Students have watched closely as Russia invaded a neighbor in a manner every bit as brazen as the start of the world’s last thirty-year war, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Some have worried whether or not other nations will be pulled into this conflict. Only time will tell. The more provocative question involves why Russia invaded in the first place.
The answer boils down to three words: Putin wanted to.
Justifications for that answer get conspiratorial and weird quickly. I can’t find an ideological thread that holds water. Putin certainly doesn’t long for a return to communism. More than one journalist has asked if Putin has lost his mind. Putin claimed that the legitimately elected president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zalensky, is a Nazi, and that Russia would demilitarize Ukraine to protect the world from another Holocaust. (Zalensky is Jewish, which renders Putin’s claims ridiculous.) Putin has also placed the armed forces of his country on “high nuclear alert,” which has stoked fears that he would use such weapons if the fortunes of war turned against him.
Putin ordered the invasion simply because he could. He knows that the conflicts in the Middle East have exhausted Americans’ willingness to send soldiers overseas to defend the freedom of other people. He knows that his annexation of Crimea in 2014 brought no more than rhetorical virtue signaling and a light slap on the wrist. He knows what every bully knows: he’s going to keep trampling on those who are weaker until somebody has the audacity to give him a bloody nose.
The confirmation of this premise lies in the fact that his methods appeal to other bullies, most notably China’s President, Xi Jinping–Putin’s most vocal ally. Both of these men mistake autocracy for governance. Both seek to expand the geopolitical influence their countries currently possess. Both imprison and kill dissidents. Both use disinformation campaigns to justify their ruthlessness and to destabilize actual democracies.
Both of these men must smile a little each time they read of books being burned in America, or the lengths to which some have gone to absolve the January 6 rioters of their efforts to destroy American democracy. Indeed, the growth of the far right and the far left in our own country during the last fifteen years has made it more difficult for American institutions to govern toward the middle.
Of course, Putin and Xi haven’t had to do too much to send us down the primrose path of political incontinence. Think of how the disastrous Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission made it possible for the super wealthy to impose their political beliefs (and financial needs) on everyone else. Think of the ways that social media have destroyed traditional–and more fact-based–forms of journalism.
American history shows that compromise lies at the heart of politics. What can be done to find viable compromises that will prevent our country from looking more like China or Russia? Do we even still have the political fortitude to govern towards the broad middle way?