A well-intentioned veteran with whom I served in the military several years ago presented a challenge on social media: he asked everyone to consider information from all sides before deciding how to personally react with regard to Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. To that end, he brought up a philosophy that we were taught in military intelligence: if you want to defeat your enemy, you must first understand him. This piece of wisdom can be traced back to the writings of Sun Tzu, and it is solid doctrine. My friend went further to say that listening to false intelligence about your enemy was worse than having no intelligence, because it could lead to fatal decision making. Once again, this is a solid piece of advice when considering world affairs.
Combining these two outlooks, my colleague shared the following video of a speech by Vladimir Putin, in which Putin asserts that his military aggressions over past two decades have been a reaction to NATO's eastward expansion. To paraphrase my former comrade's beliefs about Russia's invasion of Ukraine, he felt that Russia has just cause to feel threatened by the West because of NATO's continued expansion; therefore Putin's actions were acceptable - and somewhat inevitable - given the situation described by Putin in his speech.
However, I do not - and cannot - share my former colleague's opinion of this invasion. While my friend made a valid point that everyone should look at any given situation from all sides, that does not mean that every position has equal worth. With that in mind, here are some additional thoughts for everyone to ponder.
I watched Putin's speech in the above video some time ago, and I've heard when Putin expressed similar sentiments at other times. It's wonderful propaganda, to be sure, and Putin has outdone himself as a former member of the KGB with regard to his ability to spin his military aggressions as some sort of defensive posturing. However, his actions do not line up with the lies that he is telling. If you re-watch the above video and listen to Putin's version of events, he claims to be a peace loving individual minding his own business, while the West has been slowly threatening him. But if you ignore all the excess noise about NATO and the USA, what has Putin been doing for decades? He's been rolling his military into neighboring countries and grabbing up land and resources when neither NATO nor the USA have had anything to do with the situation. In other words, if some hypothetical person listened to Putin and believed his warped version of reality, that person is being played. Although to that hypothetical person's credit, they're being played by one of the most-skilled political manipulators to emerge onto the world stage. Putin is the kind of bully that will punch you in the face and then convince you that you need to apologize for it.
Here is something else to consider: does Putin actually care about the reasons that he is citing for his military aggression (like NATO expansion), or has Putin simply been given the opportunity of a lifetime to do as he pleases because he has a somewhat plausible reason for blaming everything he does on someone else? Consider the following PBS documentary from seven years ago, which documents Putin's rise to power from a lowly KGB agent through decades of corruption, embezzlement, and ruthlessness to become President of Russia.
Throughout Putin's ascendency, he formed powerful alliances with other corrupt politicians and oligarchs, from which Putin has personally profited handsomely. In addition, you might recall from recent years that Putin has no qualms about imprisoning or poisoning his political opponents in order to preserve his autocracy.
Like any good Soviet, Putin does a masterful job of committing atrocities and then blaming it on others. Here are a few recent cases in point:
- Putin accused Ukraine of hurting Russian separatists in the Donbas region, which provided him with his "justification" for attacking Ukraine.
- Putin has accused Ukraine of using chemical weapons, which - despite a lack of evidence - could provide Putin with his "justification" for using chemical weapons in Ukraine.
- Russian forces infamously bombed a maternity hospital in Mariupol, then blamed Ukraine for using the hospital to house neo-Nazis.
Putin is clearly using the same playbook that the Soviet Union used during the Cold War: the Soviets would accuse the West of doing something bad, which provided the Soviets with their "justification" for doing something bad themselves.
Harkening back to one of my opening statements about understanding one's enemy, there is a part of the collective Russian psyche that warrants examination: decades of post-WWII Russian fears about being invaded from the West - as Germany did during WWII - are not easily forgotten. This state of fear provides Putin with an excellent pretext to mobilize public sentiment behind any political or militaristic whim that he might concoct. In other words, Putin can claim, "I need to attack Govnovia because our security is threatened by the West," which he can use to conceal any actual intentions.
If you watch the following documentary, it describes how over the past few decades, Ukraine has continuously threatened Russia's profits from oil and natural gas, and sales of these fuel resources comprise 50% of Russia's GDP. Since Putin has made a career out of skimming billions of dollars from Russia, Ukraine's reduction of Russia's profits hurts Putin's pocketbook. Ergo - the true cause of Putin's actions is profits, and all his rhetoric about NATO and tapping into Russia's history of paranoia where the West is concerned is nothing but a smoke screen.
In summary, there was a grain truth to what my former colleague was saying when he pointed out that NATO has advanced eastward over the years. However, countries that have been recently added to NATO were not invaded militarily by the West. On the contrary, those nations asked to join NATO in order to avoid the exact scenario that is happening with Ukraine right now. However, let's set that aside for a moment, and consider the person who is claiming that NATO expansion is somehow a problem. As I said earlier, does Putin actually care? Or has the West inadvertently given Putin the ammunition that he needs to use military aggression to achieve his personal ambitions?
In the end, my colleague was correct when he said that one must understand his enemy and avoid false intelligence, and yet he has failed in both of those capacities: by accepting Putin's propaganda at face value, my former comrade has chose to base his worldview on false intelligence, and as a result he has failed to understand his enemy.
In an ironic twist, Putin has become the same sort of dictator that Russia has feared; all of Putin's speeches about Russia needing to annex Ukraine sound just like Hitler's proclamations of needing "Lebensraum" prior to WWII. From my perspective, history is repeating itself in one of two ways: either Putin is attempting to rebuild the Soviet Union like his Communist predecessors (while personally profiting as a Capitalist), or Putin is making a land grab like the other infamous despot that I just named (and is therefore using the memory of Nazism to behave like a Nazi).