Left and Right

National Populism at War

By Russell Berman, Telos

One of the surprising aspects of the Ukraine War is that it came as a surprise. After the devastation that Russia wreaked in Chechnya, after the invasion of Georgia, after the occupation of Crimea—and the list goes on: after Russia’s complicity in the destruction of Aleppo and the violence of the Wagner Group deployments especially in Africa, and, most obviously, after Putin’s explicit declaration of his intent, the West could nevertheless watch Russia prepare for the invasion and still believe that it would not happen. Before the invasion would have been the time to arm Ukraine. Instead the West succumbed to a Chamberlain-like logic of self-delusion: if we do nothing, the aggressor will dissipate. The wishful thinking of liberalism is a scourge. It remains to be seen whether the brutality of Russian violence will change that mindset in the foreign policy elite. Optimism is not warranted.

Yet the war has brought another surprise: the stupendous failing of the intelligence communities both in Moscow and Washington. It has become commonplace to gloat that Russia was caught off guard by the power of the Ukrainian resistance. Putin miscalculated because he was misinformed about the capacity of Ukraine to fight back. Yet reportedly the U.S. analysts shared the identical expectation that Kyiv would surrender in three short days. We have just witnessed a corroboration of the convergence theory according to which America and its Russian adversary can grow alike, now in terms of the unreliability of the intelligence services.

This parallel intelligence failure likely depended on very different assumptions that nonetheless led to the identical wrong conclusion that Ukraine would fold quickly. For Putinist ideology, the Ukrainians are really Russians and therefore would welcome the invasion, while—somewhat contradictorily—Moscow simultaneously discounted the Ukrainian regime as congenitally flawed, corrupt, and ineffective. Moscow’s superiority was supposed to trounce Kyiv’s degeneracy. It was, in a word, Russian arrogance toward Ukraine nationhood that generated the strategic blunder.


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