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On Russia, as so much else, beware the risks of groupthink

The resignation of UCD Professor Ben Tonra from a role in UCD over the university’s less than emphatic language in condemning the Russian invasion in Ukraine highlights a growing problem with the world’s ability to discourse.  His resignation was prompted by a UCD statement on Twitter:

“University College Dublin joins the Irish Government and wider society in its concern with the situation in Ukraine, and in particular with the violation of international law and the unnecessary and tragic human suffering and loss of life.”

To the untrained eye, this seems reasonable but to others to there was more to it. Tonra was not impressed with the use of the term ‘the situation in the Ukraine’ which to the trained eye displayed nuance that “[t]hey were anxious that the statement would be very, very measured and not leave hostages to fortune regarding any future situation”.

Once highlighted, a level of obfuscation can be read into the UCD statement. Tonra is perfectly within his rights to take issue with it if he feels fit. Clearly as he makes reference to the increasing influence of the Confucius Institute in UCD there is a back-story to his reaction. All good and well and the ins and outs are for others to discuss.

I would have some sympathy with his frustration at hedged statements that seek to stay on the fence for reasons of self-interest. But there is another perspective to the story and that is the increasing intolerance towards seeking context and nuance in any situation. Arguments are increasingly entered into as black and white. Binary. For/against.

If the language is not perfect, if the right words are not used with the right emphasis, you are to be condemned, outed, and ostracised as a heretic. This is ubiquitous, particularly in Ireland. In every discussion, the only positions allowed are the absolutes. In the eyes of fanaticists, the language must be perfect. Your position must be as absolute as theirs and you must, must, signal your virtue. No deviation is to be countenanced.

Orwell wrote that the revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. It isn’t just about the revolution, it is about the ability to think and to reason and to argue. It is about the freedom to do so. And it is about having the breadth and flexibility of language to express the nuances of an argument. Without this ability when the language is taken away, the revolution can be completed.

And this brings us back to ‘the situation in the Ukraine’. What is clear is that there is only one acceptable position and that the invasion of Ukraine must be condemned unequivocally and without prejudice and that the sole protagonist has to be Russia and Vladimir Putin. It is fine to take this position but it is not fine to demand that this be the only position that can be taken, or that nuances in the understanding of the how the situation came to pass be ignored or brushed under the carpet.

But modern reasoning – or lack of – allows for only a narrow and restricted understanding of moral responsibility. There is only black or white. Binary.

If you stir a wasp’s nest, you are the protagonists. You might blame the wasps for stinging everyone, but everyone with half a brain knows a wasp does not have much capacity for reasoning.

If you prod a bear, you are in much the same position though one might argue that the bear has a greater capacity than the wasp for making some form of decision on whether to tear you apart or not. But this ability to reason is quite limited, so you have no one else to blame only yourself.

If you antagonise the school bully, and the bully gives you a duffing-up, you should have known better and you have a responsibility for not being an idiot. But the bully is fully responsible for duffing you up and deserving of being expelled or suspended.

Now, if you sit two rows behind a bully and flick his ear repeatedly, looking for a reaction and he blames the smaller, quiet, kids between you, then you have some more responsibility and, the bully has some mitigating circumstances.

He may have got the wrong guys and his act may not have been proportionate even if he did get the right ones, but there was some provocation and the duffing-up may not have been pre-meditated. For sure, the kids that get innocently duffed-up are not morally culpable.

None of these scenarios equate to the NATO-Russia-Ukraine situation obviously in any meaningful way. They are mere allegories. But they point toward how moral responsibility can be assessed. It is not a zero-sum game. There can be different types and levels of responsibility and those that bear some responsibility for an event coming to pass are not necessarily the ones to blame for that event in itself – but they are blameworthy in another respect if they knowingly or recklessly behaved in a manner that had the potential to result in the current situation.

Vladimir Putin is responsible for his actions and the reasons for those actions. It was his decision to invade. He did not have to. It was not an act of self-defence. Each can make their own assessment of whether there is/was a human rights case in areas of the Ukraine but being realistic, there was nothing of sufficient scale to justify an invasion of a sovereign country no matter how much he may protest

The UN has something called the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ as an international norm that seeks to ensure that the international community never again fails to halt the mass atrocity crimes of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. It has been used as a reason for previous military interventions by the UN or individual states. It was with an eye on this language that Putin was framing his invasion of Ukraine.

