The Pity of War was the title of Niall Ferguson’s groundbreaking history of the causes and tragic folly of the First World War. The title is so simple and powerful that I’ve borrowed it for this lesser essay on the causes and tragic mistake of a (thankfully) much smaller conflict.
Win, lose, or draw, the Ukraine War is Vladimir Putin’s folly, a completely unnecessary war whose waste and death has or soon will dwarf the Soviet Union’s nine-year losing effort in Afghanistan.
A look at the fighting front that has remained mostly static since July 3 reveals a pitiable effort in which Russia’s reduced war aims consist of destroying and depopulating whatever they cannot take.
It’s an oversized child’s temper tantrum of a war.
The real pity of the conflict is that in a slightly better world, this war would never have happened — for very real reasons, easily explained.
Russia and Ukraine are natural allies, or even confederates — their languages, culture, and history are all intertwined. Ukraine’s national identity was for so long wrapped up with Russia’s that there wasn’t even a Ukraine-language dictionary until early in the 20th Century.
Why would Putin permanently alienate Russia’s closest cousins?
Putin ordered his “special military operation” against Ukraine because Kyiv was looking to the West, towards the EU and NATO, instead of towards Moscow. The double threat to Russia — in Putin’s eyes — was having Ukraine’s military a part of NATO and its economy anchored to Europe.
Whether you believe Putin was justified or paranoid, the question we need to ask is: Why did Ukraine try to turn West?
Ukraine, with its Eastern European history, close ties to Russia, and Third World corruption, hardly seems a good fit for either the EU or NATO. But if Ukraine is the most corrupt country in Europe on a pound-for-pound basis, Russia remains the most corrupt at scale.
Calling the Putin regime a kleptocracy would be an insult to functioning kleptocracies. Putin replaced Boris Yeltsin’s comic-opera kleptocracy for a mobster regime, a gangster government. Russia is a country run by killers and thieves wearing tailored Italian suits.
If Russia were better run, that would have changed everything.
Ukraine — the people of Ukraine, not Kyiv’s kleptocrats — would have looked closer to home, to their Russian cousins, for a better way forward. Ukraine has never had that strong a national identity, having always been so close to Russia in so many ways.
But Putin’s stupid, pitiable war changed that.
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Ukraine now enjoys a strong national identity, one born in fierce resistance to Putin’s predations.
We’re left with another question: Why is Putin so violently opposed to the West?
Putin worries — rightly — that the Marxian thinking infesting Western culture and politics is a threat to Russia, and therefore — wrongly — that Russia must stand opposed to the West.
He told the Valdai Discussion Club last year:
We look in amazement at the processes underway in the countries which have been traditionally looked at as the standard-bearers of progress…Some people in the West believe that an aggressive elimination of entire pages from their own history, ‘reverse discrimination’ against the majority in the interests of a minority, and the demand to give up the traditional notions of mother, father, family and even gender, they believe that all of these are the mileposts on the path towards social renewal.
“The only thing that I want to say now,” Putin continued, “is that their prescriptions are not new at all.”
“Looking at what is happening in a number of Western countries, we are amazed to see the domestic practices which we, fortunately, have left — I hope — in the distant [Communist] past.”
That’s correct, as far as it goes. But what Putin missed was this: While Marxism is from the West, it is not of the West.
Whatever guise it’s hiding behind — Communism, Leninism, Stalinism, Progressivism, Wokism — Marxism remains an Eastern mystical collectivism, wrapped up in pseudo-Western, pseudo-scientific language. Marxism is a contraband import, smuggled here from the very same East to which Putin has tied Russia’s fortunes.
Putin’s “special military operation” is a pity of a war launched on false premises and exaggerated fears. And it’s one where even if Russia manages to defeat Ukraine, their aggression guarantees they will never be able to govern Ukraine.
A pity, indeed.