Ignorance, apathy, guilt, cynicism, arrogance, greed, and cowardice. Those, not troops, tanks, warplanes, and missiles, are the Kremlin’s most potent weapons in its war on the West.
Start with ignorance. Where is [“the”] Ukraine anyway? This country, wherever it is, has little emotional resonance in most West European and American minds. We did not study it in school. We do not vacation there. We never see its products in our shops. We cannot name any famous Ukrainians.
A particular unfamiliarity with Ukraine is matched by general witlessness about security. We do not understand why the existing international order matters, or how a successful Russian attack on neighboring countries will also endanger our own freedom, safety, and prosperity.
Ignorance begets apathy. That the war smoldering since 2014 has blighted hundreds of thousands of lives and killed 14,000 people escaped our notice. The current crisis seems new, mystifying, and distant. We see news reports of men and women in trenches getting ready to defend their country against overwhelming odds. It sounds cold, dirty, and dangerous — but luckily it is nothing to do with us. Some of our politicians demand a tough response. Others counsel caution. It is all complicated and nasty — and too much to worry about when we have covid, energy prices, and inflation to worry about. So we turn the page or switch channels.
Elsewhere, guilt bombs are filling our brains with toxic fog. Putin surely cannot be inventing his grievances. So we must have helped create them. One mistake was to expand NATO — particularly when we apparently promised not to. Russia’s lavishly commemorated wartime suffering gives them the right to be a bit sensitive, especially about Ukraine, which is infested with fascists and crooks, and apparently persecutes Russian speakers. And why should we trust our own leaders anyway? They never apologized for Iraq. Or for Afghanistan. Or for the financial crash. They are probably wrong on this too. So: let’s back off and give Russia some respect.
Behind that comes a barrage of cynicism. Putin may be a thug and Russia a bully. Ukraine is its victim. But look at the bigger picture. China is the real threat. Russia is just a nuisance. Realpolitik surely dictates that we give Putin what he wants and get him on our side. Hard luck on the Ukrainians (and the Nordics and Baltics, who will be next). But we would-be Kissingerians are masters of the universe. Please don’t question our judgment or expertise.
Not least because our opinions come with added benefits (to us). Russians are such excellent clients. They pay richly to have their reputations and fortunes laundered. Trade and investment involving Russia has a marvelous way of involving kickbacks, consultancy payments, side-deals, sinecures, and other juicy morsels. Money lubricates disagreements, numbs consciences, and blunts thorny principles. Try it sometime.
Lastly, cowardice is the most potent nerve agent. A real confrontation with Russia would be costly at best, terrifyingly dangerous at worst. Are you really advocating a standoff with a nuclear-armed country run by a ruthless, secretive, and paranoid despot? Suppose he cuts off natural gas supplies to Europe? Are you willing to go on television and explain to your cold, cross, hungry, frightened voters that their jobs are at risk and their living standards plunging because of some geopolitical principle? Are you really willing to send your sons and daughters to defend faraway countries in eastern Europe? The days of such sacrifices for national security are over. The voters want peace and dialog, not pride and glory. Let’s give them what they want.
Welcome to the mental battlefield. And to our looming defeat.