No one has really taken this seriously and rightly so. The invasion is unjustified; the casualties are unjustified; the horror is unjustified and all should be unequivocally condemned.

Putin is not the bear; and he is not the wasp. He may be more akin to the school bully. He is an autonomous responsible person who can be held blameworthy for his actions.

The question is also what is the scenario that school bully is taking part in? Has anyone played a role in provoking the bully? Was NATO or its member states, sitting two rows behind the bully, flicking his ear? Is the Ukraine the innocent kid sitting in the middle that inadvertently gets a thrashing? Or was the Ukraine doing a bit of ear-flicking as well, thinking the lads behind would look after it if the bully decided to turn around?

Discourse today does not allow for these discussions in a meaningful way. Voices that raise such questions are labelled as Putin apologists or, as is typical, the Far Right. Yes, there are some that feel ‘the West’ is responsible for Putin’s actions but that is also a misunderstanding of responsibility.

Putin is 100% responsible for his actions; and ‘the West’ is 100% responsible for theirs. As an acting being, it is not a case of Vlad being 60% responsible and someone else 40%. Vlad is fully responsible for what he did, no excuses.

At the same time, this should not allow a whitewash of discussion on contributory factors for how the situation has come about. Doing such a thing will not be helpful – either for any form of justice, but also for peace and future peaceful co-existense, or détente so to speak.

In 1992, Gorbachev warned that an independent Ukraine would “mean that 12 million Russians and members of other peoples become citizens of a foreign country”. Serhii Plokhy in ‘The Last Empire: the Final Days of the Soviet Union’ recalls what many seem to have forgotten that the remnants of the Soviet Union and the emerging Russian Federation highlighted the ‘problem of borders’ and the ‘question of the revision of boundaries’ where Russia would have territorial disputes including the Crimea and the Donetsk region of the Ukraine as well as the Donbas.

Gorbachev noted ‘there can be no territorial problems within the [Soviet] Union, but their emergence cannot be ruled out when republics leave the Union’. At the same time, others in favour of the dissolution of the Union recognised that ‘most dangerous of all are statements about possible territorial claims by Russia on neighbouring Republics’. In 1991-92, all sides knew that there was a tinderbox in the making.

It was only ten years later when Russia was weak, with a certain amount of hubris on behalf of NATO and its membership, the expansion of the Organisation encroached towards the Russian border as former Warsaw Pact members joined from 2000 to 2005. In 2005 intensification of talks about the inclusion of the Ukraine NATO commenced. George Kennan, US diplomat, Soviet expert and author of the famous ‘long telegram’ wrote in 1998 that NATO expansion risked a revival of the Cold War.

Prodding the bear – or rather, flicking the ear of the bully – had predictable consequences and some of those predictions are coming to pass. Much of what is happening today was foreseeable. Whether it was avoidable cannot ever be answered.

It is only a short time ago that news outlets like the Guardian were warning of Ukraine’s ‘ultranationalist group with neo-Nazi links’ and Human Rights Watch researchers stated “We are concerned about rising nationalism in Ukraine and the government’s seeming unwillingness to rein it in. Ukraine’s international donors and supporters should be very worried.” These same militias of concern are now celebrated freedom fighters. Putin’s claims of wanting the ‘denazification of the Ukraine’ were derided in a manner that would have suggested the concerns of HRW never existed.

None of these are to excuse or pass the blame for Russia’s actions but they should be allowed to shed some light on the context surrounding them. Debate ought to be had about the consequences, intended or not, foreseeable or not, so that lessons may be learned and those that acted with a certain amount of arrogance or geo-political self-interest are not allowed to wash their hands of their role leading up to the invasion of the Ukraine.

To want to have those questions asked and explored is not to be an apologist for Russia. To shout down someone asking those questions because there is only one acceptable party line does nothing for the greater good. It drives argument underground, it allows misperception to fester, and leaves truth as a casualty.

And this brings us back to Ben Tonra and UCD. This article or these arguments are nothing to do with their disagreement. They have their own issues. The disagreement was merely a segue into a discussion about the sensitivities around the use of language. My repeated refrain that Putin/Russia is responsible for the invasion and that it ought to be condemned is also corruption of argument. It ought not be necessary to have to repeatedly explain this or present it as a caveat in order to create space for the subtleties, context and nuance but this is the world we live in.

David Reynolds 

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