Noam Chomsky attributes his lucidity in old age to the bicycle theory: keep going, and you won’t fall off. But as he continues to mount the worn steps to the church of YouTube, the withering condemnation of his home country’s foreign policy failings has come to sound like the Book of Common Prayer: threatened less by the evil it intends to hold at bay than by what familiarity breeds. The will of his words is weathered not by his advancing years, but by humanity’s unwillingness to bend to it: there’s only so much derision most of us can take of any consensus before falling back on our instinct to accommodate it.
But even for the lapsed Chomskyans among us, a lasting respect for the canon law has made it easier to express a full-throated disapproval of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine than of the context he cites for it. In western journalists’ efforts to articulate the unique egregiousness of Putin’s unhinged decision to unleash a full-scale military invasion of his neighbour, it’s telling how carefully they have to tread around the history and the geography to avoid bumping into parallels with US military adventurism.
Helpfully, with our ability to put the past behind us, an unfaltering belief in our media’s consensus over Putin’s personality flaws, and a willingness to dismiss any remaining inconvenient analogue as ‘whataboutery’, we’re mostly able to navigate the minefield of the recent past with our charmless piety intact.
That an invasion of a sovereign nation to bring about regime change was undertaken by any country other than the United States is, though, not the only shock. A second must be that, despite witnessing how his more powerful adversary has faired in such pursuits, Putin thought his own efforts might end in less of a disaster. Such a perilous misjudgement would be easy to attribute to the deranged megalomaniac we know from the British press; but it’s harder to parse from the actual Putin, whose political grammar is known more for logic and candour than for reckless abandon.
A partial explanation might come from the subjects over whom he presides. A CNN poll immediately preceding the war reported 50% of Russians declaring that it would be right to use military force to prevent Kyiv from joining Nato. Only 25% said it would be wrong; the remaining 25% weren’t sure. The Russian antiwar celebrities, social media influencers, and protesters beloved by the British press, belong — as they often do — to an unrepresentative minority. One might ascribe this to the success of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine; the truth likely belongs to a more complex and reflexive relationship between state policy and popular opinion.
A better understanding both of Putin’s calculus, and his people’s alignment with it, lies in the Chomskyan scripture. That Russia, following the collapse of the USSR, is a mortal enemy of the west has never been accounted for by our leaders as succinctly as Putin’s accounted for it as an unnecessary provocation.
Our governments’ claim, unchallenged by media of all colours, that Nato exists for ‘defence’ warrants only a reminder that the same euphemism is applied to all military deployments by all nations at all times. The more ambitious claim that Nato’s eastward expansion into ex-Soviet states didn’t breach earlier guarantees would make Robert Durst cringe.
The truth is, for the past three decades the west has refused to entertain Russia as a partner, concluded that Russia would remain a pariah state in perpetuity, settled on the necessity for containment over engagement, and escalated military deployments as though the Cold War hadn’t ended — in the pursuit of boundless security abroad, while denying Russia’s own at home. A sinister gap emerged between the anti-Russian consensus among our leaders, and the ability to explain it among those of us that elect them.
Remember all that press coverage, when we were signing up to these mutual defence pacts with Russia’s neighbours? Neither do I. In fact, what most of us remember of our own foreign policy affairs amounts to little more than an inventory of chivalrous acts to aid those looking to uphold our values. British and American voters would be forgiven for believing their leaders are completely indifferent to the rise of China as a global superpower, but for its treatment of Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang.
That the US took sides in Ukrainian protests against an elected president in 2013, and had an opinion about who’d replace him, commanded a fraction of our press interest than Putin’s efforts to do the same. It’s in the language of Prince Andrew that the western alliance graciously accepted almost the entire eastern bloc into the Nato fold: we otherwise had no interest in the matter, apparently, when they exercised their sovereign right to apply. If we’re guilty of anything, it’s of being too honourable.
It’s not clear to me what’s in the asset column of the political ledger after three decades of this strategy, which is as inscrutable as it is sanctimonious. But it’s clear what’s in the liabilities column: War in Ukraine, and the closest we’ve been to nuclear conflict since Cuba. A sober reflection raises serious questions over the British establishment’s ability to contribute to the resolution of such a crisis: a political class whose bandwidth is consumed entirely by the permanent campaign; civil service decision-making that — according to the nation’s favourite Downing Street insider — were it witnessed by the population would see us head for a bunker; a press that commits fewer column inches to the wisdom of us entering treaty obligations with ex-Soviet states than to whether Boris had a cheese sandwich in his garden during lockdown.
If Ukraine has to accept that it doesn’t have the freedom to join Nato, it can join the likes of Canada and Mexico — who similarly don’t have the freedom to join any Chinese ‘defence’ pact that might sooner or later deploy missile defence systems along their borders. If the west has to apologise to the Russian people for a foreign policy that’s looked a bit like the continental version of Israel’s policy in Gaza, it’d better get on with it. And please, dear god, can our leaders across the western alliance begin stating their foreign policy objectives with some candour — nobody will deny our right to assert our interests, but nobody needs them marshalled in the Trojan horse of high-minded sermons.
As frantic diplomatic efforts soon begin to unfold, we’re going to hear a lot about red lines. All countries have an inalienable right to defend themselves; granting them an inalienable right to join an alliance against a country that no longer exists, in a Cold War that ended decades ago, along territory that belongs to a newer nation, should be one of those red lines only if our objective is something other than peace in Europe.