What the Russian Invasion of Ukraine Can Teach Us About the West

So Putin called everybody’s bluffs, and now he’s about to completely take over Ukraine. It’s a strange twist of history that no one expected and everyone expected, and it revealed lots of cracks. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the Afghanistan debacle and functions as an extension of that episode. Certainly, if the Taliban, a rag-tag group of untrained religious extremists, can undo twenty-years of nation-building in twenty minutes, then Russia is more than capable of restoring sovereignty over Eastern Europe.

Most importantly, I think this invasion has revealed quite a lot about the West, and my goel here is to unpack just a couple of those things.

Nation-States are Stupid

Here’s the deal:

  1. Ukraine has only been an independent state for just over thirty years.
  2. The revolution in 2014 was the second revolution Ukraine has had since its creation.
  3. Twenty percent of Ukraine’s population (mostly near the Russian border) is ethnically Russian.

So Ukraine, the nation, and Ukraine, the state, do not map onto each other perfectly. The same goes for Russia, and if you ask Putin, he is leader of both the nation and the state. Putin really believes that he has a responsibility to liberate his people in eastern Ukraine. And despite all of his overreaches, he really does have a plausible case for a “liberation.” In fact, he wrote an article laying it all out, and it’s not uncompelling.[^1]

But all of this illustrates a deeper issue: nation-states are stupid. Nations are far more real than states. Nations are built on ethnic/tribal/familial ties. They are a natural outgrowth of men living together in natural relationships. On the other hand, states are purely social constructs. Yes, states are real, but they’re not the same kind of real.

Before moderns got all sophisticated and rational, borders were much more porous. States still existed, but borders weren’t determined by rigid GPS coordinates. Any rigidly identifiable borders were defined by natural features like rivers and mountain ranges. Arbitrary land borders were not nearly as important. For example, consider the border regions of Britain. There have been Scottish and English people for a very long time, but there were huge swaths of Britain that couldn’t really be identified as “Scottish” or “English.” And the only people to successfully establish a real border between them were the Romans who had to build an actual wall. If you wanted a real border across land, you had to almost build a mountain range (like the Great Wall of China).

This principle even extends to modern times. There are no features beyond the Rio Grande in the American Southwest to establish a hard border with Mexico, so Donald Trump and other Republicans wanted to create one. Whatever you think of such a project, Trump was intuiting an important fact: soft borders aren’t borders. And since 1991, the border between Ukraine and Russia has been very soft, to the degree that Putin doesn’t feel the need to respect it. For Putin, the important thing is not the imaginary line, but the Russian people on the other side of it.

But the West is totally bought into the idea of nation-states. Since the first Bush administration (or even earlier), the United States foreign policy machine has been rigidly focused on “nation-building.” This is has been the core of our efforts in Eastern Europe and Asia for thirty years. We’ve engaged in the same kind of regime-change pseudo-wars that Putin is pursuing for a very long time; we’ve just been doing it in Putin’s backyard. Half of what the alphabet boys do is overthrowing pro-Russia governments. Bush I did Iraq, Clinton did Yugoslavia, Bush II did Afghanistan, Obama did Libya, and Trump tried to do Syria. In other words, the West, and certainly the United States, has no room to lecture Putin.

The West is Delusional

The main response to Putin we’ve heard from the West is, “Hey, stop it!” And Putin’s implied response has been, to this point, “No.” The Ukranian government has really been the only major player to show any interest in resistance, but even their resistance has only come after an all-out foreign invasion. I’ve been very impressed with their response on the ground; by all accounts, the Russian military has faced a much fiercer battle than they expected. But in the midst of this, they’re still showing signs of being poisoned by “the liberal order.”

For example, one of Zelensky’s advisors, Mykhalio Podolyak said, “Russia is not only attacking Ukraine, but the rules of normal life in the modern world.” The rules of the modern world? Let’s break that down. Podolyak is upset with Putin for violating some made up rules that have only been in place for barely fifty years? The Russian Empire has existed in some form for centuries. Do you think Putin cares about the “rules of the modern world?” On the contrary, he has demonstrated time and time again that he has no regard for these so-called rules. It’s a sign of immense arrogance that a few countries in Western Europe and North America think they can impose their modernism on Africa and Asia, much less a recovering superpower like Russia.

Of course, Putin has no problem playing by these rules when they drive his agenda. He’s a master statesman whether you like it or not. He knew before he started this operation what would happen. He knew that there would be “sanctions,” but he took the risk. Russia is a vast territory with plentiful natural resources. They’ve also been on the forefront of the crypto boom, even trying to get Vitalik Buterin to take ownership of his Russian roots. Putin doesn’t need the West anymore; he wouldn’t have attempted this take over if he did. And it’s peak Western stupidity to think that he does need us.

The West is Weak

Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces

The picture above is the inside of the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces. It was completed and consecrated as a Russian Orthodox Cathedral in 2020. The floor is made of melted down Nazi tanks. Every measurement in the building has some historical significance to the Russian military. If you’re worried about so-called “Christian nationalism” in America, I don’t know if your heart could handle the Russian version. Their culture is a rich mix of the Orthodox religion, patriotism, and military force. We can discuss the merits and demerits of such a mix, but there’s no denying that the Russians are proud. And while they were building the traddest display of architectural machismo on the planet, we were plastering our country and others with dainty rainbow flags.

Again, you don’t have to approve of the Russian’s nationalism to understand the problem. While Americans have been caught up in dismantling traditional power structures, Russia (and China for that matter) have been concretizing theirs. We can talk about equality and rights all we want, but those discussions only matter in a society with a sufficiently rigid backbone to defend itself. And Western societies no longer have such a backbone.

From what it seems, the Ukrainians do have a backbone. Last I heard, the government had handed out eighteen-thousand rifles to civilians to defend their country, and even top government officials are on the front lines. But can you imagine what would happen if Russia invaded the United States? How many men would be in line to pick up rifles and ammunition? How many “important” politicians would do the same? I have a guess, and it doesn’t inspire confidence. The people of Eastern Europe have been battling hardship and violent oppression for decades. The most hardship most American men have had is with an overly complicated Ikea bookshelf. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad I don’t have to worry about starving. But easy times require us to put some iniative into being strong, and iniative isn’t something we have much of.

Sympathy for the Devil

When this war first broke out, I was disturbed by my own sympathy for Putin’s cause. My first reaction was to think, “What’s so wrong with invading Ukraine?” However, upon further reflection, I realized this was simply a result of my own indoctrination into Western political thinking. For decades, the West has worn a facade of peace and love, all while in engaging in brutal wars for purely pragmatic reasons. I’ve been trained by post-9/11 interventionism. When a superpower invades a smaller country to overthrow their government, it’s a perfectly American response to say, “So what?”

So if you want to criticize Putin and Russia, you also have to criticize the West. Otherwise, you compromise your principles. The only other option is to accept all of these regime-change wars as legitimate uses of military strength, whoever instigates it.

Frankly, I don’t know where I land. My impulse is to be critical of everyone involved. But I will not be condemning Putin’s actions while quietly approving of Western meddling. It’s all or nothing.