president and by the likes of Tucker Carlson border on acts of treason. But at the same time I’m appealing for us to avoid sinking into a jingoistic justification of our position which overplays the portrayal of Ukraine as a shining example of democracy in contrast to its giant authoritarian neighbor. Among the many reasons why Ukraine is not a serious candidate for membership in NATO is the rampant corruption that pervades so much of its government. And NATO, portrayed in unqualified positive terms in our media, in addition to its goal of defending European democracy has been a profitable marketplace for the sale of American arms to keep Russia from bursting out of its boundaries.
In the past week, commentators as widely separated as the progressive Norman Solomon and the right-of-center Bret Stephens have expressed concerns similar to mine. They have also reminded us of our own history of invading other countries under the guise of protecting American security (there are numerous examples in Central America) or deposing regimes antithetical to our power interests (Iran). Our concerns about unfriendly missiles in Cuba almost propelled us into a nuclear war.
If we can take one step back from our righteous condemnation of the invasion that is in progress, we might be able to recognize that the threat that Putin is feeling is not entirely without basis. A Ukraine friendly to the US and to the West poses a danger to Russia not unlike the threat that an unfriendly Canada or Mexico might pose to us.
However, the manner in which Putin has chosen to act on his fears for Russia’s safety is criminal. It will cost the lives of many Russians and Ukrainians and will result in economic hardships for his own people and for the West. Arguably, Russia suffered more from the last World War than any other country, but apparently the lessons of 75+ years ago have faded enough to allow a return to military aggression that is bringing dire consequences to the aggressor and his victims.
I hope I won’t be misunderstood here. I’m appealing for us not to be carried away on waves of self-righteousness and to remain skeptical about how events taking place thousands of miles away are being presented to us. It is too easy to see the actions of other nations through a scrim of self-aggrandizing binaries. Putin’s resort to war is a tragic choice but it is not one we have been immune from ourselves and it is not entirely divorced from power dynamics that are partially of our own making.