Here is a half-formed reaction to someone else’s thought.
I read a recent blog post by Niccolo Soldo (his alarmingly-named blog is called Fisted by Foucault).
I found his thesis quite thought provoking, but I can’t really feel that I’m in agreement. I’ll not attempt to summarize it here – you’d do better to just read it yourself – but I do have some reactions.
Essentially, nowhere in the essay does Soldo really grant any kind agency to the Ukrainians themselves. He blames the US for “provoking” Putin with the possibility of NATO membership for Ukraine. The problem with this is that… well, what if the Ukrainians themselves decided, after evaluating their geopolitical situation, that they wanted to try for NATO membership? How could the Europeans and US Government sincerely refuse? Sure, it provokes the Russians, but the Ukrainians are surely aware of the risks.
And I don’t mean to imply that Ukraine was in some way naïve. This may have been a quite intentional provocation on their part. Further, it may be that, at least at the start, it was only the current Ukrainian government and the country’s business elite who were on board with this. I’ve considered before that the regardless of the outcome of this war, Putin’s invasion will provide the Ukrainian “nation” with a nice, simple foundational myth such as they’ve never had before. Perhaps for a certain class of cynical Ukrainian nationalist (whether of liberal or illiberal inclination – there are plenty of both), the expected invasion and war would be a price worth paying for the outcome: a fervently patriotic Ukrainian populace (perhaps even including the ethnic Russians – look at the shift in public opinion in Odessa!) and a now-unconditional endorsement of NATO membership by the existing alliance. So sure, if you’ve got the right kind of cocky confidence, poke that bear right in the eye – if nothing else, it will certainly build character.
I don’t disagree with Soldo that the US’s faithless encouragement of this act was at core cynically unethical. The war progresses, and you see the evolution of the Ukrainian nation, with instances of undeniable heroism and demonstrations of character. I not only think it’s a mistake to deny the Ukrainians their own agency in this, I think that the US and Europe could take from the lesson a capacity for looking more empathetically at other victims of global bullying and misguided invasions: Iraq, Afghanistan, Panama, Grenada, (how far back do we want to take this?).
In fact, the knee-jerk pro-Ukraine stances adopted by most of the pundits and elites in the West (Justin E. H. Smith succinctly sums this up with the observation that the Ukrainian flag is suddenly a “a de-rigueur semiotic accessory”) seem to represent a turning back of the equally knee-jerk, self-hating “wokism” that had been increasingly dominating discourse. The Ukraine situation is holding up a mirror and enabling the West to see its best self, in a weird, admittedly jingoistic way (and maybe that’s always been a bit definitional for the West?) – to see what is possible if we hold liberal values uncynically.
Regardless, it’s unethical to deny the agency and self-determination of peoples – regardless of what great power they happen to have offended. It was unethical in Iraq, it was unethical (twice) in Afghanistan, it’s unethical now in Ukraine. But when confronted with the “facts on the ground” – country X is bullying us and denying us our self-determination – then resistance is warranted and appropriate. That includes the right to manipulate or lead on other powers to make that resistance as successful as possible. The Iraqis had a right to egg other powers to help them (e.g. Al-Qaeda’s rump, Russia, ISIS, or whatever). The Ukrainians have the same right (e.g. NATO). The extent to which the “Ukrainian on the street” is resisting, now, is a very strong indicator of the fact that this is, indeed, a question of self-determination, and not some astro-turfed, propaganda-induced pro-Westernism.