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Understanding western sympathy for Putin

It would be easy to pretend that the west is entirely united behind the Ukrainian people and government, and universally views Vladimir Putin’s Russia as the bad guys in the present conflict.

That would also be wrong.

In the two weeks since the war began, my own relatively straightforward view of the war – Russia bad, Ukraine good – has been challenged by readers, commenters, and even some respected colleagues here at Gript. It would be facile not to note, too, that even the most pro-Russian voices in Irish society, people like Clare Daly and Mick Wallace and Chay Bowes, have an audience. There is not universal agreement that Putin is the baddie.

One repeated failure of Irish – and indeed broader western – commentary is to fail to notice these trends until they become unignorable. There are, indeed, parallels between the establishment view of the war, and the establishment view of the pandemic: The coverage is openly one-sided, journalists and politicians are entirely unafraid to offer their opinions, which all align (as does my own) with Ukraine, and there is even a sizable minority of people in Ireland prepared to cast aside long held assumptions, in this case about neutrality, in response to the crisis. There is a rhetorical mirroring here, and it would be wrong to deny it, of the early days of the pandemic response.

There are many people in our society who are inherently suspicious of the sudden, uniform, overwhelming consensus. This writer, as a rule, is one of them, at least most of the time. When there is a sudden, uniform, overwhelming consensus, the opportunity to make catastrophic mistakes grows exponentially, because there is a tendency to shout down those few lonely voices saying “hang on a minute here”.

So, it is worth examining the contrarian view on this war. That view might be summarised as follows:

The first point often made is the “NATO played a role in starting the war” argument. These people view the situation in Ukraine as more complicated than what we see on the news. They point out, for example, that President Zelensky, the toast of the western world, is not a perfect Democrat. Ukraine’s record of suppressing political opponents and pro-Russian views, they say, is not exactly what you would expect to find in a modern Democracy, and certainly not one that would be a candidate for EU membership. Indeed, if, say, Hungary’s Viktor Orban had banned opposition television stations, he would be being called a villain and there would be talk of expelling him from the EU. Zelensky did that, and we do not mind. Or at least, temporarily forget about it. Not only do we not wish to expel him from the EU – there is widespread support for fast track membership! On that question, sceptics of Ukraine and the majority view of the war have a point, whether we like it or not.

These people also think of Russia in terms of an old Imperial power: That it has a traditional sphere of influence, and a legitimate stake in protecting both the rights of ethnic Russians and territories of vital strategic interest to Russia. If you say something to them like “Ukraine has a right to join NATO if it wants”, they will reply, not entirely unreasonably, that “Cuba had a right to accept Soviet Missiles if it wanted, too”. The principle of sovereign security co-operation either exists or it does not, they say, and if Ukraine has a right to choose her allies and her defensive pacts, then so did Fidel Castro. But nobody blamed John F. Kennedy for almost starting a nuclear war to stop that.

Finally, they say that Russian ambitions are reasonable: Russia wants independence for two majority Russian speaking areas in the east of the country, and a guarantee that Ukraine will remain neutral, and not threaten Russia militarily. Is it really worth risking Nuclear war over that?

Added to these arguments is something else, which gives them potency at the present moment, whether we like it or not: The idea that it is a sight to see western leaders talking about Democracy and Freedom in the east, having not taken immense amounts of care with it in the west. Call it the old “are we really as pure as we claim?” argument, ably summarised here by a person who, these days, represents a substantial strand of American right wing opinion:

The problem with each and every one of these arguments, in my view, is that the war itself has made them redundant: Nobody, not NATO, not Ukraine, not Anthony Fauci or Tony Holohan, made Russia send its army into Ukraine.

The EU might criticise Viktor Orban, often unfairly, and certainly, in the present context, hypocritically, but it has not invaded Hungary and shelled Budapest. Even in the face of this war, NATO has not responded with force. The idea that the west views Ukraine as of vital strategic importance is undermined by the absence of western planes and soldiers in the country, saving it for Uncle Sam.

When you start a war, definitionally, you take the blame for it. Nobody has any real difficulty assigning blame for Iraq to George W. Bush and Tony Blair. It doesn’t seem to matter in retrospect that Saddam Hussein was a fellow who had used poison gas on his own people, or who routinely tortured opponents, or who repeatedly played up the idea that he had dangerous weapons and no fear of using them. By and large, the same people who are excusing Putin’s war of aggression have no problem recognising wars of aggression when the west starts them.

Nor should Covid come into our thinking, here: Yes, the west has been convulsed in recent years by attacks on civil liberties that were either well intentioned foolishness or malicious parts of a bigger “plan”, depending on your thinking, but none of that compares to firing artillery shells at a civilian area. Yes, you had to show a vaccine passport, and that was an infringement on your liberty. But you are still alive. In the end, you won that battle – the passports are gone. Many Ukrainians are not still alive, and many more will not be alive for much longer. And while western attacks on liberty – if you view them as such – were mistaken, they came from our own Governments. Who we can vote out. No Ukrainian can vote against Putin’s tanks.

If your entire argument against the prevailing narrative over Ukraine is that the west and the Ukrainians are not angels, then that, indeed, is a good argument, with truth to it. The problem is that it does not come even remotely close to justifying what Vladimir Putin is doing to ordinary Ukrainian people, and their children, and their pets, and their cities.

We cannot be blinded by contrarianism. In recent weeks, too many of us have fallen into that trap.


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