Since the news is currently dominated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I thought I’d write down some of my own thoughts about it. I am by no means an expert on either Russia or Ukraine; nor am I an expert on many of the events that led up to this moment. I was born just over a year after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, which signified for most people the end of the Cold War and the fall of Communism, so my knowledge about the conflict between the East and West, as well as the Soviet Union, has always been after they had ended. Of course, we may be entering a Second Cold War where the threat of nuclear annihilation emerges once again in people’s minds.
I’ve been very interested in historian David Starkey’s analysis of what is going on in Eastern Europe. He has recently started a YouTube channel, which he may have created because of his own “cancelling” after making some clumsy comments about slavery, where he talks about various events in history and has given his own perspective on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Even if you don’t agree with everything David Starkey says, I recommend checking out his channel.
In this video, Dr. Starkey argues that the West’s problem with dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin is that we think “that everybody should have exactly the same values as a nice, sensitive, woke, public schoolgirl aged 16.” In reality, there are many different perspectives from our own. Although the media believes that Putin has gone mad and is losing the conflict, David Starkey argues:
“Putin is intelligent. He is informed. He is a careful, strategic thinker. He knows what he’s doing. And he’s prepared himself to do it.”David Starkey
This does not mean that Starkey likes Putin, as he says:
“I certainly think he’s bad. At least, he’s bad according to our values.”
Like a lot of people, David Starkey compares Putin to Adolf Hitler but this comparison, in Starkey’s case, is for a particular reason:
“Mein Kampf said exactly what Hitler was going to do, and why he was going to do it. In a series of speeches, over the last two years, Putin has said exactly what he is going to do in Ukraine, and… why he’s going to do it.”
The main point of this video is that, according to Starkey, Putin sees himself as a Tsar who wants to emulate Russian historical figures like Peter the Great and Catherine the Great who conquered the fought over land that would become Ukraine. If Ukraine is to undergo “decommunisation” or “denazification”, this is to be achieved, in Putin’s mind, by “reabsorbing Ukraine into the Russian Empire.” The West doesn’t understand this because:
“Putin, unlike us, understands power. Power, and the role of force. We thought we could dispense with it. He knows you can’t.”
David Starkey makes this point further when he notes Putin’s response to a journalist asking him how could a good country actually declare war:
“Why do you think if you are good, you can’t use force? Goodness implies the possibly to defend yourself.”Vladimir Putin
To Starkey, until recently, everyone in the West would have agreed with this statement. He makes a similar point in this GB News interview with Mark Steyn:
“We have lived in a myth since the Second World War… Broadly speaking, we haven’t had big wars because… we imagined, we in the West, that we didn’t need force. That force was nasty…”David Starkey
In another GB News interview, with Nigel Farage, Starkey says:
“The reason that we’ve had the Liberal World Order is because the World great power, America, was prepared to fight. Let’s be honest, America is no longer prepared to fight.”
Less and less money has been spent on defence and more has been spent on “welfare, health and pensions.” Force, for David Starkey, is necessary to maintain the freedoms and beliefs we share in the West but, he believes, we have foolishly discarded this idea.
This is a fascinating point, particularly if we consider the hysteria that surrounded some of Donald Trump’s actions when he was President. Trump’s forceful behaviour was thought by many in the mainstream media to be increasing the likelihood of war. In actuality, although Trump wasn’t perfect, during his Presidency there were attempts at negotiations between the West and potentially dangerous leaders like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un and no escalation of conflict in other countries. Compare this to what has happened since Joe Biden became US President.
As the main focus of this blog is issues relating to men and women, it’s worth asking whether the increase of women in the public sphere over the past few decades has led to a de-emphasis on force, defence and power and more emphasis on personal well-being and non-violence. I’ve written elsewhere that I disagree with some of the assumptions that have been made about women’s effect on society – mainly the idea that women have excessive empathy and compassion which can be detrimental (see here for more detail), but it’s still possible that women’s influence has had some effect.
Nevertheless, the importance that societies may or may not place on force is not restricted to differences between men and women as it can divide many thinkers, regardless of sex. Thomas Sowell has written about the contrast of ideas that has divided many intellectual figures over centuries, of which the use of force is only one of them, in his great books A Conflict of Visions and Intellectuals and Society.
In some ways, the conflict in Ukraine is another battleground in the ‘Culture War’ which is dividing the West. People in the UK, US and Europe waving the Ukrainian flag and banning anything relating to Russia could be seen as examples of virtue signalling and cancel culture given that they don’t require much effort to do. There has also been pressure on large corporations like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola to suspend their activities in Russia without taking into account that this may backfire if Russian people feel they are been bullied and choose instead to rally behind Putin. I’ve also noticed that we are now supposed to write Ukraine’s capital city Kiev as “Kyiv” and other Ukrainian cities like Odessa are now written “Odesa” which I initially thought was a typo when I first saw it written this way. This is presumably to show how cultural, sophisticated and understanding we are in our solidarity with Ukraine.
It’s true that there has been almost universal support for Ukraine and universal condemnation of Putin’s actions, but, as David Starkey has described, there is still debate over the causes of this war and what Vladimir Putin and Russia want to get out of it. In the media, for example, Ukraine has been presented as a free, progressive, liberal democracy with a heroic leader in Volodymyr Zelensky whereas Putin is portrayed as a insane tyrant who has attacked Ukraine without provocation.
Alternatively, there is little attention paid to how the Western world, and NATO in particular, has contributed to Russia’s actions or the corruption in Ukrainian politics. As Peter Hitchens, in his Mail on Sunday column, writes:
“I know that our policy of Nato expansion – which we had promised not to do and which we knew infuriated Russians – played its part in bringing about this crisis. I know that Ukraine’s current government, now treated as if it was almost holy, was brought into being by a mob putsch openly backedPeter Hitchens, Mail on Sunday
by the USA in 2014. I know that the much-admired President Zelensky in February 2021 closed down three opposition TV stations on the grounds of ‘national security’…I know that the opposition politician Viktor Medvedchuk was put under house arrest last year on a charge of treason. Isn’t this the sort of thing Putin does?”
I don’t support Putin or what is happening in Ukraine but neither do I think the West is entirely blameless. Part of me wants Putin to succeed in his invasion, only because I think that things might be worse if he fails and attempts a more extreme option, such as potentially using nuclear weapons. The suffering of Ukrainians may be worse if the West pushes Ukraine to resist against the odds. If we are not willing to use force ourselves, why should we expect others to?
I have no idea how the war in Ukraine will play out but I agree with David Starkey that we cannot understand our enemies unless we understand how they think.