Scott Tibbs

Russia, Ukraine and the ability to see nuance

By Scott Tibbs, February 25, 2022

The worst thing about our politics is the simplistic tribalism that we see coming even from our so-called "thought leaders" on the Right and Left, to say nothing of our political leaders. Against this backdrop, the inane rhetoric we see spewed on social media is completely unsurprising. Twitter is an especially terrible place to attempt to explore anything complex, because a hard 280 character limit all but eliminates the possibility of deeper analysis. The Russian aggression against Ukraine is but another example of this trend.

So, here is a little history: Nikita Khrushchev transferred Russian territory to Ukraine while he was the leader of the Soviet Union. Russia wants that territory back and has expressed "concern" for the Russian people inside Ukrainian territory. This is actually not an unreasonable position. Ideally, Russia should have gotten that territory back from Ukraine - specifically Crimea - when the USSR collapsed and Ukraine became an independent nation-state. This does not mean the Russian invasion of Ukraine is justified but does provide some historical context.

Yes, it has been three decades since the Soviet Union broke apart, but focusing on that ignores the fact that things like this often simmer for decades and even generations. Our ability to understand foreign policy and history is handicapped when we take a short-term view of things that looks back only decades, when much of the rest of the world has a much longer memory also holds grudges for much longer.

Furthermore, Russia does have some legitimate security concerns about Ukraine and NATO. Pat Buchanan warned 25 years ago that putting NATO countries on Russia's border was a bad idea and would only antagonize them. Buchanan was right then and he is right now. This is why President George H. W. Bush gave a verbal commitment to Russia that NATO would not admit former Soviet republics into the Cold War military alliance. That promise was broken nearly twenty years ago. And Tulsi Gabbard was correct when she pointed out that adding Ukraine to NATO does increase those security concerns.

But these sorts of things cannot be considered. You have to unequivocally damn Russia and Putin and you may not point out unwise decisions and provocative actions by the United States. If you see any nuance or recognize the historical complexity of the situation - even if you condemn Vladimir Putin by name and argue Russia is wrong to violate Ukraine's sovereign territory - then you are a "traitor" who is probably being paid by the Kremlin. It is a childish argument.

The Russia/Ukraine situation should never have become yet another tribal loyalty test, but that is where we are now. Leftists, including the sainted Barack Obama, mocked and ridiculed Mitt Romney in 2012 for saying that Russia is our #1 geopolitical foe. I cannot take those same people seriously when they wring their hands about Russia now. But because Donald Trump said some foolish things about Putin, and because Leftists still blame "Russian trolls" for defeating Hillary Clinton in 2016, opposition to Russia has become a stand-in for opposition to Trump. The Orange Man is very Bad, after all!

Vladimir Putin is a KGB thug with the primary goal of expanding Russia's power, with the side benefit of personally enriching himself. But Russia also has legitimate security concerns in the face of reckless NATO expansion and a reasonable historical argument about territory lost under Khrushchev. Whether we like it or not, things are more complicated than we want to admit. We do ourselves no favors by making this a simple black-and-white issue.

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