When the Ends Do Not Justify the Means
“Remember that time the West isolated us and took away our access to the internet, restaurants, most common goods, our jobs, and even our own money?” — The Russian people for at least the next three generations.
At least that is the way I believe the story will be told.
While the intent of their actions may appear to be righteous, the public sanctioning of the entire Russian economy and way of life will have the unintended consequence of unifying the Russian people against the West, not against Putin. Especially when the Russian State controls the prevailing narratives in their society, the Russian people will turn their angst on those they see directly responsible, not those most indirectly responsible.
(Consider our own post-9/11 experience, and the infringement or impedance of our personal privacies & luxuries. Our society’s collective frustration for the abridgment of our liberties targeted who we believed to be the direct cause of that — Islamic jihadists — while mostly ignoring the indirect factors of our own government’s neglect and unconstitutional reach. The American people didn’t rise up against the NSA. Instead, we sent two generations to die in a bloody fight that has not seen even a single day without ideological violence in more than fourteen centuries.)
We continue to behave ignorantly by proxy of our own arrogance. We assume that any other culture or sociopolitical system on the planet should behave a particular way because that is how we would behave. The world doesn’t work that way — it never has — and it is maddening that we cannot seem to comprehend this with all of history’s examples. Diversity does not mean conformity, no matter how badly some in our American sociopolitical spectrum seem to believe that forcing beliefs or circumstances on people is appropriate or productive at all.
The majority of the Middle Eastern world, for example, does not see the United States as proponents of righteous liberty regardless of the blood and billions of dollars we’ve spent in that region. Rather, they see us as an existential threat to their way of life. The Russian people will be the next culture to embrace an antagonist view of the United States. That is unfortunate, when one reflects on how much progress has previously been made in bringing Western ideals and amenities to Russia. We had come a long way in organically diluting the cold-war dogma that existed among the Russian people. I fear we have now set that back thirty years or more.
This should not be interpreted as either support or passivity toward the Russian actions in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin and the Russian military are both criminal and unforgivable, and they should be held accountable. Our efforts to limit their abilities to cause further harm should be strong and without forgiveness. But it should also contain an awareness with regard to the effects of our actions on the general Russian public. Disconnecting from Russian resources is appropriate, as is sanctioning the players of Russian wealth. The public cancel culture movement, however, is just as displaced and shortsighted in its objection of the Russian people as it is when it’s used by Americans as a political weapon against perceived adversaries here.
Dumping out Russian vodka, closing down McDonald’s restaurants in Moscow, and shaming all things associative with popular culture in Russian will not stop the motives of the demonic tyrant in the Kremlin. Counterproductively, the actions of the private sector are more likely to embolden those who felt loyal to him, while creating a responsive behavior against the West.
A more appropriate course of action would be to use the opportunity to further enable the preexisting dissent between the Russian people and their government. Instead of closing down an entire fast food chain, why not change all of the food wrappers and packaging to include Ukrainian colors and messages of support for those people? Instead of stopping the sale of American vehicles in Russia, why not program the touchscreens in those new vehicles with welcome messages that undermine the Kremlin, or that show a brief video of what is happening in Ukraine?
There are a multitude of ways in which we could more effectively achieve the desired results, without alienating the Russian populace who quite honestly “don’t know what they don’t know.”
Players in our government are employing the same pressure points of private-enterprise leverage with Russia that they used here in the United States against political rivals for the past several years. Domestically, those actions only further emboldened Americans within our preexisting ideals. The affect in the foreign environment will be exactly the same. Russians who stood against Putin will still be against him. Those who had supported him up to this point will only hold him in higher regard.
We are witnessing a very dangerous precedent being set with regards to foreign policy and the private sector’s role in that when weaponized against a specific actor. State propaganda is State propaganda, whether right, left, or Russian. Putin should be removed for the war crimes he’s committing in Ukraine. The images out of Ukraine of people being slaughtered are certainly true, but the use of private-sector sanctioning in collective mass exposes the obvious intent to lead an electronic coup against a foreign government. Perhaps the motive is just in this case, but do the ends fairly justify means? Who decides what the just reason is when a global coalition decides the same treatment is fair of the American people? We are either arrogant or ignorant if we believe ourselves immune from that prospect.
Furthermore, are we considering how many billions in taxpayer dollars we will be sending to Russia in the coming years to offset the damage we are causing now? That argument is relative to Ukraine, as well. We don’t appear to want to expend particular resources now to prevent further destruction of their country — which will result in an enormous amount of annual appropriations to help Ukraine rebuild over the course of the coming years and maybe decades.
What kind of monster are we creating through our greater inaction to stop the real threat while we initiate an unnecessary and long-lasting threat of our own? The Russian people are going to hate the West for everything we did to them, while the Ukrainian people are going to hate the West for seeming to do very little (effectively) for them. The collapse of the Ruble next week or next month doesn’t do anything to save those dying from Putin’s assault in Ukraine today. And it does nothing to further our foreign policy in that part of the world for decades to come.
Hindsight almost always proves to be 20/20. We are risk-averse because we recklessly spent so much blood and treasure in the Middle East over the past two decades — so we are now standing back from a fight where the ideals of western liberty are being legitimately terrorized. If we gave the Ukrainian people the same resources and support we sent into Iraq or Afghanistan, the Russian Army would have been retreating from the battlefield within days of launching their offensive. That is not a popular opinion, understandably, but it is not difficult to imagine how much differently our exit from Afghanistan would have gone if the Afghan people would have exhibited even half of the resolve that the Ukrainian people have shown in the fight for themselves against oppression.
Our foreign policy — now further poisoned and propagated by the impulsive reactions of the private sector — is only creating future adversaries in both the Ukrainian and Russian populations. What’s arguably even more damaging to the American legacy around the world is that we will no longer be the beacon, or example, of liberty. The Ukrainian people are having their story shared in real-time for the world to see their incredible bravery and fortitude in the face of almost incomprehensible death and destruction. Their fight - by civilians, soldiers, and their political leaders of every stripe, right down to the most rural levels - will become the new story of what it means to expel a tyrant and reclaim freedom.
When will societies learn from history? The cost of those lessons have already paid for, but time and time again we force ourselves into tragedies that were entirely predictable and avoidable.
We should be helping the Ukrainian people, while not isolating and dehumanizing the Russian people. The abusive and corrupt Russian government is the problem — much the same as our own abusive and corrupt government. We are setting up our own demise, why? So that an elite political class can feed their narcissism by cannibalizing the freedoms and lifestyles of people across international borders?
If that is the case, we have fallen a long way from 1776. But it is never too late to restore the republic and the ideals it was born with. At its most basic root, liberty should always be the default answer.
(If you appreciated this article, please consider subscribing to be notified when future pieces are published. You may also visit Rucksack Radio for more ways to support my voice, research, and additional content.)
Good article, Tom. I agree we should be approaching this differently, and, yes, what can be used on them can be used on anyone. I do see a difference between us and them, though, in terms of populace reaction. We already had great animus to those behind 9/11. The Russians, by and large, do not appear to have the same thoughts to Ukrainians, or the West. In fact, Putin sold them on brotherhood, and the fact that his rhetoric then is mismatched to his actions now, appears to me, to be squaring Russians’ hatred on him. Putin has always had a tight control on their freedoms, and he’s tightening it further. Do they blame him or the West? We’ll see.
All of that aside, the way we are proceeding is just not the right way, for so many reasons.
Great article, Tom!